This August marks three years in Hong Kong. I have a penchant for preserving memories (both real and imagined) but in the wake of the journey, some have all but vanished. Another explanation is my aging brain – it’s at full capacity. I should have listened to my mother-in-law and kept a diary, but everyone knows no one listens to their mother-in-law. #JOKES #LoveYouSheila!
HK has been a satisfying and weird adventure that has evolved into a life. We’re not staying forever, but definitely a while. Over time we’ve achieved stability,and that brings a comfort and ease we initially did without. I’m a pessimist poorly disguised as a realist, so achieving peace in this urban labyrinth hasn’t been easy for me (and by default, my husband). I’ve learned it’s all about attitude (a rule of thumb for everyone, but we all learn differently, and moving to Hong Kong was how I did). The world still scares the hell out of me, but living and traveling abroad makes me feel like I can face it, and when I can’t, I hide under the covers and watch Harry Potter movies like any normal person would.
The training wheels are off, yet Hong Kong remains a functioning contradiction of east meets west (what it’s famous for). Ironically enough, that can serve up a balanced lifestyle if you’re willing to keep an open mind and an energetic spirit. When you’re not, you can hide in your apartment and order McDonald’s! Oh, come on. Don’t give me that look.
I haven’t written about Hong Kong in ages, so why don’t we peer into the mundane caverns of my life and I’ll illustrate my three year perspective! To beat your winter blues I’ll focus on the fun, indulgent stuff: food and travel. What else matters, really?
Snacks and the City
Food (can be) a universal gauge for worldliness. Ten minutes spent with me would tell you I’m a small town girl: I ain’t fancy, however, Hong Kong has broadened my palate. The first thing we learned when we set out to embrace the exotic food culture here is that it’s not about being lavish or pretentious, although you can do that if you’re fund-loose and fanciful. Hong Kong is a fascinating mix of high, low and every brow in between. Since it’s a proper cosmopolitan city, international cuisine is abundant and authentic.
Eating in Hong Kong is an adventure in itself. We could go out every weekend for the rest of our lives and still not visit all the eateries, bistros, snack stalls, Michelin-starred palaces or gastro-pubs and wine cellars. Hong Kong’s history was built on the backs of wet markets, street eats, tea houses and Ma and Pa shops and diners. It’s got posh – or – no-fuss dim sum, a growing niche of vegan-raw-organic, vast arrays of European-inspired decadence, Asian fusion everything, Spanish tapas, good (but sparse) fresh Mexican eats, Chinese fast food, Teppanyaki and sushi, ramen, sashimi supreme! There’s real American-style comfort food, and it’s done well. Sundays are brunch-fests, and there seems to be a real passion for upscale Italian. You might find a French bakery next to a hole-in-the-wall Thai place (serving a delicious, cheap curry), a fun Indonesian experiment or Vietnamese pho house. I recently heard about some Turkish delights, a burrito specialist and last weekend, we discovered a Canadian burger spot. Beef, bacon and beer – what else do you need on a Friday night? You can’t survive a Saturday barhop without kebabs, and luckily they’re a presence. I could go on for, well, 400-something square miles.
We don’t wine and dine all the time, of course. We mostly cook, and so Sundays are usually reserved for a hefty trip to the supermarket. We usually go to middle-ground stores where we can get everything and anything we need, but sometimes we’ll indulge in the GOOP-approved markets for oils, cheese, sauces and special items we feel like splurging on. If I’m lazy and budgeting, I’ll hit up the local grocery stores to grab the basics. My point is, there’s variety. Whaddya want? Whaddya need? It’s all out there, as long as you’re willing to brave the crowds, line-ups and sometimes, long commutes to get there. Word to the wise: bring back-friendly shopping bags and work horses (also known as boyfriends and husbands). It’s a jungle out there.
