Thursday, July 29, 2010

Home is where the garden is.

I really missed my garden while we were in Hong Kong. It was exciting to see what had grown while were were away.  Dalton, our young neighbor, had taken great care of the garden while we were gone and had done all the watering, even rolling up the hose pipe (a task we are extremely lazy about).  The place looked great BUT before I get too deeply engrossed in this blog - Please can someone tell me what this is?

When I first planted out my squashes and melons, I had them all labeled, but when the slugs ate them down to nothing, I panicked and replanted seeds left, right and center without recording what went where.  Also, I found some volunteers in my dill pot.  I've no idea what they are or how they got there...birds, I presume, so I planted them out too.  All lessons for future gardening!

So, I also need to know when to harvest this thing - its about a foot long right now.

The day after our return we had a visitor to the garden - Or is he  visitor?  This is the third sighting of a gopher snake in our yard - perhaps he is a resident?  I don't mind.  He keeps the rat population down - not to mention gophers.  I like him.  My husband doesn't - he does have a snake phobia. But I feel like I'm doing something right in my attempts to have a garden that also supports wildlife.
I dug up some parsnips - delicious.  The okra is ready and the bell peppers are nice thought less fleshly than I would like.  We got four cobs of corn that tasted rubbery.  We did miss the best time for them.  I'm never leaving my garden in July or August again for so long...  Brocolli, kale, onion and carrots abound - I think I'll be able to grow them year round (yes Scarlette, never go hungry again!).

My cherry tomatoes are a riot of red garden candy.  Yesterday, Al popped over to show me his "cherry tomato" and wanted to know did I want to compare them to mine - like his other veggies in a previous post.  Then he pulled out from behind his back a beef tomato, the size of a babies head!  He insisted that all his cherry tomatoes were hanging just as big as that back in his yard - He's a funny guy.

I had intended posting a picture of it but we ate it before we remembered to photograph it.  I had to resort to using an Artists impression.  Mind you, I use "artist" in its loosest term.  My art teacher in School used to make strange noises when I'd show him my art work - I couldn't work out if he was laughing or crying!

It was the most gorgeous tomato I've ever tasted.  My husband and I plotted to get another one.  We wondered if he'd given us the first one free to get us hooked then he'd make us pay big money for subsequent ones...  I figured I'd tell him about forgetting to photograph it and that we needed another one for the blog.  Clever me!  Though no more have shown up, knowing Al, he's waiting for it to ripen to the perfection he demands from his garden.

Speaking of great neighbors, the neighbors on our left hand side are wonderful too.  Their son Dalton, whom I've already mentioned, had a camp to attend for a couple of days prior to us coming home.  The garden and indoors plants all seemed healthy and happy at that stage, so he handed over the task of the watering to his Mom.  When we got back the coffee tree in the corner was looking decidedly upset.

All the leaves had drooped and no amount of watering would bring it back.   Then his poor Mom (whose own house plants are beautiful and is a great gardener herself) decided that it was over-watered, so she tried to dry it out, but nothing worked.  Being the conscientious and kind person that she is, she was terribly upset about "killing the tree."  Her words, not mine.  I suspect that I am to blame for starting the process of over-watering by trying to "stock up" the water in the pot before we left.  Dalton's Mom felt so bad about it that she bought me a beautiful replacement plant with a gorgeous glazed pot to boot!

Something she really didn't need to do.  We all know plants have the potential to up sticks and die if they feel left out at vacation time.  Obviously "Big Green" had his case packed and was very annoyed he'd been left behind.  I don't think we can really blame anyone - these things happen!

One of my friends had to go overseas for a while leaving her husband in charge of the two plants I had given her, a spider plant and  a basil seedling.  He forgot to water them and brought them to me in a panic.  The spider plant recovered, with the addition of water, but the poor basil - well the photo says it all really!

Our new "Little Guy" will be a much loved addition to our household, and a reminder to me that my garden has not only provided food for our tummys but has help nurture the seeds of friendship with which we feed our souls.

It's good to be home.

Byddi Lee

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The many flavours of Hong Kong

When Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels I wonder had he traveled directly from California - the land of giants (Brobdingnag) to Hong Kong - the land of miniatures (Lilliput).  In Hong Kong everything is scaled down in size except for the heights of the buildings.  Inside them the apartments are smaller, hotel rooms more compact and the electrical appliance shops look as though they could outfit a Wendy house.  It's all adorably cute, but it makes me feel HUGE!  Huge and very visible with my mad blond curly hair - my husband certainly won't lose me in the crowd! 

