The Hong Kong Of My Youth

by Dominic Ching Nam Wong

Hong Kong is the city where I grew up. I spent my first 17 years there and I would say that I had a happy childhood. It is true that Hong Kong is a prime example of Darwinist principles. Survival of the fittest. You see this everywhere: in schools, at work, and even in the local fast-food chains where hungry Hong Kongers fight for a seat. Growing up in such an environment, I dealt with a lot of pressure, just like anyone else. Let’s not even get into going to extra tutorial schools every day after school.

Dominic Ching Nam Wong in ~1993 in Hong Kong, with his grandfather

Though it has its flaws, it is a great city. Hong Kong gave me a beautiful childhood.

During my first 3 years, I lived in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, with my grandparents while my parents had to work in a different part of town. My grandfather would take me to the local toy store and I would ask him for every single toy. The owner always gave me a piece of candy. Those were the days when Hong Kongers were friendly.

No matter where you live, cities change and so do the societies within them. Hong Kong’s social values have changed tremendously since I was young. Small businesses have vanished, replaced by corporations. Humanity gradually disappears and is replaced by skyscrapers. Commercialization is now considered normal and people believe in money. This is not the Hong Kong that I know

I miss the days when all my classmates would go to Kowloon City, across the Victoria Harbor, to play Internet games with the string of curry fish balls bought from the street vendor. I miss the days when my family and I went on bicycle rides along the Shing Mun River. My classmates no longer talk about that cutie from the all-girls school across the street anymore; they talk about who got a job at JP Morgan or graduated from law school.

By the way, I went to the same secondary school that Bruce Lee attended (La Salle College). Unlike me, Bruce Lee was kicked out in 10th grade for fighting and skipping classes.

It feels odd telling you Hong Kong is a great city while complaining about how it has lost its traditional values. Maybe it is because it’s my hometown. You simply can’t dislike the city that raised you, no matter how different it is from the way you remember it. It doesn’t matter how the city is going to change, my good impression of Hong Kong always stays in my heart.

There’s a Chinese saying, “The moon is brightest when viewed from your own house.” At the end of the day, I know that the night scene from my house’s rooftop is always the most beautiful in the world.

Dominic Ching Nam Wong, a Roadmonkey intern, graduated from UCLA in August with a BA in International Development Studies and in Spanish and Portuguese, intent on working for an adventurous California-based startup.

 

 

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Why We Need Adventure: It’s Chemical

by Cecee McDaniel

Why is it so exhilarating to face fear?  A study was done in the late 80s that proposed the Idea that our lack of adventure causes us to engage in seemingly high-risk activities, such as cliff diving, hang gliding, or riding roller coasters. The New York Times wrote of the study’s findings:

“Stimulating true danger, roller coasters provide the illusion of mastering a great peril. It is a deeply satisfying feeling in which mock danger provides the exhilaration of self-affirmation.”

 

Living in our (relatively) civilized society, our minds still innately seek a thrill, so much so that we build machines that simulate the sensation for us.  Why are we so quick to get ourselves into a steel contraption to simulate propelling us toward gravity-assisted homicide? Well, It turns out it’s all in our heads.

An analysis of brain chemistry reveals that we are performing at our best when we’re adequately satisfying these innate desires. Risk, danger, and exploration release endorphins, providing decreased feelings of pain; a squirt of endorphins can also produce mild euphoria, decreased appetite, a release of sex-related hormones, and a boost to one’s immune system. In short, high endorphin levels make us feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress. (Bartender! Another round of endorphins, si vous plait….)

Having too few endorphins is, likewise, not helpful. The effects of producing very little dopamine can include irregular sleep and obesity -thanks to an overactive appetite. A simple solution to making one feel good might simply be to get outside, ride a roller coaster, go on a hike, play on a trapese (with the proper safety gear, of course).

Basically, adventure makes you feel more alive. And feeling more alive puts makes us all just a little bit more human, chemically and emotionally. It’s our natural state. But that’s all too easy to forget that in a world filled with office cubicles, wifi, smartphones, social media updates and – the horror! – blogs.

Cecee McDaniel, a student at California State University in Los Angeles, is a Roadmonkey intern.

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A Guy Walks Into a Bar in Brooklyn (Part 2 of 2)

by Paul von Zielbauer

(Continued from last week’s blog post)

So I’m sitting at Denny’s Steak Pub – an island of working-class Caucasians floating in a sea of beer and surrounded by working-class South Asian immigrants, in Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood. The kind of place that can’t be bothered to change its sign outside even though it hasn’t served steak or any other food since “the 1980s,” according to the bartender, who appeared to be speaking from first-hand knowledge. The kind of place whose TV set, behind the bar, had blown its picture tube around the time the bar’s last steak was served.

