Trading Up for Domestication

by Jinryu

wpid-IMG_20131225_135710.jpgA couple of weeks ago, while I was still in Hong Kong (I’m now back in Sydney), [CM] and I met up with a couple of her med school friends who happened to be in the area.

I know I say a lot of bad things about Sydney Med School med students: they’re generally egotistical, sociopathic, selfish, backstabbing and petty.  But there are some exceptions.

[BuzzLightyear] and [Lil] are examples of two of the nicest med students you could ever meet.  Buzz suggested that we go cycling in one of the more remote ends of Hong Kong, so we decided to do just that in the Tai Po area.  For about HK$90 each (around 11 USD/CAD/AUD at the time of this post), we rented mountain bikes for the whole day.  Yes, it was that cheap– each person even got a free 750mL bottle of water.

And then we biked down some public bike routes for a total of maybe 40km or so.  The routes were pretty crowded, but at the very least, they were separate paths to car roads.

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Hong Kong is an interesting place because if you’ve ever gone there from an upbringing in the West, especially North America where we have so much space, being in the downtown area (if any single area could ever be considered downtown on its own) in HK is a sight to behold.  It is a society that is as modern as anything in the west, and then some when you consider how much more effective public transport is at moving insane amounts of people.  At the same time, it has managed to hang on to a lot of the old ways. The modern skyscrapers– a big thing in the 50s and 60s of North American life and popularised in any movie with aerial shots of New York– is clearly adapted to Chinese needs in Hong Kong.

Incredible population density is one of the characteristics of every day life. Skyscrapers aren’t just for office buildings so that the yuppies can all have window offices– indeed, just as commonly, you’ll see the mouldy low-income apartments going over 30 floors.  Oftentimes, you don’t even notice until you look up how impossible it is to see the sky from some areas.  Many buildings are constnatly undergoing repairs, which is easily noticible by the hand-bound bamboo scaffolding (also over 30 floors high) surrounding the said buildings like an exo-skeleton.

In Montreal, last time I checked, mobile hot-dog vendors (with carts) were illegal due to health code violations, which is why you generally couldn’t ever buy a hot dog on the street from a corner guy like you could in, maybe, New York or something.  In HK?  Street food is everywhere.  You generally won’t find hawkers selling hamburgers, but you will find quite a few places giving KFC a run for their money.

The population density here is just so high compared to anything in North America that it manifests in very cultural ways.

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Cycling is one example.

Simply put– Honkies (Hong Kong Chinese people) suck at cycling.  Which is kind of surprising, maybe, if you consider that the riding percentage of China (mainland) is really high– but perhaps that speaks of the clear distinction between Mainland and HK culture.

We’re talking about lots of people, including grown adults, riding bikes with training wheels.  Let’s work our way up the skill level hierarchy.  As someone who grew up riding bikes, CM and I thought it was weird to see how bad HK people are at cycling.

Most of this stuff is a combination of ignorance or inexperience, but for most of you North American readers, you probably don’t have the majority of these problems because its all “common sense to you.”  Some of the people who we saw riding were:

  • Riding bikes with their seats so low (and sometimes bikes so small) that they’re all but kneeing themselves in the face when they pedal
  • Not checking before turning into someone’s lane (90% of them did this, and seemed constantly surprised when they almost got into accidents)
  • Cutting people off, then slowing down
  • Braking without warning
  • Unable to ride in a straight line (constantly weaving while they pedalled)
  • Taking up both lanes (forward and incoming lanes) to ride side by side with their friends, and not getting out of the way when oncoming traffic comes
  • Wearing purses, scarves, and even suspenders low enough for them to get caught or rubbing off their own wheels
  • Helmets? What’s a helmet?
  • Gears? What are gears?
  • Wearing shoes not suitable for recreational cycling (knee-high boots, dress shoes, things with laces so long that they got caught in chains)
  • Wearing pants / skirts not suitable for cycling
  • Total lack of technique or physical ability to climb even the smallest of hills
  • Trying to text or talk on a cellphone while riding (and remember: these people can barely ride in a straight line with two hands)
  • Ignoring street lights (which would be less bad, if they had enough control and power to cross before a car caught up to them to T-bone them)

I should point out that all the riding we did was on dedicated bike paths.  I’m not even talking about urban cycling (riding in traffic with cars). Frankly, it’s no wonder you don’t see many people cycling in Hong Kong traffic– natural selection probably took out most attempts early on.

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CM grew up riding bikes casually, but it wasn’t until Sydney that she really started riding in traffic a lot.  We’d often ride to her school together, since it was only a few kilometers away and on my way to my university.

Because we don’t own a car, bicycles just made sense for us.  Well, that, and I don’t have a driver’s license (although CM does).  They were among the first things that we bought together when we moved to sydney, and within a few months, we sold those bikes for more expensive ones to deal with Sydney’s extreme hilliness.

CM isn’t a naturally athletic or physically strong person– but she’s come to make up for it in cycling with technique and practice.  As a result of the jaywalkers, the parked cars who don’t check before opening doors or pulling out, other cyclists, and hills, in the last couple of years she’s become quite capable as an urban rider.  She’s not  only aware of her surroundings, but has the physical and technical ability to attack hills and accelerate or slow down with common sense that keeps us alive on the streets.  Since we’ve both cycled in traffic together before, we know that safety is a huge issue and that a lot of these issues are not just to “be cool” or anything like that– it’s about not getting hurt.

