Saturday, June 6, 2015

Hong Kong is...

I've been in Hong Kong for nearly 10 days now, and that means I've had time to shake the jetlag and start to look around. My first several days were very quiet, involving mostly relaxing in my tiny, lightless AirBnB (not helpful for jetlag, admittedly) and making tentative explorations into the neighborhood for food or to look for an apartment. There's lots more to come, but here are some beginning descriptors for Hong Kong:

1) Humid. This one has to come first, and it should really be every odd number on this list. Of course, I was expecting heat and humidity. This is southeast Asia in the summer. But to give you an idea of how bad it is, my glasses fogged up within 30 seconds of leaving the airport on my first morning. There have been easier days than that since then-- once I was able to sit in the shade for 25 whole minutes on my lunch break and not sweat!-- but things are rough here. An average day is between 85 and 90 degrees F and between 70 and 90 percent humidity. People waxed poetic about the nature here before I came, but I've never spent more time inside in air conditioning in my life. I think it's just not to be.

2) Dense. This one is another no-brainer, but again the experience is an entirely different animal than the anticipation. The city is actually pretty small in terms of area. The main areas can be crossed by public transit in 30-45 minutes. But in terms of density, Hong Kong seems more intense even than New York. In the same way that my first time traveling in the open spaces of Montana affected my thinking, being surrounded by such towering buildings and constant throngs of people requires mental adjustment. I feel like I could spend the entire summer just trying the various restaurants within a block of my apartment. Having everything piled on top of one another makes the whole city feel overdetermined--that's literature nerd for "brimming with various different meanings"--and ripe for all sorts of storytelling and adventure.

3) International. When I arrived, one of the questions at the forefront of my mind was: will it be ruder to assume that people speak English or that they don't? This hasn't been a problem in other parts of the world where I've traveled. In English-speaking countries like Australia or Ireland, the answer is obvious. In other countries, even northern Europe where people tend to speak flawless English, the answer is still generally to err on the side of "not ugly American." In a place with as complex a history as Hong Kong, it didn't seem so cut and dry, but the answer is obviously. In elevators, grocery stores, little out of the way restaurants and cafes, virtually everyone here speaks functional-level English. Some speak it more fluently than others, but I've only encountered two people with whom I couldn't communicate--and they spoke Mandarin, so we managed okay, just the same.

This is undoubtedly a city still heavily informed by its colonial past, and it's not just about language. Local food shows signs of Western influence, from the custard tarts that originated in Portugal to the toast with condensed milk that is popular for breakfast. Announcements on the MTR (public transit) are in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. Restaurants and people from all over Asia abound, and I'm never the only Western person in a room (although usually the ratio is about 2:100.) This is by far the most ethnically diverse Asian city I've visited.

4) Efficient. I have long believed that you can tell a lot about a culture based on how they wait (or don't) in line. In my experience, Asia is divided culturally in terms of line waiting, with orderly-patient Taiwan and Japan on one side and elbows-out-chaotic India, China, Vietnam on the other. Hong Kong falls squarely in the Taiwan-Japan camp. The MTR is spotless, comes every 1-5 minutes, and includes marked areas for people to queue and chaperones for the morning rush hour to make sure everyone is behaving properly. Even in the heat and humidity, people wait at bus stops in orderly lines for long periods. I've seen no pushing, shoving, yelling, or elbows, literal or metaphorical. The urban planning here is pristine.

There's one exception: the MTR stations are like enormous octopi under the city, reaching their tentacles out for literal miles underground. I can't figure out why that is: a weather consideration? A traffic-management technique? But it is literally possible to walk for 15 minutes from the metro entrance and still not reach the platform. If one is new to the city, say, and not familiar with a particular station, it makes accurately guessing how long it will take to reach a given destination particularly tricky.

5) Intriguing. As I wrote in my last entry, I'm incredibly intrigued by Hong Kong's gray-area-between-the-worlds status. It's a city comfortable with its colonial past that now dramatically mistreats its own migrant workers. It's a place where West and East coexist fluidly, but where an (ahem) particularly klutzy American breaking a coffee cup in a cafe is met with a full 20 seconds of utter silence. It's technically Chinese and defiantly independent, political, passionate. The only city in China that could publicly memorialize the Tiananmen Square protests on June 4-- and did, to the tune of 60,000 attendants. I can't wait to see more.

 A moment of silence in memory of those who lost their lives at Tiananmen in Causeway Bay

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