Friday, September 4, 2009

Hong Kong Geography: A Bitter, Bitter Tale

     If you’re anything like me—that is, ignorant—then you assume that Hong Kong is a city.  In fact, it’s a region covering a grand total of 426 square miles. 

Indeed, Hong Kong is divided into three parts:  the oldest and best known, colonized by the British in 1841, is Hong Kong Island.  The urban region on the northern part of the island is called “Central.”  I’ve heard it’s cool, but to be honest, I haven’t been there yet.  Across the harbor from central is Kowloon, occupied by the British in 1861 using some preposterous rationale that basically boiled down to “We’ve got better guns, we make better cocktails, and if you don’t give it to us, we’ll take it, so there.”  The way I heard it, they didn’t even say please.  Using essentially the same argument in 1898, the British expanded further inland, creating the New Territories.  Of course, expanded is sort of an inaccurate term, since no Brit in his or her right mind had any intention of living in those god-forsaken, mosquito-infested hills.  For one thing, the New Territories were away from all the action in central.  For another thing, they were god-forsaken, mosquito-infested hills.

God-forsaken, mosquito-infested hills in which, I might add, we now live.

Just to give you a sense of what, exactly, that means, allow me to mention a few details:  1)  We are located in Tai Po, in the northeastern New Territories, a city that is closer to the People’s Republic of China than it is to Central—or even Kowloon.  2)  Not only are we in Tai Po, we’re on the edge of Tai Po—barely legal if you will.  3)  We’re the very last stop on not one, but two bus routes.  4)  Adding insult to injury, we’re at the point of campus furthest from the bus stop—a good 15 minutes walk, in 90+ temperatures even at eight AM. 

When I first found out my assignment, Ellen and I got on Google and tried to find Tai Po.  It took a while.  When we did eventually locate it, we both stood there looking at the screen. 

Finally, one of us said, “Huh.”

There was a pause and then the other one said, “Yeah.”

The irony here is that I’m a country boy:  I grew up in a town where pheasants and deer strolled into your backyard most of the winter, looking for food.  I went to a college in Iowa where my freshman dorm was located across from a cornfield.  My favorite place in the world is my parents’ cabin, not too far from Eagle River, Wisconsin, where on a clear night you can see something like three trillion stars powdering the sky. 

But despite all of this—or maybe because of all of this—I was really looking forward to being in a big city.  The thought of walking out of my building onto a bustling street was appealing—as was the thought of grabbing a newspaper at a corner stand, coffee from a busy shop, and a pastry from some bakery we’d discovered on a weekend stroll through the neighborhood.  A year of hustle and bustle?  Just fine with me, particularly after the relative peace-and-quiet of small-town Virginia. 

The fact that none of this was going to happen really hit home the night we arrived in Hong Kong and were chauffeured out to the campus of my host school.  After leaving the airport on Lantau Island, we crossed the harbor on a high, arched bridge that was lit with golden lights.  On the left we could see ferries dotting the darkened waters and the glistening towers of Sham Tseng, one of the waterfront communities.  Far off to the right we could just make out the blue and purple lights of Kowloon and Central—all the neon and glass and steel that is be featured prominently if you ever do a Google Image search of “Hong Kong.”  (Pictures of Tai Po, oddly, never show up with such a search.)

Anyhow, having crossed the harbor, we proceeded inland.  And inland.  And inland.  And inland.  In total, the trip took nearly an hour, which is roughly the same length of time it takes to get from our home in Lexington Virginia to the nearest regional airport in Roanoke. 

“%#@$ hell,” I said to my wife as our van drove into Tai Po, then out again the other side and into rural darkness.

“Shhh,” she said.  “It’ll be okay.”

“It better %$*^& be,” I said.  It was almost like I’d been awake for 30 hours or something.  

The next morning when we woke up and inquired about groceries, we were informed that we had two choices:  walk a mile up a 70-degree hill to a corner store that had limited supplies, or take a taxi into town.

“Son-of-a-&%$@,” I said.

“This’ll be a much more authentic experience,” Ellen said.  “We’ll see parts of Hong Kong that most people don’t even know exist.”

“That’s because those parts of Hong Kong %&@# suck,” I said.  “If they didn’t @!*&, then they wouldn’t @#&% and most people know that that’s @(&*^!  Stupid @&$% idiots.”

Making it worse, almost everyone we met seemed to almost desperately aware of what a lousy situation they were in. 

“Sure we’re isolated,” one of our neighbors in campus housing said, “but then, you don’t get sunrises like this in Central.”

“That’s because people in Central have something to %&$@ do at night,” I snarled, “so they sleep in.”

The older I get though, the more I find that things tend to happen for a reason.  Case in point:

My friend Susan who was in the first cohort of Gen Ed Fulbrighters last year, was assigned to one of the universities closer to downtown.  When they first go their, they put notes in all the mailboxes in faculty housing, just saying howdy and letting people know they would love to get acquainted.  It worked, but only some.  According to Susan, the strongest friendships they developed were through their kids’ school. 

In contrast, we arrived here Wednesday night.  By noon Thursday, we had an invitation to a party. 

And after Ellen’s dad died and she had to fly back to the US and I was trying to manage three kids for six days in a brand spanking new country, here’s was happened: 

One neighbor arranged for Ellen to be driven to and picked up from the airport in a chaufered car at a discount rate.

Another neighbor dropped off a huge lasagna and box of homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Two more neighbors invited me and my jet-lagged, hot and befuddled kids up for dinner.

Two different neighbors gave us curtains to keep out the heat and sun and give our flat a cozier look.

No fewer than four neighbors offered their in-house helpers as potential babysitters (Yeah, I know:  kind of weird from a US perspective, but it’s the thought that counts). 

One other neighbor offered her daughter as a baby-sitter (that offer was accepted).

And yet another neighbor offered herself as a babysitter (that offer was accepted as well). 

In short:  holy crap. 

Or to put it another way:  wow. 

Yeah, it still irks me every once in a while that we have to take a taxi or bus to get anywhere.  But taxis are only 4 bucks, and the buses are more like 75cents. 

And sure, last night when I was down in Kowloon over the dinner hour, and the sun set and all those big buildings lit up, I thought, “Oh man, wouldn’t it be cool to live down here.” 

But then, geeze, you know, we have a pretty awesome view from our deck and our bedroom.  And the mountains are a lot bigger in real life, actually brushing the clouds. 

And, okay: the sunrises don't suck completely. 


 Note:  This is my blog and only my blog, and in no way represents the views 

of the Fulbright or any related organization, so don't even go there, Miss Thing.    



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