Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On Eating Alone

After yoga class yesterday evening, I had a strangely intense craving for sushi.  Freshly showered, hastily packed, I made a beeline for Masu Robatayaki & Sushi in the On-Hing Building.  The three things in their favor: fresh, close, quiet.
My sushi platter.  Nom nom nom.
I enjoyed my meal paired with hot tea and my Kindle.   Last night, in this restaurant's dim, muted corners, eating out alone felt just right.

It may seem strange to eat out alone.  I'm sure some people would never do it; I'm sure some people have never done it.  Certainly in America it is a strange thing to go to a nice restaurant by yourself.

But I've noticed it is quite common to eat alone in Hong Kong.  Sometimes I marvel at all of the people here who are very clearly eating by themselves, despite sitting directly across from or next to each other.  These strangers are practically wedged into each other's personal space, yet they studiously avoid any eye contact or conversation.

Loneliness -- sometimes we are most alone and anonymous when we are most surrounded.  I guess that is both the blessing and the curse of a metropolis.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

In the Mood For Love

Have you guys ever seen this movie?  I'd heard about it long ago and always knew I would like it, but for some reason never got around to watching it.  It's really good.  Beautiful people, melancholy scenes, great cinematography, and oh, her fabulous cheong-san dresses (nearly a different one in each scene!).  Be still my heart.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Greasy Spoon Lunch

Quiet and quick.  Char siu (barbecue pork) and roast goose. Honeyed salty sweet slightly smoky perfection.

Lunch set at Yat Lok, HK$39

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Parting Shots

My sister and her mentor did such an amazing job showing me all around Ubon.  Not only did we do a ton of shopping and eating*, we also went to visit some beautiful wats.

*I bought a nifty pair of green pants with elephants all over them (see below), lemongrass tea, a ton of snacks,  a spoon made out of coconut, a traditional Thai pillow, a beach cover, a handkerchief for Michael, and many other random assorted food goodies).

On my last night in Ubon, we went to one of the teacher's houses for Isan hotpot and karaoke.  Let me just say, karaoke is huge in Thailand.  I am going to have to brush up a little lot so that I'm more prepared next time I'm back in Ubon!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Aroy Mak Mak!!

I ate so much on this trip that I'm afraid I am not going to have pictures to do every meal justice.  But the food in Ubon definitely deserves its own blog post.  If you love to eat - if you live to eat - Ubon may just be your paradise.  Practically every street stall, no matter what it is selling - is selling something delicious.
That's why one of the very first words I learned in Thai is aroy, or delicious.  Mak means "very".  So basically everywhere I went, I was chirping, "Delicious VERY VERY!!" in barely restrained bliss.

I sampled all of the street food at will, with not much fear of getting sick.  The street carts were very clean and everything was really sanitary.  It was nothing like Bangkok, which just seemed grimy and dirty in comparison.

I guess the food can be a bit of a shock, especially if you're not used to being served shrimp or fish from head to tail.  But otherwise I thought it was overall pretty normal fare - rice, pork, chicken, fish, shrimp, a lot of vegetables.  It wasn't like we were eating bugs (although that was admittedly at my request).  One of the things that I find very annoying about American grocery stores is how meat and seafood are reduced to nearly unidentifiable blobs, rendering the consumer as far removed from the entire killing and preparing process as possible.  Therefore American consumers are absolutely oblivious to the animal he or she is eating.  Guess what?  The creature you're putting into your stomach once had brains, guts, and eyeballs!  It wasn't always a pretty piece of pink meat under saran wrap cover in the refrigerated section of your supermarket.  I guess you're not going to be surprised to hear that I strongly believe that anyone who eats chicken ought to have reached their hands inside the carcass and also know what cutting through a chicken's neck feels like, and anyone who eats shrimp ought to know how to handle the head and the veins.  You know what a head of lettuce looks like, don't you? Everyone should understand what she's eating.  Ok, rant over.

A partial list of the things I sampled (scarfed down) on this trip:
papaya salad     fish covered in three-flavored sauce     pad see ew    coconut juice 
coconut jelly     banana pancake     mangosteens     mango sticky rice    green mango
yellow mango     banana chips     roasted seaweed     jackfruit curry    lotus root curry
morning glory curry     spicy roast eggplant     beef jerky    tamarind    longan fruit
smoked chicken    moo bing pork    sticky rice   Isan hotpot     hoi tod    gyu jap noodles
snakehead fish    fried yellow fish    fried spring rolls    banana leaf salad     quail eggs
sugarcane chicken skewers    hot soy milk with sago    mini fried crabs    khao tom

Until next time, Ubon!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Thai Education

On my third and fourth mornings in Ubon (Monday and Tuesday), I went back to school.

I'd kind of forgotten what it felt like to be in a little kid's classroom, permeated with that distinct chalk/crayon/wet marker/dried glue stick/dusty/sticky smell, with old desks permanently tattooed by successive generations, year in, year out.  I hadn't seen maps and laminated colored worksheets hung up on a wall in years.  Bags of colored pencils, pencil sharpeners, safety scissors and construction paper only made me wistful for a simpler time.
As a Fulbright scholar with the U.S. government, my sister is the English teaching assistant and teaches second graders to ninth graders.   She also runs one English class for the Thai teachers.  The school covers every grade from first grade to ninth grade, and the students attend class in the same classrooms.

