Tuesday, October 27, 2009


           We’re at Ocean Park, which is a lovely place to be.  Looking out over the South China Sea, it has a Ferris Wheel, a raging river ride, a dolphin show, a tiny circus troupe, and crowds.

Lots of crowds.

I realize this when we’re in the Jellyfish House.  Yes folks, just when you thought Hong Kong couldn’t get any cooler, you discover that it holds an entire building dedicated solely to members of phylum cnidarian.   Years ago, I went to the Denver aquarium with a friend who, as we stood before the first display, declared that if she were ever reborn, she wanted to come back as a river otter.  I found this amusing, and mocked her mercilessly.  At which she pointed out that river otters have absolutely no natural enemies and get to spend their days floating on their backs smacking food with rocks. 

            You can imagine how jealous this made me.  My whole life, not once had I had a conscious thought about river otters.  Now, though, I suddenly found myself longing to be one with all of my heart and soul. 

            “I want to be one too,” I said. 

            “You can’t,” Nancy told me.  “I already called it.”

            Needless to say, I spent the rest of the morning wandering from one exhibit to another, wondering what, possibly, I could be in another life, were I to come back as anything more high order than a mentally impaired snail with megatons of bad karma to work off.

Then we turned the corner and I had my answer. 

“I want to be a jellyfish, “ I said proudly.

Nancy just gave a snort.  “Oh please.  They don’t even have brains.”


Now, ten years later, a full professor, published in some of the key journals in my field, recipient of a half-million dollar government grant, with a Fulbright in hand, I can definitively say that I know only one fact in the universe to be true:  I still want to be a jellyfish. 

They are beautiful.  They’re graceful.  They look like they’re having fun, swooshing up and down and around each other.  They draw oxygen through their skin so they don't need lungs.   And when they want to, they have a heck of a sting. 

Most of all, I have to say, I just find jellyfish soothing to watch.  They never jerk about, stopping and starting suddenly.  Their motion is always smooth, nonchalant, as if to say, “Sure, I have no brain.  And sure, some of my distant cousins reproduce by planting eggs in each other’s armpits—but as long as we do that in the privacy of our own homes, what’s it to you?”

The Jellyfish House at Ocean Park is a delight:  in addition to having a half-dozen tanks full of just flat-out beautiful jellyfish, the folks running the exhibit have set up a number of tanks that are light-coordinated, flashing different colors so that the jellyfish glow in synchronized patterns of green, red, and blue.  Very soothing.  Very meditative.  Very Zen. 

Except for the crowds. 

I don’t know what we were thinking.  It’s a holiday weekend after all—Qingming, the festival where the Chinese honor their ancestors by cleaning the family graves.  Only I’m guessing there are going to be a lot of filthy tombstones and pissed off ancestors in Hong Kong this year, because by noon the amusement park is packed.  The Jellyfish House is so thick with people you could walk from one end to the other on their heads without ever stumbling into a gap.  Because there are no gaps. Hong Kongers, you see, are used to being in big crowds.  7 million people crammed into a little more than 425 square miles for a population density of 16,469 people per square mile, not taking into consideration the 40% of the territories that are protected and unpopulated.  Compare this to New York, which has a population density of 2,181 per square mile.  Or Rockbridge Country Virginia, where the density is 34 people per square mile.  With numbers like that, it’s a wonder we can even put together a game of backyard badminton, much less a high school football team.

So you’re standing in the Jellyfish House, nothing separating you from the wall but a space hardly large enough to store a cutting board?  Never mind:  a pleasant looking Hong Konger with gold-rimmed glasses and an infant in her arms will nudge right in front of you, shoving you back with a not-so-gentle poke of her elbow. 

It doesn’t help, of course, that we have three kids with us; that in the dim lights and thick crowd it’s impossible to see someone barely four-feet tall even someone with a glowing blonde head; that the kids are excited that they keep running to the next tank and then the next; that it’s so loud they couldn’t hear us call even had we room enough to draw a breath and holler. 

The clincher, though, is when we step into a narrow gauntlet of a room lined on both sides with pillars of glass housing gently glowing white and blue jellyfish.  Or more accurately, attempt to step into the room.  For just at the entrance, between the first two tanks, stands a small group of old people, three on the right and one on the left.   They have, for all intents and purposes, clogged up the flow of traffic.

For adults at least.  Because Lucy ducks her head and scoots in, disappearing into the darkness before I can drop a half-dozen curse words that the Chinese—for all their claims they don’t understand Yingman—always seem to recognize. 

Then I turn to the old lady blocking the passage to the left and say, “Ng goi,” trying to squeeze past her. 

She just looks at me, eyes wary behind her spectacles. 

“Ng goi,” I say again, gesturing slightly beyond her, towards the darkened room into which my daughter has disappeared.

Still she doesn’t move.  I can’t tell if her expression is passive aggressive, plain aggressive, or the bland stare of someone who’s mother dropped her on her head too much when she was a toddler.  It could be she just thinks I’m being rude, that she’s annoyed at this gweilo who doesn’t understand that respect must be paid to ones elders.  Which I do understand, of course.  It’s just that people are pressing against my back now, trying to budge into a space that isn’t actually a space, and all the while I’m wondering what happened to my daughter, how far down the hall she’s gone, if maybe she’s passed out into the open daylight, has gone looking for another ice cream cone.  I look at the woman one more time, something not quite panic but really close tightening in my throat and chest. 

She just looks at me, frowning.

“Damn it,” I say, and turn side ways, squeezing the folded-up stroller we carry for Jamie against my chest.  And then I plow through. 


We finally get out of there and, dazed and tired, stumble into the line for the cable cars.  Ocean Park, you see, is divided into two parts, with the sea animals and amusement rides on a peak overlooking the South China Sea, and the pandas and other land animals on the other side of a small range of mountains, inland toward Aberdeen.  The cable cars connect the two sections and, a dark train ride under the mountains aside, are the only way to move between them. 

So we get in line.  It’s a long line, but it moves quickly.  Before you know it we’re cresting the hill to the launching area and we see the cars—small red, yellow, and purple bubbles—winding past us one after another, fruit flavored candies on a string. 

We wait our turn, then climb into our own private car.  There are six seats in a tight circle and big windows all around, except for the front and the back which are open but for thin bars keeping toddlers and crowd-weary dads from taking a bungee jump, sans bungee. 

“Wow,” we say, as the car jerks toward the edge of the platform and open space.  “This is nice.”

Then there’s a grinding, a lurch, and we’re up in the air, floating over green brush, the blue sea on our right, a small city and harbor shimmering white in the distance.  There are four strands of vehicles:  in front of us and to the side, tutti-frutti cars sway slightly with the motion of the cables. 

Then it happens. 

“What’s that sound?” Lucy says.

Ellen and I both look at her.  “What sound?”

“That sound,” she says.

We listen, ears straining for the grind of gears, the snap of cables, the scream of falling bodies.  And then we understand:


For the first time in two-and-a-half months, we don’t hear anything.  Nothing.  This never happens in Hong Kong, a city of boats and ferries and trolleys and buses and people crushing against each other.  Even in our flat in Tai Po we’re constantly surrounded by the hum of air conditioners, the clatter of the neighbor girl practicing piano, the clank and thump of construction on the other side of the valley. 

Now, though, we drift, two hundred yards up, just the five of us floating in our glass bubble, the sea to our right, the sun beginning to fade in the west, the sky a dusty twilight amber.  Sure, every once in a while you hear a breeze winding through the bars, or a click from the cables above.  But mostly, it’s just the five of us, quiet, listening.  To nothing.    


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