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25 Apr

A Life Changing Experience?

Cassandra | April 25th, 2009

I return to the States in 25 days… I can almost feel the grime on the streets, the taste of Panera Bread, the sound of the highway drowned out by my music (I haven’t driven a car in 100 days!!!), and the smell of fresh mountain air in the New River Gorge. I get antsy just thinking about it!

Study abroad is supposed to be this big “life-changing experience”. I want it to be part of who I am, but I don’t want it to be WHO I am. I don’t want to be like a typical study abroad kid and roll up to PF Changs and try and speak in my limited Cantonese to the high school hostess and dismiss it for being too Americanized (mainly because I prefer PF Changs to real Chinese food haha, Westernization has its merits).

What has changed about me? I’ve realized it is one hundred and fifteen percent fruitless to wear make-up in most places in Southeast Asia because it will melt off your face. I know you can’t walk out the door without 35% DEET insect repellent or you will get 30 bug bites in 5 minutes (NO EXAGGERATION HERE, I’m stuck wearing jeans, leggings, and tights in 80 degree Hong Kong heat and humidity because I am embarrassed of my legs!!). I threw away my trusty travel hair dryer that has been through 3 continents worth of travel with me and didn’t bother to replace it, because Southeast Asian heat and humidity has destroyed my perfect blow-outs and bouncy hair. I’ve learned to eat vegetarian because then you don’t have to worry about what creature you are eating, as well as it’s typically tastier anyway. I know every time I leave the country I’m bound to get caught in a tropical downpour (“maybe monsoon”, as we heard in the Philippines). I’ve figured out how to get through a city of 7 million people on my own and thus, how to hold my own. I know to wave off Indian suit makers and how to bargain for a cheap taxi ride or a steal on a backpack. I roll with what happens and know it won’t be the end of the world. In a sense, I’ve grown out of that over-concerned teenager phase and just figure out what I need to do to get by.

I’ve seen a lot this semester, I’ve done a lot this semester, and by no means are my adventures in Southeast Asia done yet for this stint, nor for good. Southeast Asia lacks the rudeness, expenses, and hit-or-miss nature of Europe with all the religion, ancient culture, and food on 1/4th of the price of its Continental neighbor to the Northwest. I miss the US, sure, and I can’t wait to get back in the normal swing of things that involve salads, running on green trails, and half-and-half in my coffee, but there is definitely a sweet spot in my heart for Southeast Asia now, too.

17 Apr


Cassandra | April 17th, 2009

Songkran is the Thai New Year. It always falls on April 13-15th and is 543 years ahead of the Western calendar because the Thai calendar coincides with the birth of Buddha in 543 BC, meaning it is 2552 in Thailand right now!

When we were planning our Easter trip to Thailand we didn’t realize it was Thai New Year, or what a big deal Songkran really was, but we soon found out.

Our first day in Bangkok we saw people with bowls of water and painted faces lining the street getting ready for a parade. People were passing out tourist brochures that gave a low down on Songkran: it was a time for washing, cleaning, and blessing with scented water and white paint. Today, those traditions have given way to an all-out three day water war.

We were in Hui-Hin on the Southern Gulf Coast of Thailand. Our first day, walking through the streets, we kept getting sprayed by water guns and I got a bucket of water thrown on me, which I was not pleased about. The next day we realized we should just join in on the fun, as all the other Westerners (which possibly outnumbered the locals) were doing. We bought water guns and took to the streets!

People posted up outside of stores and restaurants, and really hardcore people had water hoses and buckets of water they threw on people. You could also see tons of people in the back of trucks with huge vats of water to pour on by-standers as they drove by.

It’s really hard to explain Songkran: it’s one of those things that you had to be there for. Just imagine a whole town in the midst of a huge water war. Everyone gets involved. And you also get painted on. Those are the only ways I can think of describing Songkran!