There is a tipping point to every visit I have to Hong Kong.  I arrive jet lagged and sweaty, cowering beneath the towering sky scrapers that house people by the tens of thousand,  wondering how on earth humans ever came to live on this suffocating plot of land.  Somewhere between arriving and leaving, I find that I have woken up one morning refreshed, jet lag gone, and as I gaze out of the window of the twelfth floor apartment, I begin to see beauty in my surroundings.

The roof tops of some building have gardens on them and down at street level the shops have their lights on to counter the gloom of the approaching typhoon - yes typhoon!

Of course I'm the only one in the vicinity that is excited about this.  The locals are unconcerned, having seen it all before and if anything, view it as an inconvenience.  I still can't get used to warm rain!  Even in California, when it rains it's cold, and of course in Ireland, even though we say you can tell it's summer because the rain is warmer, it's nowhere as warm as this rain.  Nor as heavy.  This is what we call in Ireland "wet" rain.  A somewhat disappointing description from a nation that has as many words for rain as the Inuits have for snow - of course in Ireland we have as much rain as the Inuits have snow too!

Hong Kong has one of the best public transport systems I've ever been on.  More comprehensive even than the London underground, the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) is fast, clean, inexpensive, air-conditioned and above all safe.  Even the integrated bus system is designed with a view to comfort.

Perhaps its because I'm head and shoulders taller than the majority of the throng riding the trains, but I never suffer that same claustrophobia here as I do in other crowded situations.  The following picture is taken in Hong Kong Central - at the tail end of the evening rush hour - luckily we were going in the opposite direction to the rush.

Its orderly, never boisterous and at rush hour there is staff to ensure that there isn't a crush onto trains etc.  In short, it is comfortable.  Westerners who are apprehensive about traveling in Asia should start with Hong Kong (actually, my Husband says start with Singapore, but I haven't been there - I told him that he would have to take me there so I could blog about it - I thought it was worth suggesting on the off-chance he would!).

Hong Kong Island has a lot of tourists and ex-pats, so English is spoken widely.  Prices on the Island are expensive as this is the main tourist/business hub.  My advice is to stay on the peninsula.  Kowloon is my favorite.  You will find hotels along Nathan Road that are better value for money than those on the Island. It a short hop to the Island on either the Star Ferries - a very Hong Kong experience - or on the MTR.

The shopping in Kowloon is off the charts!  You can do the Lady's Market at Mong Kok for bargains and designer copies of nearly anything, or if you have the money to splash out on the real thing, jump on the MTR and go to Tsim Sha Tsui and shop the designer stores at Great Victora Harbour.  And there's everything in between.  I found a Marks and Spencers there.  Living in California, I have missed this British chain store.  Especially its food section.  I nearly wept with joy as I piled packets of "Extremely Chocolatey Milk Chocolate" biscuits into my shopping basket.  As I write this, I'm polishing off said treats! 

For the traveler who wants to experience real Hong Kong living and its friendly natives, I would urge you to venture into the New Territories.  If you have the days to spare, take the MTR and explore some of the towns such as Tuen Mun and its extensive town center.  But be warned - if you are bigger than a UK size 8 (USA 4) not only will you have trouble finding clothes to fit you, the staff in the shops will be reluctant to even let you try on the clothes - I speak from experience!

Lantau Island plays host to Disney land, and the Giant Buddha (located at Po Lin Monastery).

The later is worth a visit.  I've never been to any Disney Park so I can't comment on it.  We did however visit friends who live in the beautiful residential area of Discovery Bay which has a gorgeous view of Hong Kong's skyline in the distance.

It sparkles with lights at night, with a light show visible on the buildings each night, not to mention the daily Disney fireworks display they are treated to each evening - though for me that paled beside the magnificent electrical storm we were treated to when we visited! 

Hong Kong is sprinkled with gorgeous parks.  July is not the best time to visit with its searing heat and smothering humidity, interspersed with typhoons.  Hopefully, we will never have to be here again at this time of year.  Spring or Autumn is better - cool enough to enjoy the parks and the beaches.  I dragged my long suffering husband around the park in Tuen Mun thinking I might get a look at the plants.
 I liked that they warned us about their use of pesticides!

 The gardens had a variety of water features.
I wondered could we get this one for our garden!

The heat brought out the butterflies, though there wasn't a huge choice in blossoms, they seemed happy with this one.

