Thursday, July 7, 2011

Back to the Beginning

Back in the Fall of 2009, myself and other Pitzer College Seniors spent countless hours crafting our Fulbright Applications, in hopes of traveling the globe in the name of intercultural understanding. Our fantastic Fellowship Advisors supported and guided us through the application process, paying special attention to the important Personal Statement. As outlined on the Fulbright Commission website,

" The Personal Statement should be a narrative giving a picture of you as an individual.  Remember, applicants are not interviewed on the national level. The Personal Statement is your opportunity to “talk” about yourself and to tell the committee more about how you came to this point in your life and where you see yourself in the future.  There is no single “right way” to approach the Statement; rather each candidate will consider what they think is important for people reviewing the application to know about them.
The Statement can deal with your personal history, family background, influences on your intellectual development, the educational and cultural opportunities (or lack of them) to which you have been exposed, and the ways in which these experiences have affected you.  Also, you may include your special interests and abilities, career plans, and life goals, etc. It should not be a recording of facts already listed on the application or an elaboration of your Statement of Grant Purpose.   It is more of an autobiography, and specifically related to you and your aspirations. "

14 drafts later, I crafted this: 


The day my two moms met was one of the most moving, enlightening, and surreal days
of my life. Not only did I view the world a little differently afterwards, I also learned firsthand that education is not limited to classroom lesson plans.

While I have a great relationship with my American mom, I was eager to have four
months of freedom during my study abroad in Ecuador. This was my opportunity to escape the heated deliberations and head butting that characterized our lively relationship. I would escape the nagging and constant lectures on responsibility and self reliance. Although I want to follow in her footsteps as an educator, a break was well needed. 

One thing was certain. I didn’t escape the nagging. I sure didn’t escape the debates. And
the lectures were more poignant than ever before. The only thing that was different was the
language. If Susan Brown were Ecuadorian she would be Cecilia de Cherréz Velasco, a woman who deeply cares for her “gringo” host children with sincerity only matched by my own mother. If my mother were there with me, she would worry that I would catch a cold in the torrential Andean rains and would hound me on the values of responsibility. Good thing she wasn’t with me, because her clone was doing a perfectly fine job herself.

When my American mom came to visit and my two moms finally met face to face, a
language barrier was evident. Although they could not verbally communicate with one another, they conversed with ease as they effortlessly crossed cultural and linguistic barriers. When I offered my American mom some delicious, yet questionably sanitary street food one day, she told me that the next time I see Cecilia I should ask her if it was safe to eat. Seeing the imminent problem, (as my host mom made me promise to never eat street food) I avoided the question when my two moms met. But my American mom insisted, saying, “Joshua Alan Brown, ask your mother if I can eat the food!”

I responded, saying, “Mom, trust me, it’s fine.”
However, much to my surprise, Cecilia was one step ahead of me.
What are you talking about?” she inquired in Spanish.
Oh, nada, Ceci, todo bien.” I calmly answered, trying to keep my cool.

The next thing that happened was one of the most surreal moments of my life. Either my
American mom suddenly learned Spanish, or she can read minds, but they both looked at each other with a twinkle in their eye and started yelling. “You gave your mother street food!” Cecilia exclaimed. When one mother would raise her voice at me, the other, completely unaware of what was said, inferred the subject matter and then raised her voice as well, almost mimicking word for word what the other was saying. When they finally finished and the laughing stopped, Cecilia looked at me and said in Spanish, “You are your mother’s son.” No translation was necessary.

It was then I finally got it. I watched my two role models, people I aspire to emulate,
accomplish something so few people can do. They formed a deep meaningful, relationship that spanned language and culture by connecting on a very simple idea. Fortunately for me, I was the very thing that connected them. Because of my personal connections with Cecilia and my mom, they were able to relate to each other based on their relationship with me. But the lesson went a little deeper than that. This experience served as a primer for the very thing I hope to do as a teacher, which is giving people a way to learn about their similarities. I learned that meaningful bonds can open the door to numerous educational opportunities and can transcend even the largest of differences. Even to this day, my two moms still stay in touch via email, with me conveniently translating their letters. Education can indeed continue long after the school bell rings, and is certainly not confined to the classroom.


Jokes aside,  as I reflect back on the past 12 months, I wonder if I was able to accomplish the goals I set out for myself in my Personal Statement. When I try and quantify or even qualify that question, I'm simply at a loss for words, much less an answer. 

