Well this sure ain’t Malaysia. Making a brief two-day stop in Hong Kong just because we wanted some real Chinese food, Diane and I hopped on the Air Canada flight to Vancouver a few days ago and braved the twelve-hour insanity known as flying into yesterday. Unfortunately, the rain in Penang stopped long enough for another stretch of bright sunshine just before we departed that left my dehydrated and over-exerted body with a slight cold. Sadly, flying makes dehydration even worse and it turned into laryngitis as we collected our bags in Hong Kong. Not exactly known for its blue skies and perfect climate, Hong Kong defied expectations with three incredible days of bright sunshine and 23 Celsius degree perfection. Accompanied by Diane’s sister-in-law who just happened to be visiting her parents, we embarked on a one day tour, ate some delicious seafood and hoped for the best with my cold as we waited patiently at the Air Canada gate. And that’s when we possibly broke the Guinness Record for the biggest climate drop in human history from between flights.
Ah, real coffee again
Having left Penang on a 30 degree morning (86 Farhenheit) only a few days earlier, we arrived at Vancouver International Airport too late to make our connection to Calgary thanks to delays on both ends of the Air Canada flight. Well slept but still tired, we cleared the new and improved kiosk based customs, collected our bags, and headed upstairs to an endless line with about one-third of the frustrated 350 passengers that also needed re-ticketing. Usually opting for Cathay Pacific when flying a transcontinental route, some greedy CEOs decided to change economy ticket pricing to a three-tier system like Air Asia and other discount airlines. Charging upwards of $500 to “upgrade” your fare class to one that allows seat selection, choosing the reasonably priced cheapest fare means sitting twelve hours on whatever shitty middle seat in the back of the plane they assign you and not bringing any checked luggage without paying a fee. Yeah, that makes sense on a 6,000 mile trip. So we chose Air Canada despite their strange departure time from both sides of the Pacific because you can pick your seat and connect to Calgary on the same itinerary. But even one minor delay of an hour leaves them struggling so badly on the other side that it’s worth making sure there’s several flights after the one you’ve chosen in case of lengthy delays. They sent those traveling further east than Alberta to hotels for the night with a whopping ten-dollar food stipend that might buy a donut and coffee and they re-booked us on a later flight to Calgary.
With the long strange Chinese New Year holiday (or holidays as in a pluralized version) finally winding down, it’s time to reflect on lessons learned. Residents of Southeast Asia for about eight months now, Diane and I realized from the start it takes an entire year to asses all the various multicultural events, holidays, religious celebrations and everything else that makes Malaysia as different from North America as night and day. Unlike North America, life in a Chinese dominated island revolves around the Lunar New Year and affects everyone’s daily life from shoppers to non-Chinese workers. Adding to the confusion, Penang is basically the only place outside China sporting a large community of Hokkien Chinese people. Unaware that Hokkien Chinese have a mysteriously different language, history, culture and ambition level compared to Cantonese and Mandarin speakers, here’s a non-comprehensive and very unscientific list of what we learned this month.
Never visit the wet market on the weekend before Chinese New Year
Having been to the local market in Tanjung Bungah about 100 times, we’ve never seen any real crowds. Akin to a local Wal-Mart the day before a hurricane, the mad rush on everything and anything edible, especially animals, means fending off hundreds of patrons and even the Asian discount goes away if you don’t speak Hokkien Chinese. In their defense, however, Hokkien Chinese are not very aggressive and the least pushiest Chinese people anywhere which probably comes from living with non-confrontational Malays. Don’t visit at this time.
Knowing many of you are partaking in colorful celebrations this week, Diane and I would like to extend a Happy and Prosperous Chinese New Year to everyone no matter where you are. Sadly, I am sitting at a mostly empty house in the very non-Asian town of Walnut Creek, California waiting for February to end so we can finally sell this house, file our MM2H Visa and get the heck out of Dodge City. (Sorry: One last cheesy American slang expression). Although San Francisco does put on the largest Chinese New Year’s Parade in America, The Experimental Expats will be celebrating with some frozen Kung-Pao Chicken and Fried Rice courtesy of Trader Joes, our local processed food mecca. Can you see why it’s time to get outta here?
Of course America never does anything the way the rest of The Earth does so unlike much of Asia where businesses shut down for a week allowing for family celebrations, today is a normal two-hour commute here in the land of Never Ending Work. In fact, the so-called “Chinese New Year Parade” will be held on March 7th, a full ten days after the real holiday. Why? Because this nation stops for nothing, works through everything and believes that life is about obtaining the most material objects possible and then never retiring to enjoy anything anyway. Stores are open on Thanksgiving Day and it’s only a matter of time until someone invents a way to keep retail alive on Christmas Day.
So for now, we spend our last Chinese New Year in a very non-Chinese environment and look forward to spending 2016 among thousands of revelers that understand the true meaning of the holiday. Taking some time to reflect on one’s life and look towards the future represents the true spirit of Chinese New Year (along with some red envelopes of course). With apologies for the bastardized American pronunciation which is a Cantonese version:
Gung Hay Fat Choy !!
Coming next: The adventure starts as vendors arrive to pretty up our house
When Diane and I travel, we always leave a night-light with a timer on in the living room that faces the street to avoid a deserted house look. Thankfully, it’s always worked and we’ve never had any burglary issues. Unfortunately, someone forgot to explain the night light’s meaning to the ants. Returning back from a two-week Canadian jaunt, our last holiday season in the cold before the upcoming move to Malaysia, we walked into the house and came face to face with a superhighway of little ants. Appearing to start in somewhere in the kitchen heating vent, they formed an amazingly perfect commuter highway leading past the kitchen, across the hallway, into the living room and culminating at another heating vent large enough to support a colony of unknown proportions.
