My time in Hong Kong seems to be coming to an end, seeing as I leave tomorrow for the mainland. I’ve now spent a week here and I’ve made a few observations. But first: what have I been doing since India?
Well, my flight got delayed in Delhi for a few hours. It was already leaving at 2:00AM but then got delayed until around 4:00, then it was delayed in Bangkok for a while and as such, I didn’t end up arriving in Hong Kong until around noon, having only 2 hours of sleep for nearly 2 days. It was okay in the airport though. I made a joke with some American in the customs line and in the duty free shop, he realized that there was nothing he could buy with the rupees he didn’t exchange at the counter, so he just gave me a wad of money amounting to maybe $12 US.
“Buy something better than I could have bought!” he said to me as he left to catch his plane. I looked around for a while and realized that there was nothing I wanted (who the hell buys stuff in these shops anyways? You can get a better deal at Costco.) so I just went and spent 2 hours on the net (at $5 bucks an hour at the ridiculous airport price). That killed some time and then it was time for my flight. I went and got the free food at Subway that the airline provided for us because our flight was delayed and the funny thing was that because I asked them for the vegetarian sandwich (I gave up on meat in India for reasons I already explained), they ended up serving me only vegetarian dishes on the plane (what attention to detail!) which wasn’t so bad seeing as I got my food before everyone else.
When I arrived, it was time to navigate Hong Kong. I withdrew some money from an ATM (which I should have waited to do later because there happens to be a Bank of America here and I wouldn’t have been charged the $5 bucks BofA charges me for every non-BofA withdrawl) and made a phone call from the complimentary airport phone to my buddy, Ron. Back home, I went to university with him and he ended up moving back to HK and offered to put me up when I arrived (an offer I never refuse) and so I was cashing in that chip, and we would meet after he got off work. Right away you see that HK is a very modern place. Very modern, indeed. The airport is incredible. Right after landing, you are whisked away on a train to the luggage pickup and after clearing immigration, you are dumped out into what seems like a shopping mall. I managed to eventually make it onto a bus going to Olympic Village, where Ron said he would meet me, and drank some coffee while I waited. Once he arrived, he took me back to his place to set up camp.
Man, ohhh man, did I hit the jackpot. Ron’s got a huge TV, Playstation 2 with tons of games, hundreds of DVD’s, a new computer with high speed internet and (best of all) even air conditioning! We went shopping and stocked up the fridge and went out to eat so I could check out a bit of Hong Kong. I consider myself very (veryveryvery) lucky. Every day we’ve gone out to a different restaurant so I could try all the different kinds of HK food and his parents even came down yesterday to take me out to lunch AND at a really nice sea food place that they have been going to for 20 years, and then out to the streets of HK so we could wander around and check out the markets. His parents are great and they taught me quite a bit about the culture. One HK custom that is kind of interesting is how they clean their silverware with the tea served to them in cheap restaurants rather than drinking it. It’s not uncommon to see a table full of people with all their forks in a cup of tea. At the restaurant I went to with Ron’s parents, they even brought a bowl of steaming water to us when we sat down. Hot tea was then poured from glass to glass while the glass was rotated quickly to get all the germs off. The silverware and the mouths of the glasses were then soaked in the steaming water and shaken clean. They do this because the restaurant might be too busy to do a thorough job cleaning (but they added that it probably cleaned them okay). I wondered if the restaurant slacked on the cleaning because the people were so willing to do the job for them, and if some hot water and tea without soap was really doing much in the way of cleaning, but thought it wise not to say anything. Besides, this way is much more entertaining! People certainly didn’t seem to mind. Over the past 20 years, the restaurant has grown from a single floor to 3 floors in two adjacent buildings. There was a huge line of people out front waiting to get in (but Ron’s family are VIPs so we didn’t have to wait). Seeing a country with a local friend is an incredible experience and I am deeply indebted to Ron and his family for showing me such a good time. Your experience in a country is completely different than what you would see as a backpacker staying in a hostel and I learned much more about the culture in the countries in which I stayed with friends. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for the world.
Ron and I have also gone out to see some of Hong Kong’s night life, tourist spots (like some museums and the biggest hill in HK from which you can see all of Hong Kong) and I’ve met a lot of his friends.
