Ellen sat straight up in bed. “Really?”
I pointed out the window, where all you could see was white.
She looked for a moment, then said, “That’s fog you idiot.”
I peered more closely. She was right. It was fog. Fog so thick I couldn’t even see the end of the balcony, much less the mountains usually rising outside our flat.
“Don’t worry,” she said, climbing out of bed and going to give the kids cereal. “It’ll burn off.”
But it didn’t. By noon, it was as dull and gray outside as it had been at sunrise. Duller even, a uniform blankness that hung over the world like a giant washcloths soaked in—well, something dull and uniform and blank. And suffocating.
The next day was exactly the same. And the day after that. And the ten after that. This wouldn’t have been so bad, had the weather been great before we left for the holidays, but the truth is that most of December was as dull and gray as this was. Just a standard Blah that hung in the air all day long until darkness came just in time to keep you from hurling yourself off a cliff in a fit of depression.
And it was moldy. Have I mentioned this? 95% humidity, every day, with not enough sun or heat to burn it off. By the second week of January, our curtains were starting to smell. By the third week, we had to throw away every piece of paper in the house because it’d become a sopping mass. Last week, Ellen went into the laundry room and let out a shriek.
“What?” I called from the bedroom, where I was wringing out fresh clothes for the day.
She came in, carrying what looked like a pair of dead baby possums.
“What the hell are those?” I asked.
She dropped them on the floor, then edged them toward me with her toe. I leaned over to examine them.
My sandals. They’d gone feral.
As though all of this weren’t bad enough, on my third day back I started puking my guts out—from, uh, both ends if you know what I mean.
Which also wouldn’t have been so bad if—you guessed it—I hadn’t just been sick right before we left for Vietnam.
So, to summarize, exactly four of my last four weeks in Hong Kong—both before and after Christmas—were filled with lousy weather and moldy things that shouldn’t ever be moldy. And four days of those four weeks—both before and after Christmas—were filled with me, well, you know . . .
On top of this, during those few times I’m actually able to leave campus and head south toward Kowloon or Hong Kong Island, I found myself filled with location envy. Standing outside a colleague’s flat at City University, I looked around and thought, “Crap: there’s a western grocery store, there’s a movie theatre, there’s a mall, there’s the campus filled with interesting events and lectures. And just twenty minutes on the train from here and I’m in central.” In contrast, every time Ellen and I want to go on a date, we have to leave the flat 75 minutes before the dinner reservation, and start heading back 75 minutes before we told the babysitter we’d let her go. In essence, roughly half of our babysitting money is paid to cover times when we were travelling. I like Tai Po, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes being there is annoying.
Looming over all of this was the fact that the reality of my position at my host institution had changed. Because the powers-that-be had, for the fourth semester straight, failed to fill the position of general education director (yes, gen ed is that popular) I’d been talked into taking on some additional duties that basically made me the—you guessed it—acting director of the program that I was supposed to advise. Which, I have to admit, is kind of handy because it means I can fulfill both of my jobs—advising myself, and listening to my own advise—at moments considered otherwise inappropriate in a professional relationship. Say, when I’m laying in bed late at night and can’t sleep, or when I’m taking a long hot bath, or sitting on the toilet trying not to, well, you know . . .
To be honest, I’m not really the acting director. That would have required me giving up my Fulbright, and since that Fulbright is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me (Ellen, for some reason, finds this an offensive statement)—since that Fulbright is one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me, I was loathe to give it up. So what the school did was appoint a colleague with the title of acting director and some of the duties—say, signing paychecks and getting manicures—while giving me most of the real work—e.g., lifting bricks, relocating mountains, and attending quality assurance meetings.
Put another way, he’s the acting acting director, while I’m the acting acting director. If you can follow that. And if you can’t, no biggie, since this won’t be on the test.
The thing is, I actually like Sang, the real acting director (I'm actually like, assistant overhead-projector manager, or something like that). He’s smart and works hard and really believes in general education. As such, I don’t want to let him down, or burden his already busy schedule with some of the frustrating crap that a general education director has to deal with on a daily basis—angry students, angry teachers, and angry administrators, just to name a few.
All of which means that, upon returning from my warm, sunny, flavor-filled, exciting adventure in Vietnam, I was confronted with six months of grinding paper work, endless e-mails, circuitous meetings, and complex negotiations about important matters like should the paper clips for the memo to the president be red or blue. (Always one for challenging the dominant paradigm, I voted “staples.”)
