Cara Lopez Lee
Cara Lopez Lee is the author of "They Only Eat Their Husbands: A Memoir of Alaskan Love, World Travel, and the Power of Running Away," and the creator of Girls Trek Too, a blog & workshop dedicated to inspiring women to approach life as an adventure.
(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Friday, April 23, 2010)
March 29, 2008
Bok Sa Town, Toishan, China
Yesterday, I hoped to find the village of my great grandfather, Ma Bing Sum. I had thought he was from the village of Gong Hao. But it turns out that Gong Hao isn’t a village; rather, it’s a small district of many villages. Our hotel's owner, Mr. Wong, knew of one village where a 99-year-old man still lives, and he suggested we go there, in the remote hope that the man might have known my great-grandfather. It seemed unlikely, as Ma Bing Sum left in 1908, a year before the old man was born. Still, I was eager to meet someone who could tell me about the ancient traditions of the region. So we called ahead, and Old Mr. Ma was expecting us.
A driver with a minivan took us several kilometers to a small cluster of villages. More villages were scattered in the distance, amid endless rice paddies where tiny green shoots poked out of square plots filled with water. Grey hills floated in the misty distance. We turned down a dirt lane to the tiny village of Git Non, and stopped in front of a small house. Before I knew what was happening, two or three people shepherded us into a tiny courtyard already crowded with eight people or so.
More villages were visible across endless rice paddies, where tiny green shoots poked out of square plots filled with water.
Old Mr. Ma was sitting in a wheelchair, but he rose to greet us. He was thin, his face sunken with age, yet he seemed filled with unusual energy and quickness of movement and speech, for someone nearing 100. Several hands pulled at my arms and shoulders, as competing voices quacked and rang and chirped in my ears, insisting I sit in the plastic chair across from Mr. Ma. A tiny paper cup of tea was thrust into my hand. I was startled when a string of firecrackers exploded outside, in celebration of the Qing Ming festival. Everyone put their hands to their ears. Smoke drifted into the courtyard, stinging my eyes and nose.
Mr. Ma was thin, his face sunken with age, yet he seemed filled with unusual energy and quickness of movement and speech, for someone nearing 100.
My translator, Fiona sat between Mr. Ma and me. Women of varying ages, from teens to middle years, gathered around us. The man spoke in an old Toishanese dialect, so Fiona, too, needed a translator; one of his young granddaughters stepped in. Half of the time everyone was chattering at once, eager to help, excited to meet a foreigner with ties to their village, however tenuous. Even Fiona seemed amused, overwhelmed, and deafened by the commotion. “It’s louder than the firecrackers,” I told her.
The group explained the reason for the crowd: today was Mr. Ma’s 99th birthday. They invited us to stay for the celebration after we finished our little talk. We politely declined, because I was unintentionally becoming the center of attention and I didn’t want to steal the spotlight.
Eager to let them get back to their party, we began telling the old man about my great-grandfather. I handed him a few photos and a copy of a letter my Uncle Roy once sent from Hong Kong to his father in El Paso; it was written in Chinese. After studying these items for several minutes, the old man let out a loud sound of surprise, echoed by everyone around us: “Hoh! Hoh! Hoh!” Mr. Ma recognized the characters of my Uncle Roy’s Chinese name, Ma Tsi Kaye. I was doubtful, because Roy had never been to Gong Hao. But the old man was adamant - not that he’d met my uncle, but rather, that he’d seen the name in the village’s book of Ma family ancestors, an entire book dedicated to the Ma family lineage.
We began telling the old man about my great-grandfather.
Relatives of the same surname tend to gather in one village. Not only was this a Ma village; as it turned out, everyone in this village was a Ma from my great-grandfather’s clan. Not close relatives, mind you, but relatives. All Roy had known was that his father was from Gong Hao, but Gong Hao comprised some eleven villages, seven of them Ma villages. It was through sheer luck that I had happened on the exact village of Ma Bing Sum!
Someone brought out a red book, filled with line after line of Ma family names, going back many generations. Yet Mr. Ma quickly found the page where Ma Bing Sum’s name was written. Ma means “horse.” Sum means “forest.” I’m not sure what Bing means, and Fiona didn’t know either. Under his name were the names of the three eldest of his four sons from his first marriage. Mr. Ma pointed out my uncle’s name, Ma Tsi Kaye: Uncle Roy’s father had named each son after one of the horses of Genghis Khan.
