Carl Damerow's Reports
Report 1Carl Damerow
Since this is Grinnell Corps' and my first report from Macau, I thought I would start by giving a little introduction to this laid-back, hodge-podge city. First off, Macau consists of a peninsula and two islands connected by three bridges and a convenient, albeit crowded, bus service. The peninsula, dubbed Macau, is the city proper and contains 90% of the population. Here is where you'll find the bulk of the city's cheap markets, retail stores, video arcades, bars, and museums. The first island, Taipa, is where Erika and I call home. Taipa is a nice mix of apartment buildings, restaurants, grocery stores, and more restaurants. It is home to the more affluent Macanese, as well as Macau University of Science and Technology, where we work. It is a nice balance of convenience and comfort, without having the hectic and congested pace of the peninsula. The second island, Coloane, is the least-developed island. It has beaches, running paths, hotels, and upscale restaurants. Coloane is where most of the British and foreigners live, most of whom are developing the huge casino industry here in Macau. The whole feel of the place is very amalgamated: architecturally it is all Portuguese high-rises; the people are all Chinese; the restaurants are everything in between; and the weather is hot with 95% humidity. Contrary to what I expected, I don't seem to be out of place even though I am noticeably blonder than everyone in this country other than Erika. But the laid-back atmosphere, combined with Macau's busy tourist industry, means that no one thinks twice about two Westerners cruising the street.
In fact, the only time people are surprised with me is when I try to speak Cantonese. Every time I say anything, even if it is just a please or thank you, I am greeted with polite and friendly responses. From what I've gathered from the ex-pats around here, no one even tries to pick up the language, so any little bit goes a long way. I have been getting lessons from Candy, the young woman in charge of Erika and I, and I really don't think the tonal language is as bad as everyone says. I should say, though, that deciding whether to learn Mandarin or Cantonese is frustrating. Everyone I have talked to, even the locals, tell me to learn Mandarin; it is the national language and quickly pushing regional dialects into the background. However, Cantonese is far and away the predominant language on the streets here and used almost exclusively in shops, taxis, and restaurants.
Speaking of restaurants, the food here is truly unbelievable. I've eaten at Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, English, Portuguese, French, Italian, and even Mexican restaurants, all of which were delicious. Best of all, any given lunch is usually only a few dollars, and dinners are never more than ten, including a drink or two. That being said, I am budgeting my money for travel, so the majority of my meals are grocery store boxed lunches. I have never been more satisfied, or more consistently surprised, in a meal than when I get one of these $1.25 box lunches. Despite the fact that I can inspect, consider, and point to three dishes I want with rice, despite the fact that I choose the three most recognizable entrees from a choice of a dozen, I always get something special. For example, the other day I pointed to what I thought to be cucumbers and beef, curried potatoes, and Shitake mushrooms. As it turns out, the cucumbers were actually not cucumbers but rather the most bitter vegetable I've ever eaten; the curried "potatoes" were curried winter melon, something akin to jicama; and best of all, the mushrooms floating in soup where actually just a clever cover for the three chicken feet that were ladled into my box. But at a buck and a quarter, you really can't beat that price, can you? Also, I should mention that one of Macau's specialties is a little egg-custard in a flaky crust about the size of a pocket watch. I actually wake up earlier just to get them still warm from the bakery across the street. Unbelievable.
Although eating is always a highlight for me, there are many ways to pass the days here in Macau. The Macau Fellowship requires only sixteen hours of teaching and another ten of office hours, so that leaves a lot of free time to fill. This can either be a blessing or a curse depending on your knack for staying busy and happy. The city is officially geared for gambling but that aspect of Macau has hardly impacted my life here at all. Future Fellows should know, though, that the Vegas of the East does have its sleazier side, too, and prostitution has a presence. But there are all sorts of healthier ways to enjoy your time here.
