From an 11-year old student’s essay:
“Third, I will jump over clouds. And I will lay on cloud. But maybe it feels very wet. Somehow I want realize (understand if )the clouds are all soft or it is wet. If the cluds (clouds )are soft, that will be my playground.”
There are times that I wish I had 12 fingers because then I could speak about dozens and have some easy way to talk about them, because nobody thinks in terms of dozens. I can’t say a couple of handfuls– plus 20%. A lot of things do come in dozens, and the problem is that they’re usually food related, and nobody really thinks of food as that important. Nobody says he’s got a dozen-guage shotgun. Nobody says JC had a dozen apostles. But we say a dozen eggs and a dozen doughnuts, as if the world of bakers is exclusive to their trade and our consumption of their produce.
In the last dozen days, I’ve had the opportunity to go to two really cool places. Well, perhaps three. A couple of short weeks ago, I went to Hong Kong, and just last night I got back from Tokyo. I’ve been saying for a long time that I would post about this all but really, the experience is muchly similar to the way it was when I first set foot in Asia over a year ago, when I started bouncing between Taiwan, Philipines, Singapore and Thailand.
I don’t particularly enjoy seeing temples and museums, really. I mean, they’re nice and all that, and occasionally I’ll find one so huge and well archietected that I’ll be genuinely impressed. But seeing all that doesn’t really interest me. If I were to go to a temple or a museum, I’d be more interested in finding out in how this related to people. I don’t really care about taking pictures shaking monks’ hands or anything like that.
When I go on a vacation, the inevitable problem thus is that it’s hard to find things to do or things to see that genuinely interest me. What I want isn’t necessarily have a good time– what I want is to be able to ‘live’ in a place, and do things the way the locals do. I don’t want any special treatment– and, being Chinese, my Asian features give me a lot of ability to do that so long as nobody tries to engage me in conversation.
There’s a lot of talk about “culture shock” among the vagrant communities, especially ESL teachers. The basic idea is like cannonballing into ice cold water from air that’s pretty warm. You experience a shock because of the sudden shift of everything around you, and it’s not the kind of situation you can backpedal out of easily. I’ve been in Korea for a while now and there are a lot of things that are similar between the Asian countries, but that doesn’t make me immune to noticing tons of differences between them. Try as I might to keep in control, sometimes the experiences are just so immersive that it’s inevitable that you freeze up every now at then– but that’s a compliment to those cultures that are so different that they work even though they do so out of any previous frame of mind that you’ve ever had.
When I got to Hong Kong, one of the first things that threw me off were the right sided drivers. Throw in the the busses and trams are two floors tall; I could never really figure out how those bastards could drive so fast and yet never tip over. The trams were the cheapest to ride, not being air conditioned, and could take us from our hotel all the way to the heart of Hong Kong for the equivalent of about 40 cents Canadian at the time of this posting. Better still, we had these things called “Octopus Cards,” which serve the same purpose as “PassMo” in Japan and “T-Money” in Korea, which is basically a rechargable credit card for publig transports and stores. I wish that Montreal had caught on to this system years ago as they have all over Asia– it’s just so much easier to tap an RFID equipped card (or just slam your wallet down) onto the sense panel and to be on your way than it ever was to slide those sometimes demagnetized plastic cards we used back in Montreal.
Later in the trip, because streets are reversed, Zanshin would cross from a tram island to the sidewalk looking in the wrong direction and almost get smeared by a tram that made no effort to slow down. I think in general that’s one thing that is significantly different between North America and Asia– and you’re free to disagree– it’s that in North America there’s this idea that you’re ‘owed something’ while in Asia there is ‘don’t be stupid.’
If we look at the way scaffolding builders in Hong Kong climb up a dozen floors lashing bamboo together with no safety harnesses or helmets or the way people in Seoul handle circular saws with rubber slippers on, we wonder– why is it that everyone in America is decked out with safety goggles, hard hats, and construction boots? While it is true that all that gear does reduce injuries, a lot of it has to do with the social or government interventions that tell everyone to do it. As Zanshin puts it, one person drops a hammer on his toe and the next declaration is “Boots for all!” because otherwise, construction workers, indignant, would feel that their safety is owed by their employers.
Out here in Asia the jobs are much simpler. Here is your primary objective. Here is your secondary objective. Make it happen, and you will be paid. If you don’t like it, walk away.
It explains a lot of why in Asia, people work so much overtime without pay. The first thought that a North American person has when this occurs when working overseas is that “I’m owed something!” but in Asia, this seldom is considered. But in the same way the way the cities themselves are developed out here have this strange dialectic between practicality and fashion.
