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

I've been nominated for a blogging contest, so please vote for me if you love this blog! Use the button below:
IX10 - Vote for this Blog

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)