Sunday, November 30, 2008

Taipei: Tori's first international swim meet

People always say kids grow up quickly these days. This saying rings true for us, at least in regards to swimming. Just this past August, Tori tried out for her school’s swim team. She made the team and now a few months later, she is back from her first international swim competition in Taipei, Taiwan. She is excited about swimming these days. I am mostly thrilled for her but cant help but feel a bittersweet “end of the innocence” feeling as well. I know that two a day work outs are just around the corner. Well, at least on the horizon now whereas only free play was there before.

Tori and I flew to Taipei with the team the day before the meet and were able to do a little sight seeing. Taipei is only an hour flight from Hong Kong and I was expecting more of the same. I was surprised by the low rise buildings, the green spaces and the much more Chinese feel to the place. Numerous times through our time there, Tori had to use her Chinese to negotiate with bus drivers and restaurant staff as no one around us spoke English.

We learned that the Japanese took over Taiwan in 1895, at the end of the Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese influence is still seen in the majority of the architecture in Taipei. China took back control of Taiwan after Japan’s defeat in World War II. Then General Chiang Kai-shek and his Kumomintang (national) forces retreated to Taiwan after being defeated by the Communists during the Chinese Civil War in 1949.

This back and forth between Taiwan and China is played out in the history of the National Palace Museum. The museum, which houses both art and artifacts, holds pieces from the Emperor’s collection, formerly housed in the Forbidden City of Beijing. The original collection of pieces collected by the Emperors was boxed up and shipped out to avoid capture during World War II. Some was stored in Taiwan where it then was watched over by the national forces. After keeping it in warehouses for years, it was finally decided to display it to the public. The possession of the artifacts is still a debated topic.

From the oldest to the newest, we next went to Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building. Built in 2004, it stands 1, 474 feet tall and holds all sorts of records, such as tallest occupied floor in a building, tallest antenna on a building. Taipei 101’s most well-known record is that it has the fastest elevator in the world. We took the elevator to the top in about 50 seconds, with our ears popping in both directions. Tori saw that the record was actually 43 seconds and when she timed it, the elevator was a little slower. Fast enough for me and a good lesson in time for the start of our swim meet.

Tori did great in the swim meet, swimming 50’s and 100’s of most strokes. The swimmers were put into lanes and heats in the gym and then marched down to the deck. Tori was easy to spot as the little girl carrying a panda stuffed animal to her block. She improved all her times dramatically. At one point, she said “I only dropped 10 seconds on that one?!?” She placed 3rd over all in her age group in the 100 free and got a medal.

But the real highlight came later at the after meet banquet. Tori’s team won first place overall in the meet. The announcer asked the youngest swimmer on the team to come on stage and accept the trophy. A very proud Tori went up and accepted the trophy, raising it above her head at the request of her coach. Adam and Royce were shocked to hear this exciting story and immediately began wondering who would accept the trophy when they were both the youngest members of the team. It seems like that day is a ways off and we have time to figure it out, but at this rate, who knows!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ho Hai: a second grade field trip

I love school field trips. While the school buses, traffic and noise can be a bit much, it is so much fun to see the kids in their school element. It is always interesting to hear and see other kids ask Tori questions, typically reference type questions and to try to get her attention. And it is good opportunity for me to explore Hong Kong while doing my job of being with the kids. Tori’s second grade class is in the middle of a science unit on habitats. To get a better grasp on this, her class recently went out to Ho Hai Wan Marine Park and splashed around in a couple Hong Kong habitats, all in the name of science.

Ho Hai Wan is a bay off the South China Sea, north of Sai Kung Pennisula, in the New Territories. Sai Kung, about an hour drive away from where we live on Hong Kong Island, is known as a get away type spot. Sai Kung has a big harbor for pleasure boating, a large country park and a little town that is striving for a bohemian sort of feel. A fair number of expats are moving out there in order to get away from the hub-bub of Hong Kong and to have a bit more space. One of Phil’s drivers lives out there too, so the exodus is not strictly an expat trend.

The sheltered nature of the bay protects and supports a large number of marine animals. Tori’s class went to Ho Hai to explore three separate habitats, including the ocean water habitat, the freshwater habitat of a small stream that flows into the ocean there and the mangrove habitat, a large stand of trees and shrubs that grow in subtropical costal areas.

My group of students, five including Tori, first headed off for the fresh water stream. We found it to be about 3 feet deep and full of large crabs. We hesitated for about one second before plowing into it and through it. We then headed straight for the coast. Typically on field trips you hear teachers yelling to the students to stay out of the water. Here we had explicit instructions to get into the water and we did just that. The bay itself is home to a lush coral environment, and over 100 species of fish, star fish and jelly fish. We wandered around, admiring it all until we actually found the starfish. Here the starfish were sand colored and not stuck on rocks but rather just at our feet. After finding one or two, we all reached down and found literally hundreds of starfish in the sand we were standing in. The mood among the second graders was electric and contagious. The water was clear. We were alone in the bay and Hong Kong was gorgeous.

The last habitat we explored was the mangroves. All along the coast, these trees and shrubs stand as a buffer against coastal erosion, providing homes for oysters and crabs. Tori told me that the trees’ roots systems ran under the sand towards the beach and I believed her. She climbed high in the trees, amazing her many non-tree climbing classmates. This habitat thing made sense to me all of a sudden. Tori might not be in her native habitat but she is definitely finding a way to thrive and to grow. And as she played sang and did hand clapping games the whole way home with a classmate from South Africa, I realized she, and all the rest of these transient kids, are putting down roots here. She, as much as anyone else, is now from Hong Kong.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Macau: Our Venetian experience!

Royce and I recently ventured out of the special administrative region that is Hong Kong and into another such special administrative region. (By the way, there are only two of these regions in China). Over the weekend, we went to the special administration region of Macau, just to see what was there and because we were in need of a special just the two of us trip.

Macau is about 60 kilometers southwest of Hong Kong and reachable by a speed ferry in about an hour. People still talk about the days before the speed ferry when a trip to Macau was an overnight boat ride. Our ferry was so fast, it felt as if we were bouncing on top of the waves and quite frankly a little slower would have been fine with both of us. Macau was once a big island and two smaller islands. Now Macau is a peninsula, thanks to a small sand bar and extensive reclamation works, and the two islands. Like Hong Kong, Macau is in the Pearl River Delta and surrounded by the South China Sea.

Macau was the first and last European colony in Asia. Populated by Portuguese traders since the 16th century, Macau served as a hub for trade until it was handed back to China on December 20, 1999. Like Hong Kong, Macau is operating under China’s policy of “1 country, 2 systems” which allows them autonomy for 50 years, including their own monetary system. Macau’s main industries are finance, where it serves as an offshore finance haven (recently, North Korea’s frozen assets were in a Macau bank) and tourism, primarily meaning gambling. A gambling license, allowing a monopoly on the industry, ended in 2002. Since that time many new Las Vegas casinos have opened up in Macau.

And that is where Royce and I ended up, in The Venetian, a Las Vegas hotel-casino-resort- mall mega-complex. As we wandered through the mall which is set up to look like Venice with water ways and gondolas and street performers, Royce asked why we studied Portugal before our trip and not Italy. It was a good question. While that part was a bit crazed, our hotel room (we were bumped up to the honeymoon suite!) and pools did not disappoint. Our hotel had Cirque du Soleil theatre built into the bottom. We went to the show and were amazed by the high flying acts. But getting hot chocolate at the hotel breakfast was just as exciting. And being able to really listen to all the funny things one little girl was saying and singing was thrill and a treat too.