Monday, October 29, 2007

A tale of ten cities

One of the weird parts about living in Hong Kong is just figuring out what Hong Kong you live in. At first, I thought it was some failing on my part that I wasn't sufficiently integrating myself with the locals. But at this point, it's become clear to me that there is no universal definition of "local" or of "integration" that could be applied to Hong Kong.

What does it take to consider someone a "local?" Certainly the grizzled-looking laborer unloading sacks of dried seafood in the distinctly Chinese district of Sheung Wan is a local, right? And the well-to-do family living in a suburban part of the New Territories, an hour away from the bustle of Hong Kong Island, sending their child to school here at Hong Kong University, we can call them locals too. These are the people who have been here forever, and will be here forever.

But how long does someone have to stay in Hong Kong to be elevated to "local" status? The exchange student who's here for a semester? The full-time student who's doing his actual degree here for a year, or two years, or three years? The American graduate who's working at an investment bank or a law firm or a newspaper in Hong Kong for a year? Two years? Five years? Someone who gets married here? Runs a business here? Someone who moves back and forth between their country of origin and Hong Kong every few years? Every few months? Someone who's on an indefinite work assignment but has vague aspirations to return to the West someday? No aspirations to return to the West someday? No idea what the hell they plan to do with their lives?

Every one of these people has an incredibly different experience of Hong Kong than the others. What restaurants they go to, what clubs they frequent, what circles they travel in and what they do for fun. And most of them will hardly ever interact meaningfully with a member of a caste other than their own.

Last week, I met an English entrepreneur who has been in Hong Kong for seven years, the first two with an English bank and the last five living with his Korean wife and running a business that provides eco-friendly packaging materials to European grocers and retailers. With a bit of pride in his voice, he told me about recently befriending another Englishman who had lived in Hong Kong for 20 years and who refused to associate with anyone who had spent less than five years in Hong Kong, because he assumed they were going to leave soon anyhow.

There are people I've met who came here expecting to leave and never did. People who came expecting to stay and already want out. Almost everyone seems to regard Hong Kong as a temporary destination, if not for themselves then for others. Relationships are transient. Tastes are fashions are fleeting, and that's what makes them so distinctly Hong Kong. Every popular bar or restaurant is introduced to me as "where [some once-popular, now-defunct bar or restaurant] used to be." Because Hong Kong is a city that is defined not by the people who are here forever, but by the people who are just passing through.

Which brings me back to the grizzled laborer and the New Territory suburbanite. For them, today was just like yesterday, and they can expect more of the same tomorrow. But in a city that is fluid, flighty, and cosmopolitan, what does it even mean to be a "local" when your world seems so separate from what makes your home distinct?

I think all of this is why I've never quite settled into Hong Kong, and don't think I'll ever learn to think of this place as home (at least not in the course of a semester). Because I don't know which one of these Hong Kongs I live in, and if I had to guess, I'd say I don't fit in any of them. I'm a student and a yuppie. I'm here for an extended period of time but I'm constantly bouncing back and forth with my travels. I have some money, but I'm nowhere near rich. I have expensive tastes for some things, and can't imagine spending money on others. I have some social connections, but by degrees of separation. I love shopping and I'm sick to death of it. I've developed ideas about what I like and dislike, but don't stand up for them. There are some things I know I like that I can't seem to find at all.

I have absolutely zero regrets about studying abroad, and really, zero regrets about doing it in Hong Kong. Even with my little contemplative spells, I'm enjoying the hell out of this semester, and when I get back to the States, I'll appreciate home all the more. But I can't help but wonder: how can there be so many Hong Kongs, and none that's really for me?

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