 I guess all I can say is don't worry mom, I've only gotten sick from the street food once this year. 

Until next time...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tales from the Host Family

After 11 months living with my homestay family, we've grown quite close to each other. I feel that in many ways,  the role of "host son" and "son"  has been blurred. My temporary family member status has not stopped them from fully adopting me, and I couldn't be more grateful. 

Below are a few short snippets that highlight some enlightening aspects of my experience with the Chang Family.

My host dad and I have developed a particularly strong relationship over the past year.  Our relationship has flourished for a variety of reasons. Not only does he speak impeccible English, but Chang Jin Ho is also a  Renaissance Man. At the ripe old age of 35, he has served as a great older brother to me, offering invaluable advice about a variety of issues.  

Every now and then, when my host mom and sister have gone off to sleep, my host dad calls me out into the living room to chat over beer and snacks. I particularly look forward to this "male bonding time" between (host) father and (host) son, especially since these conversations prove to be quite entertaining. Usually we drink alcohol, watch Ultimate Fighting Championship together, and chat about everything from politics to the latest UFC Pay Per View Event. But this last time, the conversation started a little differently than normal:

"Joshie," my host dad said pensively, as he took a swig of his beer.

"You know, I am very good at many things in life: When I was soldier in the army, I was the best with gun. I was very accurate. When I studied Englishy, I studied very hard. I speak English very well. I traveled all over the world: I lived in Canada, went to Germany and Italy and Hungary, and lived in Israel. I am also very good athlete: I can play soccer very well, and although I am old, I still run fast. But there is one thing I am very bad at."

Not one for humility, my host dad is, to be fair, a very talented individual.  He is still a tremendous athlete. For little formal training with the language, he speaks impeccable English. He is informed on current events.  And he's a very dedicated family man. But alas, no man is perfect.

Staring pensively into his empty glass, he said, "one thing I am very bad at, Joshie."

I sat there, bracing myself for something serious. We've talked about a number of heavy issues before, such as coming of age, marriage, and children. But little did I know the severity of his problem.

"Woman. I do not understand woman."

 Although we come from different countries, speak different languages, and practice different customs, I am always amazed at the minute aspects of daily life that weave the common thread of humanity through us all. I've reached this ephiphany a few times this year, when piercing moments of clarity shed light on the human existance. And they always seem to come at the strangest of times, in the strangest of ways.

Instead of offering advice, I pondered the significance of the moment. For some people, intercultural understanding happens very overtly- a major breakthrough in communication, or a unspoken noble act that is acknowledged by all. Maybe they joined a Taekwondo class, or tutored North Korean refugees. For me, at that very moment,  I learned a supreme lesson-

The old addage really is true everywhere in the world: "You can't live with them, but you can't live without them."


The scene: A typical evening at the Chang Residence. My host mom just put my little sister to sleep, and I am putzing around in my room, doing nothing productive.

Around 8:30pm that night, as I was fiddling around on my guitar, my host mom bolted into the house as if being chased by the Devil himself.

"FIRE!! FIRE!!!" She exclaimed.

I immediately dropped what I was doing and rushed outside. As I turned the corner outside of our house, I discovered a menacing conflagration of epic proportions. The once unassuming field behind our house was ablaze in a fiery dance of flames that would make a pyromaniac jealous. As smoke bellowed towards my living room window, I envisioned the charred remains of my most prized possessions among the rubble of my homestay. What would I do if my house burned down? Where would I live? What would I do?  How the heck did I not notice this impending doom creeping towards my bedroom window?What about my Mac? It's still under warranty, right? If I could only save one thing, what would it be?  My Ipod or my- Errrrrr, maybe I should do something about this?

Like any good host son, I immediately jumped into action. Along with the other middle-aged men in the neighborhood who came out to help, we formed a relay line to bucket sand and water on the fire. 10 minutes later, the blaze was extinguished, and the day was saved.

Talk about being a Cultural Ambassador, right? Other Fulbrighters may have formed meaningful reationships through serving their community, or participating in local customs, but I SAVED my homestay from a blazing inferno!

Little did I know, the real heat would start when my host dad got home. After investigating the scene, he wrote off the event as nothing more than a gross over-reaction on the part of my host mom.  As she explained every second of the terrifying ordeal to my host dad, he casually perused the newspaper.