In short, the kind of place where everybody knows your name…except mine.

illustration: Graham Smith’s “Survive the Dive 2″

“Who dafucks dis guy?” said the extra-large figure behind me, bumping my chair. I hunched over my lamb gyro on the bar and gave him a quick glance. The man bellies up to the bar – quite literally, as his pear-shaped body is theatrically large – and looks at me. Then he claps me on the shoulder.

“How ya doin?” I said to him, firmly but friendly, with a mouthful of lamb from the joint next door. Friendly but firmly, because when you’re the only non-hoodie in a down-n-deep-Brooklyn bar, you gotta meet the inherent challenge of “Who dafucks dis guy” confidently but without A) appearing like a tough guy or B) showing undue frailty.

The large man – 6’2”, white, 50ish, glasses – offered his enormous right hand, a catcher’s mitt of a hand; we’re talking a Christmas ham of an hand. Which I accepted with a newcomer’s nod.

“I’m just kiddin’ ya!” the guy said, leaning close enough to smell the bite of Maker’s Mark on his breath. Another clap on the shoulder. “What’s ya name?”

“Paul,” I said, shouting slightly, without being sure why.

“Paul, huh?” The man said. As if “Paul” was perhaps code for A) lost social worker or a B) gay cruiser. “Where you from?”

“Well, I live in California now, but I’m in Brooklyn because I’m heading up to the Adirondacks, upstate.”

“Adirondacks?” the large man, eyebrows arched, turned and repeated to the bartender, Jimmy. Jimmy shrugged and nodded at the same time – a Brooklyn way of saying, “not bad” and “whatever” all in one gesture.  “Whaddya doin’ there?” the big guy asked me.

“Scouting a new expedition for this company I run. We create expeditions that include an ass-kicking adventure and a volunteer project that we do for a local community in need.”

“Dat’s amazing,” the guy declaimed. “Jimmy, didja here that?”

Jimmy shrugged & nodded: Whatever.

“So you must be in pretty good shape, then, uh?” the guy said. “You some kinda mountain climber?”

“Not really,” I said.

At this point, I wanted to eat my dinner out of my styrofoam container and drink my Stella and watch what remained of the Rangers playoff game against the Washington Capitals.

“That’s really cool,” the big man said, not really pulling his whiskey-n-water eyes from me. “I mean, I could never do that,” he added, gesturing one of his mitts toward the girth. “I’m not in shape!”

My turn to smile & shrug. Whatever.

He wandered off to talk with someone near the pool table. Jimmy the bartender said the guy had been there since 11am, when his overnight shift ended and was on a familiar bender.

To my left, a bald old man in glasses was arguing Obama tax policy with an inebriated middle-aged woman. A few barstools to the right, a young guy with a trendy Brooklynesque beard was commiserating about how good the Miami Heat were compared to the punchless Knicks.

This place was a classic. I felt the spirit of Charles Bukowski blow in from the sidewalk (escorted on a pillow of Marlboro exhaust). The Rangers lost.

Tomorrow I’d drive north, into the Adirondacks wilderness, and explore the other side of New York State.

# # #

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A Guy Walks Into a Bar in Brooklyn (part 1)

by Paul von Zielbauer

There is a reason that Roadmonkey was invented in New York City. Tonight’s experience in a dive bar in the heart of Brooklyn illustrates the point.

I walked into Denny’s Steak Pub, on the corner of Church Avenue & McDonald Avenue, in Kensington – deep enough into Brooklyn that you’re not here just by accident. I’m in the ‘hood because I’m crashing at a friend of a friend’s apartment, and I was on this corner in search of two New York City sine qua non: food and a chance to eat it watching the Knicks and the Rangers in playoff games.

In a growing Bangladeshi neighborhood, a haven for white men over 40.

Finding food was easy: The Bangladeshi-immigrant owned Gyro joint offered a tasty lamb & rice platter for $6. (Recommended.) Outside the deli, a portly street vendor in a black leather jacket and sandals stood behind a miniature cart, selling fresh green leaves with seeds and spices sprinkled on their faces. “It’s sweet,” he said, after I broke through a circle of his friends, which served to instantly cease what had been their lively conversation. “Like a dessert,” the vendor said with a gesture that was half courtesy and half “please go away.”

This area of Brooklyn is west of the emergent, some might say tragically hip Flatbush neighborhood. It has yet to capture the imaginations of young and trendy set being priced out of Manhattan.

