Mari Guttman is one of the current 2009-2010 Grinnell Corps volunteers in Macao.
Mari Guttman's Reports
Report 3Mari Guttman
8 months and 28 days ago I arrived in Macau. Armed with 2 suitcases, Lonely Planet’s Hong Kong and Macau Guide, a book of Cantonese phrases, and some ESL teaching material, I thought I was ready for my new life abroad. However, no amount of training could have prepared me for the adventure awaiting me. I’ve had some amazing experiences here, both good and bad, and while I wouldn’t change a thing I’ve done, I do have some “tips” for anyone planning to come out to this tiny corner of the world.
1) Don’t leave the apartment during a level-8 typhoon.
Macau’s a sub-tropical climate is prone to intense storms, including typhoons. As a Midwesterner, things like typhoons are a totally foreign to me. I’m used to ferocious storms that appear out of nowhere and make you run for cover, so I thought I would have no problem handling a typhoon or two Lucky me – my first typhoon hit after two weeks. The night the storm hit, it sounded like a train was going past my window for hours on end. I woke up the next morning to a very windy, gray and rainy day. Thinking that the typhoon was over, Brian and I got ready for school and ventured outside to catch a cab. It was much windier than I anticipated, and of course I didn’t have an umbrella. I was wet within seconds and there wasn’t a cab in sight. In fact, there was no one in sight – no cars, no people, and nothing appeared to be open. Undeterred by these little facts, we saw a cab driving and hailed it. The driver pulled over, and before we could even get in and tell him our destination, he refused to take us. We should have realized that cabs were obviously not running, but we walked to another cab that was idling. At first the driver wouldn’t take us, but we offered him a few extra dollars, and soon we were on our way to school. From the passenger’s seat, I noticed half the streets were closed because of fallen trees, construction materials, garbage, and power lines. It took us 3 times longer to get to school. When we finally arrived, the entire place was deserted, except for a lone security guard who chuckled and said something in Cantonese when he saw us step out of the cab.
That was when I realized that you don’t leave your apartment during a level 8 typhoon until the all-clear has been given.
2) If it doesn’t look familiar but it smells good, go ahead and try it.
Living in Macau has exposed my taste buds to a slew of new and exciting culinary delights. In addition to endless varieties of Chinese cuisine, Macau is renowned for its Portuguese and Macanese food, which is a mixture of Chinese and Portuguese cuisine. I have a rule about food here: if it looks unfamiliar but smells good, then it is ok to try it. This has led me to sample snake (tastes like chicken, but chewy), Peking Duck (delicious and crispy), chicken feet (once you get over the fact that you’re eating feet, it is basically chicken skin), glutinous rice dumplings filled with sweet paste and served in peanut soup (my new favorite desert, I fondly call them BOD, or “balls of deliciousness), and Portuguese chicken (served in an eggy-yellow coconut curry sauce). When I’m not trying new things, I am eating my favorite Macanese foods – in fact, my morning would not be complete with out a dantaa (egg tart) from my local bakery and a cup of iced milk bubble tea from Asia’s tea-version of Starbucks. On cold days, especially during the winter, there were many nights when a group of us would gather around a hot pot for dinner – a boiling vat of broth in which we would cook meat, vegetables, and fish balls. And of course there is my favorite food of all-time: the dumpling. Dumplings are probably the greatest thing ever created, and I go through withdrawals if I don’t have them at least every few days. While they might seem ordinary and all the same, I have never seen or experienced so many varieties of dumplings as I have here. Dumpling restaurants in Macau are what cook-your-own-steak restaurants are to Iowa. Depending on my mood, I can go to “Dumpling Town,” which serves nearly 20 varieties of dumplings, ranging from spinach to shrimp to chicken satay to pumpkin, I can go to “PKNG” (pronounced “Peking”) dumplings, where there a lady makes them upstairs and there are only two types on the menu, or I can go to the Taiwanese restaurant by my apartment and have pan-fried dumplings covered in the most delicious garlic sauce.
However, these dining experiences have not always been amazing. For instance, clotted pig’s blood tastes like human blood. And while I’ve never been able to bring myself to try it, stinky tofu really does stink. Generally though, as long as I stick to my “rule,” I have yet to be led astray.
3) Its ok to be friends with the ex-pat community
While I was at first hesitant to befriend the ex-pat community for fear of losing cultural experiences, becoming friends with them has been a cultural experience in and of itself. Many of the ex-pats living here are some of the most interesting, quirky, adventurous, and fun people that I’ve ever met. Some of my friends include a Canadian who was originally from Hong Kong and is fluent in Cantonese, an Australian who was raised in Singapore and teaches history, an Angolan business student who is fluent in Portuguese and has a British accent, a Malaysian who was raised in London but visits Kuala Lumpur on a regular basis, and an Israeli diver who recently finished her service in the army.
We all come from incredibly different backgrounds, but we are all here in Macau. Our only common bond is that we speak English, yet that was enough to draw us together. I’ve met some of my best friends in grocery stores, in the elevator in my apartment, or asking for directions on winding old streets. I do not know where or when I would have had the opportunity to meet such people if I hadn’t moved to Macau. There are also some amazing activities that I’ve gotten to do through the ex-pat community. For instance, most Saturday afternoons I spend with a running group that follows a trail of flour and chalk made by other runners. We run all over Macau, and there are places I would have never known about if it hadn’t been for these runs. And whenever I am looking for a slice of home, I can walk over to the Irish Pub and play trivia on Wednesday nights. While I am on the worst (and only American team), we always manage to have a good time, and we try not to encourage the stereotype that Americans are stupid and know absolutely no geography.