Someone brought out a red book, filled with line after line of Ma family names, going back many generations.
There was more: in his youth Mr. Ma had, indeed, met Ma Bing Sum. He explained that, although my great-grandfather had moved to El Paso, Texas, he had returned to Git Non once or twice. Old Mr. Ma was probably a teenager or young man at the time. He remembered that Ma Bing Sum had brought a son and two daughters with him, possibly his only children at the time. Most important, he remembered that Ma Bing Sum had a Mexican wife. This unusual fact clinched it: these were too many details to be coincidental. I felt moved close to tears. Why? For a man I never knew, whom my grandmother and father recalled with bitterness? I don’t know why. But a strong chord pulled at my stomach, where my belly button linked me to the past.
He remembered that Ma Bing Sum had a Mexican wife. This unusual fact clinched it: these were too many details to be coincidental.
I waited patiently through another lengthy exchange – it took several comical minutes to pass words from me, to Fiona, to the granddaughter, to Mr. Ma, and back again, often yielding an answer of just one halting sentence. Finally, Fiona turned to me excitedly and said that my family’s old house was just a few doors down, and this family was exhorting us to go see it. “Wow, this is a bonus!” Fiona said. I couldn’t agree more.
We arranged to come back and talk to Mr. Ma at greater length within the next couple of days. Before we left, I offered to take birthday photos of him with his family; while we’d been talking, more relatives had begun arriving from out of town. He insisted we take the photos in front of the ancestral hall. Mr. Ma put on a suit jacket and someone handed him a cane. Then he walked with slow dignity to the community building, just a few doors down. Fiona told him, “You still look handsome after so many years.” It was true.
Everyone gathered around him for several photos, and then asked me to join them for the final shot. It’s ridiculously easy to pick me out in the picture: some people think I look Chinese, but never in China.
Mr. Ma insisted we take the family photos in front of the ancestral hall. It's ridiculously easy to pick me out in the second picture.
After that, we walked down the path, past laundry hung on bamboo racks, and brick homes the color of soot, to see my ancestral home standing on the corner: one of the largest of the village’s few dozen buildings, the largest at the time it was built. Mr. Ma and his family had explained, “Your family was the richest family in the village.”
My ancestral home stood on the corner: one of the largest of the village’s few dozen buildings.
The wooden shutters of my great-grandfather’s two-and-a-half story house are now cracked and hanging askew, and the wooden double-doors of the main entrance lie hidden behind two padlocked metal doors. It wasn’t possible to go inside. The wife of our driver said she used to play inside the abandoned house as a girl, and she recalled that it was elegant. The exterior combined different styles popular in China and America in the early 1900's, with graceful European-style cornice work along the roof's edges.
The house combined styles popular in China and America in the early 1900's, with graceful European-style cornice work along the roof's edges.
The house stood near the front of the village, near the fish-stocked pond typical of Toishan. Next to the pond were several family vegetable gardens, planted with ridges of cabbage, carrots, coriander (cilantro), and more. The square rice paddies beyond went on for kilometers. All the village households huddled tightly together, for mutual protection and social unity. And they all faced one direction, more or less: toward the pond. In Feng Shui, water represents fortune, so the homes faced this good fortune to invite it in.
In Feng Shui, water represents fortune, so the homes faced this good fortune to invite it in.
At the front and back of the village stood altars to the ancient earth spirits that guard the village. People make offerings at these altars to keep the village safe and its crops bountiful.
At the front and back of the village stood altars to the ancient earth spirits that guard the village.
While we looked around, one of Mr. Ma’s female relatives brought us a plate of fried dumplings. “M’goi san,” I said. (Thank you.) But Fiona corrected me, “For a gift, you say ‘dou zhe.’” I giggled, repeated the new phrase, and added, “Hou hou mei.” (delicious.) The woman said she was impressed at my efforts to speak Chinese, though I was slightly embarrassed that I knew so little.
However, I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but truly welcomed by these people. Fiona explained that, because I was related to Ma people from this village, "to them you are like family." This idea pleased me no end. Perhaps that’s because when I was growing up my own family often left me to my own devices. Sometimes I felt like a foster child, passed from house to house. So perhaps I’m always searching for family, everywhere I roam.
