Being home is weird. Not much has really changed during my 10 months away except me. But even I haven't changed THAT much. I can speak Cantonese now, know a lot about Hong Kong/China, and have tons of new friends, but really I'm still the same 'Ben' I was before I left.

Of course it will take a few more weeks to really see how I've changed (I've been home 2 days now actually). And when school starts I'll get back into a normal daily schedule where everything will become even clearer. For now though, I'm just happy to see my lovely family, specifically Bok my dog, and unpolluted blue skies and corn fields again. I had a teensy bit of culture shock during my 4-flight trek home from HK. Hearing Spanish spoken by the airport staff was weird and seeing Asian-Americans speaking normal English was offputting too since I'm used to all Chinese-looking people speaking Chinese. The prices, specifically of food and restaurants, suddenly seem monstrously high to me, as they are generally about double to triple the HK norm. Also I've noticed that Americans are BIG. In all dimensions. Their girth, width, and height all grossly exceed the Hong Kong average, and thus I feel decidedly short being just 5ft 9ish. In Hong Kong I was considered above average, but now I'm below average.... oh well, not a big deal.

I'm a bit busy doing things now that I'm back, so I'll have to keep this short. If I have any more epiphanies I'll be sure to post them on this blog, and I do hope to continue it even though I'm back home now. I like blogging!

7 Days left in Hong Kong. Now that's scary. The past 10 months have flown by faster than a speeding minibus, and the time for me to get on a plane back to little old Iowa is nearly here.

In the past few weeks I have done several unforgettable awesome things including Dragon Boat racing and going to Guangzhou for a final look-see around mainland. Great.

Guangzhou has something like 11 million residents. Its huge. Seriously, compared to Guangzhou, Hong Kong is a small city, in land area and population. Guangzhou is the major city of southern China, but it seems to almost form a continuum going from Guangzhou to Shenzhen and then to Hong Kong. Without the political boundary around HK, the 3 would kind of form a neverending megalopolis of tens of millions of people. The total time from my house in HK to downtown Guangzhou was just over 2 hours, taking the MTR to Shenzhen, then the train to Guangzhou East Station. Basically the city can be divided into 2 major areas; the new and the old. The old area feels like something out of a storybook. Cobblestone paths and alleyways winding around brick houses, shops, stalls, and tea houses, with stray dogs and pirate DVD vendors everywhere. The feeling is something I haven't found anywhere else, and there is a certain buzz of energy present. The local foods there are great authentic Cantonese cuisine. I had the best Wonton soup of my life, some special fried pig skin, red bean homemade ice cream, and many other delicacies. The new part of the city is totally opposite. Multilane streets full of trucks and luxury cars are everywhere, and skycrapers dominate the skyline. Guangzhou has kind of been made into an architectural museum, so almost every building is a landmark in some way, with a unique modern-style architectural design. The drawback of this is that the air has lots of trouble moving out of this area, so pollution is unbelievably serious. I doubt there are many days of blue sky in that area; when I was there the air was a hazy grey-brown that severely limited visibility. Nevertheless, Guangzhou is my favorite city I have visited in Mainland China, maybe just because it is so bustling and huge, but I really think it has a special atmosphere especially in the old parts.

Dragon Boat racing was fantastic. A team made up of mostly AFS students and a few EF (other exchange organization) students competed against various other teams. About 20 people per boat, one of whom is the drummer to keep the rest paddling in unison. The race is a part of the traditional Chinese festival called 'Tuen Ng Festival', but most of the competing teams were actually also foreigners, presumably expats. Anyway, having practiced only once prior to the real event, our team lost miserably to the others who take the event as a serious sport. But winning isn't everything, right? It was just a great time to be on the beach absorbing the unique atmosphere of a Dragon Boat race, and being with friends.

Of course I've done many more things recently, but time is limited so I won't write about every little thing.

I'm gonna miss this place! I'm gonna make these final 7 days the very best I can!!

So recently I decided to go out of my usual element and write a poem. A haiku to be precise, about Hong Kong. It was originally just for my own personal pleasure, then I thought it turned out decent so I put it on Facebook. Well, people seemed to like it a lot and I got an unprecedented amount of positive feedback, so I figure I'll post it here as well and see what people think. Who knows, maybe there's a secret poet hiding somewhere deep inside me after all!

The sun burns my face
But I stand still and silent
Morning Assembly

Morning alarm rings
Only one thing I desire
A hot cup of tea

A mere 10 degrees
Shivering in my own room
Hong Kong winter sucks

Wind blows cold and strong
School is becoming an igloo
Don't close the windows

Geography class
Transforming into snowmen
Windows still open

Daily fever checks
Sent home for coughing just once
Swine Flu precautions

Hand Sanitizer
Thermometers and face masks
Thanks H1N1

Minibus commute
Headache from speeding alarm
Can't wait til my stop

A suicidal driver
Won't steer, brake, yield or signal
Normal minibus

Choking on thick smog
Outdoor sports a health hazard
Hong Kong pollution

PE is cancelled
IFC hidden from sight
Mainland is to blame

MTR stations
Char siu fan and mad old folks
I'll miss you Hong Kong

Chopsticks working hard
Rice and greasy meat for lunch
I'll miss you Hong Kong

Cantonese curse words
Practice Papers in UE
I'll miss you Hong Kong

Hope you like it!