 "Thats nice, honey." He mumbled, unperturbed by the raging conflagration that struck mere hours earlier.

And with each disinterested nod, more fuel was added to the fire. As the old saying goes, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."

That night, after my host mom and sister went off to sleep, my host dad called me into the living room to chat over beer and snacks.

"Joshie," my host dad said pensively, as he took a swig of his beer. "one thing I am very bad at..."

Until next time...

Monday, May 2, 2011

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Last weekend, I attended my first Korean baseball game. On Friday night, a friend and I watched the Kia Tigers of Gwangju face off against the Lotte Giants of Busan: 

The 10-time league champion Kia Tigers are the most successful team in the history of the Korean Baseball Organization

The Lotte Giants, while not as successful as the Tigers, hold the single season fan attendance record at 1.38 million spectators for the 2009 season. It also helps they are a big market team, playing in the 2nd largest city in South Korea. 

After a modest 7,000 won entrance fee (roughly $6.56) we found our seats at Gwangju Mudeung Stadium: 

Its no Fenway Park, but the 15,000 seat Mudeung Stadium  is conveniently located by the Gwangju bus terminal, making my journey to the stadium quick and easy.

One of the most distinct differences in fan behavior between US ball games and Korean ball games is the general attitude towards the sport. "America's Past Time" has become a multi-million dollar industry complete with corporate sponsorships, associated TV stations, and a network of amateur, semi professional and professional leagues of would-be big leaguers. Millions of young Americans grew up dreaming of playing for their hometown team and envisioned their name next to the Greats in Cooperstown. 

Although American missionaries introduced Baseball on the Korean penninsula in 1905, it wasn't until 1981 that a professional league was founded. The Korean Baseball Organization, or KBO, oversees the Korean National Baseball Team, which participates in the Olympics, the World Baseball Classic and the Little League World Series.  Today, pro ball players in Korea do not enjoy the same luxuries of their counterparts across the pond. The best talent is signed into the MLB, and those that cannot make it in the States come over to Korea to try and make it here. Consequently, pro teams are corporate-owned and operated, thus a team's image is more a reflection of their parent company and less grounded in geography. 

For example, my hometown team, the Kia Tigers of Gwangju, are owned by the Kia Corporation. Kia also has its biggest production facilities in Gwangju and thus use the team as a way to market themselves. Unlike the United States whose team names reflect their regional affiliation, and teams market themselves geographically, Baseball is a completely corporate entity here in Korea.*
*For arguments sake, one could claim that the MLB has become a completely corporate entity as well, but I digress...

Other than a distinct difference in player quality, and a lack of peanuts and cracker jacks, fan behavior mimicked that of the US in many ways. Fathers explained the finer points of the game to their children, the ever popular "Kiss Cam" caught unsuspecting couples (or my favorite, siblings) on the big screen in between innings, and fans donned their home team gear. 

Overall, our evening at the ballpark was great fun, and for $7 a ticket, I look forward to attending many more games in the future.

Until next time...

Monday, April 18, 2011

Spring has Sprung

This past weekend, a group of friends and I went up to Seoul to attend the annual Cherry Blossom festival, a popular Spring event that attracts thousands of visitors. For many East Asian countries, the blooming of the Cherry Blossom tree officially marks the beginning of the new season, and numerous festivals take place all over the region:

A row of Cherry blossoms in full bloom. According to my host father, (who heard it on the news) 2 million people visited the  festival over the weekend.

In 1912, approximately 3,000 Cherry Blossom trees were given to the United States as a sign of friendship from Japan. They were planted in Washington DC, and have since become a popular tourist attraction.

In line with Korea's obsession with cutesy depictions of everything, (see previous post) a anthropomorphic Soju bottle isn't anything out of the ordinary. Just another day at the Cherry Blossom Festival!

 War and Peace

After visiting the Cherry Blossom Festival, we decided to visit the Korean War Memorial, a museum that chronicles the military history of the peninsula.
The War Memorial of Korea serves as a physical document to the military history of the nation, a memorial for those who served, and a glimpse into the future of the Korean armed forces. 

The complex itself is grandiose- in many ways, the museum seemed to function more as a promotion of military prowess and expansion than a somber memorial to the social costs of war. After watching a few boys gawking at the tanks and airplanes in the main showroom, I quickly realized the correlation between mandatory male conscription into the army and the glorification of war.