(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Thursday, April 22, 2010)
March 28, 2008
Overseas Chinese Hotel
Bok Sa Town, Toishan County, Guangdong Province, China
In the town of Bok Sa, I'm not merely one of the few foreigners: I'm the only non-Chinese foreigner. As such, I've become an instant celebrity. Last night, our plump, smiling, short-haired, crooked-toothed waitress explained that many Overseas Chinese come here from America, but they all speak Chinese and they all look Chinese. That's why the people in this town keep staring at me, not quite as often as people stared the last time I came to China, but just as boldly and just as unsmilingly. I keep trying the advice I saw in a blog post; another traveler in China said a big smile would draw one in return. So, instead of looking away, or staring back with the same stony eyes, I smile. Nothing. They just keep staring.
Many Overseas Chinese come from America to stay at the Overseas Chinese Hotel, but they all speak Chinese and they all look Chinese.
On the other hand, when I arrived, the proprietors of the Overseas Chinese Hotel, Mr. Wong and Mrs. Ma, smiled and chattered, forward and friendly, as they tried to figure out how I might find the family of my great-grandfather, Ma Bing Sum. I tried to explain that I didn't expect to find his relatives, that I merely hoped to find his village, Gong Hao. Fiona translated their reply, "They are only used to people who come here to find their family." In my case, this seems impossible.
My great-grandfather once cried in front of his daughter Leila, when he read a newspaper from Toishan County and saw an obituary for his last surviving relative. He told her that's when he knew: there wasn't a soul left in China who knew him or was related to him. His only remaining ties to this planet are American. But I couldn't dissuade the relentlessly helpful Mr. Wong and Mrs. Ma, who continued staring at my old photo of Ma Bing Sum, as they talked about the many Ma people of Gong Hao. Ma is the primary family name in this area, although there are also plenty of Wongs and Liangs.
As we walked upstairs, a middle-aged Chinese man on the stairway overheard me speaking English, turned, and widened his eyes at my un-Chinese face. He remarked with surprise on my visiting this remote place.
"I'm here to find my family," he said.
"Me, too!" I said, pressing a hand to my chest.
"This is my first time ever coming back here," he said.
"Me, too!" I said again.
"My family name is Ma," he said.
I practically squealed, "Me, too!"
Two of his male relatives joined us on the landing, and we all began puzzling over the name Ma Bing Sum, a.k.a. Ben Mar. A tall, stoop-shouldered, balding man of 50 or so said that his grandfather was born in 1882. My great-grandfather was born in 1887. "Maybe they knew each other," I said, grinning. But the coincidences ended there.
The first man had just arrived the day before, but he was already leaving. "This is a very backwards town," he said. His tone and tipped brows told me to heed this warning and get out as soon as I failed to find whatever I was looking for. I felt a sinking in the pit of my stomach that hasn't left since.
The sight of our dismal rooms didn't make me feel much better. The stiff twin beds had mattresses so thin that I would feel every spring etching circular patterns into my back throughout the night. Mrs. Ma put on the pathetic bedding while we watched: a white hanky of a sheet and a flat little pillow. Not trusting the cleanliness or history of the sheets, I would sleep in my sleeping bag.
The stiff twin beds had mattresses so thin that I would feel every spring etching circular patterns into my back throughout the night.
Looking out my window at the impoverished streets of town, with the warning of the American Mr. Ma fresh in my ear, I conferred with Fiona about our planned six-night stay. We decided to pay for three nights, and decide later whether to stay or move on to Guangzhou. Still, I'm resigned to linger as long as I'm discovering anything new or interesting - if only about myself.
We went down to the dining room for lunch. The large room was hazy from the cigarettes of three men sitting at one table. Four women played mahjong at another. We sat near a window, as far as possible from the smoking men. The gold tablecloth was soiled, wrinkled, and riddled with holes. We waved away flies.
Our waitress brought tea, washing the cups at the table: rinsing them with the weak, pale, hot tea, before pouring some of the watery mixture into the cups for us to drink. Then she brought plates and chopstickes in a large metal bowl full of steaming water. She used tongs to turn the dishes in the water, and then set them on the table. Both washing procedures sloshed huge quantities of water onto the tablecloth.
When she brought our chicken, I was slightly taken aback by the decapitated, shriveled, boiled head, laid proudly at the proper end of the other body parts - announcing the freshness of our food. I tried to cover the head with parsley when Fiona wasn't looking, but she ate the parsley. There were little more than scrawny hints of meat clinging to mostly bone and skin, but the taste was fair. We also ate a delicious soup made with yellow flowers, though I politely avoided the chicken feet paddling around the bowl.
