Saturday, September 12, 2009


One thing I love about the MTR, HK’s local train system, is that when the trains start to move, there’s this cool, stiff breeze that blows along the inside roof of the car.  I love this breeze because: a)  I’m usually standing when I’m on the trains because I can’t fit in half the seats; and b) I’m usually sweating in the train because I always have to stand.  My guess is I’m the only person in Hong Kong who knows this breeze exists, but that’s another story. 

Anyhow, last night, coming back from Hong Kong Island and another night of gambling, knife fights, and drunken kangaroo boxing with the rest of the Fulbright gang, I was pleasantly surprised to find that somehow the Tai Po Market station had rigged their ventilation to maintain this stiff breeze throughout the venue.  Then I stepped outside and felt the same stiff breeze and thought, “Man, these Hong Kongers are good.”   

And then I got back to campus, got in the elevator, and saw the following sign posted on the mirror that I usually look at when I’m wringing out my shirt as we lurch to the sixth floor.

Well golly, talk about bringing me down. 

On the way to our flat, I stopped at my boss Anita’s door and gave a sharp rap, thinking once again how handy it was that Anita lived so near so that we could stop and ask her questions or for advice about unusual Hong Kong things like, say, which side of the toilet is the flush handle on, and is it possible to buy a rickshaw to send back home, and how sad it was that for some reason she seemed to be talking more and more often about moving off campus, this despite the outrageous real estate fees in Hong Kong.   (Diagram that sentence, I dare you.)

Anyhow, after I knocked, there were a few minutes silence, so I knocked again, and then once more just for good measure.  Eventually I heard what sounded like the scrape of slippers on the other side of the door.  Weird, I thought, holding up my watch.  I mean, who wears slippers at—Woah! 4 A.M.!  I was still glancing around, trying to see if there was any thing I could hide behind, when Colin, Anita’s wonderfully kind husband, opened the door.

“Wow,” I said, “you got to get more sleep.  There are huge bags under your eyes.”

He didn’t so much glare as pierce my skull with optical arrows of volcanic hate.  Then he pointed at the storm warning sign in my hand.  “You need to put that back where you found it.”

I held it up.  “This,” I said, “makes me want to scream like a little girl.”

“It’s no big deal.  It’s only a three.”

“But three,” I said.  “That’s more than two.  Or one.  Three is big.  We’re talking eight-year-old and shrill, here.  I can feel it coming.”

“The kids are asleep,” he said.

“But still, man.  It’s a three.”

“The college won’t even close.”  He rubbed his eyes.  “Now can I please go back to bed?”

I pushed past him into the flat.  Tripping across the parquet floors—I might have hit a table and knocked off some wind chimes, I can’t remember—I flung open the terrace doors.  A breeze rushed in, flapping the curtains.  “Feel that?”  I hollered, like we were on a ship, in a storm, surrounded by trombone players warming up.  “That’s hurricane force!”

Colin shoved me out of the way and slammed shut the doors.  Locking them, he said, “No it’s not.  Number three means maybe 40, 50 miles per hour.  That’s barely a tropical storm.”

“Still,” I told him, “that’s enough to make me want to scream like a little girl.”

“Go to bed.  If it stays at three, the kids might have to stay home from school.” 

“See?” I said.  “Home from school!  That’s scary stuff!”

“No, it’s not.”  He shoved me toward the door.  For a little guy, he’s pretty strong.  “And it’s not a hurricane.  It’s a cyclone.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Location,” he said, and then added a few words I can’t reprint here because the Fulbright people might threaten to take away my money.  Again.  “It’s all about location.”  And then he slammed the door.

I stood there looking at his peephole for a long time, the warm, humid breeze blowing through what little hair I have left.  Then I turned and started down the hall to our flat, where my wife and three children were asleep, probably for the last time in their lives since tomorrow they would undoubtedly be killed in a cyclone of hurricane proportions. 

About half-way to our place, though, I stopped and turned, and went back to Colin and Anita’s apartment.  Rapping, I waited for the scrape of slippers.  When the door eventually opened, there was Colin with some sort of really big knife.  I said, “Are you telling me there’s absolutely nothing here that would justify me screaming like a little girl?”


I knew a guy in grad school who grew up in Texas.  He told me once how, when he was little, snow was magical.  What he meant was that snow in Texas was so improbable—so impossible, in fact—that if it could happen, anything  could happen.  “It just made you wait,” he told me.  “You knew something was coming.  Something special.”

Something’s definitely different around here.  Walking back from the campus 7-Eleven tonight with a supply of milk for breakfast and a supply of these ridiculously good vodka-lime drinks for after the kids went to bed, I spotted four guys kicking a soccer ball around on the basketball court next to the pool.  Weird, I thought, given that there’s a soccer pitch right there.  Then I noticed the kids on the soccer pitch.  They were playing some sort of game with mallets and balls, sort of like croquet.  Only instead of wickets, there were little colored pyramids they would aim the balls at.  And instead of posts there were little gates with a revolving key that swung 360 degrees when a ball went through. 