Since the cease-fire that ended the Korean War in 1953, South Korea enacted a mandatory military conscription for all males. Fearing an imminent threat from the north, a large standing army has been mobilized ever since. In this context, the glorification of the Republic of Korea's armed forces makes a little more sense-if every male must enlist, The Korean War museum serves as much as a somber memorial as it does as a tool for enlistment.

Although the military hardware was pretty cool to look at, the most fascinating part of the museum by far was way in which certain information was presented.  Given its importance in peninsular history, The Korean War was presented in great detail. Fascinatingly enough, while I was walking through the exhibit, I was joined by a number of US Army servicemen who are stationed here in South Korea. Although the war has been over for almost 60 years, the mere presence of 29,000 US servicemen in the country speaks to the lasting effects of the war. Sadly, the armistice agreement of 1953  achieved nothing but a divided nation at the cost of 3 million lives.

The flags of all 22 nations that fought alongside South Korea during the Korean War. Interestingly, the United States sent more troops and suffered more casualties than any allied nation on the South Korean side of the conflict, with the exception of South Korea itself. The US sent 480,000 troops, and the second largest ally, England, sent 63,000 troops. To put things in perspective, South Korea provided 590,000 troops.

The museum moves chronologically through South Korea's armed conflicts during the 20th century. When walking through the Vietnam War Exhibit, one placard in particular caught my attention. Since South Korea was indebted to the United States following the Korean War, they have assisted in every US foreign policy action during the second half of the 20th century. Along with the 2.7 million Americans who served in the Vietnam War in some capacity, South Korea sent an additional 313,000 troops. Yet the museums portrayal of the conflict was quite fascinating:

"Through the dispatch of our armed forces to Vietnam, we gained confidence and experience in building a more self-reliant defense force. It also increased the momentum of our economic development, strengthened the U.S.  commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea, and solidified South Korea's politico-military status vis-a-vis the United States. Furthermore, the impressive performance of the Korean forces in Vietnam enhanced our international reputation. 

From the United States' perspective the War in Vietnam did not foster the same "confidence and experience" that our South Korean allies had. Instead, the conflict polarized the nation.   From the South Korean perspective, the debacle in Vietnam proved an important stepping stone in increasing economic momentum and international reputation. Sadly, the war solidified the US military-industrial complex, further damaging our international reputation.

International politics aside,  my trip to Seoul proved to be quite educational, and gave me a new appreciation for the capital city. After a 4 hour trip back down to my little pear village of Naju, I started the daily grind again on Monday morning.  This weekend, I hope to attend my first Korean Baseball game. Be on the lookout for another post.
Until next time...

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Birds and the Bees

After an uneventful March, the month finished with a trip to Jeju Island for the 2011 Fulbright Spring Conference.  Over the past weekend, all 106 English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) gathered at the KAL Hotel in the town of Seogwipo, generously funded by the US State Department:

The glorious KAL hotel

Jeju is known as a vacation island for mainland Koreans, due to its scenery and (somewhat) better weather. Imported palm trees dot the landscape, giving this foreign land a feeling reminiscent of my home back in Southern California. I bet they look a little strange when it snows!

For the first two days, we conferenced about a variety of topics ranging from teaching pedagogy to home stay issues. While the discussions proved useful and informative, I found the most educational part of the trip to be the final day. Fulbright generously provided the opportunity to participate in an all day tour of the island, but I declined since I had already done those activities when I visited Jeju with my high school last Fall.
A group of friends and I had been planning for months on stuffing our faces full of delicious Equine, which I experienced for the first time with my fellow teachers during my last visit to the island.  USD $32 later, I dined on raw horse, horse sashimi, horse brisket, grilled horse, horse intestine, and horse liver. After literally eating a horse, we pondered our next destination during our free day.  Interestingly enough, Jeju is  home to South Korea's tallest mountain, a teddy bear museum, a traditional village/folklore theme park, a hedge maze,  and the country's only erotic-themed park. I bet you can figure out which place we chose to visit.
Looking to further our roles as cultural ambassadors, we thought it a grand idea to learn about love, Korea style.  Plus, I had already visited the aforementioned attractions with my high school, but our trip conveniently left Love Land off the itinerary.
Love Land's existence is the result of a few socio-historical trends that culminated in the construction of a park filled with phallic statues and suggestive art work. Jeju Island's warm weather and picturesque scenery has attracted newlyweds who were unable to afford international travel, inspiring the nickname "Honeymoon Isle." Moreover, until the early 1990's, arranged marriages were common place. As a result,   hotels offered seminars and shows to ease shy, unfamiliar couples into consummation. Sure enough, this small island a few miles south of the peninsula became the leader in sexual education and home to South Korea's only sex park.

