At one in the afternoon, the sun has reached the point in its arc in the atmosphere where it defies obfuscation by the gargantuan skyscrapers of Hong Kong. And it. Is. Hot. I’m a Sweater–whenever I walk into a room, my skin betrays my foreignness, less “glistening” and more “dripping” in perspiration, adhering to it the minimal clothing I have donned on any given day like I am a paper mache doll. A smelly, exasperated, lumpy, American paper mache doll. Sometimes, before meeting friends, I will duck into any of the 10,000 7-11s peppering the intersections of Hong Kong streets to gain a quick respite in the air con, buy a packet of tissues, wipe off, and continue on my way.
My way is blocked by barricades of aimless masses, moving in molasses blobs at glacial paces. The Hong Kong Chinese must be very punctual, as they seldom move like they have any place to be. Some drift in zigzags, some stop dead in their tracks for no reason, some blow cigarette smoke into the air at face height like busted fire hydrants, most stare only at their phones, ignoring their peripheries. It is as if someone has pushed the “slow motion” button. On a windy day, some pedestrians must actually be walking backwards.
Nobody will get out of your way. Groups of three or four will fan out across the sidewalk, walking abreast, forcing you to step off the curb. I have played games of chicken where neither side has budged. I have rammed into people like a linebacker.¹
People negotiate turnstiles and escalators as though they have never encountered the machines in their lives, and the rain turns the streets of Hong Kong into a dystopian battlefield, where people carry umbrellas as swords rather than to keep dry. Only in my most macabre fantasies driving in rush hour on I-495 in the States did I imagine my morning commute would involve physical combat.
I sometimes fantasize about what it would be like if we transplanted half the populations of New York and Hong Kong to the other cities, respectively. I wonder how long it would take each city to fall to ruin, and which would collapse first. I don’t wonder the reason behind their destruction: New Yorkers are a very impatient people.
I make it back to my apartment and hold the door open for a woman who looks about my age. She exits the building like there are chains shackled to her ankles. Instead of a “Thank you,” I receive a glare and a grunt. You’re welcome.
In his very famous commencement speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace implored the graduating class of 2005 to exercise agency not just in choosing what to think about, but also how to think about it. He talked about extricating yourself from the mindless sludge that is your solipsistic lens–your brain’s default mode–and choosing to consider the perspective of others. It is much more difficult to imagine that the customer service representative at the telecomm company gave you a hard time because he’s working three jobs to support his sick kid than it is to attribute his vices to his innate character, to who he truly is, deep down, as a person. It is harder to register astonishment at the beautiful scenery and the rare luck of traveling with friends and at the marvels of modern transportation than it is to think about how you’ve been sitting in traffic on US-29, going on five hours, all because some imbecile was staring at his phone too long to notice that the light had changed, and you’re surrounded by idiots, and everyone is fat and ugly and incompetent, and why is this happening to me?
But you’ll be better off if you choose to do the former. And it is a choice.
When people ask me why I love Hong Kong, I tell the following story:
It’s 6 AM on a Monday morning in January. I’m lugging my sports gear down the road in Sai Ying Pun, vaguely annoyed at the incline, annoyed at the temperature, annoyed at the sun both for not rising quickly enough and rising too soon. The sky is still cloaked in darkness, fluorescing with pollution and street lamps, and it’s about as cold as Hong Kong gets all year. Anyone who knew me before I moved out here would never recognize the girl trudging down the street in compression pants.
A man screams in Cantonese. This does not alarm me, as I’ve come to understand that the normal volume in which Cantonese is spoken is about the same as that which might be recorded on the Titanic when passengers realized there might not be enough life boats for everybody, or whatever decibel measure is equivalent to a blender on full blast. But then another sound begins to harmonize with the man’s bellowing, and it is not human. It is a chicken. The man is swinging a live chicken upside-down by one of its talons, and the chicken is not having it. The chicken is throwing a conniption, flapping its wings and squawking at a blood-curdling pitch that would put its male counterpart, the rooster, to shame.
I smile. The man and the chicken continue their argument, and I join twenty or so bleary-eyed women at the buttcrack of dawn to lift heavy objects repeatedly for 45 minutes while Australian body builders yell at us.
It’s not a very sexy story. It is distinctly lacking bottles of champagne ablaze, drunken expats flinging themselves from yachts, student protests, foreigners falling in love, sunrises over the mountains, and fresh booty haggled at the wet market, though one could certainly find those things in the city. But the man with the chicken reminded me of two things: one, that if you take care to switch off your brain’s autopilot, to think just a little bit harder, to entertain another perspective, you might find beauty and humor in the incredulity of the world. I could use more reminders to do this.
And second, it later dawned on me: to someone else, you will always be the man swinging the chicken. You can keep on swinging the chicken, by all means, but don’t forget that you, too, are the chicken man. And lighten up a little.
1. A 5’2″ linebacker. (158.5 cm)