An example of people in the back of the truck scenario. DSC03931
People on the side of the street waiting for innocent passer-byes (mainly me). DSC03940
Me pretending to be Rambo after a hard day of fighting (we were like only 30 miles from Myanmar, so that joke went on all week!)
29 Mar

Downtime in the Busiest City in Southeast Asia

Cassandra | March 29th, 2009

Hong Kong is a city that never sleeps, or at least the local people never do. My friends from America and I constantly discuss how our roommates go to sleep at 3 or 4AM when we’ve been asleep (or trying to, over slurping noodles, Cantonese phone calls, and Taiwanese pop music) since midnight. Then, there are two scenarios: either they sleep until 1 or 2PM or they wake up at 8AM and snack on cuttlefish or pound the keyboard pretty hard. Nice people, sure, but maybe not so considerate to the sleeping patterns of us lethargic Americans. Personally, I require 7-9 hours of sleep a night and like to wake up early-ish and not waste my day in bed, but at the same time, I hate tip-toeing around trying to be quiet. I dream about having my own bedroom and bathroom just for me again! On the weekends, this isn’t as much of a problem, as most of the locals go home to be with their families.

This is the first weekend I’ve been on campus in about three weeks, which is relaxing in a sense. Last weekend my family (!!!) was here and we went to Macau, which is a former Portugese colony that was handed back to China in 1999 and the only place in China where gambling is legal. You can gamble at 18 in Macau, unless you are a citizen of Macau, and then it is 21! I did get ID-ed at the entrance of the casino of our hotel. It’s really frustrating when people think you are 16 or 17 and I’m 20! This was the second time in Hong Kong I’ve been asked for proof of my age – and the third just happened Friday! So anyway, Macau was pretty relaxing because it reminded me of Europe and we stayed in a 5 star hotel. Watching the Paris runway shows in the bathtub and reading Vanity Fair – could it get much better? I also scored a pair of real Raybans for around 70 USD, which was basically a steal and I don’t know how that happened.

The weekend before that three friends and I went to Taiwan. I previously had no interest in Taiwan and thought it was stupid, but upon more research, it looked cooler and cooler. We spent two days in Taipai, the capital, then took a train south along the coast to Taroko Gorge and went hiking. It reminded Joey (another WVU student and blogger here) and me of the New River Gorge, which is basically in our backyard in Beckley. It was insanely beautiful and a really good time.

I spent my birthday weekend, the first in March, on Lantau Island. On my actual birthday, when walking to the beach, we ran into a wild ox, which are all over the place in Lantau. (My family was pretty excited to see them when I took them to Big Buddha.) Apparently seeing the wild ox is pretty lucky on your birthday, especially because it is the year of the ox, but a) everything is considered lucky/unlucky here and b) wild animals are everywhere.

So this weekend I was sick of planes, trains, and ferries and spent the weekend on campus. Friday was Rugby Sevens, which is the world cup of Rugby (for teams of 7, at least). America lost in the first round, which was pretty depressing. Argentina played Hong Kong (and won) which is ironic, because my American roommate is currently studying abroad in Argentina.

Yesterday we went to the beach which is about a 10-15 minute bus ride away then ventured around the part of the New Territories where we live. We went to Yuen Long, a few MTR (subway) stops up, and looked for this famous desert place… it turned out to be bowls and bowls of fresh fruit with coconut milk and tapioca balls, which was exactly what we needed! We also wandered into a spa on our way back to the MTR where we booked a facial and a massage for 30 USD each. In Morgantown I have shelled out about 3 times that for a massage, so I’m pretty excited for our Monday night pampering session! When we were in the Philippines we had a half hour massage for 2 USD and in Malaysia, a 60 minute Chinese CHI massage (which was more painful than relaxing) for 15 USD or something, maybe 20, I don’t really remember. I love the cheapness of Southeast Asia, especially after the price gouging that is Europe the past two summers!