After about an hour the heat beat us.  We stopped for a refreshing drink of Sweat before heading for somewhere with aircon!
Incidentally, the perfect drink to wash down a tasty meal of chicken feet!
And even though, as I pointed out to my in-laws, it was in dire need of a pedicure, I did eat it!  Though one was my limit.  I draw the line at ducks feet though - that flapping webbed bit really turns me!   Though on this occasion our goose was well and truly cooked!
Delicious - I think I'd have to say this was my favorite dish of the entire trip.

I did make sure I had my All Bran for breakfast each morning, even though the crockery and cutlery was a tad unusual!

Feel free to peruse the following slideshow of images of Hong Kong - a place I can only describe as a fascinating feast of people, lifestyle and food.

The photos of the animals were taken at the reptile house in Tuen Mun Park.  They were behind glass so it is cheating a little bit, but I still thought they were pretty cool!

I'd like to thank Nancy for featuring my blog on Leaping Greenly! Please drop by and pay her a visit.

Byddi Lee

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Lost for words

When I do the Hong Kong thing I don’t really go for the Hong Kong Island experience or visit all the touristy spots and see the anglicized version of life in that part of the world.  Oh no, I go deep into the New Territories, stay in the town where my husband's family lives, and I don’t see another white face for days on end.  My Cantonese is sketchy, add to that the fact that because people don’t expect to hear me speak it, it doesn’t register with them when I do, and I’m met with bafflement.  My poor husband is the only person who can converse fluently with me when I’m here. 

It’s a pretty enlightening experience to be surrounded by non English speakers.  You learn to pick up on nuances in tone, to read expression and gestures - sort of!  It's a start, but most of the time not enough.  I’m ashamed that I haven’t learned more Cantonese.  My husband doesn’t quite know where to start teaching me – I know the basics, hello, how are you, the names of food and how to count, but that’s it.  In my own defense, I have looked for Cantonese night classes in San Jose with no luck.  Mandarin yes, but not Cantonese.  My husband’s family say that I should learn Mandarin as it’s a much more useful language.  There’s no point though, because they don’t speak Mandarin, and the goal is to be able to speak to them directly… Perhaps they are trying to tell me something!

Funerals provide an amazing glimpse into any society.  Being Irish I come from a rich culture that intertwines superstition and religion when it comes to waking the dead, so with great interest I took part in the traditional Chinese wake and funeral for my mother-in-law.  As the wife of her son, I was one of the chief mourners along side my husband, his sister-in-law and his niece.  As is custom, each family member wears a costume that signifies their position in the family.  We all wore white, the color of mourning.  We were given clothes to wear which cannot be taken home, the idea being that you don’t take death back with you.  I could see the sense in this.  I find it hard to wear the dress in everyday life that I wore for my father’s funeral .  All the clothes we wore would be thrown away after-wards, so they were simple and inexpensive and looked like plain white cotton track suits.

Over the top of our white suits the funeral director or “master of ceremonies” (similar in some ways to our undertakers in that he directs us in what to do and makes sure the proper procedure is followed), dressed us in a linen and sackcloth tunic.  Men wear a head band.  I thought my husband looked pretty cool in his get up.  We girls had to tie our hair back and wear the same linen and sackcloth tunic, but we wore on our heads a pointy hood made from linen, that hung down our back, a bit like a veil.  If it wasn’t such  somber occasion I’d have loved to have taken pictures.  It just wasn’t appropriate to do so.  The outfits were to symbolize our humility and sorrow.

Each of us girls had a little colored woolen ribbon on our hood to show our rank and file.  Mine and my Sister-in-law’s was white.

Wakes take place in the funeral home.  Each family has a function room, decorated with beautiful flower arrangements, with a smaller room off it at the back.  Here,behind a glass wall, lay my Mother-in-law's body.  It reminded of Snow White's glass coffin.  We were comforted to see how peaceful my husband’s mother looked.  In Irish wakes viewing the body is a really important part of the saying goodbye procedure.  We are also encouraged to touch the deceased in an Irish wake.  Supposedly the touch helps you come to terms with the reality that the spirit has moved on.  In the Chinese wake this wasn’t the case.

