China Arrival Card



For my American readers who might not have crossed a border except by car—to dip into Mexico for cheap alcohol or take a spin up to The Falls for the more exotic “Canada side”—the Arrival Card is a throwback to the era of old world travel. The process involves small pieces of paper, pens, lines at immigration desks, the memorization of a series of numbers, rubber stamps, and filing. Most countries in Asia require filing out of the Arrival Card.

This week I went to Beijing and was once again faced with the perplexing task presented by China’s Arrival Card. With so much of the world’s power seemingly within the country’s grasp and large pockets of young native English speakers eager to make quick money when the teaching day is done, one would think there is enough translation resource to get it right.

Why, then, is there still so much Chinglish? Chinglish seems as rooted in Chinese culture as chopsticks and red envelopes, and one of my favorite examples is the official government bilingual document, the China Arrival Card, which raises far more questions than it answers.

Listed on the China Arrival Card are the nine reasons one might enter:

□ Conference / Business

□ Visiting friends

□ Return home

□ Visit

□ Employment

□ Settle down

□ Sightseeing / in leisure

□ Study

□ others


When I travel, clearly I am there for #1, Conference / Business but I can’t seem to help passing that up for the less obvious.

For example, what is the difference between ‘Visiting friends’ and ‘Visit’? Is the more general ‘Visit’ meant for people who are not friends and also not business associates, perhaps therefore for family?

Clearly ‘Visit’ does not mean visiting landmarks as that is so straightforwardly covered in ‘Sightseeing / in leisure.’ Thank you, China, for reminding me to take it all in stride.

Does ‘Visit’ imply a temporary stay? Otherwise you might be coming for something long term, maybe ‘Study’ or ‘Employment’ and not yet ready for the more committed, ‘Settle down.’

This raises another question. Is ‘Settle down’ meant for foreigners only? If you are native Chinese it seems you would tick, ‘Return home,’ but could you be both ‘Return home’ and also ‘Business’? ‘Return home’ and ‘Study?’ What about ‘Return home’ and ‘Settle down.’ Now that would make a statement.

And finally, in the off chance that your intentions are not covered by the first eight, thankfully there is the last ditch catch-all box, ‘others.’ China is a large and varied place. There are so many reasons one might come. Perhaps you would rather not be so specific.

As of the year 2000 there were an estimated 10 million English ‘users’ in China and the Chinese are learning English at a rapid rate. Some studies predict that by 2025 China will have more speakers of English within its borders than the total number the world over. Maybe I am alone in this, but passing through immigration will be far less entertaining if all the force of that language ability is ever put behind rewriting the China Arrival Card.

My Bank Became a Cupcake Store



Hong Kong is about high turn over. Establishments close overnight. Buildings are torn down and replaced by new buildings that hardly seem an improvement on the last. Drilling and jack hammering, our daily music.

My neighborhood is decidedly uncool. There are no enviously hip eateries, zero glittering night clubs, an absence of western-styled boutiques. The main fixture of the district is the office complex where I work called Taikoo Fong. Taikoo Fong represents a not very obvious piece of Hong Kong history, a series of ten interconnected “Houses” with British names like Oxford House and Somerset House and Cornwall House. This is the former site of the Taikoo Sugar Refinery that operated in Hong Kong from 1881 until 1970 and in 1925 was the largest single site refinery in the world. The ten Houses were raised between 1979 and 2003. These are now filled with corporate offices and other modernities like Pure Yoga and headquarters to the Hong Kong cable giant, PCCW. Just down the road is Taikoo MTR, the old site of Taikoo Dockyard. What used to be the shore is now a couple of km inland. Even the coast is movable in Hong Kong.

And the neighborhood is still changing. In Taikoo Fong there once was a Sports Bar which gave me the occasional lively escape from my 642 square feet.* It included all the familiar elements: blaring televisions, peanut shells on the floor, greasy American foods. Then one time I went on a business trip and when I returned my cozy Sports Bar was a pile of rubble. The café across the way was replaced by a different café, more expensive and organic. A Thai restaurant became Tapas. Subway moved down the street. A shop entirely devoted to gummy candies has come and gone. The office building next to mine is serviceable by any compare but is being torn down today to be replaced by something taller and new.

