Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"Do you come from the land of China?"

Today I got my hair cut at Shaggers. I'm told if this were the UK, the place would be the laughing stock of professional hairstylists. In any case, they were friendly and cheap.

During my cut, i noticed a woman (one of the stylists) staring at me. It wasn't uncomfortable like some glances can be; it felt more like a look of pure curiosity. When i was paying at the counter, she came up and asked me if i was from China. It pleased me a lot that she actually came up to ask me, and didn't automatically assume that was the case.

I happily told her I was Canadian, but of Chinese ancestry and that my family was all in Canada, so on, so on. She was very happy with that reply and, the ice broken, went on to tell me that her niece was living in China. I asked her where. She said Shanghai, and that she had married a Chinese man, a Richard Wong... and was there a chance that i knew him? If only - now wouldn't that be the biggest coincidence! :)

I told her as politely as possible that, unfortunately, I didn't know him but it isn't too surprising since there are over 1.3 billion people in the country. However i did tell her my maiden name was also Wong. She seemed very pleased about that and with the broadest grin imageinable, wished me a good day.

I'm pleased that I don't feel that strange or different than the next white or black or coloured person. Sometimes i do get that little longer-than-normal-glance or the double-take, but nothing vicious or ill-intentionned, at least not from what i can sense.

Perhpas I've become so accustomed to 'blending in' whilst living in Asia that every look here is exaggerated in my mind. But then again, in a country where, for so long, the colour of your skin defined who you were, where you came from and what you would become, I feel that everyday I am witnessing little snippets of that history unravelling, exposed and still fresh.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

reaching for that pot of gold

It's been a very hectic but very successful week.

Monday morning, back from Joburg, we were refreshed and ready to house-hunt again. It paid off.

After seeing the 6th house of the day (and probably a few dozen in total since the beginning of our search), we came across THE perfect place in Hout Bay, about a 30 minute drive from Cape Town city.

Perched on top of the mountain overlooking the beach and sea, it is a welcoming place with character and warmth. See pics of views from balcony and patio.

The extra goodies include a fireplace, pool and mini garden/braai area. It's definitely a world apart from our Hong Kong flat, much more spacious and generous in space. Needless to say, we signed that very day. We move in October 15th.

It is such a welcome relief to have found a place to call our new home. And on top of that major achievement, we found out that our new landlady, Val, a super energetic woman who devotes her life to raising 3 young boys, running a household and a side business, also has a literacy organization that helps kids who are lagging a bit behind in school (mainly in language skills) and gives them enough boost so they don't drop out. They also work with street kids so that they can enter the education system and have a hopeful future.

Still quite a new initiative, they are looking for more resources and people to help out. I had to control my excitement. This is the kind of project I was hoping to get involved in, something that involves teaching/training within the community setting. So once Spring Break is finished, I'll see if and how I can contribute to this initiative.

We're finding our feet here, meeting lots of people, seeing as much of this country as possible, and (I never thought I'd say this), I'm absolutely loving my car and the freedom it gives me.

Kalahari Desert and Namaqualand

Reminiscent of our desert days in Xinjiang, we celebrated our 2nd year Xinjiang anniversary by going to another desert: the Kalahari.

It happened to be a 3-day weekend in SA so we took advantage of this and ventured into the Northern Province just bordering Namibia, driving through desolate lands, isolated farms, breathtaking mountain passes and fields upon fields of dazzling autumn flowers.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


I can't sleep.

I'm too excited at the prospect of having finally found a new home to live in!!

It is gorgeous. Really super stunning.

Tomorrow we meet the owners and clinch the deal.

It's been quite a hard-going search but it will have been worth it if it all comes together.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Joburg, where every one and thing gets together

Just 2 hours away by plane is the big thumping heart of South Africa: Johannesburg.

It is a fantastic sprawling city, with people of all sizes and shades, where history can be referred to as what happened a few years back as oppose to the early/late nth century.

For the most part, Jozi (as it is endearingly referred to by locals) is known as the "dangerous city" where crime, poverty, gangs, rape and murder rates top the international charts.

True, there are razor wire fences everywhere, and the stark contrast between the wealthy Northern suburbs with their sparkly super-malls and chic restaurants, and the slums of the township literally just down the road are a reality and not in the least way an exaggeration.

