I left my swollen, reddened companions of Thailand on a sunny Sunday morning: the weather was better than it had been for days, and the hotel drove me to the rustic, island-themed airport, where everything was outdoors, because why not. Within an hour or two I was in Bangkok, preparing for the quick flight to Hong Kong, and also the incredibly long, arduous line to get through immigration. Being anal and neurotic and also still worrying that I would turn soft like a baby kitten should I ever miss a flight, my anxiety began to build as time ticked by in the obnoxiously long queues, but I eventually broke through, and was soon seated on one of those ludicrous and awesome 380s, being fed more smoked duck and dessert than ever before (you guys: fly Emirates). Suddenly, I was in Hong Kong.
I approached the city with some trepidation. Moving to Korea meant acquiring entirely new travel friends, picking from the pool of new acquaintances and trying to assess whether or not we would end up killing one another from prolonged contact. Hong Kong was another city with another new person to travel with, but also a place with a bewildering, unforgiving language (tonal languages inherently frighten me. Go look up a tone chart right now, I’ll wait. Doesn’t that make you want to run away?), and I was staying at a private residence I had the vaguest of confidence I could find.
Thankfully, my friend quickly acquired me from the slough of people sluicing through the HK airport, and we were off into the city. I was once more charmed and bewildered, wanderlust dulling away things I may not have liked or would have come to find tedious or gross if I had been around for longer. Sure, it was crowded, and the buildings were super tall and sort of grungy-lookin’ in places, and also all the street vendors still honed in on me seemingly from kilometers away. But it was Hong Kong, a place I had never been, and thus everything became fascinating and invigorating, even the stuff that ostensibly might actually suck.
The city itself reminded me heavily of British cities. Everywhere there was English signage and English-speaking, all grammatically and syntactically correct in a prim, stiff-lipped sort of way. Nostalgia bloomed in my heart as the English translation of the subway safety instructions bleated, “Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.” Cadbury’s chocolate and Quality Street were gloriously ubiquitous, and the last day I spent obscene sums acquiring what tooth-rot I could fit into my bag to sustain my soul back in Korea, the land of chocolate that isn’t Canadian chocolate (or, by proxy, British chocolate that we import frequently). I’ve never been to a place so foreign that I felt so comfortable with so quickly, as it seemed to be a perfect mash-up of the oppressive colonial history of home with honkingly confusing Asianness that I have become accustomed to in Korea. People easily mistook me for a foreign exchange student or a local English teacher, as someone who actually lived there and fit in, and on several occasions people began chattering away in my face in Cantonese, believing me to be fluent, despite the fluent Cantonese speaker I travelled with generally standing right beside me.
The actual fact of being in Asia seemed to come in waves. Suddenly I would pass by a shrine here, or notice something glaringly Chinese there. A few days after my arrival it was Lunar New Year, and thus the city began to go into bunny-slathered overdrive, with red blasting out the streets, pictures and sculptures and projections and LED set-ups of rabbits omnipresent. Whenever my brain tried to slip into a lazy, “It’s basically England!” heuristic, suddenly a slew of teens would dart past with a dragon on sticks while playing a giant slew of gongs, and I would be jolted into remembering where I really was.
Beyond building a closer bond with the people I travel with, I’m always amazed by how easy it is to connect with strangers, to feed upon their kindness and suddenly become connected with others. The night of the big parade, I burst out of Tsim Sha Tsui station, saw a crowd forming, and immediately queued. As the crowd grew, an elderly Chinese woman sidled beside me, and for a time, we developed a bond. She spoke no English, and I no Cantonese, but we spoke the shared language of the crowd. “Mmmph,” she muttered: my legs are tired. “HARumph,” I puffed: these dickbags in front of me keep knocking me with their camera bags, don’t they suck? “Oooh,”: hey whitey, take a picture of that float, it’s pretty wicked! “Hmmmm!” Those drummers are talented and entertaining. “Hnnh?” Why are there salsa dancers again? Are those high schoolers from Tennessee doing a sort of show choir thing right now in this street in Hong Kong? Life is weird. At the end of the night, we nodded, smiled, and went on our separate paths.
The night after Lunar New Year, my friend Kin was to visit his Hong Kong relatives for the first time in his life for dinner and celebration. His mother first called him and then her siblings, with the suggestion, “Hey, why not bring honky?” Kin, being eager to not be the weirdest one at the table, agreed readily, and did in fact bring honky.
His family welcomed me with open arms, pumping me full of all the lemon tea I could desire, and checking roughly once every five minutes that I knew how to use chopsticks. It was vaguely charming to be new again, to be so white and weird that the locals were concerned I would be unable to bring food to my face and thus might starve. The eldest uncle, like many Koreans upon first meeting, also curiously prodded me with various wines and Chinese liquors, one tasting like an equal blend of soju, scotch, and paint thinner, as though to see if white people were capable of getting loaded, or if alcohol would simply cause me to burst into flames. I was never allowed to put down my chopsticks after picking them up the first time, and regularly, in Chinese, English, and Korean I was instructed to take more from the vast array of food before me (only in Asia do people look at me and go, “Really, Michael, you should probably eat more.”).
But when I wasn’t being stuffed with food, we took to the islands, and I was struck that, despite Hong Kong’s considerable population, there are many areas where one can be almost completely alone in the world. My friend Tony, who had been to Hong Kong the week before, described the feeling as having your own private beach, quiet and untouched, far away from anyone else. Coming from Korea, where the only place you can really be alone is your own bathroom, it was strange to be under a wide open sky with stars, to see wide, empty coast, to walk down a quiet neighbourhood street and hear no footsteps but your own.