(Content warning: mentions of mental illness, depersonalization, death)
I. May 28, 2016, 7:49 PM HKT
As I write this, I am hovering above the Pacific Ocean, somewhere in the straits between Taiwan and the Mainland, avoiding working on my last remaining Civ assignment. For the past few days now, I’ve been thinking that I must write something about my experiences before this plane lands at John F. Kennedy Airport in approximately fifteen hours. Because I know that the moment I set foot on that jet bridge in Queens, everything that happened here, everything that feels so prescient and visceral and clear, will rapidly fade into unreality. My memories of these ten weeks will feel like an extended dream sequence; it’ll feel unreal in the way my first relationship or my family’s first apartment feel unreal. The bellows of my Hong Kong experience will compress while those of life back home will expand; I’ll eventually slip back into my American life and wonder, in the words of Krusty the Clown upon seeing “Worker and Parasite” (a Soviet-esque substitute for “Itchy and Scratchy”)—“what the hell was that?”
I wrote a fairly long blog post on the second week of the trip, and initially planned to write at least once a week or so. But throughout most of the program, I found it really hard to write, but hardly due to lack of time. It was more an issue of what I call “brain-energy.” There’s probably a more technical term for this, but it’s basically the mental or emotional energy needed to do a certain type of task. Generally, I had free time once I depleted much of the day’s brain energy on things like “school” and “homework,” and when I did have the brain-energy to write, I needed to use it on other things like “paying attention in class” and “eating regular meals.” Throughout the program, I feared that if I didn’t write consistently enough, I'd forget what I wanted to write about in the first place. I found the voice in my head reformulating what I’d be experiencing in a given moment as how I would write about it, in a futile attempt to say the same thing so many times that I’d remember it when I actually had the energy to write it down.
Something I keep coming back to when reflecting on my experiences here is that Donald Rumsfeld quip, about the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns.” Though not quite what Rumsfeld intended, I found the framework that he unintentionally established to be a really good heuristic for thinking through my time here. A couple weeks back, while talking to two of my friends after class one day, one of them remarked that this quarter had been his least stressful in all of undergrad. Which got me thinking–though this program wasn’t terribly strenuous academically, the types of stresses that we encountered in Hong Kong were very different from those back home. In Chicago, for the most part, I find that most of my stressors during the school year are “known knowns." Though of course things happen that are outside of my control, I find that I can generally anticipate what will be the most stressful parts of a given quarter–midterms, finals, deadlines and so on.
Going into Hong Kong, I knew that it would not be the best ten weeks of my life. I knew that I would be far away from my support systems. I knew it would be challenging, and that I would spend a lot of time alone. But much of what made Hong Kong so stressful is that so many of the routine things that I took for granted in Chicago became challenges themselves. Things like figuring out how to ride the bus, or where to scrounge up dinner because we had no access to a kitchen but had to pay for most of our own meals, navigating the language barrier that was more substantial that I had been led to believe, negotiating different logics of pedestrian etiquette, and so on, weren’t things I'd have to actively think about much back in Chicago. Each single action, or negotiation, or awkward moment was obviously not excruciating. But the combined cognitive energy of dealing with so many changes in habit and routine became itself an “unknown unknown” that sapped me of energy I wish I could have used to study harder, to write more, to work on my own projects.
Then of course, came the more drastic “unknown unknowns” that meticulous planning couldn’t have prevented–attempting to stay awake during an all-day tour in Macau because one of your roommates got extremely ill from food poisoning the night before and you didn’t get a wink of sleep; getting bedbugs in our bedroom and having to switch to another one; getting more bedbug bites even after switching rooms and losing a full night’s sleep because of your itchy legs; finding out through Facebook that two of your friends back in Chicago passed away within three weeks of each other; the loneliness and isolation that makes you fear you’re losing your grip on reality...Not exactly the stuff they brag about in the Study Abroad brochures.
One time, when coming home late from wandering around the markets in Mong Kok by myself, I just missed the 69X minibus from Causeway Bay–the fastest route back to the hotel from where I was. Exhausted and demoralized, I saw a 5 minibus waiting at the bus stop just behind the 69X. Though I didn’t recognize the names of most of the intermediate stops, it terminated at Aberdeen Centre, which was only a ten-minute walk from the hotel. Knowing it would get me at least within walking distance of where I needed to go, I decided to hop on instead of waiting for the next 69X. While the 69X took the Aberdeen Tunnel straight through the mountains at the center of Hong Kong island to get from Causeway Bay to Aberdeen, within minutes of getting on the 5 I realized we were taking a very different route. Instead of the tunnel, the 5 bus zoomed up the steep, narrow streets of Happy Valley, which quickly gave way to switchbacks as it climbed further up the mountains. Up here, we briefly looked down on Hong Kong’s sparkling neon skyline, before plowing through the Wong Nai Chung gap. Descending the winding roads of Shouson Hill's gated townhouse estates that Hong Kong’s wealthiest call home felt like a roller coaster as the bus driver rocketed around the bends while his speedometer crept dangerously close to 80 kilometers per hour (the legal limit for minibuses here). At least twenty minutes after the 69X would have gotten me back, the bus pulled into Aberdeen Centre, and I trudged the rest of the way home.