I have to be careful here not to complain too much. I actually enjoy my work a great deal and find conversations about matters related to general education continually engaging, even when they’re conversations with really angry heads of department who shall not be named here, though you can call her and leave a nasty message on her answering machine at 8874 9932 (press 1 for insults in English). Folks like that aside, I find my colleagues engaging and smart and funny and very kind. And of course they pay me handsomely, which is nice, and take me out for dim sum, which is even nicer.
Even so, coming back from Vietnam I was feeling the pressure of expectations and responsibility. The fact is, it was awfully nice being the hired gun, the guy who could come in, give an opinion, point out the inconvenient truth that no one wants to admit—then walk away. Who wouldn’t like that gig?
Add all of this up—the weather, the illness, the responsibilities, the Siberia of Hong Kong—and I was left with one simple conclusion that was very hard to admit, even to myself:
I was hating Hong Kong.
You have no idea how annoying it was to have this realization. I learned about this particular Fulbright in June of 2008. From then until our arrival in Asia in August of 2009, I spent a large portion of every day thinking about what it would be like to be Hong Kong, exploring new places, unfolding a new culture, learning a new language and making new friends that I might have for the rest of my life.
I’d be standing at the city pool in Lexington, surrounded by a 360-degree vista of smoky blue mountains, the sun hot on my back as I watched the kids splashing in the pool, my dear friends beside me talking about the upcoming duatholon, or who the new teachers were at the school, or who was cheating on their husband (a surprisingly common activity in our charming little town)—I’d be surrounded by all these beautiful scenes and this wonderful community, and all I could think about was Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong: the skyscrapers, the food, the busy streets and neon and the junks on the harbor and the men in business suits making calls on their mobiles and scoring blow from thirty-dollar hookers with names like “Queenball” and “Suzie Dong.”
And now, here I was in Hong Kong with the food, the neon, the business suits and the skyscrapers and Suzie a 70-minute train ride away—and all I could think about was standing in the warm sun beside that swimming pool in Lexington, listening to my friends talk and watching the kids beat each other over the head with swim noodles.
An incredible waste of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Even worse was the fact that I knew I was making a big mistake by whining and moaning and feeling sorry for myself and wishing I was back in Virginia—that, a year from now, I’d be kicking myself for spending six months of my life in one of the most amazing regions of the world, wishing I was back in my own stupid bright yellow kitchen in Virginia, where the dishwasher doesn’t work half the time and you couldn’t get good fresh squid if you were God and had the instructions for building a squid factory.
So there I was: mid-January, sick, tired, stressed, pressured, pissed, lonely, feeling sorry for myself and angry at myself for feeling sorry for myself.
Happy Damn New Year.
I can’t say I’m completely out of my slump. I still hate that the weather is so uniformly gray and moldy. I still would like to see a skyscraper every now and then, or not have to take a bus to get to a good restaurant, or a bus and a taxi and a train to get to a grocery store that actually carries cheese.
But I’m getting better.
Part of it, I think, is that my parents were just here for two weeks. Which is nice: nothing like seeing two people who just came from -28 degrees fahrenheidt and 6 feet of snow to make you appreciate the soft and fuzzy sensation of sliding your feet into moldy sandals. That my parents actually like me and don’t yell at me because general education isn’t what they want it to be didn’t hurt, either.
Additionally, they brought with them a healthy supply of Twizzlers and Pop Tarts and Orville Redenbacher, all of which I took great pains to hide from the kids.
Then there’s the fact that, once I stopped, um, oozing from all openings and was able to get back to work, the stress seemed to lift a bit. There’s nothing worse than opening your e-mail and finding 227 messages there—and nothing better than deleting 90% of them and answering the rest, then turning off the computer and going home, job done. And like I said, I like my colleagues. They make meetings fun and discussions about course design and choosing paper clips relatively interesting.
Even so, come last weekend Ellen and I decided we needed a break and piled a family vacation on the back of a workshop I had to do with the rest of the Fulbrighters at the University of Macau.
Now, if you’re a sophisticated human being with an IQ somewhere over 110, you know that Macau is a former Portuguese colony on the western side of the Pearl River Delta, and was handed back to China in 1999, two years after Hong Kong ceased to be a British Protectorate and became a Mainland whipping boy.
If, on the other hand, you’re like me, you had no idea that such a place even existed. The Portuguese? In China? Really? Which is a pity, because that means you wouldn’t know about what is, arguably, one of the greatest places in the world.