I took a break from writing a boring paper on boring wooden furniture industry in not-so-boring Thailand and Korea to write this, so I’m going to continue my productive streak and go back to it before my run and a relaxing guilty pleasure chick flick this afternoon and hopefully Italian food (after I complain how much I hate Italian food, the allure of not having it readily available makes me crave it!).

2 Mar

Feeling Like a Local

Cassandra | March 2nd, 2009

HK is supposedly a “multi-cultural city” but I don’t really get that feeling from it. HK is basically just local Hong Kong people and transplants from Mainland with a large expat community. (Expat = expatricate, the name for people who leave their home country to go live and work in a foreign one, typically Western to Eastern cultures). Americans are basically a novelty in Hong Kong, and all of Asia for that matter. I think only around 20-30% of Americans have a passport, which is very, very small compared with most of Europe. America also likes to make it difficult for foreigners to come and work and live and even visit, so some Asian countries (mainly China) do the same to us. It costs almost $200 USD to enter China for an American, but about 10 times less than that for a European, Mexican, or even Canadian for that matter.

But no matter how my whiteness/Western-ness stands out, I am navigating Hong Kong like I’ve lived (or really just shopped haha) here for years. I know the places to get everything I need or within reason, want. I can navigate the HKG (what we like to call the HK airport, which is BEAUTIFUL, by the way) the MTR (subway) and on a good day, even the buses (but I don’t mess with buses in big cities in America – I’d rather ride the subway then walk).

Some of my Western staples, like Sephora, let me down in HK. Apparently it’s only been open since September 2008 and most people in HK would rather go to make-up counters at the large department stores (my favorite is Lane Crawford, the British colony answer to Harrod’s in London or the equivilent of Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus in the states).

Hong Kong International (HKG!!) in the morning n703845825_1890634_3112
in the Philippines!! n508335406_2083992_2824
My favorite place in Hong Kong, Stanley Beach. The girl beside me is from WVU, Kara, and the girl beside her is a local student who studied at WVU last semester, Christine.
11 Feb

The Price of the West

Cassandra | February 11th, 2009

In my travels abroad (this makes number 3 non-North American trip) I have learned that doing things you are used to (for me, running) or eating/using the things you do at home (Starbucks, anyone?) you tend to feel less homesick. In Asia, however, my die-hard Western ways are pretty costly in an otherwise inexpensive place.

For example (in US dollars):

-Tall Starbucks brewed coffee: around $4. This is just plain black coffee: not a latte, not a frappe… a coffee. Truth be told, steamed milk drinks are around the same price

-Box of Special K Peach & Almond: $8

-“Continental” Salad in a small container: $6

-Sara Lee smoked turkey: $6

-Laughing Cow Cheese: $7

-McDonalds meal: $7-8 (only one so far, so I’m not positive haha)

-Ruby Tuesday’s Chicken Burger (Turkey is unavailable) w/ salad bar: $30

-Issue of Vogue: $10-11 (but then again, in America, French Vogue will run you about $16)

So being a Westerner in Asia is pretty expensive. Food was getting expensive in America before I left; I’m not really sure if it’s calmed down any in the month I’ve been here.

Took a trip to the Philippines this weekend… I will post photos soon!

2 Feb

Pictures are More Fun...

Cassandra | February 2nd, 2009

A few pictures from a day trip to the Big Buddha on the largest island on Hong Kong we took on Saturday.

Lantau Island, Hong Kong DSC03096
Big Buddha Statue, Lantau Island, Hong Kong DSC03109
Lighting incense at the Monestery on Lantau Island
30 Jan

"You do so many varied activities!"

Cassandra | January 30th, 2009

My good friend Leah Ann said that to me talking on AIM the other day. In the past week I have been to a parade for Chinese New Year, seen fireworks at Victoria’s Harbor, learned about Hong Kong’s history from one of the top 5 museums I have been too (and I’ve been to a TON), went to the horse races (and won 46 HKDs, as we like to call dollars here), went to a pro soccer match, wandered around Causeaway Bay, and ate breakfast at 4 in the morning at some American style diner. I’m living a pretty fast, full life in my first two and a half weeks in Hong Kong.

