Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Week in Taiwan

I got back yesterday from Taiwan and I wanted to try a little something new on this trip. Instead of taking pictures, I filmed my way around the country and made this little video.


Taiwan doesn't seem to be high on the Asian travel circuit, but it really does pack a whole lot into a tiny island nation. And the food! Ahhh the food. Beef noodle soup and street dumplings and mango shaved ice and minced pork rice and grilled corn and bubble tea and the list goes on. You'll notice that about half the footage in the video above is just us stuffing our faces.

Taiwan was an incredibly beautiful, big-hearted country, and the people were so warm and welcoming. We were invited to eat free street sausages with a family sharing dinner at a night market, taxi drivers wanted to know our life stories, a local temple invited us to march in a parade with them. I wouldn't say it was the most exciting place I've ever been, but traveling in Taiwan was easy, relaxing, and a true cultural experience.

I sometimes think about how I am able to have so many amazing travel experiences, those special moments where people invite you into their homes or take the time to share their lives with you. It doesn't hurt having a big smile on your face at all times, of course! Radiating positivity is a big part of that. I try to exude positive energy and people really do pick up on it (...I hope).

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Seedy Side of The Philippines

My mom's baby brother lives part time in Miami and part time in Angeles City. Not Los Angeles, but Angeles City, legendary prostitution capital of the Philippines, located a few hours north of Manila. Google 'Angeles City.' I dare you. His wife, my aunt, grew up in the Philippines and still has a lot of family there. Some highlights from my recent visit to Angeles City include:

Hanging out with my aunt's family, who were extremely warm and welcoming

 Spending time with my uncle

 Relaxing AND frolicking around the city

Angeles City is the home to Clark Air Base, Mount Pinatubo, and was also the last stop of the WWII Bataan death march that left around 5,000 Filipinos and 500 Americans dead. An interesting place to say the least. Being the history nerd I am, I was super excited for my uncle to take me on a tour of the remnants of Clark Air Base.

Old chopper left behind at Clark Air Base is now a playgound

Visiting Clark Veterans Memorial

Scenes at the Baatan Memorial for the death march

When I visited recently, I couldn't help but feel that I was back in Latin America. The crazy electric lines, dirt-covered children running around barefoot, music coming at you from all angles. The Philippines in general are just so much more raw than Hong Kong, which is sterile in comparison. 

The downtown district in Angeles City

Some fun events we stumbled upon around town-
Public aerobics classes, dog competition, MMA fights in the street


The local food is SO GOOD
Pork Adobo all day every day please

My aunt is a local so I got to stay on her family's property and hang out at their sari-sari, or convenience store. We lounged around their kubo, drank a shit ton of Red Horse, checked out the local mall, toured some WWII sites, and rode around on my uncle's scooter. My uncle actually hired indigenous people to build a bahay kubo, or nipa stilt hut, in the traditional way using all locally sourced building materials. It's quite beautiful, and he is also building an apartment complex next door with 6 single apartments that he plans on renting out.

The family dog at their sari-sari

My uncle at the construction site of his apartment building

The inside of their bahay kubo-
a little piece of paradise smack in the middle of the city

I thought very carefully about how to approach addressing Angeles City's unique situation. It has a reputation in Asia, even when compared to Bangkok, for being a grimy den of young prostitutes and sleazy old male customers. And it fulfilled every preconception I had. Prostitution is completely out in the open there, as girls walk down the street holding hands with their clients and pretending it's a normal date (the girlfriend experience at its finest). It's hard for me to wrap my head around it. These men are ok with perpetuating a system in which the only chance for a young girl to make something of herself economically is selling her body. The market for young attractive Filipinas is degrading and quite frankly, repugnant. 

It was really difficult for my uncle and I to find a bar without bikini clad teenagers where we could grab a beer and catch up. On my flight home, I heard a group of young British guys laughing about how their dicks were gonna fall off if they ever returned, and I couldn't help but wonder how many of them had girlfriends back in Hong Kong. The strangest part of it was how open the whole thing was. Everyone there was there for the same reason, customers and workers alike, and there were no hushed alleyways, no judgments, just acceptance of that way of life as a reality for that community.

Angeles City is a fascinating place by day, but the blatant exploitation of women is going to really make me think twice about visiting my family there in the future. The red light district seemed to center around Fields Avenue, so if you can avoid that one little strip, the rest of the city does actually have some cool cultural sites to check out. It's an extremely cheap direct flight from Hong Kong, so it made the perfect weekend getaway for me, especially since I had a place to stay with family there.