Now, a lot of people go to Macau for the gambling and, the, um, associated ladies. The rest of the folks who take the hour ferry ride from Hong Kong to Macau do it because of the amazing, Portuguese-influenced cuisine, the beautiful Portuguese-influenced architecture, the wonderful parks, the egg-tarts and the kind and (honestly) very beautiful people.
The thing is, being in Macau just as I was coming out of my funk about Hong Kong sort of, well, put me back in my funk. Macau was groovy, the weather was nice, good food seemed readily accessible: why, I kept finding myself wondering, couldn’t I be stationed in Macau instead of Hong Kong?
Well, because I’d never heard of the damn place before, for one. And, of course, there was no GE revision project there. But never mind: in my semi-homesick state, Macau looked complex and interesting and easy to negotiate and filled with better food and more western architecture and so many other things that made it oh-so-much better than Tai Po.
Then a funny thing happened.
On Sunday we spent most of the morning wandering around an old temple on the banks of western Macau. Then we grabbed a quick lunch, took a taxi to the other side of the peninsula, and got on the ferry home.
It was a smooth ride and the sun was shining for once. The kids played cards most of the ride back, while Jamie squirmed and sang and took great delight in threatening to get sea-sick every six minutes. Eventually, though, the ferry rounded Lantau Island and started into Victoria harbor.
And then I saw that skyline again. That skyline—the skyline. Described by some as the greatest skyline in the world: tall glass buildings shining in the sun, squeezed between steep brown mountains and blue-black water. Coming in, Lucy looked out the window and said it looked the city Harold drew in that book about the purple crayon.
That was the first thing: seeing that skyline again, on a sunny day, on calm waters, and thinking, “Oh yeah. That’s right. I’m here.”
The second thing that happened was this:
Stepping off the ferry, we went through customs (oddly, we qualify as Permanent Hong Kong Residents), then drifted into the mall that presses against the docks. It’s our habit, when we come back from a ferry trip, to stop at the food court in this mall and grab a little dinner before starting the 70- minute (*sigh*) train ride home.
The thing is, this is a special food court. It’s the same place I stumbled into one hot day back in September when Ellen was back in the States attending her father’s funeral and the kids and I had ventured out into the melting heat to see some tall buildings and start to feel like we were someplace other than Virginia. That day had been a hard one: I had no idea where we were, where we were going, or where we were going to get the kind of food that would satisfy three tired, sad, jet-lagged, missing-their-mommy kids. We’d finally ended up at that very same food court not out of choice, but because of pure desperation: we were starving and we couldn’t find anything else.
That day the food had looked foreign and daunting: cold, slimy steamed chicken cut through the bone, a greasy broth soup with some vegetable we’d never seen before. Halfway through the meal, Lucy had to go pee, so I ended up leaving Will and Jamie alone at a table in the middle of a food court in the middle of a city in the middle of a continent where they didn’t know a single soul—and running with Lucy all over the mall, looking for a stupid toilet.
Now, though, just back from Macua, we’ve got Ellen with us, we’re not stupid enough to buy the steamed chicken (Soggy skin? Blegh!), and we know where the bathrooms are.
Ellen and the kids decide on Vietnamese, but I’ve got, um, oozing-related associations that make me wary of fried shrimp cakes. Instead, I wander around the food-court looking for Japanese maybe, or something made with greens and broth. In the end I’m torn between the noodles with X-O sauce and a plate of pork balls with marinated bean-curd and pickled cabbage. I go for the latter because, frankly, there’s no such thing as having too much pickled cabbage.
When my food comes, I take my tray and head back to our table. Rounding a corner, I see the tableaux of my family from a distance. There’s my fussy older son, sitting on his knees in his chair and eating his bone-sliced chicken with chopsticks. There’s my wife, her hair up, spooning rice onto Jamie’s plate. There’s Lucy, taking deep pulls on the straw in her Sprite. All of it—the pork and bean-curd, the boy on his knees, the pony tails and the rice—all of it is just too perfect, too beautiful: here is my family, living in Hong Kong. Here is my family, happy in Hong Kong.
I sit down across from my wife, suddenly warm and pleased with myself and the universe and, well—everything.
Then Ellen says: “You know what?”
I shake my head, still smiling.
“It’s the 31st.”
I look at her, not sure I follow. And then I do.
Five months after we arrived. And five months before we leave.
We are exactly half-way through our stay.