And by now, I’ve also mastered the MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) system which is a marvel of efficiency to behold. As soon as I arrived, Ron got me an MRT card which you just have to hold over the entry gate device of the subway, bus or ferry for it to deduct the fare and let you in. And what’s even cooler is that you can use your MRT card to pay for stuff at lots of stores and places like McDonalds. It’s quite a clever and convenient system (you don’t even have to take the card out of your wallet) and you just refill it when it’s empty. They even have free internet in the subway terminals here! This has been the perfect place to recover from India and I’ve had a great time just wandering the streets and observing people and the pace of life here. I just got done meeting up with my friend Mikael (a French Canadian guy I traveled with for a bit in Vietnam) and it was fun catching up with him. He gets sworn in as a lawyer tomorrow and will move to Beijing in a week or so, so I’ll probably end up getting together with him again very soon. Randomly, while in the subway, I ended up running into an American girl I met in Singapore, too. What a crazy coincidence (but not so crazy, seeing as this kind of stuff seems to happen to me a lot for some reason). I’m having a great time in HK and it’s a place that I actually think I could live quite comfortably in. I’ve discovered that as much as I like hiking and stuff in the mountains, I really like big cities too. I liked Beijing and Sydney, as well as Buenos Aires a lot. The thing about really huge cities is that there is always so much going on everywhere you look. You can never get bored. It’s like a jungle, but with concrete and people, and in a way, walking around in the city isn’t all that much different from trekking, it’s just that you can do it with sandals and there is a McDonalds on every corner.
So what observations have I made while I’ve been here? Let’s see.
Ron and I were in the museum of HK history and we came across a display of a bunch of cavemen in “prehistoric Hong Kong.” Every museum has a display like this and I’ve seen in a million times, but then I realized something. We always look at these displays to show how much better we are now and how much we have progressed, but when you really sit down and think about it, what could you show a caveman that would be of any use to him if you were sent back to his time? You could show him how to check the email on your phone, I’m sure, but he could also show you how to make an arrowhead with his chisel. Sure, there are people who could show him how to implement some sort of new revolutionary technology from scratch at MIT or something like that, but what could you show him? How much smarter are you and I as individuals than a caveman? Quite the contrary, it would probably be him that showed us what you really needed to know, like how to get some food and keep from starving to death. That is kind of humbling, no? Although things have become more complicated and more knowledge has been contributed into the social “pot,” when it comes down to it, each one of us is no different than the caveman who taught the other caveman to make the arrowhead for the caveman that needed it to do the hunting for the cavemen that needed to eat. Only now it’s the guy who teaches another guy computer science so he can write a program for the guy who needs a program so he can make some money for his family members that need to eat.
And the fruits of this age old process are all around you in Hong Kong. It has more skyscrapers than anywhere else in the world. It’s very developed and everything is in both English and Chinese. You can get anywhere you need on the incredible public transportation system (which consists of countless boats, subways, trains, buses, trolleys and taxis). I’ve seen maybe 4 people begging on the street since I’ve arrived and everyone is in a big hurry. Everything is pretty expensive by Chinese standards (costs are pretty much what they would be back home for everything, and sometimes even more expensive) and it’s quite an odd experience having come from Beijing, which I thought was “developed.” For example, although Beijing has a subway, it’s 3 yuan for anywhere in the city. You can ride it all day as long as you don’t leave. It’s simple but cheap, but how much money are they losing by not charging more for longer distances? It’s developed, but still primitive. But unlike Beijing, the “in progress” development of HK isn’t quite as obvious (although you can see places under development) but that’s probably because they have run out of space and have put the energy into developing behind the scenes infrastructure (subways and the like) more than stuff like buildings. There are a million shopping malls (some even open 24 hours!) in every part of the city, nearly everyone is dressed in the latest fashion, and you’ve never seen so many Mercedes and BMWs per square mile in your life. The glittering lights and pace are reminiscent of Las Vegas and at the same time very different. I guess you have to see it to understand.
Ron has told me that one of the reasons there isn’t much to see as far as tourism is concerned is because everything has been torn down in the name of progress, and nothing cultural is left. And although that is a very interesting point, there is of course a flip side:
A popular activity among tourists is to complain about how “the real (insert country name here)” is being destroyed by development and how sad it is that they aren’t preserving their culture. They explain the sense of loss they feel with such passion and never think about what it really is that they are saying.