Like most metropolitain areas I suppose, there’s a contrast between the richest palces and the poorest, even though the districts’ borders are invisible and even though the differences might be the mere crossing of a narrow street.
Going to Hong Kong was interesting because it was the first time that I’d ever been immersed in a Cantonese environment where there was really no way out for me. Even when I’m with my grandparents back home, I could always ask my dad or my aunts or uncles whenever there were some words I didn’t understand. If not immediately, then over the next day or two, and then I could understand. But being in HK was different– nobody to rely on. Zanshin didn’t speak much Canto, beyond food items. It was nice to be forced to work.
The peculiar thing is that this shouldn’t be a new sensation– I mean, I was in Korea normally, wasn’t I? That’s one thing I’ve really learned, and constantly forgotten and relearned– something about comfort levels. Even though Korean is not one of my really functional languages, and even though Korea isn’t ‘really’ my home in the sense that the majority of this country’s secrets are still completely outside of my grasp, repetition and practice gets your feet dug in. And so whereas being in Korea is a foreign experience, it is nonetheless one that I have become comfortable with– so I found with some surprise throughout my travels to the neighboring Asian countries that it felt good to “come home to Korea” even though in it’s early stages, I was terrified of this place.
Of all things, the way that Cantonese is spoken in HK was what I felt was most different. From what I’ve guessed, the Cantonese that people spoke in Montreal was a bit archaic– because people moved to Canada from Hong Kong and then started adopting English or French as second and third languages, the brand of Cantonese in Montreal is fused with the local jargon. Yet, on the flipside, there’s a lot more slang in the streets of HK that doesn’t exist in Montreal. I guess that this is the show that the the times are changing; once you cut off a branch and plant it somewhere else, they don’t always grow the same way if the conditions aren’t the same. It’s almost as if the Canto spoken in Montreal and even Toronto was like a time capsule of Cantonese, containing a DNA sample of HK’s language and culture from a decade ago.
Listening to Cantonese in Montreal was like listening to a living stage, reenacting expressions through the new young actors that HK had left behind mostly for the old.
Yet, as I walked through the poorer parts of Hong Kong, or when I walked into the dim sum places, it was surreal how much it looked like Chinatowns back home. From the design and layout of the restaurants to the chairs themselves, walking into a Chinese dim sum joint was like teleporting to South Shore for a quick meal. The waiters and waitresses had their hair slicked back and were wearing those black pants and vests, if not a paler shade of black, and there was purpose and urgency in every step. People washed their cups a bit with their tea before eating, dishwashers’ kung fu be damned– it not out of mistrust, then out of tradition.
The trams, oh the trams!
The world is colorful, but one of the things that actually allowed me to appreciate this is black and white photography. You take a picture in black and white and sometimes, you’ll find that what you saw as good in color isn’t really all that great in black and white. The reason being is that many colors translate to a similar intensity in a greyscale, and b/w is more characterized by the constrasts.
The nights of Hong Kong seeemd like the kind of place just made for black and white– harsh, shielded white flourescents throwing down their hums on tram islands in the middle of otherwise warm oranges from high and far apart street lamps. Neons, everywhere, buzzing and casting exaggerated engravings in the joints of store garage doors. The creases in cheap looking paint that is in a frozen drool at the bottom of the tram’s metal window frames. And lets not forget the people, with the wrinkles, or the shines, of their skin or the muscles, sometimes 60 years old, working in the sun. All of it, the shapes, they just give lots of opportunity for the shadows.
I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a thing for transportation. While I was in the Philipines, I think that one of the most memorable parts was riding in the “tricycles,” those motoroized three wheeled motorocycles with a passenger cart in the back. In Hong Kong, the experience was defined by the trams. You get to meet every kind of person on the tram who is ‘living’ in HK– I mean, from the young to the old, and you overheard them talking about the things in their lives. The trams are noisy and they aren’t air conditioned– the whole metal behemoth rings whenever it hits a fault in the tracks, and it jolts straight up from the metal wheels to the top of your skull on the second floor. There’s screeches resounding off the buildings as the whole contraption, awesome in it’s terrible yet archaic industrial tenacity, uses it’s hydraulics to scrape itself to a skidding stop at every light.
On a side note, I’m listening to Raine Maida’s “Hunters’ Lullaby” cd, and man– what a piece of shit! What the frig happened to OLP??
While in HK, our basic mission was to eat. And eat. And eat.
