Hung Sweet Hom

I had a really traumatic incident yesterday. I was at the grocery store, casually looking at some apples, when a fish committed suicide. It somehow knocked the top off of the tank and jumped out onto the floor. It was a pretty huge fish, too. I really wonder how often it happens, because the workers really had no idea what to do, but they weren’t exactly scared, either. I, on the other hand, was screaming bloody murder. It flopped around pretty violently on the floor for at least three minutes before the people could catch it, and by that time it was dead. So depressing.

Anyway, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system… I took it pretty easy this past weekend. I had a couple of midterms this week, in networks and Chinese, so not tons of free time. On Saturday I walked around the goldfish market in Mong Kok, which was pretty cool. It’s a full block of shops selling fish and turtles and any of your other aquarium needs. A lot of the fish are in tanks, but there were also racks and racks of bags of fish! I felt pretty bad for them, but hopefully the ones in bags are the ones that sell quickly. Those fish shouldn’t be cooped up like that for so long.

On Sunday I went to the Kowloon Walled City Park, which was very beautiful. Kowloon used to be a fort, and the park sits where that used to be. The original south gate of the fort is there, which is pretty cool. Going there just made me wish we had parks like that at home…

Tonight, I went out for dinner with a friend, and then we stopped at a bubble pancake place. I’ve had those a few times, but this time I decided to get a “Hong Kong Style Waffle.” It was heavenly. The waffle was really eggy and soft, freshly made. They fold it in half and in the inside they put peanut butter, condensed milk, margarine, and sugar. Talk about sweet! It was seriously to die for, and so cheap. I’m gonna have to try really hard not to go back there all the time.

That’s pretty much it for this week. Since I didn’t do much, I thought I’d explain a little more about the area where I live, Hung Hom, and just Hong Kong in general. Here are some differences between Hong Kong and home.

Cars
There are two kinds of buses here: the regular public buses, which are all double-deckers, and the “light” buses, which are teeny and only seat 16 people. The light buses usually cost more, but since there are fewer people they stop less often and usually get you where you want to go much faster.

Hong Kong is too crowded for cars. Besides buses, you really only see taxis, delivery trucks, and expensive cars. Seriously, almost everyone who drives has a Mercedes or a BMW. Bentleys and Maseratis aren’t uncommon either. You do see some more affordable makes, too, like Toyota, but they’re all within a couple of years old. No ’98 Camrys here. And definitely no Karmann Ghias.

Exchange rate
The exchange rate confuses me. It’s approximately 1 US dollar to 8 Hong Kong dollars, but you can’t buy anything for a dollar here. In a cheap market, you can get clothes for like $50, but in a real mall they cost anywhere from $200 to $1000, and stores like H&M are a little more expensive here than they are at home. At the same time, a pair of Nikes will only run you about $500-600. A cheap dinner will cost $30-$40, and dinner at a nicer place will be at least over $100. A drink at Starbucks is maybe $35, but you can get a giant flavored milk tea with boba for $15. It’s really strange how some things are much, much cheaper, but other things cost more.

Eating
Another thing about restaurants: a lot of the time, I eat in a mall food court on the walk back from school or one of the infinitely many hole-in-the-wall places nearby. None of those places give paper napkins; you have to bring your own. If you want free napkins, you have to go either to an American fast food chain or a real restaurant with a hostess and everything. Not necessarily a fancy restaurant, just a real one. I haven’t been anywhere with cloth napkins, either. Plus, you never ever tip the waiters.

Food is different here. I don’t just mean the types of dishes, but just how they describe it. Whatever you read on the menu is EXACTLY what you get. If it says “rice and beef,” you get white rice with beef. Never expect vegetables unless they are explicitly mentioned, because 9 times out of 10 you will be disappointed.

Cellphone picture of "fried noodles with mushrooms" from the school canteen. How many mushrooms do you see? Because I only see one. This was a bad dinner.

Things are a little different at supermarkets too. You know how lots of foods at home say things like “added blahblahblah” or “great for blahblahblah”? Like, how the blue orange juice carton is always “plus calcium and vitamin D”? They don’t put any of that stuff, and black it out with Sharpie on the imported items. I have no idea why, but I can usually read what it says through the marker anyway.

