On Monday morning, I got into an elevator and greeted a tall, well dressed man standing in it.
“Ne hao,” I said quickly. I made it a point to use the greeting wherever I went in Hong Kong, but most people could tell I was an English speaker.
The man lifted both of his eyebrows on a very relaxed, wrinkled face.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“New York,” I said.
“For work?” he asked.
“No, holiday,” I said.
“How nice to be on holiday,” he said.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Japan,” he said. I told him that Bo used to live in Hakodate. He nodded, a bit surprised, then we waved each other goodbye as we exited the lobby. It was a muggy day in Hong Kong.
I likely looked like a fool in passing, my exchange with the man made me laugh down the street. I had spoken to my parents a day or two and told them about my hike. This launched my mother into a lecture: “No touching monkeys, playing with monkeys or going anywhere where you know there are monkeys. And don’t put your butt on any of those toilets in China” she shrieked — the last bit was in reaction to me telling her that I saw my first squat toilet on the hiking trail.
“And don’t talk to strangers!” she yelled. “And lock your hotel room door.”
Yet, I hadn’t seen any monkeys but I had talked to strangers, lots of strangers, as many as I could. I had put my butt on lots of toilet seats. And I was having a blast. When I became an adult I realized that a lot of fun could be had by doing the exact opposite of what people tell you to do.
I needed gifts to take home, and I was told that there was a group of antique sellers in Soho, where one could get beautiful porcelain. I also wanted to have breakfast there, so I went to Soho again.
I remembered my foot path from the day before, another series of staircases and winding roads. The shops were all closed, so I went to Corner Kitchen Cafe for breakfast. Like Nosh, they too had the glass front of their space open to the outside. I took a table and ordered a country breakfast and a latte.
The couple two my left, a man and a woman in their 60s, were waiting for their daughter. Another expat who’d moved to Hong Kong. I tried to imagine how she looked by the way they described her, “…she’s always late.” They said as they read aloud her text messages. “She says she’s down the block.” I was leaving the restaurant when I saw the mom get up and rush to the street corner, where her daughter met her. She was unlike I imagined and with a little girl, her own daughter. Something about this scene struck me, maybe that the mother couldn’t wait another second to see her daughter and had to run out of the restaurant and to the corner. Or perhaps I missed my own parents, despite their lectures against fraternizing with monkeys.
I went to the antique shops on Upper Lascar Row, each had a table out front for the most commonly sold wares. One of the men had vintage brownie cameras, photographs of old Hong Kong, vintage money, pocket watches, porcelain dishes. I bought a pocket watch for Bo, and wished I had more money for more blue and white dishes. I decided then to walk from there to Hong Kong Park.
I passed a house with a staircase to the basement and a big sign: “Do not feed fish.” I looked down, there was a pond full of koi. A little further I saw a pen and paper store, bought some Taiwanese pens. I took a break at a little courtyard. Hong Kong was on lunch break, and the park was a buzz.
I went further, past all the big banks and their heavily guarded walkways and entrances. Up a set of stairs, I met St. John’s Cathedral (an oasis!) and eventually, The Peak Tram. I hadn’t planned on going up the Peak, but since I’d run into it, decided to do it. The tram is a historic red train that takes passengers up to Hong Kong’s highest peak to overlook the city.
Its a glorious, steep ride. The buildings almost look vertical as you go up. The crowds started to “ooohhh” and “ahhh” like they would on a roller coaster. A pair of Irish men sitting behind me, nearly got stomach sick. In retrospect, it was a lot more magical than it seemed at the time, the train path is under brush and trees, the sun shining, passing the buildings and residences on either side.
At the top I walked a foot path to the lookout point. Hong Kong below me, if I craned my neck to the right, I could see my hotel.
“Oh,” I sighed, quoting Dr. Seuss. “The places you’ll go.”
I took the tram back to sea level, and walked back on my original route to Hong Kong park. The greenery! I can’t even say how many large trees and plants, and flora sprung out from the ground and in the air and all over. There was an aviary, where exotic birds lived underneath a net, and an “Artificial Lake” (official name) filled with koi.
I wanted to go ride the Star Ferry through the harbor and see the symphony of lights. I wanted to go to a Buddhist nunnery and the Temple Street Night Market. I wanted to have tea a the Peninsula, but I was feeling too lonely for any of those things. I brushed myself off and took the MTR back to the hotel.
The sun set, I had dinner sitting on the bed. I went on a long night walk around 8 pm, through Causeway Bay and past the park and back. I’d fly out the next day.
I hate leaving places. Even places I’ve only been to for a few days. When I was younger I used to cry every time I left New York City, now I just cry whenever I leave anywhere.
Sniffling, I packed up my stuff and checked out. A city shuttle bus would take me for free to the the train to the airport, so I waited on the street. Commuters were passing in the damp morning air (it was around 7 am). A little bus pulled up and I greeted the driver and we went down every street I’d known the past week.
I travel because I delight in nuance. To say the “air is different” would be cliche and limiting. The little differences are everywhere and as small as the general street pace, the Starbucks menu, bamboo scaffolding. I wish I could pick one thing and say: “Hong Kong is this,” but I can’t. All I know is that when you cross the streets in Hong Kong the crossing symbol makes a ticking noise and when I think of the sound my heart flutters in my chest at the memory.
The biggest benefit from my trip wouldn’t reveal itself till I landed in New York. It was a 20 hour flight home, another layover in Seoul. Bo was at JFK waiting for me and to accompany me on my late night train ride home. I used to be self conscious in New York, but I returned from Hong Kong feeling confident. This feeling has carried over into the subsequent weeks. It took going on the other side of the world and being an outsider, but it was worth it.