There was far fewer choices to watch the playoff games. Denny’s Steak Pub (the “Steak” part of the bar ended “in the 1980s,” according to Jimmy the bartender) was the only commercial establishment around with a TV that was not playing a terribly acted South Asian-language movie. So I walked in, past a guy standing in the doorway inhaling a Marlboro Red,  past a couple doing a beery two-step to early Rolling Stones on the “internet juke box,” and took an open bar stool.

I had barely ordered a beer when behind me I felt an extra-large man bump into my stool once, then twice.

I gave the XL figure the New York City Pigeon Glance. All NYC residents have their own variation of the Pigeon Glance – a way of quickly sizing up someone with a momentary, barely noticeable sidelong glance – like a sidewalk pigeon simultaneously hunting for food and avoiding danger – that gives you just enough information to know whether or not the person is potential trouble. Subway riders use this method, which involves just enough eye contact without seeming challenging, daily when people who radiate higher-than-average levels of desperation sit down beside them on crowded trains.

My pigeon glance didn’t catch this fellow’s face. Just the outline of his extra-large frame.

“Who dafucks dis guy?” a voice behind me asked.

I thought, “Ah, Brooklyn, how I’ve missed you.”

You won’t hear “Who dafucks dis guy?” in any bar in my current hometown, Santa Monica.

(to be continued)

 

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Was Bruce Lee a Roadmonkey?

The legendary Bruce Lee, a martial artist and student of philosophy, lived his life as if it were a series of opportunities, challenges and celebrations. In that regard, you could argue that he was living la vida Roadmonkey in his own, Bruce Lee way.

(This is what happens when you stay up too late watching a HD-antenna free TV channels. But in this case, we think we’re onto something.)

 

He could have written most of the Roadmonkey Rules

 

There’s no arguing that the man had physical and moral courage. In April 1959, he boarded a steamship in Hong Kong, bound for San Francisco with $100 in his pocket (about $750 is today’s dollars). He was an iconoclast with a cinematic sense of humor. His willingness to live a life of action – that is, putting his beliefs and convictions on the line with demonstrable movement, almost regardless of circumstance – is the backbone of his legacy as an excellent adventurer.

He was also a kickass dancer; in 1958, he won Hong Kong’s Cha Cha championship.

“Knowing is not enough,” he is quoted as saying, “we must apply.” Also, “Willing is not enough; we must do.” Sounds like he was a Roadmonkey at heart.

Sure, on film, Bruce Lee had his famous I’m-gonna-kick-your-ass-and-nothing-you-can-do-about-it stare. But you can also almost see an inspired Bruce Lee in his movie-scene swagger building a playground for disadvantaged kids in a lost corner of the planet, chopping support beams with an iron fist, or digging post holes with his fingertips. Every movement was a potential workout for Mr. Lee. He seemed to have a good reason for almost everything he did.

And just in case you were preparing to be disappointed that we didn’t include one of his outrageously posed kung fu photos, relax. We have a sense of humor, too.

Enter the Roadmonkey? Bruce Lee on fire

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Why I Left The New York Times

People have asked me to explain why I left a successful career as a New York Times staff writer. Other people wondered about the genesis of Roadmonkey. They’re two sides of the same coin, really. Here’s the story:

I’ll start with a sentence I wrote, in 2010, for MindFood, an Australian monthly that asked me to write a first-person piece on “My Story”:

In 2008, while still on 
The New York Times staff, I started Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy on the idea that I had a clear but time-limited chance to begin a new career that would create adventures of the sort that made me boil with envy when I read about other people having them.

At that point I had been at The Times for 9 years, most of them on the Metro desk, where most young reporters began. During that time I’d covered the New York City jail system at Rikers Island – reporting which led to The Times nominating my work for a Pulitzer Prize. I’d covered the state of  Connecticut. I’d covered the post-9/11 anthrax attacks. And I’d gone to Iraq during its most violent period, mid-2006, to report on the war from a fortified bureau across the Tigris River from the depressing, bureaucratic dust-bubble known as the Green Zone. After that, on loan to the Washington bureau, I’d covered the military justice system and several high-profile courts martial and trials of American servicemen accused of crimes in Iraq & Afghanistan.

reporting from Samawa, Iraq, July 2006

I had a good career and a solid reputation for noteworthy investigative reporting at the finest news gathering outfit on the planet. But in 2008, with the military trials fading from the public’s interest, I was summoned back to Metro, a lateral move at a time when the paper was closing bureaus, eliminating jobs and struggling to survive the upheavals in digital media. The specter of Metro stood in uninspiring contrast to my dream work: foreign correspondency, and writing the narratives of extraordinary people, events and ideas in the farther reaches of planet Earth.