I've posted very few photos on this blog, so now I guess its about time I showed you some things I do in Hong Kong.

Photo #1 is just me wearing my DelayNoMore shirt. The sound of those words in Cantonese... well I'll just say it means some pretty serious profanity! Picture was taken one day hanging out in Central.

Photo#2 is a normal MTR train. The scene you see is neither especially crowded nor noticeably empty. Just normal.

The third one is me messing around with some classmates in a free lesson. We're trying to make the library as fun as possible. That's my summer uniform by the way, I'm not a huge fan of it.

#4 is a standard lunch I get on school days. It is curry-chicken-sausage-rice. Costs 3USD with drink, tastes greaaat, and is super-filling!

School is going slowly, but otherwise life is flyyyyyying by!
So today, about 10 minutes before lunchtime, the heavens opened up. It was quite predictable actually; the two massive cumulonimbus clouds in the sky had been gradually moving closer to each other all day. At 12:20, they crashed. Stormy weather ensued.

For the last 10 minutes of English it was entertaining, since my seat was right next to the open window, and the rain was extraordinarily heavy and violent. As first it seemed to be all moving sideways, then it appeared to switch directions, going to the right instead of left, and a minute later I could have sworn I saw some rain moving upwards. This was some serious rain. All was going fine, until the lunch bell rang. Then came the announcement: (translated to English) "It is highly suggested that students stay in the school during lunchtime. Thank you. ^click^'

But nobody really knew what that meant. Did the principal really expect the entire school to fit into the tiny canteen inside the covered playground? Were we going to be forced to eat the nasty tuck-shop fare which everybody reviles? Or was the announcement exactly what it claimed to be, just a suggestion?

Well, me and my classmates weren't planning on staying. So, we went down to the main door to leave the school and go to our favorite local restaurant 'Mei Ho' (about 3USD per person for a big good meal including a soft drink and unlimited tea), but we discovered two teachers patrolling the exit. The requirement : have an umbrella, and you can have lunch outside the school. Damnit. I forgot my umbrella, as I do everyday (I don't actually have one). So had all of the other members of my usual lunch group. I tried to reason with one of the teachers that we weren't scared of the rain (many people here seem to think they will melt if touched by it), and we were going to run as fast as we could to the restaurant. His reply: 'I don't want your uniform getting soaked.' My reply: 'My only remaining lessons for the day are P.E., so I will be changing clothes immediately after eating!' I thought I had him there! But no. He simply said, "Rain is bad for your health. You can't leave without an umbrella. Go ask one of your teachers if you can borrow theirs.'

And that was that. We were defeated. We trudged upstairs and asked around the staff rooms for any umbrellas we could borrow, got enough, and finally were allowed out. Yippee!

Lunch was great, and by the time we needed to walk back to the school, the rain had subsided, so no more issues.

And that's the most exciting thing that happened today.

The most important 30 gigabytes of my life just disappeared.

Yes, I just made one of the biggest, most life-changing mistakes ever. I erased to entire contents of my iPod. All of my music, videos, games, audiobooks, contact lists, and notes are gone. Forever. One wrong click of the mouse after plugging in my iPod for syncing and charging resulted in this catastrophe. Why, oh why, did I press 'restore' instead of 'sync'?

And the reason for why its all gone forever, is because earlier this year my computer fried itself, making me lose everything on my big hard drive, which coincidentally contained my sole backup of all iPod data.

In one sense, this event will now bring me countless hours of minibus misery, with only a few songs to entertain myself with. But, on the other hand, its liberating. I now have 30 gigs of free space to fill what whatever new stuff I want! I went from completely full, to totally empty. I can now go back to the basics of downloading EVERYTHING that interests me in any way and sticking it on my iPod without even thinking about filling up my digital capacity.

And with that, I'll go back to my weeping over my lost data. Oh, the digital age and its hardships :(

So, finally, sadly, I must say that my time in Hong Kong is drawing to a close. While I still officially have over 2 months left in this lovely city, in reality that adds up to only about 8 more weekends which I can spend doing everything either 'one last time' or in some cases for the first time. I've been checking things off my mental to-do list slowly but surely, and only a few remain.

What remains:
I have some shopping to do in Shenzhen, for certain Chinese things that just can't be bought in America
I need to visit Macau once before departing Asia (it's a 2 hour ferry ride away, I just need to apply through AFS and find a guide to show me around).

What that means is that I'm basically done with everything I 'needed' to do in Hong Kong. I've seen basically everything there is to see, been almost everywhere there is to go, and done all the things I had dreamed of accomplishing before coming to Hong Kong.

What I've done that I expected to do:

Visited the Big Buddha on Lantau Island by cablecar (Largest seated outdoor bronze Buddha in the world)
Eaten real Dim Sum (done that trillions of times)
Sung Karaoke (also done many times, each time a little less scary/weird)
Visited the Ladies Market in MongKok (awesome street market, located in the place with the world's highest population density)
Seen Tung Choi street (a street full of goldfish vendors)
Temple Street (another crazy night market)
Gone hiking in Sai Kung (awesome nature park in HK, opposite of the bustling city)
Visited several outlying islands (HK has tons of tiny little islands, fascinating places)
Been to The Peak (HK's highest point, incredible view of the city)
Seen traditional temples (all ove HK)
And tons more things I can't think of right now...

