Saturday, June 27, 2015

On density

I used to think I was a city girl.

I grew up in busy suburban Boston. As soon as I was old enough, I made frequent forays into the city. I found the constant movement gave me energy. There was always something new to see, always something happening. When I was 16, I spent almost a month on the Blackfoot reservation in Montana, and enormity of the open sky really messed with my head. It was beautiful, but it felt almost too empty. I couldn't get back to the city's perpetual motion machine.

Still, Hong Kong brings city living to an entirely new level.

I learned recently that matter inside a collapsing star is sometimes referred to as "superdense." As far as I'm concerned, Hong Kong is inside that proverbial black hole. I've lived in one other Asian city, Kunming, which much more closely follows the Chinese-megacity model, sprawling enormously but not really more dense than any other city. I've spent time (though never lived) in New York, Hanoi, Osaka, and Beijing. None hold a candle to Hong Kong. (And let's not even start on where Berkeley fits in here.)

The feeling of superdensity seems to come from a combination of towering buildings, restaurants stacked on shops stacked on malls stacked on parking lots, and the constant movement of thousands of people in small spaces at all times of day. The sheer mass of humanity makes walking anywhere a challenge, a seething obstacle course. Even the air is thick this time of year.

City girl or not, superdensity of this city takes some getting used to. It means that nobody here thinks twice about being jostled or bumped or accidentally hit. It's inevitable, unavoidable, and after a few weeks I stopped apologizing when I was the bumper or turning around in surprise when I was the bumpee. I've also found it especially odd that people in a crowd here don't seem to move out of the way when you're heading toward them or when you're walking behind them. I've learned "excuse me" in Cantonese (the only phrase I've managed so far, since it also means "thank you"), and that helps a bit, but I still find the feeling of making eye contact with a person in your path who still does not step out of the way to be unsettling. I've taken to walking through crowds with my arms out in front of me, essentially swimming myself a way through. It's certainly humid enough for that.

(An aside: When I moved here, people warned me that Hong Kongers walk slowly in the summer. Just a few minutes outside in the suffocating summer air is enough to understand why. Walking back to the MTR from restaurants at a slow pace certainly delays the inevitable bloom of sweat, but so many people walking slowly at once certainly magnifies the effects of the city's crowds.)

The way that city dwellers solve the density problem is New York times ten. New Yorkers famously make little eye contact and are slow to react to others nearby in trouble. Here, I take the MTR (the public transit) to work each morning, and the train cars, which are packed shoulder-to-shoulder and which I find to be especially small, are blanketed in utter silence. No chit-chat, no music, no ringing phones, not even that one guy yelling to his brother across the car.

My boss, a lifelong Hong Konger, says it's a matter of respect. It's the same reason people can be neighbors for years and years here and never have a significant conversation. They're giving their fellow citizens a chance at a fictional bubble of privacy, he says, social space where there is no physical space. It takes some getting used to, but I like that; I guess I am a city girl at heart.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The oddly familiar: adventures at a Hong Kong grocery store

The results of a successful grocery store shop

Before I left for Hong Kong, I wrote about the many uncertainties surrounding my tenure here, and in the first few weeks I've answered several of those questions. English is everywhere; 98% of toilets are Western style; and although I drink a double-shot espresso every morning in the office, any local restaurant invariably goes the traditional tea route. But until recently the grocery store question remained unsolved. 

I've been staying this month in an apartment in Jordan, a neighborhood in Kowloon (the peninsula part of the city) famous for Korean food, and there's a grocery store belonging to the "International" chain just downstairs. Here's what I found when I went for my first proper shop, based on what I'd normally try to get at home:

Yogurt/butter/milk — Long-time readers of this blog will remember the remarkably terrible time I had with dairy products on the mainland in 2006, specifically a delicious Oreo milkshake in Lijiang that left me with the most horrifying food poisoning that I hope I'll ever encounter. Since then, I've always been suspicious of Chinese dairy, but so far in Hong Kong I've had no problems. Dairy is easy to find but exceptionally expensive here. Still, I've been able to have yogurt for breakfast, milk in my coffee, and cheese in my eggs with no problem.

Peanut butter — I was surprised at how easy it was to find the stuff here. I expected it to be rare and expensive, but it's neither. I've taken to making elementary-school style PB&Js to bring to work on my intern salary...

Deli meats — ... mostly because my standbys, salad and sandwiches, are impossible, given health concerns for westerners consuming raw veggies and the utter absence of deli meat anywhere. See you in the fall, turkey-on-wheat.

Bread — But bread hasn't been as much of a problem as I anticipated. In 2006 Kunming I remember buying "French bread," strangely spongy and sweet hunks of shrink wrapped sort-of-kind-of-baguette, to go with my hard-won peanut butter. Here, there's a whole bread section. It may not be Berkeley Bowl, but it's something.

Veggies — I'm determined to keep them in my diet, something I struggled with in Spain. That means lots of stir fries. So far, I've found no carrots or cucumbers. Red peppers are priced sky-high. So I've been leaning heavily on pea pods and broccoli, plus local celebrities bok choy and baby corn. Let me tell you, non-canned baby corn is a game changer: it's tender, sweet, and flavorful. And bok choy in a breakfast scramble isn't half bad!

