Ten years ago, I visited Hong Kong with my parents, a place I had not been since my family moved when I was 3 years old.
I found it crowded, noisy, inhabited by rude people busily rushing to and fro in a skyscraper jungle. My overwhelming impression was that it was New York City on steroids, sort of like being stuck in Manhattan’s Chinatown, but without end.
And now? I couldn’t be happier to be here. Did I change? Did Hong Kong change? How has my travel changed my views, especially just coming from Kathmandu? I can’t say. I suppose that’s part of the problem of trying to use myself both as the control and the experiment…
Hong Kong itself was much more orderly and clean than I remember 10 years ago. There are signs and directions and rules for everything, and the city runs very smoothly. I was impressed by the new Airport (I flew into the one runway airport right before it closed down in 97), and the transit system was something out of a dream compared to the T in Boston. Subways run every 3 minutes, with signs in the station telling you exactly how long before the next train arrived. Melodious pre-recorded voices told you which station was coming up in three languages. The immaculate subways eased into the station and lined up precisely with the sliding glass doors. Arrows on the floor indicated where one should enter the subway car (on the sides) and where people should exit (through the middle) for maximum efficiency. Transfers between different lines was as easy as walking across the platform.
One thing I noticed that was definetely new were the public service announcements, ranging from helping the blind and volunteering, to disease prevention. Last time, I remember giving up my seat to an elderly person on a bus, who quickly took the seat but then looked at me like I was a chump. Now there are bulletin boards inside the train promoting this behavior.
I was most enthralled with the Octopus card, a smart card with stored value, which can be used on all forms of transit (bus, subway, ferry) and at 7-11s and pharmacies. It was scary how easy it was to forget that it was real money…just whip out the card, put it on the little reader and presto!
It was strange to be in Hong Kong without my parents, and to see my parents’ friends without them. Last time, I was still a kid in their eyes, but now, married with husband in tow, it must have been as strange for them to see me as an adult. Being here without my parents has also given me a much better sense of Hong Kong geography — last time I never knew where I was, as all we seemed to do was visit relatives and friends. And eat.
I forget how much English my mom speaks, compared with her friends – “Hello” was about it. Jonathan graciously sat there and ate everything pushed in his direction while conversation swirled about him in Cantonese, with occasional bits of English translation by me. Even my contemporaries, the children of my parents’ friends, who had all taken English in school for years, could speak very little. I can hardly fault them – my 5 years of French from school is pretty abysmal.
It was fun to see Man Sook (Uncle Man), my Dad’s best friend for almost 50 years. Though pushing 70, he looked in good shape. Last time I was there, I mostly listened as my parents talked. This time, being alone, I got great stories of my Dad in his youth, pre Mom. As quiet and introverted as my father was, his friend was talkative, especially about the past. Lots of random things I knew about my Dad became clearer as I was regaled with stories of their meeting, how they used to go to my Dad’s hometown in Fushan for Chinese New Year, how they signed up for mechanic lessons instead of English lessons in Hong Kong, so they could go and be of better service to the glorious revolution in China. They had made it through the training and were waiting to cross the border, when escapees who had just made it back brought stories of the real horror and nightmare going on. They quickly got the heck out of there! Man Sook not only knew my grandmother, but my Dad’s older brother, two people I had never really heard about, never mind seen a picture of.
And of course, how could I be in Hong Kong and not go on about the food? We had some of the best dim sum I’ve ever had at a restaurant named Dong (East) on Nathan Road. Everything was excellent, but especially interesting was the different take on the shu mai – ground pork stuffed in their little yellow skins, but covered with a thin slice of scallop and topped with bright red shrimp roe. Seafood abounds, with tanks and displays of huge and succulent shrimp, fresh fish, scallops, and Hairy crab. We had a great meal at a seafood street stand by one of the night markets.
And the fresh, fragrant, fluffy jasmine rice was just as I like it. I was home.