Oh, Guangzhou Victory Hotel – it’s been great. Thanks for the bacon and croissants, the decadent bed, the super-friendly bellboys, and nightly chocolates delivered to my room. But all things must come to an end, and today was a day for leaving – leaving Guangzhou, and leaving China.
My friends went home to America this morning, but I had another stop to make before heading home (to Xiamen, of course) – Hong Kong. As I mentioned in a previous post, I don’t consider Hong Kong to be part of China. It might have something to do with the fact that I had to go through Chinese and Hong Kong Customs and Immigration to go from one to the other, or the fact that I had to change currencies and my cell phone no longer works. Things like this indicate different countries to me – I know, I’m crazy like that.
I was prepared for those changes, in theory at least. In actuality, I wasn’t quite prepared for the trek from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, which involved 3 separate subway rides and a longer train ride, adding up to over 5 hours – longer than it took me to get from Xiamen to Guangzhou! A lot of this time was also spent waiting in lines to get through customs and immigration, each time comically divided into a ridiculous number of lines showing the complicated relationship between China and the places I refer to as non-China (HK, Macau, and Taiwan).
The surprises of Hong Kong did not stop there, though. Coming to Hong Kong after living in China is like going about your daily life while wearing a pair of glasses that aren’t your own. Everything is different – usually just a little bit, but enough to throw me off. The traditional characters, for instance – a lot of them familiar from my summer course in the US, but some only understandable based on context. But even traditional characters are preferable to the Romanized Cantonese that accompanies them. It’s strange and I hate it – again, it bears some semblance to Mandarin pinyin but the differences are non-negligible. Cantonese is so prevalent here that the ‘common-ness’ of 普通话 (Mandarin, the ‘common language’), is questionable; I’m not sure how much use my Mandarin is, so I’m paralyzed by doubt every time I try to speak.
It’s not just language based, either. In a relic of British imperialism, they drive on the left, walk on the left, and put their pants on left leg first (most likely); I have made an ass out of myself even more often than usual because of this. Even the money is almost-but-not-quite. I traded in 1,000 RMB for 1,112 HKD, which is a difference slight enough to mean that revising my usual estimation of 7-to-1 isn’t worth it. The bills are even brighter than Chinese money, but look weird because they are issued by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited and HSBC instead of a government; they pretty much look like traveler’s checks or something.
Anyway, I made it the correct subway stop and came up to the surface of Hong Kong for the very first time . . . and culture shock immediately set in. Hard core, more overwhelmed than I’ve been since coming to China. I was on Nathan Rd, the main drag of Kowloon, and the neon signs in English, Chinese (characters), and Cantonese illuminated the street like the midday sun. And what was there to be illuminated was people. In terms of quantity it was much like China, but the quality of the people was different. I really felt like I had taken the wrong train and ended up in Mumbai or something, because Indians and Pakistanis had clearly overtaken the Han Chinese as the strong majority in this area. They harassed me as I walked along, selling watches, computers, tailors, and places to stay.
It was around this point, when I was being intimidated into near hysteria by some men who weren’t even being particularly aggressive, I realized that if I were to immediately travel from China to a culture of machismo, I would mostly likely experience a completely emotional breakdown. Chinese men are just not very aggressive, and even when drunk they’re more deferent than Western men. I’ve become accustomed to this, and thus was surprised by and unprepared for the efforts of these men to get my attention. Worse, they all spoke English so couldn’t even hide behind the language barrier as a defense.
But, I actually was looking for a place to stay, so at some point I had to talk to them. I went to the Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong’s most infamous low-budget hostels, and let one guy take me up to his place. For 150 Hong Kong dollars ($20) a night, I get what could generously be described as a cell.
I have my own bathroom so I shouldn’t complain, but it’s miniscule – I could literally drink from the faucet while relieving myself on the toilet, and could do both while taking a shower.
After setting my stuff down, I decided to explore my surroundings. I had grand delusions of eating at the TGIF next door, but when I saw that appetizers were 100 HKD ($13), I decided even that wasn’t worth it. Enjoy what you have, where you are, I reminded myself, and grabbed Indian food from one of the 400 tiny food stands in Chungking Mansions.
I got it to-go and planned to retire to my room and enjoy the freedom of expression available here in Hong Kong, in the form of Facebook, Youtube, and The Onion. If only it were that simple . . . Turns out that the Chungking Mansions consist of at least 5 buildings, sharing a common base but unconnected at the top. I’m sure you see where this is going, but to explain completely why it took me an hour to get up to my room on the 6th floor of building D, I also have to add that the elevators are epically slow. Each building has two – one that stops on even floors and one that stops on odd floors – each capable of holding about 6 people an uncomfortable proximities. After dinner time, lines for the elevators were spilling out into the main corridors and made me glad I had a book on me.
So yeah, my bad sense of direction + a maze of identical Bollywood DVD shops, naan and curry stands, and knock-off iPod sellers + worst elevator situation ever = 4 trips to the 6th floor, including one by stairs.
Back in my room, I curled up with my chicken rice, pita bread, and wifi-enabled laptop, and there spent several wonderful hours rotting my brain. I read about 40 Onion articles in a row and watched a music video for the first time since leaving America. I came to the conclusion that Lady Gaga is freaking messed-up, and am now fine not watching music videos for another 7+ months. But I also watched a few videos I had bookmarked for this occasion. One, a guerrilla handbell stunt from Improv Everywhere, was distinctly out-of-date with a Christmas scene but despite (or perhaps because of?) this, brought me to tears.
I’ve been using my proxy back home in Xiamen so it wasn’t weird at all to get on facebook, but videos load too slow so it was really my first time on Youtube in many months. It has changed – I can’t describe exactly how, but the page is laid out differently and there are a lot more videos in HD. Weird that a familiar website can feel so unfamiliar.
But maybe I should have expected it. Familiar sites have brought me a lot of unfamiliar things this year – engagement announcements of friends, pictures of things I wasn’t there for, news of current events I missed, and popular songs I’ve never heard of. Most recently, it’s been weird checking out the new 2010 scholarship winners. For the last two years, April was a time to await scholarship decisions, a time to obsessively check websites looking for my name. This year, I checked the same sites but looked instead for the name of my school. I was happy to see TU students do so well – with a Truman, 2 Goldwaters, and 3 NSFs – but felt weird that I didn’t know most of the winners. (Technically, this was more true before I found out about the NSF winners, one of whom is living in my room of my apartment right now, and the other who just sent me a letter from New Zealand.) SENEA totally swept the last two years of Goldwater and Udall scholarships, but I guess all good things must come to an end.