After we were dressed and had viewed the body, the “Master of Ceremonies”  (my husband referred to him as "the Master") gave the family more instructions.  I stood and listened, not understanding a word.  He was very stern and everyone nodded simultaneously at the end of each sentence, or at least when he paused.  When my husband translated to me, in hurried hushed tones, he told me we couldn’t say the Cantonese word for “thank –you” or “see you later” to the other mourners when they offer condolences.  That pretty much halved my Cantonese vocabulary.  Terrified of saying the wrong thing, I spent the rest of the time nodding and smiling, though my husband had to nudge me at one point and tell me to look sadder when the tone changed in  the ceremony, and I hadn’t picked up on it.

The main function room had an altar set up with a nice picture of my mother-in-law.  In front of the picture, sticks of incense burned in a big bowl of sand.  Laid out on the altar sat various dishes of food, to sustain her on the journey she would soon take to the after-world.  I noticed that several dishes were her favorite and thought how nice it was that we could have this last chance to pamper her. 

We began by bowing to the altar three times, then lit some incense, planting it in the bowl.  I stumbled through the procedure trying to watch my husband for direction from the corner of my eye.  Our niece has some English too and was a great help.  Then we knelt at the side and received the mourners as they came in. The mourners bowed three times and then bowed to us before coming over and speaking to us.  This is repeated throughout the night as people arrived at different times.  Often we scrambled to take our positions, being free to mingle in between times, not that I was much of a mingler with my very limited repertoire of words.  Mind you by the end of the night I could easily recognize the words for “Here’s more mourners, get ready,” and “first bow,” “bow again,” and “third bow”.  The words kind of rhymed – It sounded to me like “Yacht go gong, joy go gong, sam go gong”. 

The Master was very patient with this dumb outsider and was able to speak a little English to direct me too.  It made me realize just how hard it must be for immigrants coming to English speaking countries without knowing that language.  It is totally bewildering, frustrating and above all isolating.   

I often watched the ebb and flow of the conversation around me.  Free from following the words, it was amazing to just watch the dynamics of a conversation.  The gathering of such a large extended family reminded me of my own clan back home, especially the way they all seemed to talk at once, laughing often and easily.  Despite being unable to understand them literally, on another plane, they did speak my language.  Their kindess flowed to me in many other ways.  One cousin was determined to introduce me to everyone – it seemed to me that I had to call everyone “Cousin”, the word in Cantonese being gender specific (like in English we have nephew and niece) so really I only had to learn two words “boy-cousin” and “girl-cousin” and not each individual's name!

In between greeting mourners the first half of the evening was given to rolling and folding pieces of paper painted silver and gold – these represented gold/silver ingots and would be burnt later to send to our loved one as currency for the after-world. 

The family were also sending many other items to the after-world in the from of paper and bamboo models.  There were even papier-mâché servants to help her.  No matter whether you believed in this version of the after-world or not, the fact remained the same – love for the dearly departed manifested itself in full view as these treasures piled up in the wake room awaiting the funeral pyre.

The later half of the evening was given over to dramatic dancing and processions.  Did I mention that the entire time, right from the start, a band was playing and the members of the band chanting?   Initially, it seemed to me to be a cacophony of symbols clashing, a random horn bleating and various other percussion instruments pinging and clanging, but as the evening wore on my ears became accustomed to the medley until it kind of formed it own melody.  That’s not to say that I’m rushing out to buy the CD, but you could read the rise and fall of the harmony – where we are supposed to feel sad, glad and frightened even.

The dance was spectacular.  My husband had to follow the band in a procession around a fire that was lit on the marble floor in the middle of the room.  This part of the ceremony (I was told later) represented breaking onto hell to get her out so she could go to heaven.  At one stage the performers were criss-crossing  back and forward so much that at least two spectators (my husband and I) were afraid they would catch on fire!  This part of the show ended with an extravagant whoosh of flame as one guy spat a mouth full of alcohol (or something flammable) onto the fire then jumped through it.

After this, we carried all the paper money, gold, silver, a house (for her to live in in the afterlife), the papier-mâché servants and all remaining paper treasure in a procession outside to a fire pit.  As these gifts for her after life burned, the Master said something and the voices of the family called out.  Later when I asked my husband what it was, he said they were calling to his Mum to “come get her stuff”!

 The funeral took place the following day, similar to most cremations, but the thing that stuck in my mind was her coffin, carefully packed with all her clothes and things that she used on a regular basis.  All her packing for her journey had been done for her by her family.  Another gesture of love and caring that brought a lump to my throat.  Like all funerals, closing the coffin lid proved the most distressing part for me.  Knowing that we’ll never see that person again catches me hard.

