Hong Kong is toasty egg waffles, serene mountains and sensational dim sum. Hong Kong is the lady in the trolley car, my boss and my roommate of two weeks.
Cities are people: the kind, the funny and especially the quirky. On campus, when friends ask about my spring break, I immediately want to ramble about adventuring in Mongkok night markets with Gladys, my short-term roommate, completing an 8-kilometer hike with Raul, a 22-year-old figuring out life or savoring curry miso with Daniel, my boss — but I settle for a conventional description of work tasks instead. My account of spring break is like a faded black and white photo of Victoria Peak’s panoramic views, Hong Kong’s highest summit. Here’s the color version.
A chilly ocean breeze blows through my gray tee and small teal backpack. It’s 9 p.m. on my third day in Hong Kong. I’ve finally conquered jet lag. Sort of, anyway. I’m wandering away from my Airbnb in Causeway Bay’s very own Time Square to Wan Chai, a small metropolitan area near the coastline. Shops are closing but lights still gleam and streets bustle with spirit. I abandoned my original plan to trek 45 minutes to the shore and hop on a ding ding, also known as a double-deck tram. Red, old-fashioned but efficient, they’re a great metaphor for the city of Hong Kong.
I’m a 19-year-old in Hong Kong for the first time. I’m alone. And I like that. I get to call the shots; I’m put in a situation where I need to interact with my surroundings and its people. After fidgeting for half the ride, I ask the 20-ish-year-old lady next to me if I’ve missed the Wan Chai stop. She’s a warm, soft-spoken government education worker. We strike up a conversation about the Western history of this Eastern city. She takes me to Sun Yat-sen memorial park. We stare silently at the skyline. We take Polaroid pictures in a closed mall. She wanted to become a psychologist but found working with trauma patients emotionally taxing. She misses it now. We end the night connecting on Facebook. She asks to keep our Polaroid.
My first week passes, and all I can say is that I love my boss. Daniel is a 22-year-old Taiwanese graduate from Brown. On my first day, he greeted me with a solid handshake and a lengthy to-do list. Intimidated for no reason other than that he drank his coffee black and arrived at the office an hour before everyone, I treated him like a professor — too formally. But after sitting together for eight hours each day, eating lunches as coworkers and dinners as friends, we became close. I learn that he’s a sensitive hard worker who shares my sense of humor. I learn why he gave up an investment banking career, about his multicultural life, about his stresses both in and out of the workplace. He even introduces me to his friends who take me to hike Dragon’s Back over the weekend. We try mango dessert shops, talk about his experience post-college and try many many cuisines. As I left the office on my last day, I realized that I probably wouldn’t see him again, at least in the next few years.
But my trip and I would have been vastly different without Gladys. She’s a spiky-haired five-foot junior at Yale that I split an Airbnb with. We share the same last name of “Fang,” and that’s the extent of our similarities. She’s no-nonsense, ambitious and hyper-independent: I’m relatively more flexible, communal and interdependent. We chat about our insecurities in the back of buses, dart through busy streets to watch a horse racing match, empty our last bits of cash at food stalls and talk until 3 a.m. on many nights. I call her my “long-lost older sister” but she’s more like a fresh take — someone who’s not a first year, not in the same frame of mind and not stressed about the same problems. We rubbed off on each other quite a bit.
Getting lost in a new place is a magical feeling. The unknown is electrifying. Without Google Maps or extensive itineraries, I got to meet Hong Kong my way. Granted, I took too many right turns, wandered in streets I can’t name and forgot to go to Lantau Island. But this is what traveling should be.
Hong Kong overwhelmed my taste buds (in a good way), showed me an alluring balance of the East and West and proved that metro systems can be efficient. But Hong Kong is so much more than its optimization, tourist attractions or delectable restaurants, just like any place is. Really, Hong Kong is about its the people, as cliche as it may seem. It’s not the memory of the food or the views that will last. I will forget the taste of spicy pork kabobs and toasty boba waffle sandwiches, but I will remember my dinners with Gladys. It might be awhile before I eat another Japanese pork cutlet, but I’ll never forget Daniel recounting his wild college years. The mango rice ball dessert in the small Wan Chai shop proved worthy, but not as worthy as my time with the random stranger on the tram and her stories. So wherever you are this summer, next year or beyond, it’s people that you will learn from and that you’ll remember. It’s people that count.
Michelle Fang is a first year in Pierson College. Her column runs alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .