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Forest for the Trees

May 23, 2009

On Things I’ve Learned About My Own City From Guests

Isn’t it weird that you don’t really know much about the place you live until you’re expected to be a tour guide? Well, our time in Hong Kong is no exception. Even though I feel that we have made the most of every opportunity and tried to absorb this fleeting experience as much as possible, there are inevitably characteristics that go unnoticed, at least at a conscious level, until a discerning guest points them out.

While the Facebook claim was a definite factor in my neglect of this blog, there have been a few other things going on: like having 4 sets of visitors in 3 months. Oh, and the Kid getting pretty sick 3 different times with 3 different maladies. And no less than 4 toddler birthday parties, which will have to be another post, because, holy cow, people in HK go all out for these events that their 2 year-old will never remember. And no, I am not immune to the competitive nature of this particular beast. Plus it’s imperative that I achieve an appropriate level of not-suckiness on the tennis court now that I’m on an actual team. Wait, you didn’t know that I play tennis? Good point! I didn’t until recently, and I have a lot of catching up to do. The one advantage I have going for me is that I haven’t really developed any bad habits from playing much in the past.

But back to our guests. [DISCLAIMER: dearest reader, if you are one of the fabulous people who spent all the time, energy, and money to come visit us, please know that we love you dearly and could NOT have been happier to have you here. Don’t take any of this personally. Unless I mention you by name. Then you can feel offended that you poured your life savings into a trip to HK only to have me insult you in a semi-public way.] In case you didn’t know or can’t imagine, hosting people in a 2 bedroom apartment presents some unique challenges. So when you throw in a toddler who must have peace and quiet for 14 hours a day to sleep, as well as the occasional monsoon and the fact that I want everything to be perfect, you may just have a recipe for disaster. Or at least disappointment. Fortunately, guests are a bit like toddlers—quite resilient when you get right down to it. Therefore, despite some weather complications, some food aversions (as in, “If I even smell Asian food again I’m going to puke”), some full-on tantrums from the Kid, and some taxi drivers who seemed intent on taking us as far as possible without the remotest clue as to our preferred destination, I think I can safely say that all the visits were a success to some degree.

I can now reveal, in no particular order, the top 10 things I’ve learned about HK thanks to our observant visitors:

  1. Panhandlers here are few and far between, but they make up for the lack of quantity by their dramatic claims to your attention. I mean, in Portland you’re supposed to take pity on someone because he has no job and a darling puppy to feed? Please. Here we’ve got the guy with no arms, spindly legs that stick out at grotesque, unwalk-able angles, and his chin fused to his chest.
  2. Eyelashes don’t curl in extreme humidity. Who knew?
  3. Cheap beer is still cheap beer. And it’s not even cheap here. After a few months of bemoaning the complete dearth of a microbrew, any microbrew, Dave and I have resigned ourselves to the ubiquitous Tsingtao, which we have managed to convince ourselves is pretty dang good. But when we proudly offered it to our native Pacific Northwest visitors, they almost unanimously sipped the first one politely and asked for wine the next time.
  4. Housing in Hong Kong is ridiculously expensive. Obviously we know this, but it brings it to a whole new level when someone points out that our rent for this 2 bedroom apartment is 5 TIMES the mortgage of our 4 bedroom, 3 bathroom house back home!
  5. Hong Kong is a very, shall we say, pungent-smelling place. Well, come on, the name literally translates to “Fragrant Harbor.” But it’s true that your olfactory sense is constantly assaulted here in not always pleasant ways. Even in our nearby little tourist town, our guests were often wrinkling their noses. And don’t get me started on the smells emanating from the alleys behind the goldfish market!
  6. Riding on the top of a double-decker bus while it navigates the twisting, turning, one lane roads on the island’s south side can be a harrowing experience. I guess we never really noticed because it’s the Kid’s favorite thing and we’re often seeing it through the eyes of a 2 year-old. But even the most intrepid visitors requested a seat on the lower deck for repeat journeys.
  7. Speaking of public transportation, Hong Kong in a word might be described as “convenient.” In fact, we recently had dinner with some German friends who both independently settled upon this word as the best one to describe our fair city. As an endorsement from citizens of a country known for its efficiency, I can’t think of anything more complimentary. Granted, the island itself only measures about 30 square miles (80 square kilometers), and then there’s Kowloon across the harbor that is a measly 17 square miles (46 square kilometers), but these two areas comprise the majority of housing and commerce venues for Hong Kong’s 7 million person population. So it’s fairly shocking to leave the idyllic, resort feel of the south side, with its beaches and parks, hop on a bus, and in 25 minutes find yourself in the middle of a thriving, bustling metropolis, with its gleaming skyscrapers, countless buses and taxis (and the attendant pollution), colorful—and fragrant—open air markets, and Gucci, Versace and Armani stores nestled right up against rows and rows of street vendors hawking every kind of knock-off. One of our guests even commented that it takes her longer to drive to her fiancé’s house in a different neighborhood than it took us to catch a bus to what feels like the other side of the world.
  8. In Asian cooking, pork isn’t the “other white meat”—a nod to an advertising campaign in the States a few years back—it’s the only white meat. I reckon we eat pork at least 3 times a week. More than one set of visitors expressed surprise when served a meal subsisting primarily of ground pork multiple times. But honestly, pork has more taste than chicken, it’s of consistently better quality here, and it’s less expensive. What more can you say?
  9. Of course Hong Kong balances a curious mixture of Chinese and British influence. Perhaps the most immediate indicator that Hong Kong is a former British colony presents itself in the cars driving on the left side of the street. Now, I’ve only been to London for one day when I was 10 years old, so I’m not entirely certain of this assumption, but I would think that in the UK, as go the cars, so go the pedestrians. Makes sense, right? However, walking about Hong Kong is a complete free-for-all. There is just no expectation whatsoever that, when approaching another person head-on, you will veer to the left. Or that you will pass a slower pedestrian on the right. You just put your head down and charge. This confusion is further complicated by the fact that escalators don’t maintain much consistency…the majority of the time, you go up (or down) on the left, but this is certainly not the rule. So our poor visitors often found themselves weaving about the streets like polite but drunken aliens.
  10. And then there are the boats! If you think the streets are crowded and disordered, wait until you get out into Victoria Harbour. Perhaps the world’s biggest game of chicken routinely plays out in these waters. For example, we took a ferry with our friend who is an officer in the Navy, and our captain decided to test out his engine power by racing ahead of a container ship bearing down on us from the port side. It became increasingly apparent to us, the lowly passengers, that this gamble was ill-conceived, but the captain blithely continued his suicide mission until the last possible second. We pulled up and allowed the ship to pass in front of us with about 10 yards to spare. Although terrified, I thought I might be ignorantly overreacting until I saw the red face and clenched jaw of my normally mild-mannered naval companion. “That was unbelievably dangerous. Ridiculous. Unbelievable,” he muttered while patting the arm of his 4-months-pregnant wife.

Many thanks to all our visitors for opening our eyes to Hong Kong in new ways. We can’t wait for the next set to start rolling through!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jennifer Sinclair permalink
    May 23, 2009 11:47 pm

    More pix of you two! But the kid is cute, it’s true.

  2. May 27, 2009 11:44 pm

    Great Blog, you should submit it to The Expat Directory:

    http://www.theexpatdirectory.com/forms/add_site.php

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