Nutrition facts are different, too. It will still tell you what the serving size is, but the calorie counts and everything else is all based on 100g. So, that means, even if there’s only 40g in the package, it will trick you into thinking you’ve just eaten 750 calories because that’s how many are in 100g. Plus, sometimes they’ll randomly put it in kilojoules instead of calories. Who knows what a kilojoule is? I sure don’t. It’s all very confusing. Speaking of strange units, fruit is priced by the pound, but everything else is metric.

Pretty much everywhere, but especially in Hung Hom, there are little corner markets for fruit. You can get fruit at the big supermarkets too, of course, but it seems like the locals go to these little places more often. They have a very farmers’ market feel, until you see the stickers on the fruit saying they’re all grown in California or Florida. New Zealand, sometimes, too. But they’ve got all sorts of fruits – regular ones like apples, bananas, grapes, and oranges, but also dragon fruit, starfruit, and pomelo. They usually sell chestnuts, too.

The picture on the left is sort of a dry goods store – I don’t know what else to call it. They usually have a sign that says 茶, tea, so my guess is they’ve got loose tea in some of those huge crates. They also have lots of nuts and dried beans and that sort of thing. These are everywhere.

Shopping
Most clothes here are one size only, and you can’t try anything on. Only real stores have dressing rooms, and by that I mean they have an actual cash register instead of a calculator and an envelope, and the clothes have tags on them, sometimes even with barcodes. Sometimes. The one-size clothes stores only keep one of each thing out, and if you want to buy it, they run into the back closet and come out with a little plastic baggy with your shirt or whatever inside. Can you believe that? All the clothes are packaged, like when you order them online. I don’t know why they keep it packaged that way, but it’s always strange to unwrap my clothes from a little plastic bag.

Also, every subway station is a shopping mall. I don’t know how else to explain it. Most of them are in the basement of a multistory mall, and the ones that aren’t still have tons of stores and are probably within a 2 minute walk from a mall. Hong Kong has more malls than anywhere I’ve ever been in my entire life.

Backpacks
Girls don’t wear backpacks here. I showed up on the first day of school with my Google backpack, feelin’ supafly, and people are staring at me like I’ve got my pants on backwards.

Me on the first day of school.

The girls always either hold their books or put them in some gigantic “purse” that really has no business being so large. A lot of guys even carry messenger bags! I felt pretty stupid until I got to my computer networks class, where my backpack gave me the instant cool factor. I am always the coolest geek in the room.

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66 Degrees Fahrenheit

That’s the lowest temperature ever recorded in Singapore. That is also the #1 reason I am moving to Singapore.

I had such an amazing weekend! We did so much in two and a half days. It was me and one of the girls who went with me to Malaysia, which was really nice. Even though we arrived late Thursday night, we got to an early start on Friday so we could do as much as possible. We planned it out so that we spent most of our time around the downtown area, that way we could enjoy the nice weather and walk from place to place. First stop: Chinatown.

All of the buildings are super adorable in a cheesy Disneyland sort of way, and every shop just has tables full of useless crap – exactly what we all know and love about Chinatown. The best were all of the t-shirts listing all the strange things that are illegal in Singapore, like chewing gum and dancing in public without a permit.

By 11:30 we were already hungry for lunch, since our lavish breakfast at the hostel was just white bread and Nutella. There was a street full of food carts, which we were really excited about, but even by noon none of them were open! Instead we sat down at a little place with tons of different types of fruit juice and some snack food. That’s a huge difference between Hong Kong and Singapore – juice. Real juice is so difficult to find here, but there’s an abundance of “juice drink.” Anything that says “orange juice” is really a lot closer to Sunny D than anything else, and the only way to guarantee it’s actual OJ is to get the ones imported from Florida that are super expensive.

My friend got lime juice, which was more like limeade and really refreshing, and I got a coconut. Literally, a coconut chopped open. You can’t get fresher than that. They also had watermelon, papaya, guava, mango, dragon fruit, and even sugar cane. We weren’t really sure how you get juice from a sugar cane, which in case you’re unfamiliar looks like a big stick, but someone ordered it while we were eating. They have a machine that literally just squishes the sugar cane and you hold a cup underneath to collect all the juice that comes out. Afterward you’re left with a big pulpy thing that used to be the sugar cane, and a big glass of juice! We also got a platter of chicken, beef, pork, and lamb satay with deliiiicious peanut sauce – one of the things I loved eating as a kid. I don’t think I had ever had lamb before, either, but it just tasted like beef to me. That peanut sauce was amazing though, with just the right amount of spice to it. After we finished I started dipping the cucumber garnish into it just to eat more!