Things I've done which were totally unexpected:

Flown in a helicopter (friend of a friend just happened to be a pilot!)
Traveled to Xiamen, Shaoguan, and Shenzhen (Mainland is crazy-awesome!)
Met more fantastic people than I can keep track of (Yes, I have a real problem remembering all my friends' names and faces)
Become the vice-chairman of my school's Geography Club (OK, so that really doesn't mean much, but I like the title)
Played numerous basketball and soccer pickup games with locals (always a pleasure)
Taken, and passed, the HK exams (Yes, I'm actually 'learning' some applicable book-knowledge here)
Seen Giant Pandas
And again, tons and tons of things that I can't remember right now.

But the point of all this is just to say that I truly feel as if I've taken full advantage of every second I've spent in Hong Kong + surrounding areas. I've taken control of my time here, and done what I like, while still maintaining a better-than-decent relationship with my Host family, classmates/teachers, and out-of-school friends. I've learned so many things about life, myself, people, the world, and HK's unique culture. Rewarding to say the very least. I have no regrets at all.

So, though my blogging is clearly declining, it is for a good cause. I'm just too busy getting the most out of my last few weeks in Hong Kong!

Well, on the past 2 Sundays I've done something I absolutely love. Go out for Indian food! While Chinese food is great, it does get a bit tiring. Rice, noodles, fried things, and mystery meat combining themselves in billions of delicious and sometimes frightful concoctions has its limits. Indian food contains many more flavors, spices, ingredients, and for some reason never fails to make me feel happy whenever I eat it.

My ranking of world cuisines right now (it changes often):
All the other stuff
French (The bread is good, but all that wine cheese and pate stuff is garbage!)

Anyway, last Sunday was the 18th birthday of an Italian fellow AFSer (Ludo), and me, him, and our German-Indian AFS friend Ravi celebrated by going out to a deluxe Indian brunch buffet in Central. It was a birthday, so we were all willing to splurge a bit on the price. We knew we were going to one of HK's top Indian restaurants for a buffet experience unlikely ever to be relived, so the 158HKD (20USD) for unlimited food and drinks was acceptable. And a note on HK prices: that was the most expensive meal I've ever had here! Even the 'expensive' places here are cheap for Western standards. Usually a lunch costs below 3USD, dinner less than 5. The restaurant, Bombay Dreams if you must know, was gorgeous. The interior was covered in beautiful Indian  decor with soft Indian-Jazz fusion in the background. It was filled with giant obese white businessmen and large Indian families mostly. We stuck out: an Italian, an American, and a German (but of course he looks Indian) teenager eating together. We sat down at our table, were served an exquisite selection of appetizers (part of the buffet) plus Lassis, Lassis, and more Lassis (Rose flavor!), and began our quest to fill our vacant digestive tracts from the numerous trays of Indian delights enough to justify the exorbitant check we knew was coming our way. It started with heaping helpings of vegetable curries, chutneys, and rice pulao. The next trip to the counter led to piping-hot naan, cold fresh chickpea salad, and some more steaming, perfectly spiced curries containing potatoes, lamb, and chicken. By the third trip, we were already stuffed but forced ourselves to keep chewing and swallowing more of our favorites from the prior plates. After a 10-minute digestion break to make sure we didn't induce vomiting upon ourselves, we asked for our dessert to be brought to us (in nice restaurants you can get them to serve you from the buffet if you just ask!) and gradually sampled all the sickly sweet treats brought to us. The whole venture turned out to be one of the greatest meals of my stay in Hong Kong, if not my whole life. Worth the money? For a one-time treat, yes. Needless to say, dinner wasn't necessary that night. In fact, I felt as though I'd never eat again in my life. But time goes on and rest assured that I haven't skipped a meal since then. After all, I like food. Why skip meals?

So that was the first Indian dinner I had this past fortnight.

The next one, this past Sunday, draws very few similarities to the first one however; it was also enjoyed with my friend Ravi, and the food was delicious and Indian. The reason for its major contrast? Well, let's start with a teensy bit of background information. My friend Ravi is a Sikh. So, he knows about Sikh things including the Sikh Temple in Wan Chai. And we had the fantastic idea of visiting it as a unique experience (for me) and so he could truthfully tell his natural family that he went as is customary for Sikhs on Sundays. Fascinating and unique it was! Of course, I have never been to a Sikh Temple of any kind before in my life, and the Hong Kong Khalsa Diwan Temple built in 1901 by the British Army is truly a grand historical structure. The outside looks like a blue and white mushroom, and the inside is simple and gorgeous as well.

Some tips for anybody looking to visit a Sikh Temple:
-Go with a Sikh so you know what to do
-If all your neighborhood Sikhs are unavailable, observe the following:
-Take off your shoes and socks and put them on the shelves available outside the main prayer hall
-Take one of headscarf/bandannas available outside and tie it around your head
-Have some coins to put into the offering box in front of the altar
-After donating, kneel, bow, wait for a second, and then move away so others can make their donation
-Find an empty place of the floor to sit and pray/think/do whatever you came to do

So yes, we went in. I, under Ravi's supervision, avoided offending anybody, gave my first monetary offering to the Sikh temple authorities, and saw how Sikhs pray. The 'service' had ended when we were there, so only the stragglers were left behind. They appeared to be sitting on the ground, some alone some with small groups, facing the alter, talking, shouting, whispering, singing, wailing, or silently immersing themselves in thought. In the background some Punjabi classical music was humming through the sound-system, calming the mood a bit a suppose.

