An introduction of sorts.Hong Kong was a big step for me, in many ways. It was the first country that I went to completely on my own. Everywhere else I’ve been to–Japan, Korea, and Taiwan–even during the times I wasn’t actually with someone I knew, I had the security of knowing that if I really got in trouble, or got lost, I knew people there I could contact. But in Hong Kong, I was completely alone and knew not a single person there. It was terrifying, and yet full of opportunities to see the world in a new way, without influence or bias from others, and also an opportunity to learn more about myself.
My future posts on Hong Kong may be quite different from how I’ve been posting up until now. Being on my own, in a country where English was not the first language, meant that I didn’t have very many people I could talk to. Meals and cafe breaks, while previously spent chatting with whoever my companion was at the moment, were now filled with silence and the company of my own thoughts. I bought a little notebook in Taiwan, and began to use it to write down my impressions of what I saw and to record a few experiences. With my notes as a reference, I think the coming posts may have a different, more introspective quality about them. I hope they will still be enjoyable.
I will say right now: Hong Kong was not what I expected. Perhaps that’s the problem with having only a little experience in traveling. You have enough to have acquired some expectations of what you’ll find, but not enough to know that you should never hold expectations of a place you’ve never been to, because you will surely find something different. Hong Kong was such a place. I had expected it to fall somewhere between China and Taiwan, but what I found felt more like a heavily Chinese-influenced New York City. There were people everywhere and no shortage of foreigners walking around. Skyscrapers as far as the eye can see meant that there was very little variety in the scenery and it was easy to get lost. (I did get lost on more than one occasion.) Despite the grandeur of some areas, it’s quite shiny at first glance, but a second look reveals that it’s been a while since it’s had a good polish and more than a few of the bulbs have gone out. You didn’t have to look far to find parts of the city that were dirty, filled with trash, lit up by cheap neon lights and shady business offers. I can see how this city inspires so many dystopian settings. It’s overwhelming and scary and very beautiful. I don’t think I appreciated it enough while I was there.
The people were lively, bustling, unexpectedly diverse and interesting and friendly. Even the people I met in my hostel were a more interesting group of characters than any I’d met at any of the other hostels I’d stayed in.
The hostel itself, called Tai An Guesthouse, was a bit of a let down. It was very difficult to find and even after I’d told them I would be arriving late, there was no one who spoke English there to help me check-in. Between my poor Chinese and the staff’s poor English, I somehow managed to check in and was taken to a room on a different level, which seemed to be no more than a large apartment in which all the rooms were furnished with nothing but bunk beds. My room was an all-women, four-bed dorm room.
Above me was a woman from Shandong Province in China, who was in Hong Kong to see some friends and spoke not a word of English. She was called Wenhua. (Maybe? I didn’t quite hear her name too well.) I often spent a few minutes each day conversing with her, but I mean that in the vaguest way possible–mostly she would talk at me and I’d understand about 20-30% of whatever she was saying in her fast-paced, Northern-accented Mandarin, but repeat the last few words of whatever she said every once in a while anyway, nodding as though I understood. I’d felt certain that she would catch on to the fact that I didn’t really understand much, but she always chatted with me anyway, whenever we met in the room at the end of the day or early in the morning. Towards the end, I had begun to regret letting her think I understood what she was saying, since that would have at least saved me the awkwardness of our conversations, but she ended up being a very important ally in the end; On the last morning, before I had to go to the airport, my hostel locker (which locked using an electronic code) wouldn’t open. I didn’t know where the staff was, since it was too early for them to be at the front desk, and was panicking since I didn’t know what I would do if I couldn’t open the locker in time for my flight. (It had all my important documents like my plane ticket, passport, and extra money.) Thankfully, my Chinese bunkmate was awake, and when I told her I couldn’t open my locker, she immediately got up and went down the hall to where one of the staff members was apparently sleeping, but which I hadn’t known about at all. Perhaps this was good karma for chatting with her everyday.
Another roommate was an older woman called Ilena (not too sure about the spelling), who was Russian, but working in China. Her English was also not very good, but either way, we would talk to each other about what we did that day when we came back for the night.
An interesting story: my first morning in the hostel, because there was no one who spoke English when I arrived, I did not know that there was a special switch you needed to press for hot water in the bathroom. I suffered through a cold shower, since I very much needed to wash my hair. I came out with a towel around my hair and asked Ilena about the hot water.
“Right now there’s no hot water?” she asked incredulously. “Как!” she exclaimed. “But you…” she trailed off, pointing to my obviously wet hair, perhaps not knowing enough English to continue. But I understood what she meant. That was the coldest shower of my life. Thankfully, when an English-speaking staff member arrived, I discovered the switch that would preserve my sanity.
After Ilena left, another girl named Iris came to the room. She was from Taiwan, but her English was extremely good, and of all the places, she was studying at Waseda in Tokyo! Small world, and all that. I asked her if she new my friend Michael, but she did not. She was meeting up with friends in Hong Kong and seemed to spend most nights out late partying and was always still asleep when I left in the mornings. I also observed that she seemed to pretend not to be able to speak Chinese around my bunkmate, the Chinese woman.
The last roommate was a Japanese girl called Ayumi, who only stayed one night. She came into the room and had trouble with our door (which beeps loudly when not closed fully), and after she let slip a bit of Japanese in her confusion, I instinctively switched to Japanese as well. With surprised “Eh?”s on both our parts, I discovered she was from Japan, but she worked for a branch of Uniqlo in China, and I explained that I was an American studying abroad in Japan. To my delight, I was able to have complete conversations with her without even thinking much about it–a sure sign of improvement in my Japanese! I helped show her the bathroom and hair dryers and things like that, and at the end of the night, we even became facebook friends. I was sad to return to the hostel the next night and discover that she had already left.
Roommates aside, there were some other interesting people as well–Russians, Koreans, and Canadians, etc. There was a Russian man named Nur staying at the hostel as well, and I had been a bit confused as to why he was there, because whenever I came back to the hostel, it seemed as if he was still where he’d been that morning, simply using the computer. It seemed like such a waste to me that he was visiting Hong Kong, but not bothering to see any of it. I soon discovered that he was not here on vacation, but to renew his work permit to teach Russian at a school in China. He didn’t have the money to go out and play around, but the last night, I had run low on money as well, so we ended up going out to eat at a cheap place right near the hostel and chatted a bit about Hong Kong and our thoughts on Asia and Asian culture. We exchanged emails, but I haven’t talked to him since.
For all it’s downsides, the experience of staying in a cheap hostel is definitely a new way to see the world and meet interesting people. It’s small and cramped, but really all you need, since during the day you are out and about. It’s in the middle of a vibrant city, close to many great sites for shopping and eating and places to explore. My last evening in Hong Kong, I climbed the stairs to the rooftop and took some photos before I was chased away by the building’s security.
If there is one thing I’ve learned in my traveling, it’s that no matter who you are or where you end up in the world, you are still a part of it. And isn’t that grand?