Hong Kong is a hell of a player on the world stage, but not in the way you’d expect. When it isn’t competing internationally, it’s got signature traditions, delicacies and comfort foods you can only tuck into in HK. Really interesting stuff, like thick toast with pork floss and peanut butter, warm egg tarts, macaroni and tomato soup with ham and egg (mmm, breakfasty), and even octopus tentacles on sticks (I’ll pass – thanks, though). For every Hong Kong snack or Chinese dish I recoil at, there’s one I love. I haven’t embraced stinky tofu, paper-thin seaweed sheets (although my students keep offering), the curried fish balls or garlicky plates of choy sum (Kate and Shamus love it). In the same breath, I could live off of dumplings and I’m working on the art of slurping noodles through chopsticks. I can finally manage it without embarrassing myself in front of my coworkers. I’ve come to savour the salty-sweetness of a steamed pork bun (Chris’s fave), and I sometimes grab a cheap egg-waffle treat at a snack stall: they’re only a buck! If you’re currently lost in this paragraph, that’s OK. Like any celeb, Hong Kong food does well to maintain a certain element of mystique. If you’d rather unveil the mystery, watch Anthony Bourdain or visit me. Whatever.
Hello, Eastern Hemisphere!
If I wasn’t a wimp, I’d get ink’d in commemoration of my Asian adventures. No I wouldn’t, but traveling the east has forced me to see life through the eyes of the people and places we visit, and that shift – or mark – is permanent. Recently, we’ve been to Vietnam, Taiwan and Shanghai, and I haven’t written about any of these incredible places because I’m incredibly lazy. Oops! Snippets, anyone?
In Vietnam, we choked on the horrendous air pollution in Hanoi and endured a violent bout of traveler’s flu (or was it food poisoning?). Thank god for the gracious hotel owners who fed us ginger tea, Tylenol and, while I was miserable in my sickbed, invited Chris for Chinese New Year celebrations to eat, drink and sing. The people are happy, gentle and enigmatic, and the hoards of street bikes and mopeds blew our minds (and patience). Hanoi is teeming with life, and if you can appreciate the chaos, it’s something to see. The history of the Vietnam War is on mournful yet celebratory display, and it was hard to get a clear perspective at the Mausoleum. I suppose that’s the nature of history and war, isn’t it. The day we visited, Ho Chi Minh’s tomb was not open for viewing. Some of the locals claim his embalmed corpse is merely a wax figure. Rumours, of course, but still, this is what they were telling us. I don’t think I’d return to Hanoi without Google Maps and some cold hard cash for a five-star stay, but I’ll never forget our time there.
We later boarded a charming boat for a cruise through Halong Bay, which was gorgeous and a little bit depressing. How can that be a downer, you ask? Tourism is an exploitative industry in Southeast Asia, especially in developing countries (just like anywhere else), so you get a lot of trash, exhaust and crowds polluting the waterways. I felt guilty and altogether mesmerized as I snapped photos of the stunning views. We met some really sweet people along the way: a retired couple from Madrid who we bonded with immediately, and an LGTBQ couple from Taipei who encouraged us to explore Taiwan, which we later would. The tour was peaceful, yet challenging as it forced me to face my fear of deep water and caves in a kayak (which forced Chris to pull some tough love maneuvers). We got through it, and we learned that tough love doesn’t really work on me, but neither does coddling and letting me wimp out. Conclusion: I’m a scardey-cat who somehow manages to do scary stuff that uh, isn’t scary for functioning humans. I’ll never forget the opaque turquoise of the water, the mischievous little monkeys eyeing us on the cliffs and the delicious meals we shared with our new friends (that undoubtedly gave us the runs).
I left Vietnam thinking we’d only scratched the surface, and I had mixed feelings about traveling there. From then on, I wanted to consider, with a bit more wisdom, where we went and how we traveled. I’m still happy we went, but I had to admit, touring that sacred, beautiful place with hoards of people packed into gas-guzzling boats was not the type of globetrotting I wanted to be doing on the regular. Didn’t we cause enough damage living in the city? I knew we were more conscious than that. I’ve talked to travelers who have toured the bay and they’ve often shared my sentiments.