After that fascinating experience, we went downstairs. To the dining room! It is a part of the Sikh religion to do voluntary service, so the Temple has a free kitchen of simple vegetarian north-Indian fare made and served by members of the community. Anybody is welcome to come and eat their fill, but I'm sure abuse of the system is frowned upon. Anyway, it was perfectly acceptable for us to eat, especially since we had just gone into the Temple and peeked around the place i.e. we weren't just there for the free food. Again, we removed our shoes, put on bandannas, and entered the dining room. This dining room was spartan to say the least. Old red carpets lay in rows across the tiled floor, about half of them with people (all Indians...) sitting crosslegged with tin trays and plastic cups, using the floor as their table and chair and their bread as a utensil, as is normal in India. We sat next to some birds who were picking crumbs off the floor, and after a minute, trays were brought to us. A minute later, some men came around to us with metal buckets of food which they ladled onto our trays. There were 3 dishes: delightful dal, spicy chutney, and some awesome hot vegetable curry. Plus freshly baked chapati bread of course! The food, though simple, was fantastic. It all had a certain homemade taste to it, which I rarely experience with Indian food. Spicy, plentiful (the men with buckets made rounds refilling people's tray), and I'm guessing quite healthful. The food was accompanied by incredible chai tea, perfectly spiced, and constantly flowing from a capacious metal urn whenever a refill was required.

The experience and atmosphere was like none I've had before. The meal and surroundings were quite the opposite of the previous week's pricey jaunt, and completely free of charge. The contrast is really quite stark: while before I was served by a clean-shaven young well-dressed Indian gentleman from silver platters, now I was being served by a barefoot old man with a flowing white beard and a towering white turban from a bucket while squatted next to some pigeons enjoying the leftovers of the last diners. In another way from the last Indian meal, it was wholly unforgettable. Both, however, were great experiences which I probably will never have a chance to repeat.

Two more things on my non-existent to-do-before-I-leave-HK list can be ticked off: patronize the Sikh Temple and enjoy the tastiest Indian buffet in the HKSAR!

So Hong Kong really is an international city. A whole blog entry focusing on Indian stuff while I'm staying in China! Who woulda thunk it?

Have you ever ordered an ice cream, and upon receiving it been shocked and horrified by the meager quantity given to you, despite the exorbitant pricing of the establishment in question???

If so, come the Hong Kong!!!

Okay, so what am I talking about? I'm talking about an HK phenomenon, that I may or may not have started. When I first got to Hong Kong, I passed by a gelato shop in Tuen Mun Town Centre, a shopping mall near my school. I was exactly the prey they were hunting for! I paid about 35HKD for a cup of chocolate gelato, a very very very high price by HK standards. As a comparison, I spend about 18 for my lunch every day - rice/noodles, meat smothered in something, and a drink of some sort usually. A large portion. So yeah, this was some pricey ice cream. Anyway, when I received it, the cup was only partially full. The lady behind the counter could easily have squeezed more into it if she tried. I was feeling... rebellious you might say, so I cheekily asked her in Cantonese, "Haw mh haw yi doh di, mh goi?" meaning, "May I have some more please?". And at the time I failed to make the 'Oliver' connection, but looking back its hard to miss. Anyway, she was so charmed to hear a Caucasian speaking Cantonese (she started giggling as soon as I opened my mouth), she gladly filled my cup to the brim! It was then that my epiphany took place: asking for more ice cream actually works!

But that was just the beginning. It was as if I had cracked a hole in Hong Kong's ice cream infrastructure. The next ice cream I got, which was from McDonalds, also came about 3/4 as tightly packed as it could have been. Well, I got that fixed pretty quickly with my same line! And the pattern continues to this day. Every time I consume ice cream, I ask for more. And every time, it works! Even though some of the ice-cream shop employees do it begrudgingly (mostly the males, not as easily charmed), they all give in in the end. Its a flawless tactic. And its not just me anymore. Many other exchange students here have begun doing the same thing after I informed them of its possibility of working. I just love thinking about the amounts of 'extra' ice cream being doled out due to my dissatisfaction one day and the ensuing request.

Now, I've never thought of trying this in the US, but somehow I think I would just get a cold stare rather than some cold ice cream. Also, I don't even know if it works for Chinese people in Hong Kong, it could just be that the clerks are so stunned to hear a whitey speaking their language that they relent to my demand whilst in a state shock. But, nonetheless, it works for me, and that's all that matters.


Well, contrary to popular belief, I am still alive.

Yes, I've just been incredibly busy with various things. For instance, Chinese New Year! I had an 11 day holiday from school, which I took full advantage of, having ample fun and meeting many (host) family friends. It's a tradition that during the first few days of the new year, you go visit friends and family. Its kind of a nationwide family reunion in China. Anyway, I went with my host parents to visit friends, classmates, neighbors, and former students of my host father who is a teacher. It was a fabulous opportunity to use my steadily improving Cantonese, and it was a fantastic chance to get rich as well. You see, married people in China (HK included of course) are obliged to give unmarried people red packets filled with cash when they meet around the New Year period. As I have yet to find a suitable wife, I benefited from this tradition, which I imagine must be a real pain-in-the-wallet for married folks. The amounts given vary: 2 packets of equal value are always given together by the couple, each packet containing a minimum of 10HKD and ranging... well really theoretically going as high as 1000HKD as such a banknote does exist. But I'd say the average is 20HKD per packet. Double that and multiply by all the many married couples one is likely to meet at large gatherings, and you've got some serious money. Makes me happy and decreases the frequency of my trips to the ATM!