This is my uncle's 'Angry Bee' scooter

Trying not to scream in the sidecar of the 'Angry Bee'

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance

I have a new neighborhood in Hong Kong- Tai Hang! I wrote about it last year and hinted that I wanted to relocate, and over the summer, I did it. I found a cute, quirky, newly renovated apartment in an old Chinese walk-up building, which was really my dream. That's a different blog post for a different day, because right now I just want to share with you a cultural tradition from my new neighborhood that happened recently.

Entrance to my neighborhood all jazzed up in preparation

A few weeks ago was the Tai Hang Fire Dragon dance. Tai Hang is an old fishing village that goes back over 100 years, so it is a very tight knit community. Once a year the locals run up and down the streets 3 nights in a row with a 67 meter long dragon. The dragon runs at the crowd and then veers away at the last minute, it goes up in flames as they stab it with incense, and it dances to the beat of the massive drums following alongside.

The head of the dragon running right towards me in the crowd

Historically, the tradition began as a way to bring good fortune to the neighborhood. What was once a fishing village, and then a local automotive hub full of car shops, is now slowly being gentrified. I've already noticed a few car shops being replaced by oyster bars or cafes in the last two months since I moved in. By moving there, I know that I am contributing to this progression, but I hope to counterbalance that by supporting local businesses and promoting cultural traditions in the area!

Unfortunately a new rule states that if a real estate company can buy up 80% of the apartments in the building, the other 20% legally have to sell, which means that a lot of the cool older apartment blocks built back in the '60s are getting knocked down and replaced by sterile towers. I can't imagine the Fire Dragon dance happening in a neighborhood full of skyscrapers.

Only men from Tai Hang are allowed to participate-
unfortunately their numbers are dwindling

For such a big celebration with so many people crowding the streets to watch the Fire Dragon dance, I was surprised by how tame it was. In my mind I was picturing something like an Ecuadorian block party, a booze-infused, boisterous musical extravaganza. I think street parties in Asia lack the energy of their counterparts in Latin America. People sort of stood casually around watching the dragon, and once it had turned the corner, walked or jogged to keep up with it. There were no fistfights, boom boxes, dancing or cries of joy. Instead, it was just a bunch of very civilized people observing a piece of their heritage with much respect and nostalgia.


Monday, September 15, 2014

10 Tips For My 15 Year Old Self

I teach 6th-10th grade, which we all know can be the worst age ever. At that age, kids are hormonal nut jobs and it’s a wonder I can keep them all seated and somehow learning as well. Distractions are aplenty, to name a few:

Oh god, is everyone staring at my zit?
Does he like me?
Why was she such a bitch to me on ask.fm?
How do I make this boner go away?
Can I hike my skirt up any shorter without showing off my ladybits?
Why are my parents such embarrassing assholes?
Wahhhhhhh

When I think back to that age, I just remember feeling insecure a lot. Pressure to fit in, to be normal, to catch a cute boy’s attention or get invited to the best house party was suffocating. My students here seem overall more well-adjusted than their American counterparts, but sometimes I still want to give them advice to help them through these horrible years. Unfortunately, this isn’t really the type of stuff built into a school curriculum. If I could go back and give my 15 year old self some advice, here’s what I would honestly say.


15 years old at the Hoover Dam

1. Love your body because it’s the closest thing to home you are ever going to have. No matter how many apartments, cities, friends, jobs you may go through, your body will always be there. As you leave your teenage years behind and settle into your adult form, it might take you awhile to get used to this new version of yourself, but that’s ok. There’s no point in dwelling on body parts you wish you could change. That mole, or your bony wrists, or fleshy thighs, are just a part of what makes you so unique and beautiful, and you should appreciate how special you are! Show your body some love. Maybe in the form of bacon ice cream. 



14 years old and running around Las Vegas
in matching outfits

2. Be assertive. Girls are expected to be gracious and accommodating, and we’re more likely to ’take one for the team’ because of the pressure society puts on us to be more pleasant. This is what leads to the economic gender gap! If you think something is unfair, or you are being taken advantage of, or you just want to have your voice heard, speak up! When a man tells you to smile, it's considered rude if you don't oblige because the man’s desire to see you smile pulls more weight than whatever it was you were doing in the first place. Fuck that. You are an individual with needs and desires, not an accessory. ‘Maybe I don’t want to smile, douche nugget’ is an appropriate response. Also, ‘Sorry, I can’t take on that extra task because I really want to do a great job with the projects I’m already involved in' is perfectly acceptable.