Despite all that, just from talking and walking and observing, there is more mixing here than what I've seen in Cape Town. To be perfectly blunt (and it seems that is the only way to be here, "a South African thing" I'm told), the heart of this Rainbow Nation is in Joburg.

Blacks are seen sharing a beer with whites. Whites are serving Blacks and Coloureds in cafes. There are more inter-racial couples, at least those who are out and about and holding hands.

I didn't know quite what to expect of Joburg, but from the little I saw, I liked it a lot and am anxious to visit again.

Waitrons (the gender-neutral term used to describe waiters and waitresses) here are energetic, eccentric and they'll have a good go at you, pull your leg or just downright make fun of you - all in good humour of course.

But that friendliness and openness is so refreshing, and so different from the stiff, polite and dare i say, conservative, mannerism of Capetonians.

Upon arriving and checking into our hotel, I then met up with a friend of a friend's, Irene, at Witwatersrand University. Specializing in literature, she is here on a fellowship from Canada, researching and lecturing on the side.

Together we toured the Origins Centre Museum on campus (fantastic displays and numerous videos explaining the creation of mankind).

We then stopped by her office (see view from her window) and then picked up her colleague, Yianna, for dinner.

We went to the Market Theatre area and ate at the famous Gramadoelas Restaurant. They once served Nelson Mandela, visiting politicians and royalty, actors and models and even Bill and Hilary Clinton.

When Yianna asked the chef/owner what Bill Clinton had, he replied in a dry and matter-of-fact voice: "the next-door intern". And that is an example of South African humour. Perhaps not best illustrated in written form, but nevertheless that's it.

Good food, good wine and good conversation is all that is necessary to make a superb evening. And we had all of that, and more to spare.

I learned a lot that evening, especially about race, ethnicity and identity amongst foreigners in the "New South Africa." Lots of food for thought.

After taking the next day relatively easy, Saturday was spent exploring the De Wildt Cheetah Research Centre , an hours drive north of Joburg.

Famous for its breeding success of rare and endangered animals, the half-day tour provided fascinating insight into some rare creatures you would never see out in the wild: honey badgers (see pic of the albino one sinking its teeth into a little chick), caracals, wild dogs (a beautiful and ugly creature), antelope, vultures, ostriches, etc.

Of course the cheetahs were the main attraction and as promised by the guide from the beginning, they do not disappoint.

Watching them tear into the chunks of meat thrown at them is absolutely awesome.

That afternoon we visited the Apartheid Museum. A definite must for everyone who passes through Johannesburg.

But, instead of rushing through in a couple of hours like we did, plan to spend at least a full day there to get a good sense of what it meant to live (on either side) of the apartheid regime.

As I came out of the museum, the sun was just setting and I felt like i had been through an entire generation in warp speed where I caught glimpses and snapshots of people's lives in that era. I left with more questions than answers.

See pic of the 6 columns which denotes what the museum represents for the people of SA: Freedom, Respect, Responsibility, Diversity, Reconciliation, and Equality.

That evening we met up with one of Matt's old highschool friend, Thandi, and her partner, Jen, both South Africans. Joining us was Hiroko, an ex-colleague of Matt's now living and studying fine arts at Wits U.

It was a great meal, and again, I gained a lot of insight into the complexities of South Africa's identity and place in the world.

Too bad Joburg is not aesthetically appealing in any way, shape or form. At least not to me. The culture and vibe is definitely attractive and it would be an amazing experience to live here. But give me beautiful glorious Cape Town any day!

On Sunday we booked ourselves a Soweto Township Tour with Imbizo Tours (which means a gathering of celebration in friendship, soul and spirit in the Zulu language).

Not knowing at all what to expect, Mandy (the owner and founder of Imbizo Tours) picked us up in her car and we were treated to a fantastic half-day tour of Soweto, its history, culture and people.

Born and raised in Soweto herself, Mandy "pioneered the practice of introducing visitors to social life and phenomenal history of South Africa in the late 1990's."

Besides getting an intimate experience of what a church service for a few thousand people is like (no need for elaboration here except to say we were definitely feeling a little out of place), we visited Nelson Mandela's old house (when he was still married to Winnie, see pic of back door), saw the symbolic Soweto water towers and the memorial to the June 16, 1976 student uprising.

As students, some as young as 8 years old, took to the streets of Soweto that day to protest against apartheid and the Bantu education system, police responded with teargas and bullets.