For example, I joined a rugby club here in Macau and practice with them twice a week. It is a fun group of ex-pats, students, and Portuguese locals, many of whom take the jet foil to Hong Kong every weekend to play for teams there. I, too, joined the Hong Kong Nomads and play against the other fifteen Division 4 clubs in HK. It has been a good way to meet people there and have a reason to hit the big city without just walking around as a tourist. Also, Erika and I both have also joined a running club, although I use the term loosely. It is a Hash Club, which although new to me, seems to be all the rage for Britons living in post-colonial Asia. To hash, two runners get a ten-minute head start and they leave a trail of flour to be followed. These "hares" employ all sorts of tricks, false trails, and check backs to elude the pack of "hounds". Picture fifteen British and Aussie men and women scrambling around the back alleys of Macau screaming "Flour here!" at the top of their lungs. We usually get stares. The run is always topped off with a healthy beer-drinking circle to counteract all of that silly exercise, typical British fashion. Finally, I started taking kung fu lessons at a Buddhist temple with a real Shaolin monk. As cool as that sounds, the next oldest student is twelve and so I feel a little out of place. But it is funny to see little six year olds in kung fu poses accidentally punch themselves in the face. If only I just didn't feel so bad about sending them to the hospital after sparring.
Another great way to spend time is traveling, but having classes five days a week doesn't make it very easy to fit in anything more than short weekend trips. After months of bureaucratic red tape - China's forte - I finally got my worker's permit as well as a six-month multiple-entry visa to China. Now able to hop the border whenever I please, I ventured for the first time just a mile north of my home to Zhuhai, China [pronounced Jew-high, Chi-na]. Zhuhai is a lot like Macau, minus the Rosetta Stone of Portuguese that I use to decode most Chinese street signs. Zhuhai is a Special Economic Zone, which means that it profits from less stringent import/ export laws than the rest of mainland China. This translates into a commercial free-for-all where everything, everything, has a price tag. But, as with most knock-offs and factory walk-offs, the price tag is usually unbelievably cheap. Erika, Candy, Fong (Erika's roommate), and I had a full five-course Sichuan meal for approximately four dollars each. For dessert we all got hour long head and foot massages. Now I don't know if getting calluses sanded off by a chatty little Chinese woman is the definition of "the good life", but it sure felt pretty nice.
Although the approaching winter vacation has got me dreaming about jungle adventures in Thailand, Taiwan, and the rest of South East Asia, I currently don't travel much and spend most of my time in Macau. Since this Special Administrative Region (SAR) is small and cramped-- Wikepedia listed Macau as the most densely populated area in the world)-- I do occasionally get to feeling a little penned-in. After the first three months here, I was extremely happy to stretch my legs in Shanghai for a long weekend. But the typical day for me is relaxing enough that density is not too much of a problem:
9:00: wake up, hit snooze a few times
9:30: get an egg-custard, BBQ pork bun, and newspaper from the bakery across the street
10:00: practice Chinese, calligraphy, or read
11:30: shower, shave, and finally get dressed for the day
12:00: grab the $2.50 Indian lunch special with Erika, easily the greatest deal in town
1:00: catch the free shuttle bus to school or take the twenty-minute walk
2:00: teach conversational English
3:45: visit the office of Candy, our guide-turned-friend, and Mary, our coordinator
4:00: plan some lessons and surf the Internet during office hours
5:30: teach a speech class
7:30: go to rugby practice
9:30: grab some noodles from across the street and watch a movie at home
As you might guess, the days in Macau enjoy some of the laidback Portuguese flavor. For me, the university level classes, too, are enjoyable and relatively easy to prep and teach. To be honest, other than reading the attendance sheet (Quia Xio? Is Quia Xio here? How aboutâ¦Qiuâ¦Qiu Mou Mou?), sometimes I feel as though I could be teaching anywhere in the States. There are issues of motivation and class participation is very difficult to establish, but if you can make it clear from the beginning that students are expected to voluntarily speak, silence can go from intolerable to manageable. All in all, I would say that the experience here in Macau is "China light", not too Chinese, not too Western. I haven't noticed much sacrifice of the creature comforts like TV, AC, Internet, or convenient shopping, and my biggest complaint by far is the humidity. When I stepped off the plane here in Macau, I was nailed with a wave of humidity that soaked my shirt and fogged my glasses for weeks. Starting in late October, however, the weather turned perfect (sunny, breezy, slightly polluted 75 degree days- think Los Angeles) and has remained so since. The transition to this East-meets-West culture has been pretty smooth and English gets you around town pretty effortlessly. Now, if I could just learn the character for chicken feet, I will know what not to order in a restaurant.
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