Last weekend, while still in Calgary, we checked the Yahoo weather forecast while huddled up in a cozy warm Canadian house, and chuckled at the “frost warnings” issued for Northern California while the weather outside hovered at -25 C (about five below zero for the Metric challenged). The Bay Area usually gets a week of near freezing overnight temperatures and if you think they bundle up when it’s only cool, you should see them when it’s near freezing. Unfortunately, cold snaps also push the threshold for a comfortably warm ant colony. Once it’s too cold, ants seek shelter anywhere warm and when the scouter ants discover an unoccupied house, they move all their little belongings into said warm spot.
As we approach the final full day of our last trip to the cold before the adventure to SE Asia, we awoke to a -17C day with a -27C wind chill, proving it’s absolutely time to get our of here. It also snowed about four inches yesterday which is not Buffalo worthy but still more than I prefer (that would be no snow).
The featured image above is one gross and unhealthy thing that I will actually miss: Poutine Fries. Dripping with gravy and cheese curds and served at the mall, it may be the only thing Western Canadians appreciate about Quebec . Continue reading →
Wrapping up our last holiday season in the cold before moving to Malaysia in a few months, Diane and I headed south from Edmonton and spent New Year’s Eve in Calgary with her family. Reminiscing about my six years as an American expat in Canada, I began reflecting on all the Canadian businesses either gone or gobbled up by American corporations. Asking most Canadians what defines their identity usually yields the proud response “We’re not American”. While that may still be true, scores of major Canadian industry staples including Molsons, Tim Hortons and The Bay allowed themselves to merge into American corporations with little fanfare.
Sadly, a post 9/11 world dominated by the world’s only superpower desperately clinging to keep their global status intact means citizens of Canada have little or no say in the Americanization of their proud nation. Fortunately, there are always some icons that simply can’t exist in the mighty American homeland for various reasons from political correctness issues to culinary taste differences. Sharing my own personal list of favorite Canadian things not found in The States, I offer up the following list and wish everyone a happy and healthy 2015.
Sidenote: Only Americans call it “America”. The rest of the world refers to the USA as “The States”, probably so they can also disassociate themselves and be “not American”.
First, I have to acknowledge our deep sadness and try not to freak out too much as news from the Air Asia tragedy unfolds. It almost seems like something is pushing us not to end up in Malaysia but we also understand that all travel entails inherent risk so for now we offer condolences and move on. After returning to California we only have about 90 days until we file MM2H paperwork and see where life goes from there.
On a cheerier note I wanted to share a few brief thoughts and pictures on being back in my pseudo-nation and first expat experience. Having left Edmonton after Christmas with Diane’s family, we’re back in Calgary where we spent six years of our lives.
Recalling my first Boxing Day Blowout extravaganza as a newly minted American expat living in Canada brings back memories of sleeplessness, blurry eyed crazed Canadians standing in minus 25 temperatures and packed parkades at 4 AM. (sidenote for Americans: A parking garage in Canada is a parkade. Yeah, I didn’t know that either.) Contrasting sharply with America, Christmas day in Canada is not for hitting the movies, watching the annual NBA holiday matchup or drinking yourself into a stupor and sleeping until Noon the next day. Preparing for the mad dash known as Boxing Day, the Canadian version of Black Friday, was all that counted.
My in-laws street in Edmonton
Arriving for my first holiday dinner with new in-laws in Edmonton back in 2000, I discovered that families hung out with each other all day chatting about insignificant but conversational issues and watched the Yule Log while waiting for the big holiday meal. Strangely devoid of normal music, there was nothing but Christmas carols on the radio even on the classic rock station. Mystified, I opened the door to reach for the morning paper, but learned that the newspapers didn’t publish an edition on December 25th.
A funny thing happened on the way to the Christmas dinner table at Diane’s relatives house. There was no dinner. Spending our last holiday season in the cold before we move to Malaysia in the spring, Diane and I heard the news through the family grapevine.
Although both her parents are relatively fit and healthy, they’ve apparently decided that 80 is the magic age where parents get to say “I’m too old to cook anymore”. Fortunately, there’s always been a solution and for a Chinese-Jewish couple, it’s almost sacrilegious NOT to engage in the traditional Christmas Feast at a Chinese restaurant. Invented in New York City, Christmas Day Chinese dinner represents the busiest day of the year for a Chinese restaurant, sans perhaps Chinese New Year. Welcoming both religious, non-religious and those Jews somewhere in-between, Chinese entrepreneurs figured out long ago that the Jewish community has a lot of money, celebrates their own holiday season on eight different days that never fall on December 25th and best of all, Jewish people love Chinese food.
One of the many advantages of an unexpected layoff is the freedom to choose your own vacation days and not asking your boss for two weeks off when everyone else wants the same thing. Concluding the longest year of my life, Diane and I are off to her family’s homeland for the holiday season. With an approaching cold front promising minus 20 degree temperatures by Christmas Day, a tropical holiday with margaritas by the pool is not in the cards this year. Disclosing our plans to sell the house in March and file for an MM2H visa is part of the mission since Diane chose to keep her parents in the dark until now. (No, I don’t know why; I think it’s an Asian thing to keep secrets or something like that).
Wishing everyone a healthy and happy holiday season, please follow our holiday posts these next two weeks but please forgive any delays in responding due to our “hotel accommodations”. As first generation immigrants approaching their 80th birthdays, Diane’s parents are not likely to embrace the concept of home WiFi this season so we’ll be relying on Starbucks, the mall and eventually my sister-in-law’s house for New Year’s Eve.