I always want to say this: “So let me get this straight. You come to this country and see the poverty in the streets. You realize that thousands of people die from starvation every year and the infant mortality rate is several times what it is in your own country, in addition to the lifespan being several years shorter. You recognize that people don’t have access to quality education because in many places it doesn’t exist or is too expensive and that a cycle of poverty is being perpetuated due to the lack of any sort of economic infrastructure. People are dying on a daily basis and as much as you like to philosophize from the comfort of your air conditioned SUV about how “technology” isn’t really necessary and that these people have really figured out “the way,” a mother down the street is struggling to just get by with enough food for their sick infant so it doesn’t die like her other three. And once development starts taking hold and a few dilapidated buildings (which you would have liked to snap a photo of) start falling so they can build a new school, or a new hospital or a new skyscraper for a corporation that will generate billions of dollars in tax revenue and infrastructure for this country, you start complaining about what a shame it is. Do you realize how selfish, sick and twisted that sounds?”
Hong Kong may lack a few temples for me to visit while I’m here, but c’mon, I’ve seen ONLY FOUR beggars in a whole week! Of course it is important that it is that a people don’t forget who they are (which people in poorer countries are generally much better at than Westerners, in the first place), but there are plenty of ways to document that nowadays which doesn’t stifle progress. Why can’t we as tourists just go to a country, see what they are doing for themselves and just observe and take note. The choices they make are indicative of their culture and you can learn quite a bit about a country by learning about its developmental genealogy. If you want to see the “old” Beijing, go buy a picture book. But for humanity’s sake, let the people have their comfort. And for those that argue that the “the rich just get richer and the poor just get poorer,” it’s simply not true. I want to tell them to stop reading inflammatory populist propaganda and simply look at the facts and statistics (The standard of living in China and India, along with plenty of other developing countries, is a perfect example).
It’s always funny to listen to people say how “all this” isn’t “really” necessary. While in Vietnam, I heard a local say how “everyone wants something better and how everyone wants to see more” and then I listened to a Swedish guy lecture him about how that wasn’t true: he was perfectly happy where he was in his life and didn’t need more. In dismay, I brought up the fact that he was actually spending several times this guy’s yearly salary traveling in a country far, far away from his own. If he was so happy with his own life and didn’t want to see more, why was he on vacation in Vietnam? Only then did he realize how silly his statement was. We all have little hypocritical opinions like this and in my opinion, it’s important that we figure out what they are so we can adjust our perspectives and so get a better and truer understanding of the world in which we live, which allows us to contribute to our full potential. When you are running in a fog, it’s much more difficult to keep from smacking into something and, as such, it takes a lot longer to get where you’re going.
Hong Kong was only given back to China by the British less than 10 years ago and seeing as it was a completely different country before (that is to say, not just a part of another like it is now), you constantly find yourself saying “when I get to China.” It feels like a completely different place, but I imagine that Shanghai and even Beijing will soon look very similar. Boo hoo for the Western tourists that “miss out” on seeing it now. But I can assure them, that it will still be China whenever they come. It is physically and philosophically impossible for any part of China not to be the “real” China.
And of course, I can’t finish my post on Hong Kong without talking about the girls. They are on average wayyyyyyyy prettier than the girls in Beijing. I don’t know if it’s because they are dressed more modern, because there are less girls with mustaches (nothing makes me want to cry as much as a beautiful girl with a mustache), or because girls in the south are generally more attractive to me (I noticed this when I flew to southern China to cross over to Vietnam, too, so maybe it’s a Southeast Asian influence thing), but it’s something you notice as soon as you arrive in the airport. I was never really attracted to Asian girls until I spent so much time here, but man, I’m sure that that’s one of the reasons I commented to myself that I wouldn’t mind living here. It’s funny too: after seeing so many incredibly slim and fit Asian girls, you see a westerner and they just look fat, even if they aren’t. It certainly is interesting to see how your perceptions warp due to perspective.
Tomorrow I leave for the mainland. I’m actually quite excited. Good food, interesting people, beautiful countrysides, contrasts between wealth and poverty, old and new, the traditional and the modern mingling. China is changing at an incredible pace, arguably faster than any country ever has and I would also venture to say that no country may ever change with quite the same intensity ever again. I’ve got a visa for a month and I’m hoping I can cram all that I want to see into that limited time. We’ll see how I fare, although I’m sure I’ll be back in the future.