We went out for the Inaguration last Tuesday, which was pretty crazy. I found a place downtown that was televising it… at 1AM our time! We all made a night of it, dressed up, hoping the foreign press would be there (and they were, but as far as I’ve heard I wasn’t on CNN :( )

I keep wanting to write about what it’s like to study abroad, more than what all I do… so what is it like?

The first couple days are disorienting. I want to say the first night here goes on top 5 worst sleeping experiences ever, up there with a flight over to Italy last summer as well as a night spent in the Charles deGaulle airport. Orientation was almost disorienting… I came to Hong Kong like I went to Italy – knowing only a couple people from study abroad orientation. I have kind of a reserved personality, so sometimes I have trouble around groups of people I don’t know at first, but the thing with studying abroad is… you have a ton of international students who don’t know anyone either! So groups form pretty quick and you find a group of people you have similar interests in, etc etc. The first few days are exhaustingly full – trying new things, walking everywhere, learning dozens of names and faces and hometowns. So the first week was pretty much a blur.

Hong Kong is an amazingly clean city. I’ve never seen such a clean place in my whole life. Everything is so efficient here as well. Huge groups of people move pretty quickly from place to place – it isn’t like in America where you wait for hours and hours.

Public transportation is another pretty new concept to me. I dabbled with it in Milan this summer, and have used it when traveling… but here I am living for four months without my car. It’s not really that bad and the walking is getting me back in shape.

So this is a pretty varied post, kind of like my life in Hong Kong.

At the championship game of the HK Lunar New Year Football Tournament DSC03036
Sha Tin Racecourse DSC02988
Part of the New Year’s Parade DSC02892
Honestly, Asia just looks exotic in guidebooks because the lighting is good for pictures haha
19 Jan

Lost in Translation

Cassandra | January 19th, 2009

Today was the first day in Hong Kong the culture shock started to affect me. I had my first 3 classes today – Visual Cultures of HK (which I feel is SO relevant to things I’m interested in so I’m excited), my accounting class I need to apply to business school this winter, and China Through the Eyes of the West. I have an Australian, a Chinese teacher who studied/worked in Boston, and a Brit, so I’m okay as far as instructors go but classes are FOREVER long. I can barely sit through a 50 minute class, let alone a 90-120 minute class. It’s vaguely torture as far as I’m concerned, but I’m not much for classes in the first place.

Anyway, so class today… students pretty much just talk through the lecture. And it’s not like in America where the teacher tells you to shut up or tries to be witty and funny about it, they just ignore it. And I was a little tired today, so Cantonese to me just sounded like the students were singing under their breath (which honestly, as far as I know, was all they were doing) or being crazy. So that was a little frustrating.

The small cultural differences kind of wore on me this morning… I was trying to get ready and I just felt so weird and foreign about it. In America, I think my habits are normal to obsessively normal (my habits being showering, hair, make-up, dressing, etc. etc….)... In my family I’m known to take multiple showers a day just because I like to feel constantly clean. I felt so weird doing it here this morning though. It’s not like today was the first day I got ready, but most of the students came back to campus last night or today because they were still on holiday. Also, I think me waking up at 830 am to go run is also a kind of foreign concept, but I don’t get the yelling and strange looks like I did in Italy when I was doing that!

So yes… today I felt very foreign. I guess today was the first day I had some time to sit and think about it, so that could also have played a role.

Two of the students at Lingnan who studied at WVU are taking us out for dinner tonight. Tomorrow night the WVU kids (and whichever other students want to go, of course!) are going to go into Central Hong Kong to watch the Inagauration… which starts at 1 or 2AM Hong Kong time. I hope to get some sleep tonight and a nap tomorrow so I can stay out late! But as all young people, especially WVU students know, that isn’t a problem. :)


This was the Hong Kong skyline from the top of a tower a French exchange student took us to Friday night.