I understood the context of the politics of my new billet. I knew what it meant to be returned to Metro in my career prime. It meant being back in the land of the eager & very talented young guns from Yale & Princeton waiting to be plucked away by Washington or Foreign to cover this presidential campaign or that overseas conflagration while I remained at HQ with everyone who had spouses and mortgages and kids to support.

The choice revealed itself: I could stay at the The New York Times, maintain my New York City lifestyle and ignore being shelved – the life of “quiet desperation” so many Americans end up living. Or I could do what I told myself, upon my arrival at The Times in 1999, that I had to do if I ever became one the people in the newsroom who stayed long after the paper had much of a use for them: I could leave and forge my own path forward.

For the previous 3 years, I’d been thinking about a company called Roadmonkey that would combine physically challenging outdoor adventures with hands-on volunteer projects that did measurable good in the world. I was inspired by that idea but as a Times reporter there was no room in my schedule to launch a business. As I perceived my fortunes at the paper diminishing, I thought more and more about this Roadmonkey idea. I tested the outlines of the business against the no-bullshit opinions of my friends and colleagues. No one told me I was crazy. Most of them encouraged me, inspired that I’d have the courage to leave The Times voluntarily during a period of great economic and financial uncertainty.

The more I thought of Roadmonkey, the more I liked it. The more I thought of adventure philanthropy, the more I got that quiet, fist-clenched “Yes” feeling in my bones. I thought on it some more – you don’t quit your perch at the highest levels of your profession on a whim. As I considered the arguments for staying and leaving, I became convinced that Roadmonkey was the once-in-a-decade, maybe once-in-a-lifetime chance for me to grab the brass ring and execute.

It was also my chance to reinvigorate my professional ambition and, in the process, overcome the identity-drowning inertia of the The New York Times. I’m very thankful for my career at The Times. But after feeling as I’d been sent to pasture – or at least to a holding pen far from the main stable – it was time to produce, on my own terms, the ambitious vision of my own radiantly imagined future.

Building an revenue-generating farm in Vietnam’s Central Highlands

In 2008-9, in between Metro articles about Mob-controlled school bus companies in New York, I ran Roadmonkey test expeditions during my accrued vacation time, to see if the idea had merit in the public sphere. Those expeditions were successful and encouraging. As 2009 began, the question for me became, Should I pull the trigger on a business I inherently believed in or would I stay put, take the stable paycheck week after week, live the New York life and eat my ambition for lunch every day in The Times’ light-soaked 14th floor cafeteria?

I wanted no part of any more financial uncertainty in my life. I’d worked hard for my professional reputation at The Times. Was I really going to give it up to launch a travel company during the gravest economic downturn in our lifetimes? Did I have the courage to face down all that uncertainty and do what I knew in my gut I had to do? Could I stand up, fight off the corporate inertia and be the person I told myself I wanted to be?

Could I be a roadmonkey?

You have but one life. Live it like you mean it. I use that phrase nowadays when I tell people what Roadmonkey stands for because I feel its urgency  from that time when the easier choice was to stay put and get on with a comfortable but blunted career and vision for my future. Since leaving the paper, the energy I send out into the world has changed, I’m told. I and the ideas I’ve put into action inspire people to change their own lives. That is incredibly powerful and rewarding to understand. It’s what drives me to make Roadmonkey a success.

We’re onto something important and, dare I say, unique. It happened almost by stumbling from one epiphany to the next, not knowing what lay ahead, and pushing ahead anyway on the gut instinct that this has merit, and therefore worth, and therefore potential to change the world as we know it.

paul von zielbauer signature

 

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“One thing you dream of doing before you die….”

ABOUT FOUR YEARS AGO a Columbia University student, Jenny Lam, created an intimate portrait of New York dreams and aspirations by allowing hundreds of city residents to anonymously write down one thing they want to do before they leave this Earth.

Ms. Lam placed pre-stamped postcards all over Manhattan. Each bore a return address to a Columbia residence hall and carried a simple handwritten challenge at the top:

“Tell me one thing you dream of doing before you die. Use this card as your canvas. When finished, mail back the card.”

One of 129 postcards that random New Yorkers inscribed with their dreams (Jenny Lam: Postcard Project)

A few days ago, Ms. Lam posted all 129 cards that were filled out and mailed back to her by a legion of New Yorkers who saw and appreciated the sincerity of her curiosity and the anachronistic brilliance of her medium: hand-written postcards.