The last hour and a half of our tour we spent sipping beers, sodas, and later, free cappiccinos in a local shebeen (unlicensed bar), although this one was actually quite up-scale and we were told they had a proper liquor license.

Mandy basically invited herself (and us, as a result) to sit down with 2 local guys who were already there.

That impromptu drink resulted in the most interesting and insightful conversation to date since arriving in SA.

When you listen to the people of a particular community, Soweto in this instance, there comes an increased awareness of hope and knowledge that seems to permeate from within.

We all learned so much; them about Hong Kong skyscrapers and Jersey cows, and us about Soweto's bling society ;)

As we got out of her car, Mandy told us to enjoy our stay in South Africa and to "be part of the process."

In all its various meanings and tangents you can take that statement, the heart of the matter is that a person should be working towards a cause, a purpose, a process. Her parting words have stuck in my mind and as I settle into life here more every day, I ask myself how I can be part of the process.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

just a plain good day

What a day!

Meeting Irene was one thing. She's very engaging and highly intellectual and well-read. Just pleasant in a Canadian way that i haven't experienced in a while.

As for meeting Yianna, wow! Llike a total force 8 hurricane blowing at you full blast. Born in Greek but living in the US for the past 21 years, she is opinionated and quite hotheaded, but still very stimulating and actually quite inspiring.

For the entire day, the three of us discussed and dissected race and ethnicity and racism. Between us there was Greek, Portuguese, Canadian, American, and Chinese ancestry ... all of us living in South Africa. There was only one way our conversation was heading from the beginning!

What an incredibly random day with encounters that i did not, in the least of all, expect! At the restaurant, we spent almost an hour discussing the menu for Yianna, seeing which foods were NOT spicy for her.

It felt so great to be intellectually stimulated again. Being with two bright women who are completely immersed in the world of academia was interesting. I actually noticed how i was a lot more aggressive and opinionated myself, more than i used to be, say even two years ago. It makes me happy that i do say what i think, try to form a good argument and am becoming a better listener.


What a crazy 3 weeks it's been. There has been lots of time spent together with Matt.

It's been great. We learn, love and enjoy each other. It's pure and simple. beautiful. Is there nothing else i need to ask for?

The support and kindness is just there. Always. He's very patient. Thank goodness for that.

I'm not so much always.

I've been blessed with really good friends, many of whom i've kept in touch with over all these years. and despite the unfortunate fact that they do not know Matt very well (and vice versa) their friendship towards me is so appreciated. It's like outside support, when my current world needs that reassurance.

How can I lead an ethical and fair lifestyle? When i talk about the disparity and inequality of the population here in SA, I am included in this whole calculation. But what can I do, as an individual, with really quite a lot of 'power' and choice, to make a bigger difference, a more positive one, to someone, perhaps to many during my time here? What is my skill? Where does my contribution lie?

To keep believing in oneself without the support of others is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks that humans acquire to advance in their own world.

Tonight will definitely stay in my memory for a long time. I've learned a lot. About myself, my growth and my ability to achieve greater things than I have even fathomed.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hectic, yeeaah?!

It's been a very busy few weeks for us here. And the two most vital things that we need to do are proving to be the most difficult: opening a bank account and finding a place to live.

From day one we've gone to the bank and tried to sort out an account but they require docs from Conergy, and our HSBC in Hong Kong, bank statements, etc. Each time we go back, it's not good enough.

We've gone the "private banking" route hoping that we would get better service. Nope. The woman we're dealing with is quite wishy-washy and forgets to bring the forms we're supposed to sign and so we need to set up more appointments.

We also noticed that since opening the account with 200 Rand, there were lots of charges coming off of the account... until there was only 50 Rand left. And we didn't even withdraw anything!

So we went into a branch today and asked about all these mysterious fees. Apparently the card we were given is not even OURS! It's some other person's card and we have total access to his account! Imagine if he had millions in there and we had no conscience!

We think we might just cancel our account completely with this bank, and start with another bank totally from scratch. We're just hoping somebody else doesn't have OUR bank card and starts to spend the $15000 HK dollars we've just transferred into it! Banks close at 3:30 every day so it's too late now to go in and get it sorted. We'll see what happens.

As for finding a place, the rental market is apprently going through the toughest period any agent has ever seen. There are very few properties out there and lots of potential renters, us included.