Welcome to Love Land! South Korea is obsessed with "cutesy" depictions of everything, including human reproductive organs. I'll let you come up with your own dirty joke here. 

After a modest $9 entrance fee, we curiously entered Love Land. As expected, the park was filled with suggestive statues, phallic objects,  artistic interpretations of genitalia, and even a gift shop! Coincidentally enough, my trip to Love Land also coincided with the first semblance of the Spring Season. The lotus flowers were beginning to bloom, (in more ways than one) and the smell of rejuvenated fertility filled the air. Needless to say, the birds and the bees were busy in more ways than one. 
Food for thought: A recent survey states that 50% of Koreans do not believe that homosexuality exists in their country. Apparently Love Land doesn't either.

If looking at suggestive artwork wasn't provoking enough, the hordes of middle-aged Koreans roaming the park with us only added to the surrealism. While we were floored by the graphic forwardness, the other patrons acted as if they were at the Louvre. I guess seeing a 10 foot tall golden phallus isn't that strange after all!!  Euphemisms aside, Love Land was definitely a stimulating climax to my Jeju weekend.
Until next time...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

My Life as a Korean High School Student

Greetings from Goesan, South Korea!
Goesan, the site of my orientation back in July, is my new home for the month of February. I'm back at Jungwon University, also known as the "marble palace," a moniker myself and my fellow ETAs dubbed this ostentatious stone monument to education. 
the Marble Palace, July 2010. In case you forgot what it looked like...

The marble palace, circa February, 2011. By the way, I don't claim to be an expert on winter, but paving the walkways in marble is not conducive for traction, especially when it snows....

I arrived on February 4th to participate in the State Department Critical Language Enhancement Award program, (known as CLEA) for short. The program
" ....helps promote the Fulbright Program's goals of cross-cultural exchange and dialogue. Fulbright grantees capable of communicating in the local language in their host countries are likely to form stronger bonds with their peers, conduct more meaningful research, and develop a greater understanding of a foreign culture. The experience grantees bring home after their Critical Language Enhancement Award and Fulbright grant will serve them in their chosen careers and throughout their lives. "
What does this mean in laments terms?
STUDY KOREAN ALL THE TIME. To be specific, that means 6 hours a day, 6 days a week of intensive Korean, totaling 120 hours of language instruction in one month. It may sound tortuous, (and it is) but it was an incredible opportunity I couldn't pass up.  CLEA is only available for specific "hard to learn" languages, such as Arabic, Chinese, Turkish, Urdu, and Korean, and you're only eligible if you're a Fulbright grantee in one of the aforementioned countries. While its a rather competitive award to receive, the tangible benefits are numerous, aside from the obvious perk of sticking "U.S State Department-Critical Language Enhancement Award, Korean" on your resume. Plus, 40 of my closest Fulbrighter friends are here with me also.
The best part is that the State Department funds the entire program, including tuition, room, and board. So here I am, back at the marble palace for free, in a quadruple room with three other Fulbrighters. Since we're all in class from 9am to 4pm, Monday through Saturday, and studying late into the evenings, we don't spend too much time in the room together.
The intensity of this program accurately mimics the daily lives of Korean high school students, who spend upwards of eight to nine hours a day at school, not including extra classes in the evenings. As a part of the education system that feeds this ferocious tenacity for studying, I couldn't help but juxtapose my current situation with that of my students. How do they stay sane? My life for the past two weeks has revolved around Korean, Korean language, Korean studying, an hour at the gym everyday, and Korean workbooks. I've barely had time to myself, let alone socialize or relax. I can only imagine the stresses that the average high school student endures. Good thing the program finishes on March 1st.
Although CLEA has been stressful, and we stumble through the language like babbling toddlers, our classes often result in butchering the Korean language to the point of hilarity.
 After learning the prepositions "after," and "before," we practiced a free form dialogue describing the daily activities of the textbook's handsome main character, Yoon Sangwoo.
The objective of the exercise was to utilize the prepositions to correctly form a sentence according to the order of the pictures. For example, Sangwoo eats breakfast after he wakes up.  He goes to work in the office building after he eats breakfast:

What does Yoon Sangwoo do after he goes to work in the office?
The next picture, however, really stumped one of my classmates. His turn was to describe what Sangwoo did after he went to work in the office. Perplexed, he asks the teacher, (or 선생님 in Korean):
"선생님, how do you say 'volunteer?'"
We all look at him, wondering why he was asking such a bizarre question. He immediately follows up with
"선생님, how do you say 'blind'?"
The rest of class sat there confused as to what he was thinking.
Finally, he says his answer (translated from Korean):
"Sangwoo volunteers with blind people after he goes to work."
The class erupted in laughter. Apparently, Yoon Sangwoo is a businessman with a heart for social service.
When we're not talking about Yoon Sangwoo's daily routine, our textbook teaches us useful phrases such as "I do not go to class because I drink Soju last night and I am sick today," "the boy is fat and short but nice," and "my birthday is next month. Buy me a present!"
I don't know if this means I can "form stronger bonds with my peers, conduct more meaningful research, and develop a greater understanding of a foreign culture," (as the State Department suggests) but it I can now construct  the ever so useful phrase "the fat boy volunteers with blind people after he drinks soju."  
I return to my pear village of Naju on March 1st to begin work again. Until then, it's study study study. 
Until next time...

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Big "G" in "HK"

Some people are diametrically opposed to it, others say it will usher in a new era of prosperity. I'm not talking about the Tampa Bay Devil Rays recent acquisition of former teammates Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, I'm talking about the "big G:" Globalization. A city defined by this phenomenon, my recent trip to Hong Kong (abbreviated as "HK") was an enlightening time for not only my intellect, but my  belly as well.  I enjoyed delicious food and drink and fantastic company, all in the backdrop of one of the premier cities in the world.
A far cry from the charming and culturally rich India, Hong Kong is a city struggling over its identity, torn between its Chinese roots and its recent financial success in the global market.  We flew into this metropolis of 7 million at 7am on January 8th and were graciously welcomed by Rahul's college friend Sanam. Groggy from our red eye flight, she generously hosted us at her beautiful apartment for the next week, putting up with our antics and jokes the whole time. Thanks so much Sanam, you're great!!!
After dropping our bags , we rushed off to Rahul's uncle's house. A tailor by trade, Rahul's uncle fitted us both for matching gray suits.  The suit business is a big business here in Hong Kong, a city that has a record setting 8000 skyscrapers. That means lots of office space, and lots of businessmen who need suits. After our fittings, we went home, took a nap, and headed out for a night out on the town. Sadly, my suit wouldn't be ready until the end of the trip, so I couldn't sport it that night.
To put things in perspective, I spent more money that night than I did during the past 6 days in Mumbai. Granted, room and board were covered by Rahul's relatives in India, but Hong Kong is by no means a cheap place.
Sanam, her friend Vrishant, and yours truly

My first impressions of Hong Kong was sheer awe at the economic prowess of the city. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of South Korea's rapid modernization. High Rise apartment buildings and corporate skyscrapers stretched for as far as the eye could see. People movers of all sorts were efficiently functioning at full capacity. Prada, gucci, and coach were in vogue for women. Suits and briefcases for men. The sidewalks were so clean you could eat off of them. And things were really expensive! (comparative to India, of course..)

To put things into perspective: A view of Hong Kong's skyline, circa 1986

A view of Hong Kong's skyline, circa 2009
Yet the region also boasts a vibrant array of cultural and historical sites.  The next day, we headed to the "Las Vegas of Asia," Macau. The island also happens to be a former Portuguese colony, and in between the multi million dollar casinos are traces of its colonial history.