The ex-pat community has helped me adjust to life abroad in so many ways. While I am not trying to recreate my life back in the U.S., it helps knowing that I have friends I can relate to, who speak my language and who face the same challenges as I do of living abroad.
4) Look out (and up) for windy days
Windy days in Macau spell uncertainty. If it is warm and windy outside, then make sure you have an umbrella because it will most likely rain. If it is windy and neither hot nor cold, make sure you have a sweater because it will soon be cold. And always remember to look up periodically. Laundry that is drying precariously from the 15th floor balcony of an apartment will most likely find its way down.
5) Look once, twice, three times before you cross the street
When I first arrived in Macau, the traffic patterns seemed foreign and daunting. Scooters are constantly darting about, traffic moves in the opposite direction from the United States, and there are almost no stoplights. Crossing the street here can sometimes be a test of bravery and/or stupidity. Most cars will not stop until you are fully committed to stepping in front of them. However, there is one saving grace to the madness of the traffic here: learner cars. Learner cars have a big blue “L” on their front and back. These cars are designated for new drivers and their instructors, and they are bound by law to stop if there is someone even standing at an intersection. Everyone in Macau must be learning to drive because learner cars are abundant, and on days when I have a difficult time crossing the street, I wait for a learner car to serve as my stoplight.
Seeing as I have no desire to drive, there are three transportation options: cabs, public busses, and casino busses. While cabs are fast and convenient, most drivers don’t speak any English, so you have to know how to say your destination in Cantonese if you want their services. The casino busses are free and shuttle people between major places (ferry terminal, airport, border gate) and the casinos. If I am near an area where there are casino busses, I can simply hop on the bus of a casino that is close to my destination. The third and final way to get around Macau is the public bus system. The public busses are cheap, run frequently, and cover the entire city. The only drawback is that the routes are in Portuguese and English. At first using the busses was daunting, but after riding them around for a few weeks, I was able to memorize their routes and numbers.
So remember, if you are ever in Macau, or any foreign country, remember to look once, twice, three times before you cross the street.
6) Learn basic greetings – in Cantonese, not Mandarin
Since you’re living in a country where the spoken language isn’t English, it is very useful to learn some of the language. In Macau, this would be Cantonese. Besides the fact that everything is in Chinese, most people here do not speak or know English. Even the introductory Cantonese classes I’ve taken have gotten me a long way. Knowing the basics like numbers, food, directions, and daily greetings make a huge difference. Unfriendly and distant faces turn into smiles and laughter the instant I attempt to use my broken Cantonese. It has also helped a ton with teaching – my students find my Cantonese to be the funniest thing they have ever heard, and they love teaching me a thing or two.
7) Get over your fear of elevators
A silly fear I’ve had for as long as I can remember is that of elevators. Macau is a vertical city – space is rare and tall buildings are the predominant feature of Macau’s cityscape. This meant that I had to get over this fear quickly. I use elevators over a dozen times every day – I live on the 10th floor, I teach on the 14th floor, and I take Cantonese lessons on the 7th floor. If I wanted to be spared a long and sweaty walk, then I had to get over my fear of elevators fast.
8) If you’re afraid to do something, go ahead and do it
There have been countless times when I am unsure of where I am, what I just ordered, and of overall confusion. However, the only way to overcome the confusion and uncertainty of doing something unfamiliar is to do it. For example, walking into restaurants with no English spoken was one of the scariest things I did when I first arrived. However, now I don’t think twice about doing this and I do it on an almost daily basis.
In fact, most of the fun of living somewhere new and unfamiliar is because it is new and unfamiliar. I love discovering new parts of Macau, and I try to find a new place or street at least once a week. This has produced amazing adventures, including eating roasted chicken from street vendors, sitting on the rocks overlooking the South China Sea, finding endless temples and churches, and finding a public pool that is cheap and state of the art.
9) Travel travel travel
Macau’s location has made it the perfect launch pad for places all over Asia. If I have more than 3 days off, I am usually traveling. In my time here I’ve spent many weekends shopping and going out in Hong Kong, visited Grinnellians in Nanjing, experienced massive crowds in Shanghai, ate the best Indian food in Malaysia, spent Halloween in Singapore, taken my mom and sister to Thailand, loved the food and hospitality of Taiwan, traveled through the rice patties and beach towns of Vietnam, and discovered paradise on earth in Indonesia. After every adventure I’ve had, it is comforting knowing that Macau is still here, waiting for my return.
10) Your experience is what you make it to be
My time here has been a blast, and Macau has been one of the most life-changing experiences I’ve ever had. If you ever have the opportunity to live in a different country, whether it is Canada, Macau, India, or Italy, do it. These tips should get you started, but above all, remember that no matter where you might someday be, your experience is what you make it to be. If you have an open mind, keep a positive outlook, and ready for challenges and being outside of your comfort zone, then you too will have a wonderful experience.
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