An American in Asia

The result of being bed-ridden once again due to food poisoning on the first day of the lunar new year:

Hong Kong skyline, on the ferry home from work

Hong Kong skyline, on the ferry home from work

I wake sometimes around midnight or before dawn in my Sheung Wan apartment to the clattering of metal.  Clanging means that my next-door neighbor has locked herself inside her apartment; jingling of keys means she has locked herself out.  The sliding and slamming of the metal gate means that she cannot lock herself in, but she is trying.

The walls are so thin they may as well not be there at all.  I don’t see why she needs a gate in the first place.  In 2012, there were 27 murders in Hong Kong, total.  By comparison, New York, a city of commensurate population, reported a record low number of homicides in 2012, clocking in at 414.  I’m not saying that any number above zero is “good,” as far as violent crimes go, but statistics seem to indicate that Hong Kong is a relatively safe city.  Yet every apartment is armored with these metal gates, one of which terrorizes my circadian rhythm, jerking me awake at all hours to the sound of pots and pans clashing above my head.

One morning I emerged from my apartment to find her jamming a pair of scissors into a latch in the gate from the inside.  She barked some words in Cantonese to me and handed me the blades.  I stabbed at the latch to no avail, and she proceeded to plead with me in Chinese as I tried to convey in English that I had no idea what she was asking me to do, nor whether she was asking me anything at all.  I rattled the gate, she yelled.  She rattled the gate, I apologized.  “I’m sorry—I don’t—what do you—I can’t get it—I don’t know—Here, maybe…” I stammered.

This went on for several minutes.  Finally, I motioned that I would go downstairs to get help from the attendant, and come back up.  But when I got downstairs, no one was in the lobby, and no one was in the back room, either.  After all that, I was late for work, so I just kept walking.

She eventually got out.  I know, because the next night, she was slamming the gate open and closed, trying lock herself in again.  Still, I am ashamed I abandoned her.  I feel like a voyeur, a cultural colonist.  I imagine few migrant workers leave their homelands with the option, let alone the expectation, to return.

The city is a study in opposites.  Hong Kong juxtaposes its super wealthy with its destitute in a simple public service announcement on the MTR urging families not to beat their domestic helpers.  Domestic work is the only profession not eligible for Hong Kong citizenship after seven years.  These women—usually immigrants from Indonesia and the Philippines—get paid next to nothing to raise the children of Hong Kong’s elite while their parents, by some anecdotal accounts, spend their evenings on rooftop bars in Lan Kwai Fong, where sectioned-off roads and lax open-container laws ensure drinking and partying in the streets.

Lighting a cigar with a pistol-shaped lighter in one hand, a mojito in the other, on a rooftop Spanish bar in LKF

Lighting a cigar with a pistol-shaped lighter in one hand, a mojito in the other, on a rooftop Spanish bar in LKF

“You can have anything you want,” a coworker told me.  “That’s the point of Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong is an adult playground for expats.  Where a middle-class salary would cramp your style anywhere else, in Hong Kong, low taxes, government subsidies, and otherwise unbridled capitalism ensure that, if you make a decent paycheck, you can spend your Wednesday nights betting at the horse races, and your weekends on party boats (called “junks”) and in French bistros.  For USD$1.5 extra, you can have any food from any restaurant delivered to your flat whenever you want.

Women refer to “Sassy Hong Kong,” a website that catalogues Hong Kong’s trendiest spas, gyms, and brunch spots.  Another coworker informed me that she stays young because every day is like being at “University” again.  (On the contrary, if I spent one minute longer in college, my liver would probably have shriveled up and fallen out of my body.)

I have the luxury, then, of turning a blind eye to the politics and history of the Special Administrative Region.  Here, you can purchase oral contraceptives over the counter, but the government requires a special license if you intend to procure more than two tins of baby formula.  The restrictions stem from an incident in the Mainland, where, after massive amounts of contaminated baby formula poisoned Chinese babies, mothers began to smuggle Hong Kong formula over the border, causing a shortage on the island.

Natives protest “Reunification Day,” commemorating the 1997 handover of sovereignty from the British to the Chinese, in part because they do not have universal suffrage to elect the Chief Executive.  Hong Kongers have resisted Beijing’s mandates for adopting the Mainland government’s curriculum for public schools, with some success.

The “One Country, Two Systems” principle, documented in Hong Kong Basic Law, asserts that Hong Kong can retain its economic framework for 50 years.  Uncertainty looms as the Joint Declaration is set to expire in 2047.  However, one wonders if the residents of Hong Kong need worry about their way of life, considering the huge strides China has made in the past 20 years alone.

I will likely not be living in Hong Kong in 2047.  (Though, I’ll admit stranger things have happened.)  I am therefore licensed not to care.  A year teaching in a Title I school in the southwest has knocked the liberal idealist out of me.  I think one can endeavor to understand the world without feeling an onus to patronize it by proselytizing the narrow dogmas picked up in the course of skimming Kant in Sociology 101.  That doesn’t absolve you of your duty to learn as much as possible about everything you can, though.

As I stare at the pile of laundry accumulating in the hamper, the prospect of hiring a maid for $10 USD an hour grows increasingly attractive.  I have the number of a lady who is supposed to be very helpful and knowledgeable sitting on my kitchen table.  I haven’t decided whether to call.

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