It’s barely a twenty minute train ride from Shenzhen, but it feels like a different world. I spent a weekend in Hong Kong for Dragon Boat Festival, and Hong Kong always puts me in a weird mood.
The main language is Cantonese, not Mandarin. People get really pissed off if you speak Mandarin (my friend says they’re super racist to mainlanders) so since everyone there also speaks English, your best bet is to speak English, particularly when the only Cantonese word in your lexicon is “pervert”. This puts me in a bind, as I’m so accustomed to swallowing my English and putting my best Mandarin foot forward. It’s feels so weird to order food in English, or know that if I get lost I’ll be able ask for help and understand the answers no problem. (I know how to ask where the metro station is in Mandarin, but there is a strong likelihood I wouldn’t understand 90% of the directions.) When I haggle over price in English, the Mandarin phrases are always on the tip of my tongue -don’t say duoshao qian, tai gui le, say how much is this, too expensive- and I can’t help feeling like I’m cheating. The Pinyin transliterations of Cantonese subway station stops throw me as well, I am fairly adept at Mandarin Pinyin at this point, I can wrap my head around Xiangmeibei, but Tsim Sha Tsui and Lok Ma Chau can’t stay in my brain for longer than a second.
Mixed in with the Cantonese are station names like Prince Edward, Admiralty, and Duke of Windsor Social Service building. As a former British colony, it’s a sort of in between place: a bizarre mashup of East and West. It still looks like China, but a lot of buildings look distinctly European, the cars drive on the opposite side of the road, double decker buses abound.
Hong Kong is so western that it gives me an eerie feeling that I’m back home. At one point, after a night of no sleep, I was eating in a greasy spoon 24 hour diner that looked suspiciously like the one back in Urbana, right down to similar looking menus, with a restaurant called Bangkok Thai and an Outback Steakhouse just across the street. English is everywhere, and I can access Google and Instagram on my phone without a VPN. I can’t shake a twilight zone sense that I must have magically transported back to the west. All of this conspires to make me bizarrely homesick, which irritates me because it’s just so unnecessary.
I’m not one of those expats who are desperate for anything western. I have some coworkers who frequent the Shenzhen western bars for expensive burgers and beer, and go to Hong Kong almost every weekend for a taste of home. I’m very happy in China, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything back home, and I don’t want anything to remind me, thank you very much. But here in Xianggang, where the menus are in English and there are Mrs. Fields cookies in the metro stations, I get an ache in my stomach and imagine that my parents are a phone call away.
I don’t always get the allure of Hong Kong. Yes, it’s a cool city, but sometimes in a fit of apathy I feel it’s more a haven for homesick mainland expats mixed with uber douchey Hong Kong expats. (We have a mild distaste for Westerners living abroad in Hong Kong, since they must be annoyingly rich to be able to afford it.) I’m not really interested in taking a day to hunt down Topshop and pay an arm and a leg for Garrett’s popcorn when I never even pay an arm and a leg for Garrett’s in Chicago in the first place.
But then I eat shrimp wontons, drink mango coconut milk in the street (the guy had a sign on his stand that said, “I probably make the best coconut milk in Hong Kong.” The “probably’ killed me. Such honesty. Such modesty. And it truly was quite good, he’s selling himself short.) I wander through the night market and pick up knockoff sunglasses. (I ask the price, he names it, I pretend to walk away, he lowers it immediately. Next time I’m going to push for lower.) I climb Devil’s Peak at the crack of dawn, choking on incense from the shrines on the way up, wandering through remains of a garrison and looking out at the permanent cemetery and the foggy skyline at the top. And I realize this in-between city has won my in-between self over. Yes, I do like Hong Kong.*
*”We Like Hong Kong” is a song that plays in Sasa, the drugstore where I pick up my snail sheet masks. I can’t find it on youtube or youku, but just imagine a children’s chorus singing the line, “we like Hong Kong” over and over across several key changes. It’s a banger.