Two weeks ago, after an hour on BART, two hours at SFO, and fourteen sleepless hours on Cathay Pacific, I arrived in Hong Kong. I say that it was my first international trip, but that isn’t strictly true; I visited Canada twice (at ages four and ten), and on cruises, made daylong excursions to Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. I figured these cruise excursions are a little like travelling with one’s parents: the grown-ups take care of all the details of currency, itinerary, guides, and whatnot, so that one is really babysat the entire time. This Hong Kong trip, in contrast, would be my first self-arranged journey abroad, my first international flight, and my first time in a foreign hotel. Quite a departure (ha ha!).
Getting to Hong Kong
Erik and I went to HK with our high school friend Caroline, who was our reason for going: she had a wedding to attend there, and she asked whether we wanted to travel with her and make a proper trip of it. What started as an offhand idea soon became a real event! On Monday the 5th, Caroline came over to our house and we had breakfast and did some last-minute snack-packing and emailing before BARTing to the airport. I’ve thought before that the ride to SFO is really a pretty one. After the craziness of Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, the crowds clear out and you get a quiet, peaceful ride, with great views in South SF and San Bruno. And you don’t have to worry about airport parking. We arrived with plenty of time to spare. There was no line at check-in, and we were able to get some lunch at the Osho counter (yay udon soup!) and even browse the SFMOMA store. Then came a miserably disorganized shuffle through security, and soon after, we were on our way.
Having only flown domestically, I was extremely impressed by the whole flight experience. Cathay Pacific has very glamorous-looking flight attendants! It was the biggest plane I’d ever been on, the bathrooms were comparatively huge, and both service and food were quite good. (Next time I’m getting the “Hindu vegetarian” meal option, though. I’d requested low-lactose meals rather than veggie because I was afraid there’d be tofu, but I’m convinced they only had one non-veg special meal, which means my low-lactose was also the same as the low-fat, low-sodium, low-sugar, and “bland” options. Ugh. My meals were filling and decent quality, but totally tasteless.) There was also a fantastic selection of in-flight entertainment: movies, TV, music, and games (though the games crashed my system every time I tried them). Erik and I watched “Scrubs” and “30 Rock,” followed by an amazing half-hour documentary about free solo climber Alex Honnold. Then, missing Hipline, I cued up a giant playlist of dance pop and used it to block out my fellow passengers as I tried to sleep — probably a lousy idea, as I didn’t sleep at all and then had Rihanna stuck in my head for almost our entire trip.
When we arrived in HK, I felt like a zombie… and then like an idiot, when I realized I’d forgotten to write down my most important HK phone number: Joanna. Joanna is a family friend, though I’d never met her before this trip. She’s the daughter of two of my uncle Richard’s oldest and dearest friends, whom he met when he was “sent down” to Yunnan during the Cultural Revolution — quite a shared history indeed. When my uncle found out we were going to HK, he immediately contacted these friends, and they said Joanna would be happy to meet us at the airport and help us out when we were in town. All I knew about Joanna was that she went to USC for her undergrad, that she worked for her dad’s company, and that she was just a little older than me. I also had a photo she’d sent me. And here I was in Hong Kong without her number! Luckily, the airport had wi-fi, so I only had to search my email to find the information I needed. I called Joanna from a courtesy phone, and her voice seemed instantly familiar and reassuring. We collected our baggage, walked out, and there she was waiting for us. She guided Caroline, Erik, and me the zombie through the airport to the express train that took us to Kowloon Station, where Caroline parted from us to go with her friends Denise and Will (the ones whose wedding she had come for), and then she guided us to a taxi stand, through the short drive through Kowloon, and through check-in at the YMCA, where we then collapsed. Our stay in HK would have been a very different thing without Joanna. We’re so grateful not just for her companionship and assistance while we were there, but we’re also glad to have met her. She feels like family… and she’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. You’ll be hearing lots more about her over the next week!