Next stop was Marina Bay. From there you can see the beautiful skyline, the Marina Bay Sands hotel (it’s like three buildings with a boat on top, very strange), the big Durian building, and most importantly, the Merlion.

They are obsessed with this Merlion thing. It’s literally a lion mermaid. The one in Marina Bay is the original, but there are several other statues around Singapore, and more souvenirs than you could ever want. Apparently the meaning behind it is that Singapore means “lion city” in Malay, but it started as a fishing village, so the statue combines those two ideas in a kind of cheesy way. Also at Marina Bay is the Singapore Flyer, a huuuuge Ferris wheel, but we wanted to wait until nighttime for that.

We walked to an area called Kampong Glam, which is like a Malay/Muslim version of Chinatown. A woman pointed us down one of the roads, Haji Lane, saying there were “tons of cute little boutiques down there” – that was the beginning of our good luck that day.

Every store on that street became a struggle for me not to spend tons of money. A lot of the stores reminded me of Anthropologie, and they were almost all Singaporean designers. So many buildings were covered in gorgeous graffiti murals, too. Seriously, favorite street ever!

After that, we were hungry for another snack, so we walked by a Moroccan restaurant nearby. There was an older couple sitting outside, and a woman told us the food was really great and suggested we eat there. She was very interested in where we were from, why we were visiting, etc; she said she had moved from Texas to Singapore, so she loved meeting American tourists. Can you believe that?! Moving from Texas, to Singapore? We were so surprised!

We ordered a chickpea dish in a tomato sauce and baba ghanoush. Moroccan food is very interesting – they have the same dishes I’ve eaten a million times but they’re a little different. For example, this baba ghanoush had tons of cilantro in it, which I had never seen before, but was absolutely delicious! The Texan lady was right, the food there was really good. When she finished her food, she said goodbye to us, and a few minutes later the woman running the restaurant told us she had paid for our food. Literally, our mouths were wide open in shock. That’s definitely one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me! That was our second round of good luck for the day.

After that, we decided to head back toward the Flyer, but we had a stop to make first: Kenko Foot Reflexology and Fish Spa. Yes, that’s right. I paid money to put my feet in a fish tank for twenty minutes and let the fish eat off my dead skin.

Honestly, it tickled more than anything. The fish are so small, and when they nibble on you it feels like a little vibration. I couldn’t keep my feet in there for longer than about a minute at a time because it just tickled way too much.

By the time we were done getting eaten, it was raining too hard for the Flyer to fly. It looked like it was letting up a little though, so we walked back to Marina bay to the Helix Bridge. It’s actually a DNA double helix! There are even little lights along the ground that say “a,” “t,” “c,” and “g,” but I couldn’t find if it’s actually the sequence for anything.

Finally, the Flyer was back up and running. You can see all of Marina Bay from the top! I am so glad we waited until nighttime, because all the lights were absolutely beautiful.

By now, it’s like nine o’clock. We’ve been going going going all day nonstop for about twelve hours, and we’re hungry. We take the train over to Newton Food Centre, which is described online as a “food orgy,” and that’s exactly what it was. Tons and tons of food. Everywhere. You can’t walk three feet without someone shoving a menu in your face telling you that their chili crab is “the best.” Funny, because almost every place uses the exact same pictures on their menu! We found the one with the cheapest chili crab, $3.50 for 100g, and sat down.

This is where we had good luck numbers 3 and 4. A couple leaving right as we sat down suggested we order the “fried dough,” which was really great for sopping up all the chili sauce from the crab, and the guy who sat down after them gave us pretty good instructions on how to break open the crab. This was the messiest meal I’ve ever eaten in my entire life.

The picture on the bottom right is stingray. My friend really wanted to try it, but I was pretty scared. I mean, before this trip, I hadn’t eaten meat in almost nine years, and now you’re asking me to eat a stingray?! I said I would taste it. Just a little bit. Wow, I ate way more than a little bit. It was delicious! We were expecting it to be sort of chewy or something, but it was more just like a really dense fish, and not a really fishy flavor, either. It’s grilled, with a spicy chili sauce on top, plus you squeeze lime juice all over it. I had never eaten a crab before either, so this day was full of new adventures in food! Plus, we got to try sugar cane juice. It wasn’t as sweet as I expected, actually, and had a bit of a vegetable flavor, if that makes any sense.