16 years old- my first selfie?

3. Consent is key. Boys and girls, a drunken 'uuhhhuuhhh' does not mean someone is up for sex. A wary nod and a 'well, maybe?' does not mean someone is up for sex. The only thing that means sex is consensual is when both partners have explicitly said yes. There is no gray area when it comes to consent. If a short little acknowledgment that both parties want to go ahead with it is too awkward for you, you're probably too immature to be banging. Girls, you can be assertive and say no if you don't want to sleep with a guy you're already fooling around with. Feeling up your chest doesn't give him permission to penetrate you. 


17 years old and having a beach day photo shoot

4. Try not to be so self-conscious all the time. Self-doubt plagues most teenagers, and really, it's a waste of an emotion. If you walk into a trash can, mess up on a class speech, or slip down a few stairs and fall on your ass, you are the ONLY person who is going to remember it. I wish I had tried on a little confidence earlier in my teen years.


80s themed Homecoming photo

5. Sexual assault is not the victim's fault. Lawyers in suits are raped, old ladies in nightgowns are raped, journalists in war zones are raped, promiscuous chicks are raped, children are raped. Girls are never asking for it. No one is asking to be raped. It happens because of rapists who want to feel power over someone. Dress appropriately for school because it's an academic environment, but know that no matter what a girl wears, she is never 'asking for it.' I dress way more promiscuously here than in Ecuador and yet I never get aggressively hit on in Hong Kong  because the men are taught to respect woman. It's the mans choice to make a woman uncomfortable or sexually assault a woman and has nothing to do with her behavior. That being said, some dudes suck so maybe learn self-defense girls. 



14 years old and trying out public transportation for the first time

6. Be very careful with your digital dossier. Your significant other may ultimately use dirty photos of you against you if there is a bad breakup. A hacker may access your email. An employer may stumble across something you didn't want them to see. There are a million possibilities for what could happen with the content you choose to post online. If you are snapping a dirty photo of yourself to send to a significant other, you could potentially be creating and distributing child pornography depending on local laws. Be aware, and be careful. Use 2-step verification when possible. Is a post you made when you were 16 about how hammered were Saturday night really something you are going to want your future boss to see?



16 years old with the cast of Hairspray in NYC

7. Binge drinking is not cool. Is it fun to spend half the night heaving over a toilet, and to then spend the next day feeling nauseous and awful? Didn't you go out to have a fun, memorable time with friends? It's easy to plan weekends around getting wasted, but do you really want to spend a third of your life drunk or hungover?



18 years old, my senior prom photo

8. Just be nice. It's so simple. Don't be an asshole. Don't cyber bully. It might get you popular points now, but you will be ashamed of your behavior someday. As adults, we look for nice friends who are good people. If you see someone else being treated poorly, stand up for them. Why are teenagers so awful to each other? Please don't give into the temptation to be awful. Be kind. You will be valued for that trait as an adult. 



17 years old and taking Homecoming photos in front of a dumpster

9. Being an individual is ok. So what if your hobby is writing Doctor Who fan fiction or nail art or coin collecting or your favorite television show is Peewee’s Playhouse or you love gangster rap or you want to go vegan for a month or learn to play the kazoo? Be unique! As an adult, I love that I am surrounded by a bunch of passionate weirdos. My friends do burlesque and mountain climb and design apps and take cooking classes and play in bands and join ultimate frisbee leagues and create art and I love it. It’s inspiring to be surrounded by people doing exactly what they love with no shame.



14 years old and a total dance dork

10. Alas! The tragedy and woe of a 15 year old crush that goes unrequited. If your crush doesn’t know you exist, you can assure yourself that it doesn’t really matter because you are a kick-ass human with or without a partner. The all-consuming, heart-breaking, stomach-wrenching, butterfly-inducing crushes at that age can be alleviated by a marathon of Sex and the City with some girlfriends, a tub of ice cream, and some fluffy blankets to house a cuddle puddle with your besties.



...Oh, and for the love of God, use a condom. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Picture Post - Steamy Summer

August and September in Hong Kong are bitching hot, but that doesn't stop us from flocking to the beaches during the day and tearing up the town at night. Here are some photos of my latest summer shenanigans.

