Now that I’m nearing the end of my fifth week in Hong Kong, I feel appropriately off balance enough to write a transition narrative. In fleeting Facebook messages to friends at home, I’ve struggled to articulate my mental adjustment period. It is partly an issue of expectations and HK is somehow both exactly what I expected and not even close to that.
During the Princeton in Asia orientation, we were told several stories about the experiences of past fellows. Most of them was the stuff of nightmares like a local girlfriend threatening to kill herself if the fellow didn’t take her back to America with him. We were warned about Japanese encephalitis, muggings and the constant threat of diarrhea. Frequently another HK fellow and I would exchange glances during these stories: “LOL. We’re not going to fall into massive potholes in HK.”
I’m always hesitant to write about my first impressions of a place. I’m afraid of making sweeping generalizations about locals when I haven’t been here long enough to make reasonably intuitive assumptions about the motivations for their behavior. As I get settled, I will collect observations of things that confuse or amuse me and share them here.
- Braemar Hill, a row of Audis, BMWs, and S-class Mercedes waiting to collect children from school.
- Causeway Bay, man playing the didgeridoo on the street asking for change. Upon further inspection, he is actually beatboxing through the didgeridoo and mixing the sounds with an iPad next to him. Still asking for change.
- Braemar Hill, for the last several mornings there has been a black Rolls Royce parked outside of the University. The curtains to the back seat are drawn. The driver, in a full suit and earpiece, is usually sitting in his seat. Often he is eating candy with the A/C on. Sometimes he is napping. Photo to follow if I catch him slipping.
- Tsim Sha Tsui, Carnarvon Road, many confused tourists, both mainlanders and expats, stopped, confused, speaking loudly in their native tongues. I wish there was a SigAlert for sidewalks.
- Braemar Hill, a man driving a matte grey Lotus Elise drops off a pretty female student at the University.
- Wan Chai, a small blonde child screams about strawberry sundaes inside HSBC.
- Causeway Bay, Paterson Street, film crew walks backwards through the street to capture two models? actresses? daintily nibbling on various products. Man holding the reflector is stressed out by the perpetually, changing lighting due to the massive billboards.
- Tsim Sha Tsui, Chungking Mansions, groups of Indian men standing around various storefronts, eyeing me, occasionally catcalling. They try Cantonese first, then English, Japanese, Mandarin and Korean.
- Causeway Bay, very muscular man blasting techno remixes of Phantom of the Opera while shouting at his bodypump class, alternating between Cantonese and English.
- Braemar Hill, blonde nuclear family running with their golden retriever.
It’s only been a couple of days, but I’ve already spoken more Cantonese in my time here than in the last 8 years. I finally caved and bought some basic Cantonese textbooks this morning. I noticed that there are lots of little words that I don’t know: or, dollar, humid. I’ve been keeping a list to see if I can understand where these gaps in my listening comprehension and speaking vocabulary come from.
I’ve been eating a lot of the same foods since those are the only things I know how to order; cha siew mien and dong nai cha for days, literally, not that I mind. I could cave and resort to English to diversify my diet, but I realized that faking fluency allows me to pass as a local (for the most part). I can eat alone, seated across from a business man in a perfectly tailored suit, reading the South China Morning Post folded on top of his Dolce & Gabbana backpack, observing him and the other diners without a second glance. The second I speak English, my perfect American, distinctly Californian accent gives me away, drawing more than a couple stares.
As a college student, I spent most of my summers at home in San Diego, California. Coming from someone who spent their entire education in high-achieving, pressure cooker private schools, this sounds like failure. After all, I only did one summer in New York. But this perspective is one that values traditional measures of success–resume boosters, prestige–over physical, mental and spiritual health. The truth is that if I hadn’t spent those summers at home, I probably wouldn’t have been able to graduate on time with the people I wanted to graduate with.
I am in love with food. I once had an interviewer ask me which of the following was most important: things to do, friends, or food. I picked food. Duh. Food is something to do and if you’re good at making it, or have good taste in restaurants, you can normally coerce people into eating with you. Boom. Most of life’s problems solved. Given my undeniable obsession with opening a crevice in my face, putting stuff in it, masticating and ingurgitating, it is a little weird that I’ve never written a recipe post. So here we go!