I have never fallen for a place as rapidly or as irrevocably as I have fallen for Hong Kong.
This past weekend was electrifying, rapid, exhilarating. And it terrifies me just how much I want to uproot the life I have created in China and move to this tiny, packed island, barely a 2-hour flight from Shanghai, with the population density of New York City (and just under a quarter of its size). And yet, Hong Kong is a city I would have never been able to understand had I not lived in the mainland first. Really, it’s the small details that stand out when I think back to this weekend: it’s the people queuing up in neat lines to take the bus in lieu of swarming the station, it’s the politeness of the 7/11 clerks (and the bewildering selection of Pear Cider!), it’s the freshly-pressed suits of people ascending from the MTR at Central station, transitioning smoothly between Cantonese and textbook English.
In short, it’s the lack of barrier to the Western world.
In Shanghai, we are so overwhelmed by glimpses of the familiar (additive-free peanut butter! Guiness beer!) that we often lose sense of the big picture. In Hong Kong, that barrier is gone: people on the Subway (or rather the MTR) read the Wall Street Journal, newsstands on the streets sell the International copy of the New York Times, there is Mariage Frères tea in the City Super. I have never experienced a city that feels so much like the future – like a scene from a Sci-Fi film – a crazy intersection of the Eastern and Western World. This is a place where I can still get spicy marinated octopus on a skewer for 10HDK (just over 1USD), eating it perched on a plastic stool amidst the throngs of the crowds, but also a place where I have felt underdressed for one of the first times since coming to Shanghai. That kind of dichotomy simply fails to exist in China.
It’s thrilling to feel such a strong connection to a place the minute you set foot in it. And yes, Hong Kong is crowded, polluted, and stifling, but that kind of intensity is that kind I truly thrive on.
Before I start sounding like a star-struck middle schooler, for me, this rapid onset is actually quite unfamiliar. In life, it takes weeks, even months for me to truly warm up to a person or a place. Though I have grown to really love Shanghai, on most days, even after having lived in this city for six months, my feelings for its streets, its people, and its expats are – at best – conflictied. I adore New York, but let’s face it, most of the streets still smell faintly of pee. Even with people, I am always (superficially) nice at first, but by nature, I am cautious and will rapidly put up a shield, acting more and more distant until I either alienate them completely, or reluctantly let them in, and let myself fall for them.
Now, having come back home to Shanghai, I still feel overwhelmed, I’m still struggling to come to terms with Hong Kong and the feelings it evoked. Personally, for myself, it’s quite difficult to write about something in a when I am so struck. My stronger pieces come when I’m a little anguished. I can easily write about my seasickness in Phuket, or the Russian frost, but barely found the words to describe the French Quarter and the utter debauchery of my trip to New Orleans. And so, I’ll also add that it’s partially the fault of Spring Airlines, its non-reclining seats, and getting back into the city at 4am, just in time to take a shower and meander to work, but I am, for once, at a loss for words.
My last night in Hong Kong, my feet (packed into high heels) were hurting so much from a weekend of walking and my duffel bag felt just a tad too heavy, packed with the winter jacket I had refused to put on in the 13ºC weather. I was making my way back to the IFC and the Hong Kong MTR station, hoping to catch the Airport Express back to HKG. As I stood on the elevated walkway, ready to descend into the mall, I caught my last glimpse of the bay. A year ago, I would have kept walking. I would have made sure I arrived at the Aairport with time to spare for my flight.
But I’ve changed.
I ignored the stabbing pain in my manicured toes and walked down to the Pier, spending my last half an hour in the city taking in the (slightly less-polluted) air, the Kowloon skyscrapers, and the shimmering lights of Hong Kong.
I am quite tired. I am running on barely an hour of sleep, due to the woeful time mismanagement of Spring Airlines (a discount Airline so bad, that they don’t even qualify to be a part of any Airline Alliance), its litany of delays, and the guy next to me who was eating what must have been a rotten tuna salad sandwich at 1:30am.
I really wanted to get these thoughts out, but I’ll continue developing them over the next few days.