After the funeral, like in Irish tradition too, the whole family and friend connection headed for lunch.  Again, as banter swing around the table, I could picture my family doing this.  It was obvious that the boy cousins were teasing the girl cousins and losing!  Laughter rang and faces glowed with smiles and togetherness.  Words were pronounced slowly for me to learn.  An adorable 8 year old boy-cousin (a different word again because he was young) who was learning English in school was forced by his parents to speak to me.  He was pretty good and seemed delighted to be able to communicate with this curly blond stranger who stuck out like a sore thumb in a sea of jet black haired people.

Next time – I vowed – next time I come back I will be able to speak more Cantonese!  

Byddi Lee

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Humming and Ha-ing

This week, I finally got around to changing the hummingbird feeder, shamed into it, in part by reading that it should be cleaned every week and in part by the humming birds themselves, who would zip down to it then hover and squeak at us for our lack of hygiene!  I have to admit, I didn't think it was an urgent task - there are still plenty of blossoms in the neighborhood, and I ran out of the syrup that initially came with the feeder.

Then, I read that you don't need a fancy feed syrup.  In fact the red dye may not even be good for the little guys.  So, I mixed up four parts water with one part sugar and put it into the well washed out feeder.   I worried that the humming birds wouldn't know it was there, not having the red dye that is said to attract them.  I had heard that if the feeder had some red on it that that would be enough to attract the birds, and sure enough it was.

Now the little monsters think they own the whole garden! This one is saying "All this is mine - all mine! Whahahahah!"  Well, OK, without the "Whahahahah!"  I can't imagine they'd have a deep enough voice for that bit.

And this one is debating which is his best side:
"Does my nose look big in this?"

"Is this better?"
"I like this one - it shows up my nice red throat - and the nose - well, its a beck - so there!"

Some of them are easily embarrassed.
"Embarrassed?  Me?  Is my face red?"

Two's company...
Three's a crowd - can you spot them?

I loved that they were going to the blossoms on the broccoli that I am letting go to seed.  Everyone is getting a share from this garden - not just us and the slugs!

This is what it looks like when hummingbirds talk on their cell phones!
OK- maybe he is scratching...but wow, how big must fleas be to a humming bird?  They must seem to them what mice are to us, or are there tiny hummingbird sized fleas?

"Fleas, no fleas on me?"

Wink, wink!

Byddi Lee

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Tears in the Garden

Another beautiful flower has blossomed for eternity in the Garden of Heaven.

My husband's mother passed away at the beginning of this week.  She lived in Hong Kong, and my heart broke watching my husband's anguish over not being able to get there in time to say his last good-bye in person.  This is the saddest part of living so far from home, and though we both know that things like this happen, it didn't make it any easier. 

My Mother-in-law didn't speak English, and I can barely speak Cantonese, yet when we were in each others company I felt that we could communicate.  I know that it amused her when I did things like drop food all over the table when getting to grips with chop sticks, and it delighted her when I used my smattering of Cantonese to try to converse with her - especially on those occasions when it all came out wrong and the  family rolled with mirth.

How was I supposed to know that complementing her wonderful fish dish, literally translated from English ("Good fish!") was tantamount to calling her a dummy?  Thankfully, she saw the funny side and knew what I was really trying to say!

Above all, I'm heart-fully grateful to this amazing lady for producing the wonderful son who became my husband and my life.  I hope she knows now how much I admire her and acknowledge how hard she worked to give him the best opportunities in life that she could.

多謝  奶奶  Thank you, Lai Lai

She would have been 90 years old next Monday, yet looked like she was in her sixties.  She lived independently up until a year ago and fought off pneumonia at least twice.  She had a strong and brave heart.  We will miss her.

I'd really like to thank Obsessive Neurotic Gardener for mentioning me as one of his favorite blogs during the week.   It really cheered me up right when I needed a lift.
I went out one morning to see our little baby mocking bird that I wrote about in last weeks post, concerned that I couldn't hear it squawking.  The nest was empty except for a plum from the tree.  It seems that the fruit had fallen into the nest and pushed the bird aside.  I found its little body, cold stiff and covered with ants under the tree.  I cried.

Later that afternoon as I sat at my computer writing, I noticed a dove flying to and from the same branch on the Douglas Fir in the front yard.  There was another nest.  In fact there are two in this tree and in the back yard we can hear the familiar squawk of another chick.  Life goes on.  That's what it does best.

Byddi Lee