There are property agents who are placing ads in the newspaper LOOKING for people who are wanting to rent their property out, can you imagine! We've looked at a lot of places, a couple dozen at least, and still nothing. Either it's not the right size, location, price, not secure, or a combo of those.

More news: I got my new (well, second hand) green Peugeot 307 almost a week ago! We've been using that car exclusively and i'm getting much more used to the manual driving, and loving it! Still need to practice hill starts though ;) Especially those reverse hill starts, yikes!

On Sunday we went to Franschoek, a nice little community about 2 hours away in the winelands. We watched the rugby games and then drove back through the mountains and on some dirt paths - the car's now officially initiated! See Matt buying biltong (dried meat, either kudu, ostrich, springbok, beef, and then seasoned with spices) in a local shop in Franschoek.

I will have the car serviced tomorrow and the A/C fixed too. I'm also gettin a tracking device installed. If by chance it gets hijacked or stolen, i can track it on the internet and the police can retrieve it. I've also got the "anti smash and grab" tinted windows put in, which prevents anyone from coming up and breaking the glass with a spark plug to steal whatever's inside the car.

And i got safety bands put in on all the wheels which basically allows me to keep driving for 150 km without having to stop if i get a flat tire. This is useful if you're in an unsafe or unknown area. Sometimes people deliberately put nails or glass on the street to cause flats so people have to stop. But anyways, all these safety features on the car will make it much more safe on the roads.

We're getting into a routine somewhat, playing frisbee twice a week. The people are friendly (nice mix of locals and foreigners) and it's great weather to do outdoor sports, as oppose to the heat/humidity in HK. Can't believe how we put up with it for so long! I've joined the yoga studio just a block away from where we're staying and i've gone about 5 times now, love it!

We've also been cooking a lot: couscous, pasta, curries - we bought those boil in a bag rice packages but haven't attemped it yet. Matt is looking forward to our rice cooker arriving from HK more than i am!! :)

We're also trying to read more of the local papers to be more informed about SA and Cape Town politics. There was a huge protest a couple days ago which clogged up the N2 (one of the busiest highways in town) about housing shortages in one of the townships. It is true what they say about how one can easily forget what lies "across the fence" if you choose not to go there.

I've already started to look for second hand pianos to buy also. I can't wait to have my own piano again to play on, it's been way too long, longest gap in my life i think. I've got a few to see so hopefully we'll have a home to take it too soon!

So besides doing all the househunting and settling in bit, i've been job hunting. There are several teaching posts which i've applied to already, only starting in Jan (beginning of the term here). However i have been warned by a lot of people i've met (locals and foreigners) that finding employment here is very difficult if not near impossible.

It seems people are reluctant to hire anyone who doesn't already have a work visa, but the catch is you can't get a work visa until you have an employer! I already had an interviewer cancel on me after we set a date/time, when she realized i didn't have a work visa.

Apparently most people (those who come from abroad) end up doing a lot of volunteer work. Some end up getting a student visa (much easier to obtain supposedly) and furthering their studies. I'm still hopeful something will come up though, it's really a lot about who you know too. Hmm... sounds all too familiar.

In the meantime, I've also started to ask around for some volunteering positions with various organizations, just to expand my network. I've thought about teaching privately at home, piano or whatever, but need to know more about doing it without a work visa, if that's a good idea or not.

I also wonder if this isn't a good time to get back into the development field of work, perhaps in the edu stream, since there is an obvious need for resources and extra help. In any case, being here and living as we do (although not extravagantly but definitely more luxuriously than most) has brought home the inequality and disparity between people who supposedly share a home city, which is now also mine.

Last night we met up with a friend of mine, Yulanda, who used to work at Treasure Island with me in Hong Kong. She's from HK but in 4th year med school in Southampton. Her and some of her classmates just spent 7 weeks in SA doing a summer internship course in Kwazulu-Natal province, working in rural clinics and hospitals.

While we dined on all the must-try game meats (springbok, kudu and ostrich), it was interesting to hear them talk about their experience, stiching up ears and stab wounds in the ER, and how even if there is a slight suspicion of HIV contamination from patient to doctor, they must start antiviral drugs immediately. However, it was good to hear that the hospitals (the public ones too!) are actually quite first-rate and secure/safe.

Tomorrow we are flying to Johannesburg, coming back Sunday night. Matt has a couple of meetings and on Sat we are going to the Cheetah reserve tour and on Sun we're taking a township tour of Soweto (inc the Nelson Mandela Museum, churches, etc).