I gave a little exclamation of surprise and joy when I saw World Book encyclopedias on the back shelf.  Remember those things?  They also had National Geographic magazines dated from 1967 to 1983.  Those relics could probably go for some $$ on eBay!  Many of these items are donated from various American organizations and schools.  It's likely that the financial accounting textbook and the Microsoft Office manuals are not getting much use in this classroom, however.
The best part of going to school was getting to meet many of the students.  They were quite shy towards me, but above all very, very curious.  I would be reading my Kindle or cutting out construction paper and feel their steady gazes on me, or spy the quick movements as students whipped their heads into the room to stare at me.  I was constantly introduced as the "peesaw jingjing", the older sister.
Playing a memory vocabulary game
Everyone loved making Valentine's Day cards
Really showing the enthusiasm now!
Once the camera really came out, the kids lost their shyness and hammed. it. up. for the camera.  So precious!
I learned a lot from my visits to the school and really cherish the experience.  A few things really struck me.  For better or for worse, seniority and hierarchy is very important in Thailand's schools.

Shaded classrooms
Teachers are considered professionals in Thailand and are given a great deal of respect by the students.  When we pulled up to school at 7:40 in the morning, all of the school kids would line up and wai us, which is the respectful Thai greeting that a subordinate gives an elder.  It consists of a slight bow, with the hands pressed together in a prayer like fashion.

The school kids would then clamor to the car and wait for us to park before bounding over to pick up our bags for us.  All of the school kids get to school early by walking from their respective homes and farms.  Once there, they do chores around the school, such as washing, cleaning, sweeping or any other administrative task that keeps the school running.  Can you imagine American school kids doing this?
The school's central field
Another thing I noticed is the different style of teaching and learning.  Everyone greets the teacher with a rousing, unanimous, "Good morning, teacher, how are you?"  Teachers use a lot of worksheets.  Students are not expected to volunteer, and I highly doubt the teacher would get any volunteers even if they were sought.  Working together / copying off each other on class work (other than exams) is completely accepted.  No homework is assigned.  (Of course, this is a village school.  I'm sure it's quite different at an elite private school or a magnet public school in a bigger city.)

Finally, all of the students take off their shoes and walk around in socks (or for the very little ones, barefoot) while in the classrooms.  It's because many of the students only have one pair of shoes and it has to last them for at least the year.   Yeah, that made me feel kind of crummy for bringing three pairs of shoes for my four day trip.

A little bit away from the central yard and classrooms is the school's farm.  All of the students help on the farm:
Tending the school's vegetable patch
My favorites
Green green rice field
The more senior teachers all eat lunch together in their usual spot in the cafeteria.  My sister eats with them every day, and I was politely invited to join them.  We usually brought fresh fruit to the potluck.

On the second day, at our request, the PE teacher allowed some of the ninth grade boys to play futsol and takraw with my sister and me.  Let me just say that these boys were really, really kind and incredibly generous with us, considering how atrociously, embarrassingly, unathletically awful we were.  (Not to put too fine of a spin on it or anything).

Futsol is a modified version of soccer, played with five members on a team, on a much smaller pitch, with a smaller ball, and with much smaller goals.  Takraw is a fascinating game akin to foot volleyball, played with three members on a team, who are serving, passing and "killing" a rattan cane ball over a net.  Check it out.

Let's just say my sister and I were really happy if we managed to make contact with the ball!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Sabai Sabai

My sister's street.  There are usually a lot more dogs loping around.  They make their presence heard at night.

My sister's mentor, another English teacher at the school, lives down the street with her siblings in a complex of very pretty houses. 
This is an example of a traditional Thai house and garden - very charming right?  It is quite dark and cool, which is very important when the weather in Thailand is hot, hotter, and hottest.
On my second morning in Ubon, my sister and I shared some gyu jap noodles and khao tom for breakfast:

Before we went to do some shopping!  We hit up a flea market where rows upon rows of secondhand sneakers, tshirts, skirts, jackets, pants lined the racks under a tarp.  I didn't see anything more expensive than 130 baht, or about $4.

We then hit up Big C, which is a discount superstore like Tesco, that is everywhere in Thailand.  It's like their K-mart or Target.  Why oh why doesn't Hong Kong have these??  At Big C, I picked up a pack of tom yum flavored ramen soup.  I am a huge fan of the sour, spicy, tangy flavor of tom yum.
At this point, it was time for -- you guessed it -- more food.  We went to a floating restaurant that serves up very fresh catches of the day:

As we gorged on sticky rice, fried fish, huge boiled shrimp and broiled sweet sour spicy snakehead fish, and as I lay on some plastic mats and pillows, feeling my belly expanding with delicious food, the light breeze blow over me and the heat of the sun reflecting off of the calm lake, I began to really understand the meaning of "Sabai sabai."  This term is bandied around by my sister and her friends and coworkers in Ubon all the time.  "Sabai" means that things are well.  "Sabai sabai" means that things are relaxed and as they should be.  I think it's also a phrase thrown around if things don't go according to plan, kind of like the Thai woman's "c'est la vie".

As if the food the restaurant serves isn't enough, there are also boats that glide between the floating huts, selling all kinds of snacks and Thai delicacies.

Of course we had to get some, although I politely declined the ant eggs and all of the fried insects, as well as the jumping live shrimp.  For some things I am still not sufficiently sabai sabai.
clockwise from top: jelly coconut, green mango, yellow mango, boiled quail eggs, mini fried crabs
Happiness is...
After lunch, we relaxed at home for a bit, checked out a handmade organic cotton store, and then each got a two hour traditional Thai massage.  It was very relaxing, but the masseuses were a little less experienced than we would have liked- they each had only been in training for 2-3 years.

Finally, as if that weren't enough eating in one day, we hit up the food stalls for some dinner and dessert.  We finally rolled home in a pleasantly air conditioned taxi, a little exhausted, but very content, with our day.