But honestly, most traditional Lunar New Year practices have been abandoned in Hong Kong, and only still exist in Mainland China. The Hong Kong people are just too cosmopolitan to acknowledge many of the really old customs, such as buying new clothes, shoes, not cutting your hair, eating many special foods, and making a pilgrimage to their nearest Buddhist temple. As I really didn't do any very traditional things this holiday, I won't bore you with any more details of how my Lunar New Year celebrations went. Just know that I enjoyed myself greatly and experienced the unique thrill of a Chinese New Year in China!

But I will talk about something special I did during the holiday. I went to a Hong Kong camp for the first time! Actually, it was my first time spending the night somewhere other than my bed in my host family's home since arriving in Hong Kong, due to AFS's strict rules disallowing such things. But this camp was with my class, teachers included, so AFS allowed me to go after applying in advance! The camp was meant to soothe some inter-student tensions that have been running for the past few months that evolved from a dispute about our Christmas singing contest. Some people didn't want to join, but others submitted the entrance application for the entire class to join the inter-class section of the competition. Anyway, the camp was scheduled a long time ago, but by the time it took place the tensions were already almost cooled down, lost in time. About 30 out of my class's 32 students took part in the activity, as well as both class teachers. Let the bonding begin!

The campsite we had reserved was a tiny little Red Cross sponsored campsite on the far-off Lantau Island which I've only been to once before for an AFS organized hiking trip. After meeting at the designated time in the nearest MTR (subway) station, we all took off on a bus to the camp. As the weather was about 8 degrees celsius on that day, the coldest Hong Kong ever gets, nobody was in a terribly good mood. But nonetheless, we got to the camp and began out teambuilding activities. Honestly, the activities were nothing special. Just tasks that could only be completed by everybody working together, such as moving a stick across the basketball court using only 1 finger each, creating a human bridge across a field, and making a human tower to lift a tire on top of an extremely tall pole. They were enjoyable, and got us warmed up from the cold damp weather, as well as giving us a chance to bond I suppose. After the activities it was 'dance-around-the-campfire' time. The HK version of a campfire is a firepit with a small flame going. Everybody stands in a big circle around it, and there are some set songs/dances that I was quickly taught. The perplexing thing was, that the dances were quite violent, involving people being pushed to the ground. It didn't seem very safe considering we were all within 2 meters of an open fire... but the camp leader (one volunteer guy was the coordinator/planner of the whole camp) seemed to have no qualms so the fun went on for about an hour. It really wasn't much fun, but I passed the time chatting with my classmates.

Dinner wasn't good. Some steamed egg with mystery meat, disgusting droopy vegetables, and low quality white rice (yes, I've come to realize even white rice has noticeable quality differences depending on the establishment). But it filled me up. After a late-night basketball game with some of the guys during our evening free-time, it was sleeping time at 12:00AM. Of course, boys will be boys. 12:00 is clearly far too early to be sent to bed during the holidays when you're surrounded by friends you rarely see outside of the classroom. The problem was, we were sent into our cabin (there was one for males, one for females, quite small inside with military barrack style bunks and a communal bathroom) to get into bed. But the leader/coordinator of the camp of course was male, and thus we couldn't blatantly disobey our orders to sleep, as he could clearly see us from the bunk in which he lay. Creativity was needed! We weren't actually forced to go into our beds, so we pretended to be playing a card game while whispering our schemes to escape the cabin and go outside. Our first thought was the windows: they weren't too high to climb out or back in through, and had no screens or anything blocking us. The only issue was that they were quite small, so it would be a tight squeeze to get through, and the chance of being caught was high as they were quite near where the camp leader was lying (not asleep, just lying awake). After that plan was scrapped we just sat around considering whether the front door of the cabin could be opened noiselessly. But that was deemed for too risky; too much of a gamble and no good explanation upon capture. Then one of my classmates went to go into the bathroom to pee. And, lo and behold, the cabin had a back door! Actually it was an emergency fire exit from the bathroom, but it was unlocked and the alarm was disabled, so it was the perfect escape route! A very lucky find! We all pretended to need to go use the bathroom, and when we went in, we simply slipped out the back. The coordinator must have fallen asleep at some point while we were out, and we were never caught.

What we did once out was nothing too impressive. We just admired the view across the small bay the camp was situated upon to Hong Kong's largest high security prison. Great place for a youth camp, dontcha think? A stone's throw away from HK's baddest. Anyway, we just chatted, played some Chinese hand games (think rock paper scissors but a bit more complex) and gloated to each other at our genious in evading authority escaping the evil clutches of 'The Cabin'. Then we got tired and actually crept back into our warm beds and slept.

But somehow, the whole thing really did bring us closer, sneaking around together at night and breaking the rules. We made the camp a success in our own way!

