This post is a bit late, but I thought I should close up some thoughts on Hong Kong before I lose them. I wrote half of this while I was there, and the other half about 20 minutes ago while eating an avocado sandwich in my kitchen. It may seem fragmented, but- eh, so is life.
My time in Hong Kong is very unlike the rest of the time I’ve spent traveling so far. First of all, I’m not on my own. I’m happily mooching off of some friends of my parents, and I’m living in probably the nicest place I’ll set foot in my whole life. It’s a giant high-rise 3-bedroom apartment. I have my own bathroom, a massive window with a panoramic view of the whole city, and my meals have been taken care of. I have access to a nice gym, a heated swimming pool, a library, and a karaoke room. Also, my one-woman dance parties in the elevator every morning have made me quite recognizable to the door staff. I no longer have to produce my pass. They merely Michael-Jackson the door open for me every morning with a big smile and a guffaw.
Hong Kong is not what I expected. For one- it’s not at all like I thought it would be: which was essentially a huge Chinatown in the middle of Asia. People would be a bit gruff, but organized and friendly- English would be spoken.
In reality, it’s nothing like that. English is spoken, but only barely, and you generally get some pretty harsh looks from everyone when you look like me but can’t make out the difference between gwai (nice, well behaved person) and gwaai (turtle). They like it even less when you mix up gai dan (chicken egg) and gwaai-dan (asshole). I have become massively unpopular at the supermarket. Moreover, everyone in this city is pushy as hell! I thought riding the 30 Stockton was rough, but compared to Hong Kong, that was nothing. I’ve had better luck holding my own at a Mighty Mighty Bosstones concert. Moreover, I can push my way through skateboard-carrying hipster punks any day, it’s the little old ladies brandishing bags of groceries and umbrellas that frighten me. In the land of the little people, it is the little old lady with the largest bag of groceries who is queen.
Other than that, I’m taking Cantonese classes with relative success. The sentence structure hasn’t been an issue, and really, anybody who thinks Chinese is über hard should try to take Spanish. No conjugations! Take your pick with sentence structure! Formalities? Nonsense! Everything is raw and rude and up for interpretation most of the time. The problem is the tones.
“Close. It’s ‘Soh-yi’”
The number of conversations like this I’ve had over the past week have been mind-boggling. There are 6 (some people would say 9) tones in Cantonese, and I’ve really only gotten a grasp on 2 of them. High and low. The others are anybody’s guess. I thought that I’d have a leg up, being from a Cantonese speaking family… but as they’re the ones that are doing all the speaking, and I’m doing all the listening, I listen well, but can’t speak for shit. This seems to be the opposite of my English persona.
Another observation about Cantonese is that it’s really quite cute. A few years ago, a Dutch friend tried to explain the differences between Dutch and Afrikaans by describing the latter as “Child’s Dutch.” For example, the word for spoon in Dutch means “spoon,” but in Afrikaans literally means “small round eatie thing” (that wasn’t a typo). The same is true for Cantonese. A refrigerator is a “snow container,” a roof is a “house topping,” and traveling anywhere is referred to as “going somewhere to play.” Adorable!
A lot of people have tried to encourage me to learn Mandarin instead of Cantonese, since it’s the official language of China, is probably more useful in business, and is an easier language to learn, since there is a lot less slang. To them, I say this: “Do YOU get to use the phrase ‘house topping’ in formal conversation? I think not!”
One last observation about Hong Kong before I wrap this up: I got frustrated- often- with the complete lack of spatial awareness exhibited by the locals, although I really do think that it’s due to the rapid growth of Hong Kong into a major commercial area. According to my Cantonese teacher, this is a development that has only just transpired within the past decade or so. In more established big cities, like San Francisco, New York, London, and Sydney… if you want to stand on an escalator, you stand on the side that you’re meant to stand on… and yes, there is a side for that. If you stand on the other side and keep people from passing, then you will be forcibly moved, scolded, and someone will probably hit you (especially in New York!). This isn’t the case in Hong Kong. People will just let you stand there and not say anything, jamming up traffic the whole way back. Also, when people get onto the train, they don’t walk all the way in, or find a spot on the wall and press themselves flat so that everyone can get inside… they literally walk just within the boundaries of the doors, and refuse to move, making everyone coming in after them cluster into an angry, impenetrable ball by the door. I made a drawing to illustrate my point:
After a while, this got really annoying, and I began to get in the habit of just waiting for the next train.
It may seem as if I didn’t like Hong Kong at all, but I don’t think that that’s the case. There was always lots of stuff to do, and nothing was more pleasurable to me than going to the park to watch people play soccer, congregate to each lunch, and buy balloons for their children. The locals were different, but not unkind, and I was very happy to poke around the markets and make idle chat with street vendors. I think I’m just not very used to big cities anymore, and a lot of the things I didn’t like had to do with the masses of people that I didn’t know how to deal with. Remember, after all, that I had come fresh off of an abandoned beach in the Philippines, and I’m not even very good at handling the population of San Francisco, at a mere 800,000. All in all, it was a good transition city, and prepared me to go home far better than Manila possibly could have. Also, I scored lots of cool gifts for Christmas, and even found a toilet-paper dispenser shaped like a roll of toothpaste! (Yeah, you’re welcome, Courtney.) The food was excellent, and the weather actually cleared for a few days of skirt-wearing and sunglass-donning. It was a good 3 weeks, and it’ll be a great stepping-stone to prepare me for Europe next week.
These last two weeks have been busy and fun, but not related to travel, so I’ll post again when I get to Morocco.
“We do not need to understand other people and their customs fully to interact with them and learn in the process; it is making the effort to interact without knowing all the rules, improvising certain situations, that allows us to grow.” – Mary Catherine Bateson