Such are the vagaries of my office complex and its environs. I have heard that some of the unlucky in Hong Kong include restaurant workers who might turn up for their next shift to learn the place has closed. No notice, no paychecks, no recourse.

I shouldn’t have been surprised then when a couple of weeks ago I passed an advert for Sift Cupcakes on the 2nd floor of Taikoo Fong. New places often signal their intention by hiding construction behind a billboard wall “coming soon” announcement.

It registered as a vague excitement, a new sugar source for that 3:00 P.M. low. I noted its general placement near Pret a Manger. I was bustling past, probably reading my phone, swept up in a stream of other hustling phone readers. I passed the sumptuous cupcake graphic many times in the next few days.

On that same floor too is a very handy bank, China Construction Bank, handy because it takes my ATM card with no fees. That Friday, I scurried up the escalator to get a few hundreds. But as I approached, expectant for the weekend, I realized for the first time that my bank had become a cupcake store. Considering the building’s past, maybe a return to sugar is the closest we can come to history.

*recalculating for the actual livable space, more like 500 square feet

Eight Days and Six Cooks in Hong Kong


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HK Cook trip - peak

Day 1, Victoria Peak. The iconic view from the Peak is always a crowd pleaser and a good way to get the scale on the skyscrapers.

HK Cook trip - shark's fin alley

Day 2, Sheung Wan District. Lots of Chinese medicine shops, also known as Shark Fin Alley. Shark fin soup is a delicacy and controversial because of how they fin the sharks.

HK Cook trip - eel man

The wet market was a highlight. Gutting an eel.

HK Cook trip - pig's feet guy

They’re pig’s feet. Get over it.

HK Cook trip - monkey w coffee

Day 3, Monkey Hill. On Christmas Day we took a bus to Kam Shan, or Monkey Hill, a park boasting four reservoirs and 1,800 wild monkeys.

HK Cook trip - monkey stand off

Developing a healthy respect for the monkeys.

HK Cook trip - Anne w jade

Day 4, Monkok. Monkok has many outdoor markets. Here is my sister-in-law, Anne, at the jade market. Anne makes jewelry, a hawker’s dream.

HK Cook trip - palm reader

Temple Street Night Market, he read my palm: “Before 30 you were full of dreams. After 30 you became more practical. You are very logical. Wait, and also creative!”  … and so on …

HK Cook trip - kids in park

Day 5, HK History Museum. No photos, so here are Hannah, Sam, and Halle resting in a park. Me: “Tomorrow we’ll go to the HK History Museum.” Halle: “Hey! That actually sounds fun.” Looks at her parents. “Thanks a lot, guys.”

HK Cook trip - Matt at cafe

Relaxed Matt, enjoying a hot chocolate (also not at HK History Museum).

HK Cook trip - DBack sign

Day 6, hike up Dragon’s Back. Dragon’s Back, on the east end of HK island, takes you up and across an undulating ridge. The views are stunning. When you climb down you’re near Shek O, a small village.

HK Cook trip - Dragon's back

The weather was perfect. The kind of day when everything comes together. Until…

HK Cook trip - Shek O bus stop1

…I decided we should walk to Shek O. No side walks, blind curves, speeding cars flying around corners. A half a mile in, waiting for the bus. Sam remains stoic.

HK Cook trip - lamma fish

Day 7, Lamma Island. A rainy day, contemplating seafood. Lamma is the 3rd largest island: 7km long with 6,000 people and no cars.

HK Cook trip - lamma Hannah

Lamma is known for its blend of local fishing & expat hippie culture. Hannah and I just like the name of this vegetarian cafe.

HK Cook trip - Stanley from Dragon

Day 8, Stanley Village. We did more markets and dim sum too. I like Stanley best at a distance.