Macau, an island of contrast: In the background, the Grand Lisboa Hotel juxtaposed against a less than flattering relic from its past

A perfect representation of Macau's storied history: signs appear in Mandarin, Portugese, and English respectively

The Ruins of St. Pauls , a 17th century Portuguese Cathedral

The rest of the week was highlighted by visits with Rahul's relatives, shopping, and relaxing. The heartbeat of the city, however, intrigued me. As we strolled through Tsim Tsa Tsui (known locally as "TST"), I couldn't help but gawk at the exorbitant amount of wealth around me, and ponder the big "G," Globalization.   Sanam, our host, was able to contextualize my presumptions: She works at the Duty Free Shops Gallery, a high end luxury merchandise store  and recounted stories of Chinese businessmen who come in with suitcases of cold, hard, cash and nonchalantly drop 10-15 thousand USD on luxury items.  Apparently, these are routine transactions and many luxury shops in Hong Kong now encourage their employees to not only speak Cantonese, the native language of Hong Kong, but Mandarin, the official language of China in order to increase patronage from the mainland.
That "G" word, Globalization, was constantly ringing throughout my head as I strolled through Hong Kong. These absurdly wealthy Chinese businessmen, many of whom own factories right over the border, are making tons of money off of exporting their goods.  The Nike dunks, Swisher vacuums, Johnson and Johnson baby soap, LED lights,  Ford car radiators,  Dell computer monitors, Nokia cell phones, and Hansboro toys that millions of Americans consume every year are produced right over the border in Shenzhen, trucked to the port of Hong Kong, and shipped across the Pacific to the Port of LA.
I couldn't help but think, "This is Globalization in action!!" Hong Kong epitomizes this trend-almost 15% of the workforce are importer/exporters, responsible for greasing the wheels of our global economy.  After visiting Hong Kong,  Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington a few weeks ago made a lot more sense to me:  I saw first-hand why American corporations pushed President Obama to negotiate a more beneficial free trade policy with China. Any trans-national company, from Goldman Sachs to McDonalds, has a corporate office in Hong Kong. Thousands of American expats live, work, and raise their families there, directly benefiting from the immense economic stimulation provided by its ties with not only China, but other Asian countries as well.
But I digress...
In between over intellectualizing America's place in an increasingly competitive global market, I did manage to see a few sites.

I went to my first horse race! While I didn't bet or win for that matter, the scene was really engaging: the race course was flanked by high rise apartment buildings on all sides, creating a sophisticated, urban feel.

I also visited Lan Tau island, home of the Tian Tan Buddha. Built in the early 1990s, the Buddha not only serves as a religious pilgrimage site for Buddhists, but one of the most popular tourist destinations in Hong Kong:
In contrast with the rest of the city, the Tian Tau Buddha provides a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong Island
Although the Buddha itself was interesting, the highlight of the day was meeting Torsten Neimenen, an American college student studying abroad in Shanghai. He was visiting his family in Hong Kong who moved from Wisconsin a few years ago. Contrary to my initial assumption, his parents were neither Meryl Lynch Hedgefund managers nor commercial distributors, but rather,  Lutheran missionaries. After being invited back to his home, his family then proceeded to invite me out to dinner. Over the course of the evening, they recounted tales of raising their children in the Central African Republic, Lutheran theology,  the Greenbay Packers, and life in Hong Kong. It was a fantastic evening filled with great conversation and warm sincerity. If you're reading this, a big thanks to the Neimenen family for your wonderful hospitality!
As a city, Hong Kong perplexed me. I couldn't quite figure out if it was a Chinese city, or a city with a large Chinese population. Technically, its not part of mainland China, rather "overseen" by the Chinese government. Cantonese was as common as English, yet the city is structured to accommodate and compliment international business. Every bar runs a competitive happy hour to lure the tired Investment Banker after his 12 hour workday, the airport has an efficient, specifically designed  subway service to bring travelers to and fro, and high end hotels jockey to host the next corporate convention.
Although the surge of modernization has long since grappled Hong Kong, every now and then,the city anachronistically resists the waves of progress. Pictured is an alleyway behind a Gucci Store.

All in all, Hong Kong was a grand time. Like India, I would recommend the city to anybody who finds themselves in Asia. Numerous airlines route their flights through Hong Kong (since most airline companies have corporate offices there) and the city boasts an impressive nightlife, great public transit, and dynamic cityscape. Yet, like all  things, my time in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (the official name of the city, btw) came to an end. Eventually, it was time for me to go back to South Korea, officially ending my 22 day jaunt around Asia. Leaving one metropolis for another, I flew into Incheon International Airport and was immediately greeted by this:

Thats Fahrenheit, not Celsius. 

Winter is here, and its here to stay (well, at least until March). Time to see if my trusty "The RedFace©" jacket can handle the South Korean winter.
Until next time...