Eating in a country is one way to get the feeling that you’ve been living there. You have to eat what the locals are eating. You have to get the stuff that’s from the neighborhood, not the stuff that’s imported. It sounds like it goes without saying, but many foreigners, especially North Americans, will tend to stick to North American food joints– not just out of comfort, although this is largely true as well– but also because of a direct disdain for trying what seems to be strange.
Granted in HK it was more of a ‘return to home’ than anything, but to pat ourselves on the backs, Z and I did do some ‘mystery menu’ moments where we just chose stuff off a list, and didn’t know what we were doing, since we couldn’t read Chinese. Live dangerously, and eat those lessons wherever you can, right?
The first day that I was in HK I was wretchedly sick. Our trip begand the Saturday just after Intensives, and on Friday I felt so sick from lack of sleep, poor nutrition and taekwondo (which I never skipped) that about three quarters of the way through my day, I was leaning on tables because I was having difficulty standing. When I got to Hong Kong, I cycled between restaurants and washrooms several times a day. By sunday I think I was mostly ‘cleaned out’ and was able to start eating like I normally would– and I got back some of that fire of a gastronomic enthusiast when it became apparent really how many different flavors there were here.
Since so many people protested the slaying of Hello Kitty (custard edition) these pictures have been posted in reverse order so that it looks like I’m putting his head back on. For those of you over 13 though, the truth is, she was delicious.
One of the big differences between Chinese restaurants and Korean ones is that a single Chinese restaurant tends to host several different kinds of dishes. Not just kinds of meats– but different styles of cooking. In Korea, on the other hand, you usually have a set ‘type’ to the restaurant in which you can only obtain dishes of a certain family. So when you go to HK, you can get craploads of different kinds of food on the same table, which isn’t normally possible in Korea.
For the most part, they spoke excellent English in Hong Kong so the fact that I am Chinese-illiterate didn’t really matter. I ran into a few interesting situations when the new billinguallism of HK came out– I would be speaking my dirty Canto (mixed with hints of inevitable Toysan and Fujian) and sometimes, they would just respond in Mandarin without skipping a beat. It was fun, actually– it reminded me of that stereo lingualism we had back in Quebec where one person would just speak English and the other would respond in French or vice versa, without intending even the slightest disrespect. It’s just the assumed comfort. It was a fun game, because Mandarin makes almost no sense to me, and I was mostly just guessing based on body language and the 1 out of 10 words that sounded similar to Canto.
HK in general was just about seeing something bigger than the Montreal Chinatown, or the Toronto ones, or the New York one– to see the sort of ‘original Chinatown,’ because really, that’s what it is. And everywhere that I go in North America now, whenever I hear Canto, I’ll understand it a bit more– not in terms of the words, but indeed, in terms of the mentalities that made up that person or that person’s lineage that led to the thoughts to produce those words.
While in HK, Zan bought a Wii and I really REALLY considered getting
a PS3 after seeing some of the gameplay trailers for Metal Gear Solid
4. I managed to resist, but the Wii did happen, and as a result there
were a few sleepless nights as we ran through a playtrhough of Umbrella
Chronicles. We took a side trip to Macau but all I did there was play the new Street Fighter IV game. So sue me– I’m a prior coin-opper, and I’ve been crying ever since Capcom said they were retiring the SF series. Though it turns out they were lying, I forgive them though.
There’s always a price to keep going. In some cases, it was a quarter. But for other things, you really can only practice getting good at something by sacrificing a lot more, by dedicating a lot more. The question is how far are you willing to go to try new stuff, how many coins are you willing to risk to go to the next level I suppose.
Hong Kong was like confronting all my insecurities about Chinese culture. I’ve had issues with it ever since I was a kid because in my youth, I never really identified with being Chinese very much– it was more of a reason to get picked on in school than it was a reason to be proud. There certainly wasn’t any sense of historic attachement for me, since I never learned anything about Chinese history until I got to univ.
The experience wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be– on the contrary, it was really awesome. Belonging or not ceased being an issue a long time ago– this was underlined when I got to Korea. It simply doesn’t matter unless you let it. Yet somewhere in the back of my head, HK seemed like some sort of old school rite of passage that I never really wanted to handle, yet I felt I should… having done it, it turned out to be no big deal. It wasn’t menacing in the slightest. It was where my dad’s half of the family came from, but there was no baggage– there was nobody there to say “I knew your father, and your father’s father– let us see if you have been taught well.” I suppose I’ve always watched too many dramas though!
HK was what it was, and that was, HK. Always was, perhaps always will be– and it was nice, to walk in, and meet it and shake hands with it, and just talk with it, listen to it.