Lazy day at Chung Hom Kok

Afternoon thunderstorm rolling in over Tai Hang

Hula hooping at Repulse Bay

Stunning scenery in a taxi ride

Girl's night out at Varga Lounge

Hong Kong is never ending fun. I can stumble home alone at 4 AM with some street shwarma or leave my purse on the beach and swim out in the water with no fear of getting taken advantage of. There's not many places left on Earth like that. I would also like to point out that all of the beach photos were taken right on Hong Kong Island, about a 15 minute taxi ride from downtown. The natural beauty of Hong Kong is a hidden secret. I love my city!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My Volunteer Experience With Soap Cycling

I discovered a website called Hands on Hong Kong a few weeks ago that has a community bulletin where all the charities and non-profits in the city can post volunteer opportunities. Before I start promoting it to my students, I wanted to go check it out in person so I signed up for an event called 'Soap Cycling' and headed over there Saturday morning.

Soap Cycling is an environmental initiative from Hong Kong University that aims to promote hygiene and sanitation by recycling used soap bars from hotels. In Hong Kong alone, hotels throw away 2-3 million bars of soap annually. Combine that with the horrifying statistic that each year around the world 3.5 millions kids die of pneumonia and another 850,000 of diarrhea (both diseases that could be prevented by simply washing your hands), and you can see why these two causes clearly go hand in hand.

Crates full of recycled soap from Hong Kong hotels

By collecting used soap bars from hotels, Soap Cycling prevents them from piling up in Hong Kong's already overstuffed landfills. They then rely on volunteers to scrape the top layer of the soap off so it is like new, and then ship it to communities in developing nations like Cambodia and the Philippines.

All the soap I scraped clean in 3 hours

My experience there was pretty wonderful. I signed up for a 3 hour shift and basically hung out scraping soap in a room in their warehouse the whole time with a group of about 10 other volunteers. There was a family, some teenage boys, a random secretary, and a teenage girl who dragged her mother along (so sweet!). We all chatted and laughed and whined when our hands started going numb, but carried on. There were silent times for reflection, and I realized soap carving is similar to knitting in that it is tedious yet soothing, and gives you time to really think about your life and the world in general. Yes, sometimes you come across a piece of soap with pubes or other questionable smudges but you just scrape it off, thank the karma fairies that you are wearing gloves and a mask, and carry on.

Me with the group of ladies in my volunteer group

If you are interested in getting involved with Soap Cycling, or any other charity in Hong Kong, check out the community bulletin board here at Hands on Hong Kong. There are opportunities to work in soup kitchens, help the elderly, tutor minority children, etc. Find what suits you and donate some of your time to a worthwhile cause! I will be going back to Soap Cycling twice a month for the remainder of this semester. In any given week, they can only process 50% of the soap that is donated because of lack of manpower, so every person helps!

Hong Kong and China

Let’s talk politics. It’s time to speak up. Posters for universal suffrage have been plastered over every inch of this city since the spring. Protests have become a bit more visible and local news headlines a bit more sinister. In case you haven’t read the news, China announced last weekend that Hong Kong’s ‘universal suffrage’ that we’ve all been waiting for would consist of allowing everyone to vote on a new chief executive (yay!), but the candidates would be hand-selected by the government in Beijing (boo!).

Injustice, corruption, and totalitarianism do not happen overnight. They happen gradually, creeping up around the edges of democracy, and citizens accept one small blow after another. Then, after an extended amount of time, people look around and realise they don’t recognise the community they are living in. ‘But we used to be so free!’ they might complain.

What is happening in Hong Kong right now is a gradual removal of freedoms. Freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, freedom of speech, these are slowly being chipped away at by the government of China, and because it is happening so slowly, many here underestimate the power China is wielding over Hong Kong.

What is there to do really? When protests got heavy over the summer, over 500 democrats were thrown in jail. Calls for the government in London to at least make a statement due to a sense of obligation have yielded silence on that front. The ‘Occupy Central’ movement threatening to shut down the Central business district is one option, but pro-China groups have already been organising marches on a much larger scale. Hong Kong was supposed to remain autonomous until 2047, but it appears that China is making its move much sooner than anticipated.

I’ve done the whole ‘political instability’ thing in Ecuador. The President there, Rafael Correa, was an egotistical nut job, and I swore I would never live in a place like that again. I just hope that what is happening in Hong Kong doesn’t blow up (at least not while I’m here). Of course the activist in me wants to get involved and is sort of excited by the romance of it all.

A democratic journalist was attacked with a cleaver in February, all hopes of true universal suffrage were dashed last week, and this week a long run economic column written by a known democratic hedge fund manager was pulled from an influential local newspaper. All signs point towards oppression in my mind, but who knows. It hasn't affected day to day life here in Hong Kong (yet), and I hope it stays that way.

If you are interested in the situation at all and would like to read a few articles on it:

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