HK Cook trip - sky from plane

Time to go home. The family flew off on Monday morning, spending the first part of 2013 in the sky.

Photo credits: Thank you Anne and Sam for the great shots.

3-Envelope System to Online Voting


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Or, 26 Easy Steps to Voting from Afar

  1. Go online.
  2. Google “US overseas voting.”
  3. Go to
  4. Read the instructions “for United States citizens who are living outside the U.S. for work, school, or other reasons”.
  5. Discover you can vote online or with a paper ballot.
  6. Fill out a Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) to request an absentee ballot.
  7. Submit the FPCA by email.
  8. Receive by email instructions to wait for a paper ballot to arrive in the mail.
  9. Wait for paper ballot to arrive in the mail.
  10. Paper ballot arrives, including instructions for the online ballot.
  11. Online ballot must be printed & returned in the same manner as the paper ballot.
  12. Decide to vote online. Just because.
  13. Return to Enter name and birthday. Ballot opens.
  14. Vote for U.S. President.
  15. Vote for State Congresswoman.
  16. No option to vote for all those Chicago judges. (That’s OK!)
  17. Print the online ballot.
  18. Sign the printed ballot confirmation form.
  19. Put printed ballot in a small envelope.
  20. Write “US Ballot” on the outside of the envelope
  21. Put that envelope inside a larger envelope with the signed confirmation.
  22. Start to affix the pre-paid mailing label…which is only valid inside the U.S.
  23. Take to the post office (or U.S. Consulate, who will put it in the post).
  24. Choose Speed Post for airmail and fill out the shipping label.
  25. Put the small envelope-inside-the-larger-envelope inside a shipping envelope.
  26. Give to the Postman with 145 HKD.

Did I actually vote?!

Grumpy Old Men


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Today at the neighborhood post office something happened hard to imagine on Devon Avenue on the North Side of Chicago.

Taikoo Shing Post Office

Hong Kong is full of old men. Old men walking with sticks. Old men sitting in parks. Old men reading newspapers. Old men listening to transistor radios. They appear quiet and contemplative, possibly grumpy. I often wonder about their stories, their families, their contentment or bitterness, their finished careers.

Today one sauntered into Taikoo Shing Post Office. One Philippine helper on his arm. Nine of us in line. Two of three windows open. He limped past the stanchions to the Closed Window and shouted in Cantonese, waved two envelopes, letter-sized with Air Mail stamps. The waiting nine watched.

I love Taikoo Shing Post Office where life slows down by twenty years

Both a customer and the helper tried, gently, to calm and correct his rudeness—a touch to the arm, a look into the face, quiet words. He masterfully ignored all of it. It’s easy to spot manipulation, even in a foreign language.

A moment of tension followed. Would an employee step out from behind the glass? Would a customer take charge? Would he be forced to the end of the line? Ushered out?


This is what happened: The clerk at the middle window finished with his customer. He moved to the closed window. He attended Grumpy Old Man. For a moment the line watched. Then…everyone lost interest. The clerk finished with Grumpy Old Man. Grumpy Old Man left the building. The clerk moved back to his middle window. He took the next customer in line.

I replayed this scene–and my own normal reactions–in Chicago: clerks stating rules and wearily repeating them. Heavy sighs. Eye rolls. Shifting of feet. Checking of watches. Tensed jaws. Shouting? Swearing? Confrontation? Guns? It’s not hard to imagine, right?

Today Grumpy Old Man had his way. It took 90 seconds. It in no way changed the course of the planet. And I quite enjoyed watching him win.

“We Cannot”


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The first year in Hong Kong I slept on the floor.

My American queen mattress–while not ideal for small spaces–had nonetheless traveled 6,796 nautical miles. The frame, though, did not survive the trip.

One Saturday I strolled into a shop, hopeful.

“Hello,” I said, “I’m looking for a bed frame. Do you custom build?”

Not the same shop but a great name nonetheless.

