31.01.2008 - 31.01.2008
Yesterday was particularly thrilling because we got to get off the ship. All of us have been going a little stir-crazy, since we’re stuck on the ship though it’s not going anywhere. But tonight we actually sail to the Port, meaning that we’ll be able to come and go without having to adhere to the tendering schedule and dealing with the gangplank, which is next to impossible for anyone with disabilities or bad knees or simply leary of an accidental spill into the sea.
Anyway, I was quite fortunate and pleased that one of the IRCs, Nancy, invited three of us to join her for the night: Marcela, an IRC from Mexico; Ashley, a faculty member from Albuquerque; Ann, an IRC from China. (IRC = Intercultural Residence Counselor; akin to residence advisors in US universities). Nancy is a first-generation Chinese American, born in Hong Kong, raised in Boston, who has a first-gen Chinese American friend, Felix, from Boston who has been living in Hong Kong. He and his girlfriend Irene, who is the District Executive Officer of HK’s Home Affairs office, met us at the pier at 7:00.
The ride on the ferry gave us a thrilling view of the incredible skyline, though it was chilly. I think I tried to describe it before, but I can’t do it justice. I’m quite sure that the Victoria Harbor skyline is probably one of the most beautiful in the world. The south side is highlighted by the Convention Center, and the steel and glass of various financial buildings, and the island’s tallest skyscraper, which is an astounding 1,378 feet tall. It is impossible to miss. From the other direction, if you’re approaching Kowloon, you not only see the Arts and Culture Center, but the hills of the New Territories lurk in the background. As I mentioned, during the holiday season, the building have elaborate neon designs on them as well as laser displays that emanate from the building tops. We sat on the top of the ferry and froze our asses off, but it was well worth it.
Once we arrived, Felix and Irene met us and we strolled along the “promenade” as it were. This city definitely has high aesthetic values. Neon gold stars about the size of a dinner plate were everywhere, lining the walkway and illuminating the water. The crowds were already gathering, but the tone was pretty low key. The atmosphere was festive but tranquil, and people of all ages were visible everywhere we went. We arrived at a hot pot restaurant at which our new friends had made reservations.
Hot pot is a traditional Chinese dish that’s as much about the preparation as the eating. We sat at a table that had a hot plate in the center, upon which is placed a pot of boiling broth that you select. Because all but one of us wanted a spicy broth, we a double-sided pot with spicy broth on one side and a more mild broth on the other. Then we ordered very thinly cut slices of chicken, pork, beef, several kinds of wontons, oysters, and all kinds of veggies. A veritable feast! Think fondue – using your chopsticks or a ladle, you put a vegetable or slice of meat or a wonton directly in the pot. It very quickly cooks, and then you can put it in your own bowl or directly to your mouth : ) The meal was insanely delicious, especially after a week of the ship’s food, which as I’ve mentioned is not very good.
Although in the end, Felix and Irene were fantastic hosts and wonderful company, there was one moment early on, which I had to make a conscious decision not to go off. He and Irene had demonstrated how to prepare and eat the food, so we were all eating and chatting and having a good time when out of nowhere he says, “It’s always so interesting to eat hot pot w/ Americans because they always only serve themselves. In China, it's important to think about others, so you put several things in at once so that everyone can share." His comment extraordinarily pissed me off. Believe me, I’m well aware that Americans tend to have a sense of entitlement that doesn’t translate in other cultures, but we were following his lead – plus he’s American! All he had to do is say something like, “Now that you’ve got the hang of it, here’s how we put several things in at once and everybody shares.” I had to think about the ramifications of reacting to the same degree that I felt. I decided to let it pass and am glad I did, but it was a tense moment.
On the other end of the awkward scale, I did inadvertently put a fish wonton into my mouth that was raw and cold in the center. This I blame on the fact that we were all throwing things into the pot, so it was hard to know what had been in for what amount of time. As soon as I bit into it, though, I knew it wasn’t cooked, and I didn’t know what to do because we hadn’t been given napkins. I was also quite horrified that I was going to get food poisoning. I scanned the restaurant for the rest rooms but didn’t see them. I know it’s ugly but I had to think fast, so I pretended to cough and expunged the slimy, oozing ball of mush from my mouth and then threw it underneath the table. After that, I was afraid to eat anymore so I feigned fullness. Moments later, Ashley chose a raw wonton as well. I could tell by the look on her face. She kind of whispered to me, but we were sitting at a round table in a brightly lit space. I didn’t know what to tell her, and then it didn’t matter anymore because she decided to swallow it. She looked rather glum afterwards, but unlike me, she kept eating. As it later turned out, neither of us got sick so we both suffered in silence for no reason.
Later, I told him how much I like the little – very little – I’ve seen of HK – the fact that most people speak English, that it seems pretty low key for such a heavily populated place, the easy access to ample natural beauty, a fantastic public transportation system, and the fact that though it’s gotten expensive, it’s still a relative bargain in some things, such as electronics. I asked him his opinion about the city and whether he would recommend it as a place for a newcomer. He felt like it wouldn’t necessarily be such an easy transition because it would be hard to make friends. Instead he suggested Kuala Lumpur, which is a place that’s never even remotely been on my radar. I don’t even think I know anyone who has been there, but it’s definitely food for thought.
After dinner we walked around quite a bit and then ended up at Happy Together, which is a popular desert place. Marcela had fried black sesame ice cream, Nancy had a chilled mango soup with little tapioca balls in it, Ashley had a chocolate cake with hot chocolate fudge inside, and Felix had black sesame wontons in a cooled ginger-sugar broth. I don’t know the names for the deserts; all but Ashley’s were traditional. I had some kind of puff pastry thing that had a soup of tofu in a sweet, chocolaty kind of sauce, which was good but as I’m not over excited by chocolate, I was a tad disappointed. I had let Irene choose for me, though, so I went with it.
We bought a couple bottle of beer and then tried to find a spot to catch the fireworks. I think the most noticeable thing was that for as crowded as it was everywhere, everyone was well behaved. Though there were cops around, their presence wasn’t aggressive. It was as unlikely a thing as I’ve ever seen – that many people and no visible problems. Scads of people of all ages, families etc. and everyone was having a good time but there was never a moment of feeling like something bad might happen.
We found a spot where we could see a bit of the fireworks and laser show, though our view was obscured by some of the skyscrapers. But people were happy and at midnight we all cheered. At that point I desperately needed to use the restroom. We went into a McDonalds but the line was outrageously long, so we went to a bar called Nathan’s Pub of all things – a Brit kind of bar. We hung out there a bit and then wended our way back to the pier to await our transport, which came at 1:30am.
All in all it was a very good night. Back at the ship, everyone who was around was giddy. Coming back it was like being greeted by long lost companions. In fact, some of the people in the reception area did think that I had been lost. They hadn’t seen me board the ferry, and they were worried that I’d been left behind. Of course that didn’t prevent them from theoretically leaving me behind. : )