One of the Lingnan students, or buddies, as they are known, took us to a Thai restaurant Thursday night.


The WVU students at Victoria’s Harbor Saturday night!

15 Jan

First Full Day in HK

Cassandra | January 15th, 2009

So, I should probably be asleep (or getting ready to go to sleep), especially with my proclivity for a run every morning, but instead I figured I would discuss a couple of my thoughts about my first full day here (which was SO long!).

Last night they told us they didn’t have heat in the hostels (dorms). Okay, I though, no big deal… Hong Kong is a sub-tropical climate. WRONG. I almost froze to death. Never again am I taking heat for granted. 46 degrees, one little blanket, and no heat. I ended up sleeping under my winter coat most of the night and still being cold. I have another blanket and a mattress pad for my wooden block of a bed so hopefully tonight’s sleep will be much more pleasurable.

We had a day-long orientation today… pretty much like WVU’s orientation for the most part. The US Consulate came and spoke to us after our Cantonese class (which I can tell is going to be just about as successful as Italian classes were for me… great haha) about what to do if we lose our passport, if we go to the hospital, about how the visit American citizens in prison in a foreign country once a quarter and can’t really do anything to get you out of jail…

Afterwards a local student took a group of us to dinner at this Thai place in town. We all kind of ordered different things and tried a little bit of everything. We had a traditional Chinese lunch today (which is so different from Americanized Chinese food) and you just put everything on a turn-table and get what you want with your chopsticks.

Culture shock hasn’t really hit yet and I’m not sure why. Maybe because Hong Kong is kind of like any Chinatown-esque place in America? Maybe I have done enough traveling I’m not affected like I used to be? Or maybe it just hasn’t hit yet because we’ve only been in town (which is still considerably larger than Morgantown… the University here is considerably smaller and this town is considered the countryside!).

No pictures yet, trying to let everything sit in and settle first.

12 Jan

A Series of Goodbyes

Cassandra | January 12th, 2009

Hey guys… I’m back and excited to be blogging about my semester exchange at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. I’m glad I am blogging again because I wanted to make a wrap-up post about my month in Italy but never really got around to it haha.

Anyway, yesterday I went to Morgantown to say goodbye to most of my friends from home that go to WVU as well as my sorority sisters and my assorted other WVU friends. Yesterday was a hard day! It finally hit me about Wednesday that I’m leaving for over four months… which, in theory, isn’t very long.. it’s only a semester… but it is 1/8th of my college career.

I had most of my packing done until I came to my grandparents (since I am again flying out of Pittsburgh) and not only accumulated things for my trip I thought I needed to stock up on (ie little things like cold medicine, Clif Bars (I LIVED off them in Italy), and toothpaste) as well as a couple new pairs of shoes and all the clothes I ordered that I was having shipped here because I didn’t think they would be in Beckley in time.

I’m really excited for Hong Kong weather, minus the smog, which I am a little anxious about. Especially being a runner, I hope it doesn’t affect me! It is supposed to be 70 degrees in Hong Kong on Friday and I think in the low teens in Morgantown!! I chose the spring to study abroad because a) my classes are all block scheduling and this is the only time I could do it and b) I HATE Morgantown winters. I drove through a nice blizzard last night on my way home and would be content to not see snow again for several years.

I have also been preparing by doing lots of American things. I have travelled to Europe twice and I really don’t get homesick, but I get America-sick. I start missing little American things we take for granted… but I think I’m well-prepared and Hong Kong is one of the biggest cities in the world (even though I’ll be outside the main city, Central) so I think I will be okay! English is also one of Hong Kong’s official languages, so I have that going for me too!

I’m off to finish packing alterations and you’ll hear from me in a couple days when I arrive in Hong Kong! Ciao!

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