Bok Sa is the very definition of a backwater town.
After our meal, we wandered around town for an hour. Bok Sa is the very definition of a backwater town: with a barely-moving river, and small canals brackish, dead-looking, and scattered with garbage. I was charmed, though, by the incongruous sight of many buildings which, as Fiona put it, "are not Chinese." Not quite, anyway.
I was charmed by the incongruous sight of many buildings which, as Fiona put it, "are not Chinese."
Many of the buildings have elements of European architecture: Victorian shells atop piedmonts, Grecian columns, stained-glass windows, curling cornices. The Western styles were likely borrowed from America, who had borrowed them from Europe. These homes were built by Overseas Chinese to show off their wealth some 60 to 100 years ago. Today, they're broken, cracked, blackened, crumbled, and neglected.
These homes were built by Overseas Chinese to show off their wealth some 60 to 100 years ago.
Many of the broken-down showplaces now serve as shells for family shops, where poor merchants sell dusty goods of doubtful use. A few video arcades amuse young boys. Some places sell fruit: apples, grapes, oranges, mangoes, and tiny sweet bananas.
Some places sell fruit: apples, grapes, oranges, mangoes, and tiny sweet bananas.
On a dusty road next to the river, three vendors hovered over steaming cook-pots. Fiona asked what they were selling. The answer: "Dog stew." Fiona wasn't any keener on the idea than I. We saw many stray dogs sleeping or wandering the streets, and she speculated that maybe their brothers or sisters were now someone's dinner.
About the willow leaves, she said, "This is so their ancestors know the way to come home."
(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Tuesday, April 20, 2010)
March 26, 2008
I wanted a “hearty” breakfast. Fiona Zhu wasn’t familiar with that word, so I said, “I want to eat a meal that will make me feel full and make me strong… so I can walk all day.” She still seemed at a loss, possible because I also said I wanted to eat what locals eat. Finally, I mentioned jook, a rice porridge usually served with bits of meat and vegetables. I’d never eaten it before, but it was something my Uncle Roy had told me he remembered eating when he lived in China. Jook was something Fiona understood.
We found a tiny restaurant with no English-language menus or pictures, so Fiona picked all our dishes. She ordered jook with fish; I ordered mine with beef. We shared a plate of changfen: small, smooth rice-flour rolls with a texture like surimi, served with dipping sauces. We also shared a pyramid-shaped treat called zongzi, made of glutinous rice stuffed with filling and wrapped in bamboo leaves; this one was filled with pork and egg. I found the changfen and zongzi tasty. The jook tasted fairly nondescript, but I was excited to taste a dish from my uncle’s childhood.
When Uncle Roy and his brothers and sisters lived in China, at first they ate jook with meat and vegetables, because they were well-to-do by Chinese standards. When their fortunes waned and World War II reduced Hong Kong Chinese to living on rations, there was less and less meat and vegetables to put in the porridge, and soon, less and less rice, until the jook was mostly water. Although our breakfast was “heartier” than that, it was composed mainly of rice, rice, and rice, and I began to wonder where my nutrition was going to come from in China, how Chinese people survived, and how I was ever going to manage another bowel movement.
I wanted to try to guess the path Uncle Roy took when he was a boy: the day he was caught on the street when he heard the American bombers coming.
After breakfast, we hopped on a bus to the Star Ferry Terminal, so we could walk in the Tsim Sha Tsui district. I wanted to see a few of the old buildings from my uncle’s day, and try to guess the path he ran when he was a boy: the day he was caught on the street when he heard the American bombers flying toward Hong Kong.
The waterfront's old clock tower once marked the terminus of the old Kowloon-Canton Railway.
We wandered along Salisbury Road, starting at the Star Ferry terminal. There, we checked out the waterfront's 1921 clock tower, which once marked the terminus of the Kowloon-Canton Railway. The Greek-revival-style tower of red brick and granite still bore the scars of World War II: obvious patches where multiple holes from multiple bombings and strafings had been filled in with replacement cement, red clay, or putty. I was amazed it had survived.
The tower of red brick and granite still bore the scars of World War II.