“Yes,” said the sales fellow, a funky dresser with interesting glasses. “We can make one custom for you. Let me show you our book.”

We sat down and flipped through pages of same-looking frames. The local style is a simple platform, no footboard, short headboard, often white, low to the ground.

“This one is nice,” I said. “What’s the height underneath?”

“8 inches.”

“Can you make it 12?”

Sales guy looked puzzled. Maybe my English was not clear.

“I want it to be higher. Can you raise it from 8 inches to 12 inches?”

“No,” he said. “We cannot.”

My building hope stopped short. “You cannot?”

“We cannot.”

“But you said you custom build.”

No response. “Are you saying that you cannot make the bed frame higher?”


Very puzzling. Was there some structural reason a bed frame should not be 12” high? Surely not. At this moment, ungainly westerners were sleeping on much higher beds all over the world.


“Because it will not be comfortable.”

For whom? I wondered, ever more confused. “But I am asking for the bed to be higher.”

“No, I am sorry. That is not possible.”

Obviously I needed to supply my reason. “But I want to use underneath for storage. If it’s 12” high I can store suitcases.” I made a sliding motion over the photo demonstrating putting away a suitcase.

Sales guy studied the photo. “That would not be good.”

Baffled now, I pretended understanding. “Maybe. Although I have slept on beds that are high. For me, it is very comfortable. So can you custom make it this way? For me? Because I find it so comfortable?”

He shook his head.

“I will pay extra.”

“Sorry. We cannot. To sleep this high, it is not good for your health.”

It was time to give up. I had come to recognize the immovable Hong Kong argument, unchanging in the face of reason, science, preference, even profit.

“OK. I understand. Thank you for your time.”

I took the brochure and left to look for another frame another day.

Bend Don’t Break


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July 24, the day after Typhoon Vicente

These are two trees near my office the day after a category 10 typhoon, the worst storm to hit the island in 13 years.

Typhoons happen every summer and Hong Kongers and their expat colleagues wait expectantly for a category 8 because you don’t have to go to work. It’s south Asia’s snow day.

But my favorite part of the typhoons is the language.

When a storm is coming, the Hong Kong Observatory “raises” a warning signal. Or sometimes the signal is “hoisted.” The signal warnings are 1, 3, 8, 9, and 10. This tells you the severity of the wind. 1 and 3 are just bad storms. 8 is when it starts getting serious. An additional ranking describes the rain. There is amber rain, then red rain, and the worst: black rain.

And now you’re wondering, then what is a cyclone? And a hurricane? Are these all the same thing? I’ve learned these are regionally specific names. Here a tropical cyclone is called a typhoon. When it reaches top speed it has hurricane force winds.

Typhoon is really the Anglicization of the Chinese tai feng. Feng means wind.

Remarkably, during Vicente there were no power outages. Injuries were reported but no deaths. Damage, not devastation. Bend don’t break.

Four Years Later


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This grand fountain near the office belies the less polished English translation on the sign.

Four years ago I was snug on my couch with two friends on the north side of Chicago. We had snacks. We were united in purpose. We had come together to witness China host its first Olympics.

By then I had become a full-blown Sinophile, studying Mandarin on Saturdays and plowing through books on China.

My friend Lisa was already fluent in Mandarin, having spent several years in Taiwan. My friend Jesus was wildly enthusiastic about sport, competition and the art of presentation.

For each of us that night, Beijing symbolized something similar and something different. For me, it fed my desire to get to Asia and work and live there.

It is four years later now. The 2,008 drummers—that glorious display of discipline and grandeur—are iconic. And I made it. I live in Hong Kong.

So how did the 2012 Ceremonies compare?

I don’t know. I was living a different Beijing.

That night, while the world watched to see what London would do, I was at the Beijing airport, my flight delayed. Waters from the worst flood in 60 years—a disaster that killed 77 people—were still receding. Flights were backed up. More storms lurked south of the city.

Two hours passed. Then we boarded.