The next day (it was a 2 day, 1 night camp) was hiking day. After a terrible breakfast of noodle soup (the Chinese have no concept of pancakes, french toast, waffles, bacon and such) we set out on a 3 hour hiking trip back to the nearest public bus station (we had a private bus take us on the way). And, it was by far the best hiking I've done in Hong Kong so far. No visible roads or buildings, great mountain views down on the undeveloped coastal beaches of Lantau Island, and real fresh air. It felt like I couldn't possibly be in Hong Kong, this must be some wild nature reserve in the hinterlands somewhere. But really it was just a few kilometers away from the hustle and bustle of city life. A great stress-relief activity. Again, I passed the time by chatting and the trip was over before I knew it. All-in-all a wonderful experience!

Okay, other than that the only terribly notable thing that occurred in the New Year holiday was that my computer broke. But now its fixed again, and better than ever! Goodbye XP, hello Windows 7!


Ben Reardon

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I am basically a chewing gum addict. I chew gum whenever I'm not eating, sleeping, or in school (sadly its not allowed in Hong Kong). I love gum.

But, there are some important differences worth noting in the 'gum culture' of Hong Kong versus the USA. First of all, gum in Hong Kong tends to be all sugar-free. Xylitol is the universal fake-sweetener used here. Its supposed to be much healthier than other artificial sugars and definitely easier on the teeth than sugar itself. In the US, I've never really seen xylitol gum, or at least its not advertized like it is in HK, with Xylitol being the biggest word on the packaging after the brand. Another thing is that in Hong Kong, gum is commonly sold in little metallic pouches, thankfully resealable with a zip-lock style closing device, with about 20 pellets of gum inside. Sticks of gum are kind of unusual and can be hard to find if you don't know where to look. And the Orbit gum 'tabs' I love so much in the USA are not to be found at all :(. Gumballs are available occasionally in those novelty machines where you put a coin in and it slides down to you, but I really hate gumballs so I've never been tempted. I would say I definitely prefer sticks or tabs, but the pellets are alright and now I'm kind of used to them. The texture is less 'gummy' though, and I usually need at least 2 at a time to get the full effect of the flavor...

Gum here still comes from some of the same brands as back home though. Wrigleys and its offbrands (Extra, Airwaves etc) are the most common still. But the other brands we have in the USA like Double Bubble, Hubba Bubba, Orbit, Bubble Tape, Big League Chew, and some of the 'Dental Hygiene' wannabe products are not to be found anywhere. Only one brand is here that I've never seen before: Colfresh. It claims to be Italian, but the nutritional information is oddly in Greek, Arabic, French, and then English. I've only seen it in the International supermarkets though, not the normal shops. Generally speaking the selection doesn't contain many different brands.

But flavors are a different matter. Blackcurrant-Menthol, Melonmint, peachmint, lemongrass-mint, blueberry, persimmon-vitaminized gum(bought that one in the mainland), blackberry-canteloupe, lemon-pear, and strawberry, are just a few of the delightful selection of fruity/minty/cinnamonny products available. It is a great pleasure of mine to go to the larger supermarkets and take my time browsing through all the options, choosing carefully, and eventually sampling my selections. I generally make a pilgrimage every few days to a 7-11, OK (another common convenience store in HK), or a supermarket to buy myself a pouch because the 20ish pellets don't last very long... my daily consumption is probably somewhere about 4-6 pieces.

But, last Wednesday, I decided the time had come for a large purchase; making frequent pitstops at 7-11's is time-consuming and annoying. I had run out of gum (a dire emergency!) so after school I sped off on my bike to the Park-n-Shop (a supermarket) in Sheung Shui and went shopping! I gleefully made my selections and paid 50HKD total (6.5USD) for the items pictured below. WOOHOO!

In order: Extra Strawberry (a big bag meant to refill that plastic barrel shown in the picture, of course I have one!), Wrigley's Lemongrass Mint (a new flavor for me), Extra Peach Mint, Airwaves Blackcurrant, and some classic Wrigley's Double Mint sticks. The number of 'pieces of gum' is 124 pellets + 25 sticks making for a nice total of 149 pieces!!! It makes me so happy I don't know what to say... Anyway, since that lovely purchase, I've of course tried all the flavors and they are all great. I have to say lemongrass-mint and blackcurrant are my favorites, but the peach-mint is also spectacular and the sticks are the best textured. Strawberry is my everyday gum (a bit cheaper, bought in bulk), the others are for 'special occasions'... like whenever I feel like them. Really I just choose whatever looks best at the moment... I'm never let down; its all delicious!

Life is good!


Of course, while writing this I've been happily chewing my way through a piece of Strawberry :)

(Yay, pictures on my blog finally)

So I got the results of all my exams back now. And actually, I'm pretty impressed with myself. First, I'll mention that Hong Kong exams are TOTALLY different from U.S. exams in the grade expectations. In the US 'passing' is assumed, even for quite low-performing students. But in Hong Kong, simply passing is everybody's goal. Getting an F is a real possibility with the incredible 'marking schemes' student work is compared to to figure out the appropriate scores. And these are not graded on any curve; all students are judged against this marking scheme, instead of each other.

