Adjusting: Quiet, Calm, and Uncomfortably Safe

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.”

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I was placed in a rather comfortable post compared to the majority of my peers. My position comes with housing and a modest, but more than sufficient salary. There’s plenty of sanitary food and Western toilets. In many ways, I expected that my moving to HK would be very similar to my summer in New York City, except that I would be, for the first extended period of my life, part of a racial majority (more on this later). The similarities are immediately obvious: the brand conscious locals, the efficiency of service and public transit, and the millions of people on their smartphones.

The differences are quieter and somehow infinitely frustrating. There is no consistent traffic pattern for the sidewalks or MTR passageways, something that HK shares with its colonizers (#71-73). People do not know how to pack a subway car efficiently or how to not be an asshole and let people off the train. People walk at a leisurely pace in zig zag patterns, stopping without warning.

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There are the conspicuous differences: no constant smell of piss, no piles of hot garbage on the sidewalks, no unfathomably deep puddles and, with the exception of the depths of the Chungking Mansions, no catcalling. To most people, these would be definite positives, but for me HK almost feels too safe.

Similarly troubling, I live in a quiet residential area and often I feel like HK might be the quietest city I’ve ever lived in. I may have grown up in a sleepy suburb of San Diego, but I also spent the majority of my days either shouting on an athletic field, bursting my ear drums in a dance studio, or overcome with road rage near the 805/5 merge. Sure, I spent my last four years living on an idyllic campus in central New Jersey. During the day it may have been every inch of the picture perfect Ivy League fantasy, but at night it was often a gothic dream punctuated by drunken carols and attempted parkour, air thick with Milwaukee’s Best. Braemar Hill, with its nuclear families and dog walkers, just isn’t any of these things.

There are two truths here: I miss New York City terribly and I did not fully understand my own expectations of HK. First, I did not expect to miss New York as much as I do, because I only lived there for three months over two years ago.

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And second, I must have expected HK to suffocate me with its humidity and urban chaos. Instead, I frequently catch myself sitting closest to the door on the minibus, smiling slightly each time the door snaps open when the driver attempts to drift the vehicle around the Cloud View Road roundabout, wishing a little old lady would accidentally release her groceries allowing a durian to smack me in the face.

I had mentally prepared myself for a New York welcome, something akin to a cab driver loudly berating me, and was made deeply uncomfortable when HK greeted me with a polite, awkwardly moist handshake.

My experience moving to HK, thus far, doesn’t fit the typical American-moves-to-Asia-to-teach-English narrative. I haven’t been asked to break a chicken’s neck. I haven’t even seen a mainland child attempt to urinate in the street. All the ThoughtCatalog-esque twentysomething narratives of chaotic travel experiences in Asia don’t match my personal experiences. Often I find myself unable to label what is happening to me.

“There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” — Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

This was a quote that one of the PiA directors brought up during orientation. After a bumpy four years at Princeton where I was constantly questioning my decisions and life goals, I was expecting a year of answers. Instead, I’m finding new questions that I didn’t know I had to ask myself. If anything, I feel overwhelmed by awkwardness in many situations.

It does not escape me that I am no longer constantly surrounded by friends. I can’t just sit down with whoever is at dinner at Terrace and talk through what is happening to me. I now realize that these casual conversations, that I took for granted, really helped me understand my own emotional struggles. They are now noticeably absent and probably the number one source of my feelings of loneliness.

These days, I often have to ask myself, “Why am I doing this?,” a question we were asked to consider several times during the PiA application process, and again during orientation. I found the following on a sheet of paper in my orientation materials:

  • I want a fresh start in a place where no one knows who I am and what I’ve done.
  • I want to be a better human being.
  • I want to try to do something that I don’t already know how to do, something I’m not sure I’ll be good at.

It would seem that I was hoping for some uncertainty and ambiguity, and boy did I get mine!


Sufjan Stevens’ cover of Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost” seems like an appropriate theme for this specific moment in my life. I’ll end this post with the cover, the original and a quote from Sufjan about Arthur’s music:

“Arthur’s music is all over the place, but most of it seems to be about embracing darkness (loneliness) and ambiguity (confusion) with the biggest bear hug in the world. Catharsis!”

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