Continuing along Salisbury Road, which once faced the water, but now faces the massive buildings along the waterfront, we stopped at the pale silvery-green grandeur of The Peninsula Hotel, once and still the finest hotel in Hong Kong. This hotel stood near Uncle Roy’s boyhood flat on Salisbury Road, and his flat on Nathan Road, two of several places where he and his family lived while trapped on Hong Kong Island during the Japanese occupation.
The Peninsula Hotel stood near Uncle Roy’s boyhood flat on Salisbury Road, one of several places where he and his family lived during the Japanese occupation.
It was in The Peninsula Hotel, in Room 336, that the British officially surrendered to the Japanese on Christmas Day, 1941. And, if I understand Roy’s story correctly, it was this same elegant hotel that my uncle ran past, as he tried desperately to make it home before the bombing raid arrived.
It was in The Peninsula Hotel, in Room 336, that the British officially surrendered to the Japanese on Christmas Day, 1941.
I think it was along Salisbury Road, just before he turned, that he saw the man hiding under a honeysuckle bush. “I loved the smell of those honeysuckle bushes,” Roy told me. But that day, he looked at the man and thought, “Are you crazy? That won’t protect you from a bomb,” as he continued to run for his life. I think he must have been about to turn left onto Nathan Road, when he heard a voice tell him, “No! Not that way! Take the alley.” As he turned down the alley, the bombs began to explode along the path he’d almost taken.
Young Roy made it to the flat, as the bombs continued to fall.
Today, Nathan Road is filled with the roar of double-decker buses, small taxis, and foreign tourists.
Today, Nathan Road is filled with the roar of double-decker buses, small taxis, and foreign tourists. None of the old four-, five-, and six-story residential buildings of my uncle’s era remain. Now there are shops. Now there is the glittering cesspit of the Chungking Mansions, where small flats serve as cramped backpacker hostels. Now there’s an old gray concrete tower of flats, with dripping air conditioner boxes, and pants hanging to dry outside smeared windows.
Uncle Roy’s Hong Kong is mostly gone, destroyed, not so much by the Japanese or Americans, as by time.
But not all of it. We found the old, steep, curving road up to Signal Hill, also known as Blackhead Point, where the 1907 signal tower still stood. The small Edwardian style tower looked like a cousin to the old clock tower below. This was where a metal ball used to drop every day, in sight of the ships, so navigators could check their chronometers. That was before they started using radio signals, before my uncle’s time. But the tower was here in his day, and now gave me a glimpse of the color and texture of his childhood.
This signal tower was where a metal ball used to drop every day, in sight of the ships, so navigators could check their chronometers.
Today, a small park surrounds the tower with pink flowers, scattered trees, and singing birds, a relatively peaceful place from which to view the east opening of Victoria Harbour. The noise of the traffic and tourist hordes is a distant roar. Nearby, a small pagoda-shaped pavilion provides a contrast to the English-style tower, while a distant high-rise dwarfs them both. Much of the city encompasses such visual contradictions.
After our excursion, Fiona and I wandered down a nearby side street, and found a nightclub called CD Bar, where they served Thai food by day. We grinned at each other and nodded. For dinner, I ate chicken satay with peanut sauce and steamed rice. Yet more white rice. Still no "hearty" fare. But if Uncle Roy could run for his life on a bowl of watery rice porridge, surely a few pieces of chicken on a stick would be enough to get me back to the bus stop.
(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Sunday, April 18, 2010)
March 26, 2008
Mong Kok, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Yesterday morning, Fiona Zhu and I ate breakfast at a noodle shop. I ordered rice noodles with pork in soup. I expected little bits of pork, and was disconcerted to see an entire chop in my bowl. It was tasty, although I could see why some people think Cantonese food bland compared to Szechuan or other, spicier regional cuisine. Our waitress also brought us a pile of steamed Chinese greens. The bitterness was a sweet reminder of childhood, when Chinese food with Gramma and Grampa at a small Cantonese restaurant in East LA was an almost weekly part of our lives.
At breakfast, Fiona told me she’d found a bus that would take us straight to the city of Toishan, come our third morning in China. The ride would take four hours. In Toishan City we would catch another bus to the town of Bok Sa to find lodging. From there, we would find transport to the nearby village of Gong Hao, where Fiona has discovered that the main family name is still Ma. I almost cried when she told me this. I have very distant relatives in that village. Strange, it never seemed important to me before.
Fiona and I ate breakfast at a noodle shop.