I know we can make a lot of jokes about how Chinese people are really bad drivers. I know I make these sorts of comments all the time, and it is true.  But cycling is a whole other thing. In cars, at average urban driving speeds, you’re pretty safe inside a car with all the modern protections built into a vehicle.  Sure, you can get into an accident that will cost some cash and inconvenience– but bike accidents are potentially a lot more permanent.  All it takes is for you to fall off and take a good whack in the head from another rider who can’t avoid you, and you’re looking at some serious injuries.

 

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Here’s the thing though.  Are these people terrible cyclists for a reason?

Where did we all learn how to bike?

If you look at it objectively, there’s probably a historical reason why these people suck so much at riding. It’s because they didn’t grow up in the suburbs where there were empty streets all over the place to graduate from training wheels.  It’s because Hong Kong doesn’t have much park space with flat open ground for people to practice.  It’s because riding in the city in Hong Kong would be suicide if you did it without a lot of experience, and is likely to shorten your lifespan significantly even if you were very experienced.

The extreme urbanisation of Hong Kong has made it near impossible for children in Hong Kong to be like children in North America: there’s just no space to learn how to bike.

That’s why anyone who thinks they know how to pedal rents bikes a few times a year on a weekend and heads out on these super long bike paths to try it out.

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But given that there are X amount of hours in a day, and Y things that you could do with that time, what are people on Hong Kong doing in exchange for the time that North Americans spend doing things like cycling?

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I’m not a jock.  Then again, interpret that declaration as evidence if you want.  It just so happens that the kinds of training that I do tend to teach me a lot about life in a way that  I find interesting to blog about– so your reading this here might give a skewed representation of what’s actually important to me.  It just so happens that the kinds of things I like writing about are the things I like writing about.

That said, I always take it as a point of pride to have myself grounded in physical activities… more specifically, “common denominators.”  By that, I mean that everyone needs to be in good health and needs to be capable of dealing with common situations, like running to a bus stop or carrying home groceries. (Well, okay, I suppose if you’re rich enough, you could just let the servants do it.)

The thing that most often makes me look down on well dressed people is that it’s often skin deep.  I’m not saying it’s easy to look good– fashion and style and all that is an artform like any other.  But I associate Honkie (and FOB) culture with being dressed in such a way to say something.  How someone dresses and how someone looks is done with the intent to denote things like prestige, intelligence, accomplishment,  extravagance, eliteness, maturity and sexiness.

But there’s a contradiction there, especially in Hong Kong where you can buy knockoffs of all the best brands and build your wardrobe pretty easily.  It means that you can customise your appearance to give you that outside image of being as good as the real elites– but you haven’t really earned it.  I guess this begs a  debate about whether or not people ought to “deserve” to dress a certain way– but lets take it from a  different angle by saying that generally, the bottom line is that I’m generally not impressed by people who dress well because generally I think that they’re often hollow people.

 

There were people cycling who wore all sorts of designer clothes and expensive looking stuff (fashion stuff, not cycling stuff).  But they looked like idiots on those bikes.  They looked like idiots because they were idiots on bikes.  I know I’m being unfair because their situation is culturally framed, and it’s hard to say if it’s idiocy or ignorance– and  if we’ve figured out nothing else, it’s that there’s no such thing as “common sense” if you go halfway around the world.  Nonetheless, it made me wonder, as I always wonder: what are our priorities in life?

I just remember being specifically horrified by how someone’s fashionably long scarf got stuck in their chain.  Or how a guy in front of me suddenly lost control of his bike and just slammed on the brakes and turned into a wall, nearly leading to me T-boning him and getting rear ended by Buzz behind me.

 

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Still, I keep in mind also that my high horse could still be quite short if viewed relative to something else.  Let me illustrate: I think it’s ridiculous that a person doesn’t know how to ride a bike.  I think it’s ridiculous that someone doesn’t have enough sense to ride safely or considerately.  These things are acquired skills of course: we’re not born with them, but I think they’re important to know.

 

But what if, for example, a farmer were to look at me?  He would think it’s totally ridiculous that I don’t know a thing about raising the food that I eat.  If city life were to suddenly stop because of citywide shortages in fuel and electricity, the farmers would be laughing their asses off at us– because for all the things that I think are important, they turn out to be not that useful.

 

I suppose that’s the strange thing about society, or more accurately, societies— depending on how your upbringing is framed, there are things that we can take forgranted and we build on our existing experiences.  All the wrestling to get people to prioritise the things that we think are important? It turns out that our ways of life are so different that it’s not that simple.

I think to Maslow’s heirachy of needs.  The way that the world has developed is that we can, more or less, outsource the basic survival stuff to other people.  The vast majority of us never need to look for shelter, or hunt for food.  We just need to buy it. In a way, capitalism has allowed us to commoditise every element of Maslow’s heirarchy.  

I suppose this might be a good thing– but in a way, we’re trading up towards domestication and I wonder if this increasing disconnect with the foundations of life– that is to say, in survival, in things that concern life and death– is making us lose appreciation for life itself.

Because if you can buy anything, doesn’t that mean that anything you can buy becomes worth less?

 

I’m starting to ramble and sound preachy, so I’ll stop there.

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