We had sufficiently worked our way into food comas and were ready for bed. After navigating the bus system back (every bus stop lists every stop for all the buses that go there – so useful!!) we stopped in the bar under our hostel for a Singapore Sling. It’s pretty much the tourist drink of choice there. It looks nice and girly, but it was pretty strong, and I didn’t finish it. Also, I’m not sure how close this bar sticks to the original recipe – I guess everywhere does it a little differently – but here is the original from the Raffles Hotel in case you want to try it for yourself. Wikipedia says that should be a pineapple, not a lemon wedge, and it shouldn’t have any ice, so honestly who knows what I was drinking.

On Saturday we got up early again and made our way to Sentosa. It’s a super touristy resort island – they even have a Universal Studios – but we just went for the beach.

It’s all manmade, but still gorgeous. The sand is so soft and the water was ridiculously warm. One of the beaches, Palawan, has a bridge to a teeny little island that is apparently the southernmost point in continental Asia, which was kind of cool. I fell asleep on the beach and got a nice tan. Just to make all of you in Pittsburgh jealous.

We went to a food court for lunch and I got “fried carrot cake.” I knew it obviously wasn’t carrot cake in the way we think about it; the picture looked like an omelet. This is what I got:

It was DELICIOUS. There was a bunch of egg underneath, so the photo wasn’t a complete lie at least. There was definitely no carrots in here, though. I thought it was just rice noodles or something, but Wikipedia says it’s actually made from radishes, and it has the name “carrot cake” because the word for radish can also refer to carrots. Also, the Wiki picture looks like what I had, so whatever picture they were using at this place is just completely wrong I guess.

Saturday night we went to the Night Safari. It’s a separate section of the zoo that’s only open from 7:30pm to midnight. Some places you can walk around, including a room full of bats that fly right by you oh my god I was screaming, but most of the animals you can only see from the tram ride. Animals like elephants, tigers, and hyenas are in a contained area, but all the different types of deer and cattle are pretty much free roaming. There were even a couple of Malayan tapirs grazing just a couple feet away from where I was sitting on the tram!

Finally on Sunday morning, before we had to go to the airport, we borrowed a couple of bikes from the hostel and rode around East Coast Park. There’s a pier where tons of people camp out to fish, and we even saw a guy catch a couple of stingrays. The bike ride was a really nice, relaxing way to end the weekend.

We stopped at a cute ice cream shop by the bus stop, Ice Cream Chefs. They had such interesting flavors, like milk tea, creme brulee, passion kiwi, durian, and adzuki (red) bean. I got pandan flavor with some cookie crumbs mixed into it. I’m definitely going to keep some of these flavors in mind when I bust out my ice cream maker again next summer – I bet milk tea wouldn’t be too difficult to make.

Overall, I had a really wonderful time in Singapore, but one thing was nagging me the entire time: it’s so not Asian there. Everyone speaks English first, unlike Hong Kong where people always try Cantonese with me, and especially in the downtown area everyone is white. Besides the weather and coconut trees, if you had said to me I was in the US, I would have believed you. I thought Hong Kong was pretty westernized, but it’s nothing compared to Singapore. Maybe it’s different if you’re outside of the really touristy areas, but I honestly felt like I left Asia for the weekend.

中秋节

Mid Autumn Festival was Monday and I didn’t eat nearly enough mooncakes. They’re a Chinese dessert eaten almost only for Mid Autumn Festival, usually filled with lotus paste and possibly duck egg yolks. I think I’m the only person on the planet that actually likes the yolks, so there are other flavors too – I had a few with just lotus paste and one with date paste and nuts. I wish I had tried some of the fancier ones though! They have all sorts of fruit ones, and even some with ice cream. I was kind of hoping to try one with durian too… I haven’t looked much, but I’m hoping it’s like Easter and they’ll all be on sale now that the holiday is over. I’ll have to find some before they’re gone!

