December 13, 2010

Escape to Hong Kong

The Air China stewardess was attempting her best impression of William Shatner in a thick Chinese accent as she announced, with regret, that a woman on the aircraft had lost her cell phone and therefore we would be delayed.

Delayed for a cell phone? Delta or United would have told that woman “tough luck,” in the states.

Within a few moments, the plane erupted into chaos. A small salt-and-pepper haired wannabe business magnate in front of us started screaming at the flight attendant. A few rows back there were more people yelling. All of a sudden two police officers came on the plane (we assumed they would escort the angry Alvin the Chipmunk one row ahead).

Oh no, they were there for one purpose only: to file a report for the missing cell phone. Well thank goodness that got sorted out; we wouldn’t want a stray Nokia floating around on the plane!

Shortly thereafter we were en route to Shenzhen, the Petri dish experiment of the Chinese government to create a flourishing metropolis across the river from Hong Kong. It’s formally known as the “Shenzhen Special Economic Zone,” and its sovereignty within China can be compared to the function of the District of Columbia in the US.

Three months after I was born, Shenzhen was granted its special economic status and went from rice paddies and fishing villages to a boomtown with well over 14 million* people living there. It has been the fastest growing city in China for the past 30 years now.

*(Official numbers are 14 million, but it’s believed there are a lot more people who commute or who live there without a Shenzhen residency card).

From Shenzhen we boarded a bus to Hong Kong, another city with a special relationship to the government. It’s part of China, but not completely part of China. The differences between Shenzhen and its neighbor could not be starker.

We got off the bus wide-eyed with jaws dropped – it was like we were in New York City, a strange exotic New York City where cars drove the same way they do in London and where the signs are neon-blazed Cantonese.

We wandered into a hotel and I went to ask for directions to the subway as Alex checked out the Christmas tree in the lobby.

“Excuse me,” I said very slowly, “could you tell me where the me-tr-o is at?”

“Walk outside take a left and walk four blocks,” he replied in perfect English.

Wow, refreshing!

“Janae! Get over here!” I looked at Alex as she was taking euphoric sniffs of the evergreen tree. “It smells like Christmas!!”

I ran over and joined her in smelling the branches and smiling. “We’ve been on the mainland way too long, my friend,” I said.

We found the metro (MTR as they call it) and were in complete awe of it – the system worked exactly as city planners and developers dream a subway system to work. It was simple, clean, efficient and entirely user-friendly. It made every other public transit system I have ever been on look downright archaic.

In fact, the entire public transit system in Hong Kong was a thing of beauty. We utilized the MTR, busses and cable cars without once getting lost or confused. I guess when a city has very limited and rugged land to work with and seven million people to shuffle around each day, the system had better work!

We visited a theme park Friday afternoon and watched a panda get down on some bamboo. Saturday we drank Chai lattes and ate muffins before meeting up with a friend, a Hong Kong native who went to NDSU. He took us to Victoria Peak, a mountain that overlooks the entire city.

Hong Kong is the most three-dimensional place I have ever been. All of the buildings are tall but they’re not built on a flat plane, so it’s hard to tell which buildings are taller than others. Walking on the street is rarely level – you’re either climbing or descending, and more often than not there is more than one level of walking paths. A quick flight up stairs leads you to yet another level of the city. There is no chance for urban sprawl in Hong Kong, so the city makes the small land area work to their advantage (I think other places around the world should take note).

That night we met up with two other NDSU grads for a fantastic Korean barbeque dinner. We grilled squid, beef, pork, chicken and mushrooms on the grill in the middle of our table and told stories about North Dakota and updated one another on the lives of mutual friends – all from a restaurant on the other side of the globe.

On Sunday we went to the countryside of Hong Kong to check out the world’s largest sitting Buddha. Hong Kong is made up of more than 250 islands. The Buddha is on one of the main islands but it feels remote. There are virtually no signs of the city at the monastery – well I mean, ignoring the Subway and Starbucks in the souvenir area, the place felt lush and peaceful.

We made it back to the city by the time the sun went down and Chris, our NDSU friend, showed us the lights of the Hong Kong skyline along the harbor. Skyscrapers were decked out in Christmas lights and giant Santa Clauses and Christmas ornament fixtures twinkled their reflections onto the harbor.

All weekend we basked in the wonders of Hong Kong – no spitting! No shoving! No children peeing in the street! There were foreigners, which meant we weren’t the center of attention! They had bakeries – I ate a real cinnamon roll! (Which has subsequently left me with an insatiable craving for gluten…) People spoke English! (Meaning Alex and I couldn’t rattle off exactly what we were thinking). Traffic laws were obeyed!

And the most shocking thing – people apologized if they bumped into you! “Oh sorry, excuse me,” they would politely say.

Too quickly we found ourselves back on the charter bus taking us back to Big Red. Within an hour or two we went from western toilets, well-mannered apologies, and fines for spitting to squatty toilets, lung hawking, and elbow-throws in the taxi line.

Our insulation-free apartment was icy when we finally made it back. Though, it felt good to be some place familiar again, even if it meant dealing with all of its un-pleasantries. Hong Kong was a much-needed break, and it’s a break I will probably take again before returning stateside.

Having seen both sides of the border, I’m thankful I didn’t make it to Hong Kong in August. Had that been the first “Chinese” place I visited, I would have grossly misgauged what life on the mainland is like. 

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