Dumplings — As you might imagine, the frozen dumpling section of the grocery store is considerably expanded. I haven't tried frying up the selection I bought, but it's awfully promising. If it were up to me, I'd eat dumplings all day every day, so expect to hear more about this soon.

Breakfast — As I said, I've been favoring yogurt or been seduced by the red bean or barbecued pork bins sold on every corner along my commute. But the breakfast selection at International is still quite good. All sorts of cereals, muesli, oatmeal. The cream of wheat section is a bit of a departure, though. Cream of wheat is quite similar to traditional Cantonese congee, and the flavors, which start from shrimp and get more odd-sounding to my western ear, are proof of cross-cultural marketing success.

Dessert — I'm a long way from home, but at the same time... the dessert aisle of International is filled with Dreyer's products, straight from good-ol' Oakland. Having spent so much of my year this year reporting a story about Dreyer's (news of that forthcoming!), it feels like a little homecoming to see my hometown boys in the freezer and be reminded of how far we have both come.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Hong Kong is...

I've been in Hong Kong for nearly 10 days now, and that means I've had time to shake the jetlag and start to look around. My first several days were very quiet, involving mostly relaxing in my tiny, lightless AirBnB (not helpful for jetlag, admittedly) and making tentative explorations into the neighborhood for food or to look for an apartment. There's lots more to come, but here are some beginning descriptors for Hong Kong:

1) Humid. This one has to come first, and it should really be every odd number on this list. Of course, I was expecting heat and humidity. This is southeast Asia in the summer. But to give you an idea of how bad it is, my glasses fogged up within 30 seconds of leaving the airport on my first morning. There have been easier days than that since then-- once I was able to sit in the shade for 25 whole minutes on my lunch break and not sweat!-- but things are rough here. An average day is between 85 and 90 degrees F and between 70 and 90 percent humidity. People waxed poetic about the nature here before I came, but I've never spent more time inside in air conditioning in my life. I think it's just not to be.

2) Dense. This one is another no-brainer, but again the experience is an entirely different animal than the anticipation. The city is actually pretty small in terms of area. The main areas can be crossed by public transit in 30-45 minutes. But in terms of density, Hong Kong seems more intense even than New York. In the same way that my first time traveling in the open spaces of Montana affected my thinking, being surrounded by such towering buildings and constant throngs of people requires mental adjustment. I feel like I could spend the entire summer just trying the various restaurants within a block of my apartment. Having everything piled on top of one another makes the whole city feel overdetermined--that's literature nerd for "brimming with various different meanings"--and ripe for all sorts of storytelling and adventure.

3) International. When I arrived, one of the questions at the forefront of my mind was: will it be ruder to assume that people speak English or that they don't? This hasn't been a problem in other parts of the world where I've traveled. In English-speaking countries like Australia or Ireland, the answer is obvious. In other countries, even northern Europe where people tend to speak flawless English, the answer is still generally to err on the side of "not ugly American." In a place with as complex a history as Hong Kong, it didn't seem so cut and dry, but the answer is obviously. In elevators, grocery stores, little out of the way restaurants and cafes, virtually everyone here speaks functional-level English. Some speak it more fluently than others, but I've only encountered two people with whom I couldn't communicate--and they spoke Mandarin, so we managed okay, just the same.

This is undoubtedly a city still heavily informed by its colonial past, and it's not just about language. Local food shows signs of Western influence, from the custard tarts that originated in Portugal to the toast with condensed milk that is popular for breakfast. Announcements on the MTR (public transit) are in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. Restaurants and people from all over Asia abound, and I'm never the only Western person in a room (although usually the ratio is about 2:100.) This is by far the most ethnically diverse Asian city I've visited.

4) Efficient. I have long believed that you can tell a lot about a culture based on how they wait (or don't) in line. In my experience, Asia is divided culturally in terms of line waiting, with orderly-patient Taiwan and Japan on one side and elbows-out-chaotic India, China, Vietnam on the other. Hong Kong falls squarely in the Taiwan-Japan camp. The MTR is spotless, comes every 1-5 minutes, and includes marked areas for people to queue and chaperones for the morning rush hour to make sure everyone is behaving properly. Even in the heat and humidity, people wait at bus stops in orderly lines for long periods. I've seen no pushing, shoving, yelling, or elbows, literal or metaphorical. The urban planning here is pristine.

There's one exception: the MTR stations are like enormous octopi under the city, reaching their tentacles out for literal miles underground. I can't figure out why that is: a weather consideration? A traffic-management technique? But it is literally possible to walk for 15 minutes from the metro entrance and still not reach the platform. If one is new to the city, say, and not familiar with a particular station, it makes accurately guessing how long it will take to reach a given destination particularly tricky.

5) Intriguing. As I wrote in my last entry, I'm incredibly intrigued by Hong Kong's gray-area-between-the-worlds status. It's a city comfortable with its colonial past that now dramatically mistreats its own migrant workers. It's a place where West and East coexist fluidly, but where an (ahem) particularly klutzy American breaking a coffee cup in a cafe is met with a full 20 seconds of utter silence. It's technically Chinese and defiantly independent, political, passionate. The only city in China that could publicly memorialize the Tiananmen Square protests on June 4-- and did, to the tune of 60,000 attendants. I can't wait to see more.

 A moment of silence in memory of those who lost their lives at Tiananmen in Causeway Bay