The collection, posted on Flickr, is called “Postcard Project // Manhattan Map.” Take a few minutes on your coffee break to visit Jenny Lam’s collection, and read the postcards. What you’ll find is a deep dive into the heads and hearts of New Yorkers and the visions they have of and for themselves.

We can relate to their ambitions, frustrations, determination, grandiosities, brilliance, fatigue, creativity and, yes, neuroses.

How about you?

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The Meaning of Roadmonkey

Many people ask us what Roadmonkey means. Not literally but figuratively. Except non-English speakers, who actually do want to know the dictionary definition of road • monk • ey. (There isn’t one).

Canadian Roadmonkey: Emily G. in Vietnam

 

Roadmonkey means all of the things below. But it also means what you have come to think of Roadmonkey. The definition lives in each of you, independently but part of a whole. An individual’s idea of Roadmonkey and the community definition of it are equally valid. We don’t own what it means. You do.

The meanings of Roadmonkey:

Challenge yourself to maximize your potential, for yourself and others

Embrace uncertainty – for you can’t grow rich in mind, body, spirit or $ without pushing yourself beyond what is easy, fast and comfortable

Be mindful of habits – for habits can connote the stereotypical

Burn always with this hard, gemlike flame

Break out of routines, to experience the reward you get for doing things differently

Build something with your hands

Create opportunities for yourself and people struggling to make it

Give yourself confidence to accomplish anything, in any environment

Connect to like-minded people – an incredible worldwide support network

Be creative in a foreign culture – how cool is that?

Test your limits, however you define them

Ask questions of yourself that didn’t occur to you back in Habitland

Find answers to those questions

Start being more positively personally powerful

Share your blessings with folks who don’t have nearly as many

Kick some ass, do some good

Find the slow-burn, long-lasting happiness that money can’t buy

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Roadmonkey in Vietnam: CNN’s Story Behind the Story

Remember the CNN segment on the ethnic Khmer community in Vietnam we built a playground for? (If you don’t scroll down; it’s our first blog post.) CNN also ran this segment – a reporter’s notebook, video style – from correspondent Natalie Allen, a roadmonkey who carried her camera around for two weeks in Vietnam during our 2010 expedition.

This is her report on Roadmonkey’s Vietnam expedition: a personal, cultural, and geographic adventure.

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Why Waking Early Matters (though we loving sleeping in)

Roadmonkeys are known to tie one on now and then. But we also believe in getting our sorry asses out of bed early whenever possible. Read the post below, a reprint of a recent item on The Daily Om, to find out why. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Before the World Wakes – Morning Meditation

In the first moments of day before our mind is fully awake can be a wonderful time for meditation.

Mt. Kilimanjaro at dawn, Roadmonkey expedition, June 2009

Just before the coming of the pale rays of dawn, Mother Nature exists in a state of flux. Earth’s energy is stable, free of the disordered vibrations that are a by-product of humanity’s comings and goings. In these first moments of day, when the sun’s golden light is only just peeking over the horizon, our animal mind remains in the land of slumber though we ourselves are awake. Deep sleep has washed away the impurities of existence that accumulated within us, so our mental, physical, and emotional potential is heightened. To meditate in this peaceful yet energetically charged in-between time is to connect with the divine in an extremely intimate fashion. We discover a new kinship with the universal life force during morning meditations because our awareness becomes a mirror for earthly consciousness—we wake as the world wakes, quietly embracing the joy of being and setting the tone for a serene, fulfilling day.

In the first glorious glow of morning, the light, air, and energy flowing around us speak in hushed tones of the activity to come. While we recognize that another day of being means becoming once again immersed in the challenges of action and reaction, we also understand that we can draw upon the unique energetic qualities of daybreak for comfort, creativity, and vigor. There is bliss in the simple knowledge that we have been given the gift of another day of existence.

We are inspired by sights and sounds of the sun’s gentle ascension. Birds serenade the luminosity, which grows richer by the minute. And though we may feel a residual lethargy, our vitality returns as our meditation helps us to become one with the stirring of other beings rubbing the sleep from their eyes. At the start of each day, our destiny has not yet been written, and so there is nothing we cannot do.

How we choose to meditate is less important than our choice to attune ourselves to the spirit of wakefulness that travels round the world each and every day. Even the briefest moment of quiet contemplation in the muted light of the sun can put all that is yet to come into perspective. As a consequence of our daybreak reflections, our lives are imbued with the same stability, tranquility, and increased awareness that humanity has long associated with the stillness of early morning.

Inspired? Check out The Daily Om for more of the same.

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