As cheesy as it sounds, this particular bus trip is a good extended metaphor for my time in Hong Kong. The journey may not follow the route you intended; it might have some twists and turns (literal and otherwise); it might take longer or be more inconvenient than you expected. But somehow, eventually, you’ll get where you’re trying to go. And you’ll see some pretty incredible things along the way that you couldn’t have encountered otherwise. And though you may be tired, you won’t regret it.
II. If someone made a movie about my Study Abroad experience, there would be an extended montage of me walking, alone, through malls, markets, shopping centers, escalators, pedestrian overpasses, underground tunnels, and MTR stations. I have likely walked multiple marathons through these types of spaces, as it is impossible to avoid them. American malls, which are typically accessed by car in suburban locations, are destinations in and of themselves. For the most part, Hong Kong’s malls are hardly the main attractions; rather, they’re nodes in vast networks of multilevel, interconnected urban spaces. An escalator from an MTR station emerges inside a department store, whose second floor sky-bridge links up with a mall inside of a larger office tower; an overpass lets eager shoppers pass between two malls without ever setting foot on a dense street below; an escalator built into the side of the mountain carries businessmen up to their Mid-Levels apartments at the end of the day. Malls and other similar transitory spaces constitute much of Hong Kong; its standard streets are only a fraction of its larger urban fabric. (For more on this, the book Cities Without Ground is a great reference).
At the beginning of the program, I began to carry around my tiny CUBE camera, and use it to film footage of my daily experiences and adventures. After looking back through the first fifty-odd clips, I realized that the vast majority of the footage I had collected was while on various forms of transportation: the MTR, the double-decker buses, the green mini-buses, the Peak tram, the Star ferries, the streetcars, the escalators, the cable cars. A city with such a varied, diverse, and inconsistent set of geographical features needs modes of transportation that suits them. As such, I feel that the most “authentic”* experiences I have had in Hong Kong are those spent in some form of transit—taking the three-minute ferry trip across the channel from Aberdeen to Ap Lei Chau; zooming down switchbacks steep hills on the minibuses at midnight; navigating labyrinthine underground networks of tunnels to reach the right MTR train. It’s a cliche that “it’s the journey, not the destination” but Hong Kong makes it difficult to distinguish the former from the latter when it’s essentially a terrain of continuous interstitial spaces.
The cliche of loneliness in a densely-packed city of millions became astoundingly real in Hong Kong; on the weekends my roommate traveled, I sometimes went two or three days without speaking to anyone in person, besides maybe the cashiers at the dumpling + bubble tea place in Aberdeen where I became a regular. This is not to say I had no friends in the group or actively disliked anyone; I very much appreciate the interactions I had and the friendships I made. However, I often found group outings to be very stressful (i.e. difficulties reaching consensus led to logistical nightmares, and made me very anxious) and many of my own interests didn’t quite line up with the group’s. After trying to organize a couple of trips and getting little interest, I found it easiest to run off on my own. My most memorable moments here largely happened in solitude–hiking up to the hulking metal power lines bolted on to the side of the mountain overlooking Tin Wan; swimming in the shadow of a power plant while aging hippies blasted dub and reggae and dogs frolicked on the beach as the sun set; belting Titus Andronicus lyrics from a mountaintop on Lamma Island; running across Waterfall Bay to find a geocache tucked in a crevice besides an abandoned concrete house-like structure (and inadvertently trashing my desert boots in the process); petting the shoe-wearing Samoyeds at the Cyberport’s waterfront park. I appreciated having so much time to myself, to spend with myself, but when left alone for too long with my own brain, the fine line between solitude and loneliness begins to blur, and ultimately fade altogether.
This feeling of interstitiality, of existing in liminal space, perpetually on the periphery, soon extended beyond urban morphology to encompass my own self-perception. I was never so self-centered to think that this city would mold itself to my desires and narratives, or even care that I was there; the metropolis waits for no one, especially not a transient American white girl. But the more time I spent wandering this overstimulating city alone, the more I felt like an extra in films about other people’s lives. When an overly affectionate teenage couple blocked the shelf next to the Art books section at Eslite in Causeway Bay, I was “Bookstore Patron #3” in their high-school TV drama. When the party-yacht patrons blasted “Genie in a Bottle” and grinded on each other, I was “Distant Beachgoer” in their MTV special. When the guy hiking with his girlfriend on the Peel Rise about a hundred feet ahead of me, not realizing I was there, squeezed her butt, I was “Unintentional Voyeur” in their romantic comedy. The times spent in simultaneous physical and social peripheries would compound my loneliness and intensify my depersonalization. But it wasn’t always that bleak, of course; ultimately, I found my solo wanderings to be a rewarding break from the demands of the academic year.
It is humbling to go to a place where your existence matters so little.