My bus arrived in Xiamen this morning at 6, coming back to the island in the soft pre-dawn glow. I grabbed a taxi home and had just enough time to clean out my backpack and shower before class. I skipped three days of class last week, but was relieved/disappointed to find out that we were still on the same lesson, so I didn’t miss much.
My name was in the notebook on the front desk downstairs – twice! – which meant I had mail. What a wonderful welcome-back gift – a postcard from France and a birthday card from Tulsa, signed by so many good friends!
I spent the morning and afternoon (except for a quick jaunt over to Lianxing for class that turned out to be cancelled) unpacking and catching up on things.
While I worked, I pondered my weekend in Hong Kong and the observations I made there. Here are some thoughts:
I’ve said before that a big city is a big city. This is not true – Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou are Chinese big cities. Hong Kong, on the other hand, seems actually international. Once I got over the shock of all the Indian men, the most striking thing about the people in Hong Kong was that they looked like Americans. Every ethnicity, every color, every shape, every style of fashion was represented.
Living in China and speaking Mandarin has become a source of pride for me. I love knowing that I can handle most any basic situation that would arise, whether or not anyone else involved can speak English. It’s comforting, certainly, and a source of confidence to try new things and go new places, but it’s also at least part pride – straight up, seven-deadly-sins pride. When I’m in China, I’m not ‘one of those Americans’, and I like living above reproach from any other potentially condescending foreigners. Going to Hong Kong not speaking Cantonese was a lesson in humility. No one cared that I spoke Mandarin; my one attempt with a taxi driver yielded more confusion than the English I was trying to explain, and when I ordered 珍珠奶茶 instead of “milk tea with pearls”, the worker laughed at me much like I would be amused at an obvious non-native speaker speaking Spanish to me in America.
I feel obligated to like Hong Kong more than mainland China, but I don’t think I do. Hong Kong is free, modern, clean, and courteous; China only occasionally exhibits these characteristics. China, however, is both familiar and exciting. The familiarity is the product of months and months of immersion, while the excitement has managed to stick around despite the length of time I’ve been here. China’s quirks make every day an adventure and – 85% of the time – a joy, while Hong Kong is predictably free, modern, clean, and courteous. Where’s the fun in that? I still think back on Taiwan with great fondness; I think Taiwan is a great combination of the excitement and adventure of the mainland plus the convenience, efficiency, and courtesy of Hong Kong.
I first met Alex in the fall of my sophomore year at TU. I had been to China for the first time that summer, on a one-week Engineers Without Borders assessment trip, and Alex had just returned from a semester studying abroad in Chengdu (the first TU student to study in China). The next year, I returned to China with the SENEA project, and Alex returned to Chengdu to study. Sometime during the fall of my junior year, when I began toying with the idea of studying Chinese in China, I sent Alex an email and we met up at the Center for Global Education to talk. I remember being so impressed with how much he knew about China and Chinese. As far as I know, he spoke more Chinese than any non-Chinese student at TU – he was the master.
He applied for this scholarship too, but he was graduating so I was chosen :) Fast forward to now, me quickly approaching a year total in China and nearly as long of intense language study. With his job of teaching English in a Cantonese-speaking area, he has to work hard to even keep his Mandarin at the level it once was, much less improve. What I’m getting at here is – undoubtedly due more to our different circumstances than any differences between us personally – I may have surpassed ‘the master’. We didn’t have a speak-off or anything, but I’m sure we’re at least pretty close in language ability and other practical China skills. I just remember how far ahead he once seemed – how unattainable his language level seemed, and how enviable his familiarity with the country and its people. I’m simultaneously tickled and disconcerted at the idea of having reached this goal I never set for myself.
Aleid and I had dinner plans, which is probably good because otherwise I would not have left my room. The weather is wet – not precipitating, just wet. Humidity is well up in the 90’s and everything is sweating, even the air. Visibility is perhaps at an all-time low, with even the top of Caiqingjie and the tallest tower of DaXueCheng (18 stories?) obscured by fog.
I had a weird feeling on the walk over to West Gate – I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to eat. Even allowing myself to consider food that is unavailable in China, nothing sounded right. We went to Green Chairs and had Kung Pao chicken, which of course ended up being exactly what I wanted. We also tried something new – shrimp cooked in tea leaves! It tasted exactly like you would expect shrimp cooked in tea leaves to taste, which is what I discovered when trying Orange M&M’s and Sprite Iced Tea in Hong Kong. Go figure!