For the actual festival we went to Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, where they were having a huge lantern carnival! They had a bunch of displays with huge lanterns – like, bigger than me, lanterns. There were lanterns shaped like people, buildings, fish, farm animals, everything! The biggest one, though, was this gigantic fish lantern made of tons of smaller lanterns. It was ginormous! There had to be thousands of lanterns in that thing, and they kept changing colors to make different patterns. It was so beautiful.

Then Tuesday I went to the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. It’s not actually monastery because there aren’t any monks, but that’s the only part of the name that’s a lie. There are literally ten thousand Buddha statues. Almost all of them are gold, too. Some were tiny, only a couple inches tall, and some were 20 feet high. It was all the way up on the mountain, and you had to hike the stairs up, so honestly they could’ve gotten away with calling it the Ten Thousand Stairs Monastery. Good calf workout.

I went by myself. I’m so used to doing things on my own, and I haven’t been able to in awhile. Obviously I want to be around friends, but sometimes I just really want to be by myself. Going to the monastery alone was great – I got to walk at my own pace, go on my own schedule. I think I’m going to explore Hong Kong a little more on my own.

I have a new favorite food.

Sago. Well, sago pudding. This is my new favorite food dessert food. Sago is kind of like tapioca, and they put it into a cold, sweet soup. It’s so light and refreshing and not too sweet. I swear, I can eat that stuff everyday! They make lots of flavors with different fruits in the soup.

I’ve been having too much dessert lately. On Tuesday, I went to a dessert place called Honeymoon (it’s a chain, you can find them here) with some friends and a couple of local students. We had no idea what to get, so we told the local girls to just order whatever they wanted us to try. I didn’t get any photos, unfortunately, because it was right after class and I didn’t have my camera, but I will definitely be going back! We had a lot, so let’s see if I can remember it all.

  • Pineapple parfait, which was like really icy ice cream. Very light and sweet.
  • Durian mochi things. The local girls thought they would gross us out, but I actually liked it! I don’t mind the smell of durian like a lot of other people do. Durian is that big, spiky, smelly thing.
  • Mango sago with vanilla ice cream and pomelo (a type of citrus).
  • Tofu pudding with sesame soup and green tea ice cream. The tofu pudding is white, not quite as firm as Jello, and tastes like almonds; the sesame is black and thick with a nutty flavor; and the green tea ice cream was like forest green and tasted like TEA. I mean hardcore, straight up tea, not the sugary stuff at home. But honestly, take a second and imagine those colors. Black, white, and green. The presentation was beautiful when it came out, but when it got all mixed up in the bowl that stuff looked like Star Wars. I’m not kidding, intergalactic desserts here in Hong Kong.
  • A really eggy warm custard served IN THE EGG SHELL. I don’t know how they hollowed it out but honestly I don’t want to know. I want to keep believing it was magic.
  • These warm, mochi-like dough balls served with crushed peanuts and I think honey. You stick one of the balls with a toothpick and roll it in the peanuts. By far my favorite.

Needless to say, this dessert was basically an entire meal and I am SO SAD I didn’t get pictures. That’s why I brought my camera last night when I got dessert again!

This time it wasn’t at Honeymoon – we went to some hole in the wall type place here in Hung Hom, right by the dorms. We had mango/pomelo sago, strawberry sago, and a coconut custard thing.

The custard was so good! It was warm, which I wasn’t expecting, and not overly coconutty.

I love sago pudding. It is my new go-to dessert for sure. The mango one here was even better than the one at Honeymoon, I think, and walking distance from the dorm! I better not get fat from all the sago I’m going to eat.

My classes here have been riddikulus. (Yes, I did just say “riddikulus,” like the spell to vanish a Boggart.) My computer science classes are pretty awful. They’re on Monday and Tuesday evening until 10 o’clock at night!  Both are pretty big lectures, and all the students talk nonstop. Seriously, they just jabber away in Cantonese the whole time while the professors talk. Don’t they get upset or offended? That kind of disrespect would never fly at CMU. There were some other exchange students in my Artificial Intelligence class, but I am not exaggerating when I say that I am the whitest person taking Networks. People were staring at me like I didn’t belong in the room! They’ll just have to get used to me, I guess. At least I’m not blonde; then the stares would be even worse.

I found something else familiar at the grocery store the other day and decided to buy it. Let me know if you guys recognize this…