I stopped and watched, caught by the thick breeze, the halogen lights so bright the turf almost glowed, the night sky filled with bats and insects and dark mountains hovering over it all.  They played the game, whatever it was, with a seriousness I’d only seen in the British, who could make a game of croquet seem like a real sport, rather than something old people do to pretend they’re not almost dead.  But these weren’t old people:  they were college kids, boys and girls in shorts and t-shirts, wearing the blocky glasses the Hong Kongers seem to prefer, bending over with their mallets, taking practice swings, then striking the ball with a soft clock! that sent it toward one of the pyramids.  I must have stood there for ten minutes, sweating in the dark, watching these kids push these oversized balls around with their mallets.  I didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to get back to the stuffy apartment and the dirty dishes, and work and e-mail and all the rest.  I probably wouldn’t have left at all, had it not been for those tasty vodka drinks, and Ellen’s insistence that I share at least one of them with her this time.

When I lived in England two hundred years ago, my friends and I used to talk about WAM—Weird American Moodswings.  Basically, that’s how we described those days where everything was going fine, and then you turned a corner or looked at the river through the window or bit into a grapefruit, and WAM! your perspective changed.  It wasn’t homesickness really, because hell, we were in England, and England trumps Iowa pretty much every day except—well, pretty much every day period.   Anyhow, whatever it was was guaranteed to lower the barometer a little, usually causing us to seek out another American and just hang out for a while, not really talking about it much, just touching base.  In a few hours or by the next morning, it would be gone and we’d just get on with our lives, thrilled to be in the UK and out of reach of Reagan and Jerry Falwell.

It seems weird that something like that could happen here, so soon; but who knows.  We’re settled in now.  Ellen’s back and the kids are in school and we know where to get our groceries and where to buy fruit and vegetables and which booth has the best bok choy and which bus to take and which coin is which.  For three weeks we were in hyper-task-oriented mode, where everything—everything, from paying the bills to picking out toilet paper—is just weird, just a challenge.  But now we’re through that, and we’re finding a pace and we have a chance to look around and go, “Holy crap.”  I’m not complaining, mind you, but there’s definitely a shift. 

Like last night.  I had to go into central for a briefing at the US consulate.  They don’t usually do this for Fulbrighters, but for some reason they seemed to think it would be a good idea for me.  Anyhow, once that was over and I’d had a chance to wash the ink off my fingertips, I went to dinner with a couple of the CIA guys they’d assigned to follow me, then took the tram up to the Peak.

The Peak is in the center of Hong Kong Island, and while it’s not the highest spot on the island—that’s reserved for some guy who not only has more money than God, but who regularly pays God’s gambling debts and greens fees—while it’s not the highest spot on the island, it’s higher than, say, most jet planes.  Just as impressive as the peak itself is the climb to the peak.  To do this, you take an old-fashioned cable car.  And I don’t mean old fashioned in a “ye olde fashionede” way.  I mean just plain old:  wooden doors, wooden window frames, wooden floors and wooden benches.  And it’s really a cable pulling you up, too, not some super magnet designed in Texas by alien dwarves (don’t get me started). 

This is worth mentioning:  that it’s an old cable car, that it’s a real cable, also presumably old, because the ascent is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before, unless you’re an astronaut, in which case, this is just like the shuttle, only with wood and no rocket fuel or physicists.  How can I say this?  Sitting in that cable car, jerking toward the peak, you feel gravity.  I mean, you’re sitting in your seat, you’re facing forward, your feet are on the ground, and all of a sudden there’s this weird sensation in your neck and shoulders and lower back, and you realize you’re being pulled into the wooden slats of the seat upon which you’re sitting.  And then you look out the window and you realize why:  the seventy- and eighty-story skyscraper apartment buildings you’re passing are crooked.  Incredibly crooked.  Almost upside down. 

And then you keep climbing, and suddenly you’re above these seventy-and eighty-story apartment skyscrapers, and you’re starting to wonder where you’re stomach went, and if it’s possible that it could have actually escaped through both your ribs and the wooden-slat bench you’re sitting on, and is now not so much rolling down the mountain behind you, as plummeting through thin air, like a tiny pink sky-diver with an esophagus attached. 

Then you’re at the top.  And it is unbelievable, stunning, amazing.  I mean, who but the Hong Kongers would have thought to build a mega-mall at the top of a mountain?  But indeed, that is what they’ve done.  And let me tell you, it’s a beaut.  No Abercrombie & Fitch here.  No Chick-a-Fillet.  No, up here you can dine at The Pearl restaurant, where Filet Mignon costs $80 (US) and they don’t even serve Tatter Tots with it.  Or you could buy jade or furs or diamonds or a Mercedes-Benz (though you have to get it down the mountain yourself). 

But you don’t mind.   You weave your way through all of that, up 17 different escalators all arranged in such a way that you have to circulate through every store before going up each floor.  Finally, though, you’re at the top, and there’s a stiff breeze, and glass railings, and everyone’s leaning on the railings and taking pictures. 

And no wonder.  What’s lying before you looks like something you might have seen in a View-Master when you were a kid:  two planes of buildings, those on the island and those on the coast.  All of them are lit up with bright colors that stand out against the dark water of the bay.  Beyond them you can see the hills of the New Territories and mainland China, and beyond that just a dull red glow that might still be the sunset, just fading.  It’s incredible.  More than anything, I suppose, it looks like those magic rocks you used to buy out of the back of a comic book when you were little, that grew in spiky towers of green and pink and blue and yellow when you put them in water—only here the towers are gigantic and they glow not with color, but with light.  You almost expect to see fairies buzz in and out of them. 

And you’re standing there, looking at all of this, trying to take it in, thinking, “Ngpbst,” because that’s all your mind can put out while it’s trying to process such an insanely beautiful thing, and the guy standing next you turns and says:

“Well.  This is where you live now.”

And you say—?



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