And so, my results:

My Use of English Exam was not really any surprise. If I hadn't gotten the highest results in Form 6, it would have been a real shocker seeing as English is my first language and everybody else's second or third (after Mandarin). I passed every section (there are 6)with excellent scores, just missing some marks here and there for silly errors or due to the specificity of answers required by the teacher. eg. I put more complex versions of the desired answers, and they were marked wrong. But whatever, I don't really care about arguing for every single point. I passed. I did wonderfully. Hooray!

Then, I got back my Biology exam. But I take Form 4 Biology which is quite easier than any Form 6 classes. The exam was much easier too, consisting of multiple choice and short answer questions rather than essays. Also, as my A-Level class exams were 3 hours long in duration, this one was simply 1.5 hours. Much less mentally taxing, and I didn't even bother to study at all since 90% of the information we cover in class is review for me. And, it turns out, I really do know what I'm doing in Biology! I got 71/100 marks, an extraordinarily high score by HK standards. The highest anybody got in my class was 80/100, and I was in the top 4 in the 4th Form. I'm pleased!

Then comes history, which is divided into two sections: China and Europe. Each section had its own exam (2/3 essay, 1/3 Data Based Question) but the scores are combined in the end to form one big 'History' grade. I knew that History posed a big problem for me, as all my in-class essays received quite low marks for their lack of evidence. Apparently I have many excellent theories but I just don't back them up enough. Anyway, I studied about 20 minutes through the notes from both sections, which by Hong Kong standards is the same as not studying at all, but for me it was all I needed to remember a few basic important facts. And it worked; I passed both sections. 30/50 on the European part and 25.5/50 on the Chinese. I'm very pleased and surprised!

Geography. Geography is the one subject I have never studied before in America and I have absolutely no interest or background in. Soil and biomes and agricultural systems just put me to sleep. And the exam was 3 hours of hellish essays about topics I honestly didn't know much about. Just some facts I remembered from the lessons and another 20 minutes of reviewing the class notes with some improvised details to accompany them. It worked. Kind of... I passed the section on Physical geography but failed the human geography section. But when you factor in my daily marks, I passed!

Really, I'm just so glad the exams are over. No more sitting in a hard wooden chair for three hours writing essays about things I don't really understand or care about. And I passed all my classes, a real personal triumph.

What did I do last Sunday? Not too much... just WENT ON A HELICOPTER RIDE!!!It was amazing.

Incredible. Exhilarating. Inspiring. I'm exaggerating now... but really it was great.

But anyway, the way this came to be was that one of my host mom's Mandarin classmates who came over during one of our Christmas gatherings was a helicopter pilot. And, during the dinner party, he graciously invited to take me on a ride around HK in a helicopter! Of course I expressed great interest, and before I knew it, the flight was scheduled!

So, on Sunday I met the pilot (Mr. Fung) at the Fanling Railway Station, and we took taxi to the People's Liberation Army Barracks at Shek Kong (in Hong Kong), where the HK Aviation Club is located. It was an experience in itself to see the PLA's Hong Kong base! The soldiers in their blue Communist uniforms, holding big rifles guarding the gate, always walking in stride with one another and none walking alone (they seemed to have buddies they stuck with at all times), were fascinating. They come from various areas of China, so most don't know Cantonese or English. Just Mandarin. So communicating with the gate guard who wanted to see my I.D. was kind of tough. But, bodily gestures and Mr. Fung's translation made it a non-issue. After passing through an airport-style metal detector and luggage scanner, I was in! Then there was a slight issue: the Aviation Club is nowhere near the entrance to the barracks/base. And no taxis or other public transport are allowed inside to take people around. Most of the club patrons posses their own private cars which they can easily drive to the Club, but we had none with us of course. So, luckily, a student-pilot happened to be entering the Base at the same time as us, and he was in his own car. So, we requested a ride in his beautiful Audi, and he drove us to the runway area. It turned out this man who drove us was a retired German entrepreneur/businessman living in Hong Kong who decided to learn to fly in his old age. Very cordial old fella'! Anyway, after a long while of watching other pilots take their turns  in the 2 shared helicopters the flight club owns, it was finally our turn. Now, originally, the plan was for Mr. Fung to take me all around Hong Kong - seeing Victoria Harbour from the air as well as some of the 'rural' areas. But, the cloud cover was extreme on that day, and visibility made it impossible. But still, we were allowed to make circles around the airport and stay fairly low to the ground!
Now to the ride itself: After the pre-flight checks, we hopped into this tiny, insect-like helicopter.and Mr. Fung started the rotors. The feeling was instantly captivating - the deep rumbling of the engine and shaking of the whole craft as it awaited Control Tower permission to take off. When the message finally came that we could go, we gradually lifted off the ground! It was amazing compared to an airplane's takeoff - this one was quick, controlled, direct, and downright comfortable. We just rose straight into the air, and once Mr. Fung pushed to throttle, we began or ride! The feeling of the whole flight is incomparable to a fixed-wing aircraft in every way. This didn't feel like a speeding ship in the sky - it felt like a jet-pack. It seemed as though simply leaning left or right could have made the copter turn, and that the machine was an extension of the pilot's body as he deftly maneuvered around the sky. I was enraptured (is that a word?) by the 1 hour trip. Even though the sight-seeing itself was quite limited by our low altitude and lack of permission to travel outside the vicinity of the airport, I loved the experience in its entirety. My first ever helicopter ride was... perfect!
We safely landed after an hour in the skies around Shek Kong, and that was that. I hope that this isn't the last opportunity I have to take a ride in a helicopter - its definitely something I'd like to try again.