I'll be meeting a friend of a friend at Wits University tomorrow, we'll have dinner together with her friend and go and listen to some music i think. Sat night we are meeting one of Matt's old highschool friend from Atlantic College. And of course Friday night is the BIG England vs. South Africa rugby World Cup game!! Still undecided who to cheer for!! ;)

Monday, September 03, 2007

First Weekend: flowers, surf and whales

Our first weekend in Cape Town and we made two day trips. And i must admit, having our GPS navigation system makes it so easy to get around.

On Saturday, though it was a bit rainy and windy, we went up the Atlantic coast road to the West Coast National Park, about a 90 minute drive.

On the way we spotted some kite-surfers out on the water. Incredible beautiful. Something else to add on the to-try list!

The flower season is in full bloom and we saw all the pretty flowers in various shades of pink, yellow, orange - all very BRIGHT !

The land itself is quite desolate and rugged, giving a natural beauty that you don't come across much these days.

After our picnic lunch on the rocks with the waves pounding into the bay, I took over the wheel and practiced my manual driving. So happy to be driving after so many years, i took us all the way back home. However, i should admit i did stall. Once. About 2 blocks away from home. Darnit! Gotta keep practicing.

On Sunday, a glorious sunny day, we headed south on a spectacular drive that hugs the coastline. The sheer drop on one side and the soaring mountain on the other provides a ride like none other.

After making a pit stop in Hangsklip, a small charming village at the tip of the bay, we turned back to go home.

On our way, we stopped several times to see the whales playing just off the shoreline. It is "whale wathcing season", as most people will tell you and there is quite a big following, at least on weekends, us included.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

all in a few day's time

It's been just a few days since our Cape Town touchdown and we've remarkably managed to do quite a bit -well as much as can be done within the strict official barriers of SA. At least it's not as bad as China, i keep telling myself, haha.

For the first 3 nights we stayed at the same B&B we were at last visit, Liberty Lodge. For those who are ever thinking of visiting The Mother City, it is a fantastic place to stay in terms of location, hospitality and as Matt would say, "their yummy omelettes!" See pic of Table Mountain from Liberty Lodge's balcony.

Within 4 days we had found ourselves a serviced apartment (little cottage, actually), Harfield Guest Villa, in the Southern Suburbs to base ourselves for the next 6-8 weeks before our shipment arrives from HK.

With a self-contained kitchen, living room and tv/dvd, full bath, guest bedroom (which we've converted as a storage room), and highspeed wireless internet, it is the perfect size with all the necessities closeby.

We've gone shopping at the local grocery stores, Pick 'n Pay and Shoprite, and for the "exotic imports" we go to Woolworth's. Although I've yet to find fresh tofu and dumplings!

It's strange not to be able to just walk down the road and pick up milk or bread from the 7-11. Convenience stores are very common and grocery stores close at 6pm for the most part, open half days on Satudays and close on Sundays.

We spent the first few days driving around trying to find an open beer store. Poor Matt had to endure the delicious South African wine and the hotel's overpriced cider before we finally understood that things work differently here.

We managed to get the beer, but we had to go out at 8AM in the morning to do so! Where else in the world can you buy beer at such an hour but NOT after 6pm? See the happy Matt unloading the groceries from the boot/trunk of our rental car.

It's definitely a much more relaxed and laid back kind of lifestyle. However, I guess coming from hectic, busy Hong Kong, the contrast couldn't be any more different.

Weekends are for leisure and family. Keeping active and healthy are quite important to many people. Good food and good wine are vital elements to a balanced life and there is definitely no shortage of that here. There is a fairly strong sense of community (from what i can tell in my short time here so far), all blanketed with a delightful South African joie de vivre and humour, which i absolutely love!

So yes, we're settling in nicely. What's more, I found a yoga studio just literally a 2 minute's walk away. I've gone to a couple classes already and I am going to ensure I continue making it a staple of my week. How can i not when doing the Sun Salutation means gazing out at Table Mountain right outside the window?

And speaking of routine, we've already signed up to the Cape Town frisbee league and after missing our first game Monday night due to miscalculating the time difference, we went to a pickup game on Thursday and met some friendly - and fit! - Capetonians at the Wynberg Sports Centre. It's such a great feeling to arrive at the field and not already be covered in sweat! I'm loving it here already!