But we didn’t move. Instead, the pilot made spirited announcements. The flight attendant brought us small cups of water. The ground crew showed up under pretense of letting us off the plane. Eventually the pilot left the cockpit door open. An old man wandered up the aisle and peered inside. Air China, the United of the Orient. No food. One miniature screen broadcasting the same Chinese movie for all. Four hours at the gate.

Meanwhile, London exceeded expectations during its re-branding exercise, by all accounts moving, funny, quirky, quaint, sweeping, edgy, and historical. I eventually arrived home at 4AM.

There is television and there is life. And only sometimes do they resemble each other. But it is fascinating to see how a nation shows itself to the world. How did you react to London 2012?


And a book Recommendation! If you like good travel writing you’ll enjoy this 1st person account of the Beijing Olympics by Shannon Young, The Olympics Beat, at Amazon.

Where’s the anger?


There is nothing special in saying I was saddened to hear of the incident in Colorado where a young man randomly shot at and killed or injured more than seventy movie-goers who were simply enjoying a Friday night.

But I do have somewhat of a unique perspective now living in Hong Kong. There are a lot of posted rules here. And there is adherence to rules. There is obedience. Restraint. Conformity. Pragmatism. And no citizens with guns. Things Americans often find confining or boring. But for the first time in my life I never ever think about safety.

All of the coverage on CNN this weekend pieced together facts or covered the personal histories of the victims. It was all funeral and no politics. Saddened submission, grief-filled acceptance. And familiarity.

No anger. No real horror. No outrage.

It felt as though Anderson Cooper had given up. And expected the rest of us had too. That people shooting other people without provocation was normal. Those interviewed echoed the cliche about never knowing when your number is up. As though getting shot by a stranger is like a car accident or an illness. Just something that happens with nothing really to do except figure out how to process our sadness, together, again.

Is that really the best we can do? Really?

It was haunting and very strange.

It occurred to me that we might have come to accept this as normal. Just back luck to be shouldered along with life’s other hardships?

But it wasn’t always normal.

Why is there not a movement among parents to protect their children from random violence? Has the endless empty debate from leaders made us so stupid or hopeless that we swallow the illogic of restricting guns=loss of freedom=bad?

Have we lost all common sense?

I Lost My Skillz



There are nearly 8 million people in Hong Kong. By China standards, a lazy village. Hong Kong, though, is one of the most densely populated places in the world (4th behind Macau, Monaco & Singapore). That’s 16,500 people per sq. mile with 94% of the population being ethnically Chinese.

Navigating this tiny world full of uniformly Chinese people takes some skill.

By contrast, the U.S. is 179th on the density list with a mere 83 people per sq. mile. This explains why after a holiday on the wide, empty streets of Chicago and the emptier village of Lyons, NY I had some trouble navigating the crowds.

Mistake #1. Two days after landing I headed to Central to meet some friends. When I stepped off the train I went right toward Exits E-K when I should have gone left toward Exits A-D. A misstep I would not have made before the lazy beach walks squinting into Lake Michigan dulled my instincts.

Disoriented I plunged into the human rush hour to attempt a diagonal cut across the masses. I needed to pass through this crowd flowing to the right to join that crowd flowing to the left. With the slow reflexes of the jet-lagged, I hesitated. Mistake #2.

The pack overwhelmed me. Thousands of slim bodies clicked down the corridor coming right at me. It felt personal. Faces blank and wired into smart phones, they kept coming, relentless waves of commuter zombies. Or was I the zombie?

Where could I step out? Where could I slide through? I had the strange sensation of having known how to do something before but not knowing how to do that thing now.

Before was sixteen days ago…

I dashed, halted, looked about, dashed again. Hugging the wall down the last corridor to Exit D I felt a wave of fear.

Human beings are a strangely adaptable species.

In two weeks I lost my population-density-mojo. It seemed so strange. How could I handle these crowds like anyone else – dashing while texting while playing Words with Friends without ever colliding – and then suddenly lose it? Are we programmed and deprogrammed so quickly? Have you ever felt afraid in a crowd?