Next on the list was a quick trip to Taipei. OK, I love Taiwan. I think I could live there. It’s chill, humble, and free-spirited with a peaceful intellectualism you can find in subtle folds of the culture. Their food is delicious, their coffee perfection and they love to drink, smoke and play cards late into the night. Super cool, right? We stayed at a poshy boutique hotel with an amazing breakfast and super small, comfy rooms. We ate the best dumplings and spicy noodle soup, and had a great night out at a local pub. I forget now, but I think an Aussie owned it. We met a few expats, and I witnessed a drunk man-boy (he had just turned 30 but was acting more like 20) knock over a standing neon sign and smash it to smithereens. The owner was not pleased.
We went to a swanky hot spring resort and soaked out our hangover, then walked through the countryside a bit, marveling at the lush greenery. It was a great getaway, but we barely got acquainted. I’d love to go back and really get to know the place. The only downer was when we visited the Tapei Zoo. Watching a distraught Bengal tiger and brown bear pace back and forth was not entertaining. It’s a well-maintained zoo, but I now realize zooing is not my thing. Yikes.
Last, Shanghai. I want to go back! First of all, people, stop comparing Shanghai to Hong Kong. It’s silly. In Shanghai, you’re in China (and you feel like you’re in China). That’s not the vibe in Hong Kong (obviously). Hong Kong is part of China, but it’s very separate in every way. We know this. Yet people are always comparing the two. I’ve noticed this in news articles and on blog sites, increasingly so. It’s not fair to either place to pit them against one another. I get it – China is on the rise, and so it’s on full display. It’s got a lot to show off, and I applaud Shanghai. I definitely wouldn’t want to live there. I felt a bit vulnerable at times, and although it’s got a thriving expat community, I feel like it’s too far into the motherland for me.
Shanghai is this fascinating mix of moneyed innovation and old-world charm. The skyline is surreal and futuristic – like nothing I’ve ever seen – and the French Concessions are a neat cluster of brickyard facades and overpriced bistros and cafes. I could have meandered through it all day long, but it was windy and only 5 degrees, so we eventually ducked in to a Pizza Express to stare out its humongous windows and stuff our faces with pizza and beer.
Shanghai is definitely a boasting point for China’s progress and wealth. Its cutting-edge swank impressed the hell out of me. Behind the shiny edifices therein lie the old neighbourhoods. We explored, but I felt kind of lost and out of place, and a bit hesitant. It was fun to mix in with locals, even if it meant having an old Chinese man with a hairy mole blow smoke in my face and yell in my ear. I kept on after I was scolded by a hostess who ordered me to “get my own” dumplings and “wait in line” if I wanted anything at all. Alright already!
The food was amazing, and I’d go back just for that reason. Yang’s Dumplings are the best we’ve ever had, and 12 of them cost us $4 US dollars. People stared at us nonstop and our personal space was continuously violated, but not to a degree we couldn’t handle. There was a Dairy Queen, a partially outdoor Subway that sold “American style” chips (they tasted like moldy BBQ), and a multileveled indoor market packed with odd things, smells and people. There was also a mall for the obnoxiously wealthy that was beautiful, intimidating and massive. I did several twirls in it. Welcome to China.
Touching down in Hong Kong is always a relief, and I often feel a bit closer to it each time. I do this “Oh, hi HK, it’s me, HK” inner dialogue (OK I just made that up, but still – I might start doing it – who knows) and take a moment to bask in the HongKonginess of it all. The smell of strong Starbucks coffee, the toddlers riding on their parents’ suitcase dollies, and a family of twelve waiting for one person to arrive fills me with joy. I love to see the array of faces. People from all over the world live here, and that’s what makes HK such a complicated, fascinating place. I love it, and I’m happy to call it my home away from home.