Saturday, June 27, 2015

On density

I used to think I was a city girl.

I grew up in busy suburban Boston. As soon as I was old enough, I made frequent forays into the city. I found the constant movement gave me energy. There was always something new to see, always something happening. When I was 16, I spent almost a month on the Blackfoot reservation in Montana, and enormity of the open sky really messed with my head. It was beautiful, but it felt almost too empty. I couldn't get back to the city's perpetual motion machine.

Still, Hong Kong brings city living to an entirely new level.

I learned recently that matter inside a collapsing star is sometimes referred to as "superdense." As far as I'm concerned, Hong Kong is inside that proverbial black hole. I've lived in one other Asian city, Kunming, which much more closely follows the Chinese-megacity model, sprawling enormously but not really more dense than any other city. I've spent time (though never lived) in New York, Hanoi, Osaka, and Beijing. None hold a candle to Hong Kong. (And let's not even start on where Berkeley fits in here.)

The feeling of superdensity seems to come from a combination of towering buildings, restaurants stacked on shops stacked on malls stacked on parking lots, and the constant movement of thousands of people in small spaces at all times of day. The sheer mass of humanity makes walking anywhere a challenge, a seething obstacle course. Even the air is thick this time of year.

City girl or not, superdensity of this city takes some getting used to. It means that nobody here thinks twice about being jostled or bumped or accidentally hit. It's inevitable, unavoidable, and after a few weeks I stopped apologizing when I was the bumper or turning around in surprise when I was the bumpee. I've also found it especially odd that people in a crowd here don't seem to move out of the way when you're heading toward them or when you're walking behind them. I've learned "excuse me" in Cantonese (the only phrase I've managed so far, since it also means "thank you"), and that helps a bit, but I still find the feeling of making eye contact with a person in your path who still does not step out of the way to be unsettling. I've taken to walking through crowds with my arms out in front of me, essentially swimming myself a way through. It's certainly humid enough for that.

(An aside: When I moved here, people warned me that Hong Kongers walk slowly in the summer. Just a few minutes outside in the suffocating summer air is enough to understand why. Walking back to the MTR from restaurants at a slow pace certainly delays the inevitable bloom of sweat, but so many people walking slowly at once certainly magnifies the effects of the city's crowds.)

The way that city dwellers solve the density problem is New York times ten. New Yorkers famously make little eye contact and are slow to react to others nearby in trouble. Here, I take the MTR (the public transit) to work each morning, and the train cars, which are packed shoulder-to-shoulder and which I find to be especially small, are blanketed in utter silence. No chit-chat, no music, no ringing phones, not even that one guy yelling to his brother across the car.

My boss, a lifelong Hong Konger, says it's a matter of respect. It's the same reason people can be neighbors for years and years here and never have a significant conversation. They're giving their fellow citizens a chance at a fictional bubble of privacy, he says, social space where there is no physical space. It takes some getting used to, but I like that; I guess I am a city girl at heart.

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