I told Fiona a little bit of my family history: how my great-grandfather Ma Bing Sum left China in 1908, how he married a 13-year-old Mexican girl in America and years later raped (or seduced) her 14-year-old sister (depending on who you ask), and how my grandmother was born to that second girl. I told her that my grandmother’s half-brothers and half-sisters moved to China to grow up with a Chinese education. My grandmother, who had not yet been told that her uncle was also her father, refused an invitation to go with his other children to China. The Mar children, as they were known in America, got stuck in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation in World War II.
Ma Bing Sum owned a Cantonese restaurant in El Paso, Texas, where he was known as Ben Mar. Later, after his first wife died in China, he married another Mexican woman. Together they had four more children. So he had at least 15 children, although he probably had more because, as I told Fiona, “he really liked a lot of women.” Ben was something of a scoundrel, who my side of the family never really liked. I told Fiona that I supposed it might seem strange that I would take an interest in him. My only explanation was, “Good or bad, he is my great-grandfather.” Her firm nod of understanding told me she knew exactly what I meant. Ancestors are important to Chinese people. Perhaps it would seem stranger to her if I was not interested in my family history, no matter what beasts and skeletons might lurk there.
Fiona told me that some of her information came from a man who lives in Toishan. He makes a living helping Overseas Chinese find their families in China. This makes sense, because most Chinese Americans can trace their origins to Toishan County.
After breakfast, we walked down Nathan Road to Victoria Harbour, at first walking about two kilometers in the wrong direction, before turning back, laughing. Luckily, she stopped to ask directions of two men, who seemed stunned that we planned to walk all the way to the waterfront. It was about a half-hour later before she told me that they’d told her it was about an hour walk to get there. No matter. Though I was exhausted, I was also too awake to return to my room. We could have taken a bus or subway, but I felt the need to move my limbs, however sore, after sitting so many hours on planes the day before.
We stopped often to sit down and rest.
We stopped often to sit down and rest: once, in a small sheltered spot next to a fountain where water spilled down uneven brick walls, another time, in a public square where men played Chinese chess, some of them surrounded by other men – curious, lackadaisical, placing bets.
We stopped in a public square where men played Chinese chess, some of them surrounded by other men – curious, lackadaisical, placing bets.
We stopped at a pastry shop, where I bought a sweet bun filled with cream and topped with blueberries. I also stopped to photograph construction workers climbing bamboo scaffolding alongside a building - an ironic sight in a city so modern, yet I’ve heard that bamboo is quite strong and perfect for the job.
Bamboo scaffolding: an ironic sight in a city so modern, yet I’ve heard that bamboo is quite strong and perfect for the job.
We took a long pause at the banyan trees in Tsim Sha Tsui. The tall, venerable, elderly gents with arthritic trunks and scraggly beards sat across from a bright white row of young shops. These types of trees were common here when my Uncle Roy lived in Kowloon as a boy, along with my grandmother’s other brothers and sisters.
The banyan trees were common here when my Uncle Roy lived in Kowloon as a boy, along with my grandmother’s other brothers and sisters.
When we reached the waterfront promenade, we strolled the Avenue of Stars. In an homage to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the sidewalk is paved with bronze-colored stars featuring the handprints and names of Chinese celebrities.
When we reached the waterfront promenade, we strolled the Avenue of Stars.
It was a depressingly foggy day, not an inch of blue in the sky, but the scene was still impressive: Hong Kong Island’s crowd of tall and immense buildings clustered across the blue green water that gently slapped the pilings below us. The IFC2 Tower of the International Finance Center rudely blocked a clear view to Victoria Peak. However, the sea air was refreshing, and I tried to explain to Fiona how much I appreciated these sights and sensations after being landlocked for so long in Colorado.
We walked on until we saw a Starbucks, where I gave in to the unremitting coolness of the day and invited Fiona to enjoy a warm drink with me in the outdoor seating area. I’d vowed not to do Starbucks in China, but I couldn’t even make it 24 hours without breaking down and ordering my usual grande non-fat three-pump chai.
Fiona had a cappuccino.
(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Saturday, April 17, 2010)
March 25, 2008
Anne Black Guest House/YWCA
Kowloon, Hong Kong
I have no idea what time it is, only that it’s still a dark time of morning and few cars are passing on the usually busy streets of Kowloon, eleven stories below. I feel a fragile safety in my tiny cocoon of a room, about 10-by-8 feet, with a shared bathroom across the hall. It’s much like a college dorm room: clean, tiny, sterile, with two small twin beds and a sink, behind an anonymous door at the beginning of a brief row of anonymous doors.