Exams are over now! I get results soon... I'm kind of worried. They were nothing like exams I have taken before in my life. These were 3-hour long ordeals, basically consisting of writing essays spitting back exactly what the notes from the lessons said. Or, in some cases, essays about things never once mentioned during class. Confusing. But I did my best and what's done is done. I'm just looking to pass all my subjects (easier said than done). And that is that!

Ben Choi

I'll just jump right in this time:

Christmas in Hong Kong was basically nothing special. Just lots of decorations, music, several countdowns in various location in HK, but really most people seemed to kind of forget about the special-ness of the day. So did I. I just hung out with friends and family and family-friends. I met many new people as my host family hosted several groups of their friends/classmates over for dinner on the nights surrounding Christmas. Good Cantonese practice, good food! The break from school was also great; lots of freetime, exploring, doing HK stuff - singing karaoke, eating hotpot and dim sum, watching movies, meeting friends of friends.

On the 30th of December I did something amazing. I went to mainland China for the first time!! Shenzhen, which lies right across the border with Hong Kong, was the specific location. I went with my host dad and 2 classmates who are actually originally from the mainland, one of whom still lives in Shenzhen part of the time. Basically, they speak Mandarin (across the border Cantonese is secondary to Mandarin) and are great guides. First, we all went to Book City, a giant books and electronics store popular with Hong Kongers for its cheap merchandise. Super interesting. Indescribably different from every other mall I've ever been to. Just... different. Next, after a great meal of 'mainland' cuisine, I went with my classmates to one of the most interesting areas I've ever seen in my life called Dongmun or East Gate in English, where we spent the whole rest of the day.

Basically, it is an area of the city with tiny businesses selling various types of merchandise for extremely low prices. It had a special feeling too. Very 'real'. I have no idea how to go about describing it actually. The Shenzhen people were VERY different from Hong Kong people - to be blunt they were ruder, louder, more aware of reality, pushier, poorer, and even more competitive. I saw things I have never seen before in my day in Shenzhen. A young child doing a headstand in the street begging for change (most likely a 'slave' of the local gangs), blatant counterfeits being bought and sold EVERYWHERE (I got a high quality Faux-mega watch for about 15 USD!), old beggars who kept following me around in hopes of some money (not many white people venture into Dongmun, considered a dangerous place for unaccompanied tourists), streetside pet-shops where people just walk up to the cage, choose a puppy, pay a little money and walk off, filipino ladies in a filthy corner working speedily on sewing machines while a chinese woman 'oversaw' their work, and countless other incredible new things. And this was just in 1 day, in what is considered a rich part of the richest city in China. Speechless.

The word cheap gains new meaning to me now too. Fake products seem more plentiful than real ones, and they all are ridiculously cheap for US and even HK standards. In the mainland, everything is negotiable when it comes to price. For me as a white person, they original price given for any item is at least triple what it should actually sell for. Still cheaper than buying in the USA though. Anyway, with the help of my friends' stupendous bargaining skills I wasn't cheated too badly on anything. I only bought a watch and various snack-food items though... other salespeople might have been less forgiving. And the snacks were amazing - the best milk tea I've ever tried, some Shanghaiese bready thing, noodles so spicy I always died while eating them, squid on a stick, octopus meatballs, and fried potatoes (also delightfully spicy).

The day in the mainland was eye-opening, to say the least. Very difficult to even remember all the news things I saw that day... too much. I can't wait to see more of China in my remaining 5 months here.

New Years. New Years was fun - hanging out with friends and when the clock struck midnight, I was actually sitting in Avatar in a Mong Kok cinema. An appropriate way to welcome the new decade; enjoying the new technology that will gradually shape our lives more and more as time goes on. Great movie by the way! I'm a sucker for 3D I guess, and the story, while maybe sappy, was good enough to hold my interest. Beautiful brilliant movie!!!!!

Now exams have begun at school. So far I have just had Use of English Oral and Listening which are simple for me, but I expect Geography and History to be hard. Hopefully I can pass... More on that in the coming few days.

Hmmm... what else? I attended a local Jazz-Hip-Hop Dance Interschool Competition. Fascinating! I'm not a dance person, but it was amazing to see secondary school students with the courage to get on the stage and perform group dances that were kind of goofy to be honest. About 10% of the dancers in the competition seemed to know what they were doing, the remaining 90% flopping around the stage looking quite unnatural and uncomfortable. But, nevertheless, it was a unique Hong Kong experience to see groups of 13-19 y/o's dancing shamelessly. Mostly American music was used in the background, and the students and teachers clearly didn't understand the meaning of the lyrics. Let's just say profanity (including the 'N' word) went unedited and lyrics like 'strip for me, take it all off' were danced to by some pretty young naive girl and boys. Hilarious to watch! Plus the ones who were good were pretty damn good.

Okay, thats all. I'm busy, I'm happy, I'm loving Hong Kong.

So time is limited at present (too much fun to be had!). I have no energy or brainpower remaining to make a worthwhile blog entry. But school starts again tomorrow, which means I'll have free lessons with nothing to do. Basically, I'm not saying anything except that I'm having a fantastic time here, and a real blog post will be here soon. Sorry for the long wait! Next entry coming soon! Ben