To my surprise, I wasn’t scared at any time before or during the trip. I had thought I would be — after all, part of the reason I’d never gone abroad before was that I was afraid — but I guess in the past couple of years I’ve done so many new and intimidating things, I’m not as easily fazed anymore. Quite honestly, preparing for this trip was oodles easier than getting ready for a craft show! Oodles! In retrospect, I think my baby-step cruise excursions also eased my way a lot more than I anticipated. They hadn’t seemed like much (frankly, I don’t even remember most of them), but after I got to Hong Kong I was struck with the similarity between this experience and those days out in Mexico and Honduras. Seeing new terrain and vegetation, navigating a different culture and language, sizing up unfamiliar foods and people, doing lots of mental-math conversions while shopping — I’d done all that before. Doing it in Hong Kong was even easier, because one huge thing I found out on this trip is that I’m more Chinese than I thought. Maybe I can construct better sentences in Spanish, but I understood nearly all the basic Cantonese and Mandarin I heard, and I could even figure out many written characters I hadn’t known I’d known (case in point: I got to the HK airport and read “self move” on the bathroom faucet. Aha! That must mean “automatic”!). I’d thought it would be alienating to be surrounded entirely by Chinese people and their languages, but instead it just felt like being in Chinatown or any Chinese enclave (the Ranch 99 plaza in Richmond… Cupertino Village… Monterey Park/Rosemead/Arcadia). To put it simply, I felt as comfortable in Hong Kong as I feel in any of those locations in the States. I had not expected that.
I felt more at home than I’d thought I would, but there were definitely some things that felt very different. First off, traffic felt different: not just auto traffic, but the flows of crowds and people seemed foreign too. We drive on the right side of the road, they drive on the left… and this opposite habit seems to extend to other things as well. Upstairs and downstairs escalators were always on the “wrong” side from what I expected, and I guess by extension, people chose the opposite side of corridors and stairs to walk on too. For the first couple of days I was constantly bumping into people because I didn’t expect them to be coming at me from that direction.
Also, the restrooms are different. I’d expected the worst, based on what people told me about China (and my parents’ recollections of Hong Kong in the late 1970s), but the ones we encountered were as clean as — and usually cleaner than — public restrooms in the States. Nearly everything was automated, and many of the malls’ restrooms had an attendant constantly on duty with her mop and one of those ubiquitous surgical masks over her face. However, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of standard for restrooms.
I can only surmise that Hong Kongers don’t assume a Western-style toilet/paper/seatcover setup, since just about every restroom I visited had some kind of notice inside asking users to flush and to keep things clean — as though this might be confusing, and perhaps it was. Restroom amenities varied quite a bit more than in the States. Some toilets had seat covers, some didn’t. In the airport and the public areas of the YMCA, stalls had sanitizing-gel dispensers and instructions for cleaning the seat yourself. Occasionally the only toilet paper would be a communal roll by the sinks, rather than in individual dispensers in the stalls. I encountered two squat toilets during my visit, and though one was outdoors at a rural monastery (where you might expect conditions to be less Westernized), the other was in a café in the crowded hangout neighborhood of Lan Kwai Fong. Quite frankly, once I got over my shock at having to use one, they weren’t bad at all, except that the stalls were so tiny there was a real danger of “falling in”!
Moving on to daintier subjects, HK style is also quite different from American style. I knew this — anyone who spends time among immigrant populations would — but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I got to HK. I’d be in a department store and the brand names would all be familiar, but the clothing would be very different. People seem to pay more attention to detailing on clothing; I saw many different kinds of distressed denim, but very few plain jeans… maybe the iconic, simple American jeans-and-tee look really is unique. I’d been thinking of HK girls as very dressed up, but it seemed like every kind of clothing was represented, from the expensive and put-together to the casual and even schlumpy. And most women didn’t wear much or any makeup, which I liked. On the other hand, shops and restaurants were ridiculously fancy. In constrast to American stores where you can’t find an employee when you need one, in HK there were staff people everywhere, even to direct shoppers to which elevator to use. Restaurants glittered with chandeliers, bright lights, white linens, and gold accents — no subtle mood lighting here! Most people and places didn’t look like they would have been bizarrely misplaced in the States, but the overall effect was different from what you’d find here, and that was fun to immerse myself in.
There’s tons more I could say here, but I’ve already run on too long. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about scrambled eggs, a giant Buddha, and a Hollywood-esque star sighting on our first full day in HK!