I’ve woken twice: once with the conviction that it was still the middle of the night and only jet lag had woken me - I was right - and again just half an hour ago, with the conviction that the dull orange glow drifting in through the blinds was the first hint of sunrise - I was wrong. It’s still dark outside, and that orange glow is the diffused light of halogen street lamps suffusing the invisible fog that hovers unseen over the darkened city of Hong Kong.
I feel a fragile safety in my tiny cocoon of a room.
Someone down the hall has a TV on, at a polite, murmuring volume; I heard it as I shuffled across the hallway to unlock the bathroom and pee. The bathroom is clean, with two toilet stalls and two shower stalls. Perhaps I’ll shower at the pre-crack of dawn, before anyone is likely to come in. I still retain some of the internal modesty of the only child, though I try to ignore it when it seems unnecessary.
I wish I hadn't let Fiona Zhu, my interpreter, leave last night before I went out to buy bottled water. I could have bought the water myself, but I was too exhausted to contemplate the possibility of a non-English transaction. So my mouth is dry and I’m thirsty.
Fiona met me at the airport. She’s a pretty, friendly, quietly laughing woman of about 32, with a slightly moon-shaped face and generous cheeks, framed by long dark hair. Her round head floats precariously above a slender body in jeans, a t-shirt, and a small backpack. When we met, she kept trying to help me with my duffle, but I consider her my interpreter, not my porter, and I politely but firmly told her not to worry about it. She has a degree in international finance, “but I’m not too good at finance,” she confessed, laughing. Her parents own a factory that makes industrial kitchen products, so she works in international trade, a related field. But she says she likes working as an interpreter, “to open my eyes to more,” and “to meet people I would not meet otherwise.”
Her English is good, but some words she dredges up slowly and hesitantly, sometimes using replacement words to fill gaps. When I told her that the temperature was below freezing when I left home, but that it was normally a bit warmer than that in March, she called the unusual cold snap an “accident.” “Yes, an accident, a little unusual,” I agreed. In any case, it’s warmer here, around 70 or so when I arrived after dark last night, and likely to be even warmer by day.
She asked if Hong Kong looked much different to me than it did when I was here nine years ago. “No,” I said. “Still bright, still busy, still crowded with people, still noisy.” We shared a laugh.
Hong Kong (Kowloon): “Still bright, still busy, still crowded with people, still noisy.”
On the bus from the airport we shared the biggest giggle when she told me she enjoyed reading my website and the story about my pole-dancing class. I covered my mouth in embarrassment. I told her I didn’t know what it was like in China, but 20 or 30 years ago “nice” girls weren’t supposed to do pole dancing, and now that had changed so that sometimes even old-fashioned housewives did it for fun. She laughed and reassured me that she knew this, on both counts.
When she asked how long I’ve lived in Denver (eight years, this time), I told her the many places I’ve lived: California, Colorado, Alaska, New Mexico, North Carolina, and back to Colorado. She seemed quite awed, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. But it doesn’t seem to have curbed her warmth.
To dissuade her from once again trying to carry my heavy duffle, I told her, “I lift weights,” and mimicked lifting two dumbbells to clarify.
“Sometimes. Not very often.”
“I think you can do anything,” she said earnestly.
“Yes, I can also become invisible and I can fly.”
We both laughed. But it’s not far from the truth. I’ve flown here, to the other side of the world, and I’m now invisible, on the 11th floor of this YWCA. I confess, I don’t want to leave this room.
I’m now invisible, on the 11th floor of this YWCA.
I don’t own a watch, and usually check my cell phone for the time. I didn’t bring it, knowing I don’t have international service and am unlikely to need it. But that means I have no convenient way to tell the time. The birds started singing a few minutes ago, then stopped; I see no hint of sunlight anywhere outside my window, so they must be mistaken. When I turned the TV on a half hour ago, an American news anchor was discussing the close of trading on Wall Street with someone on the floor of the NY Stock Exchange. So I guessed it to be about 5:00 a.m. here, but I have no idea.
I’ve always loved to travel, but at this moment I just wish I were home. I’m eager for this adventure, but equally eager for it to end, before it has even begun. What is happening to me?