Monday, November 05, 2007

It's the little things

I originally set out to write a short list of "little things" about Hong Kong that I love and hate, the sorts of things that would never command a post of their own (like my hatred of pollution and Lan Kwai Fong) and don't seem to sneak into unrelated posts (like my love of char siu bao). But as the list took shape, it became abundantly clear to me that this wasn't a list of "things I love" vs. "things I hate," but a list of "foods I love" vs. "people I hate." So here you go. My list of awesome foods and asshole people.

The Foods I Love

- Char siu bao: Often have I sung the praises of this delicious dim sum treat, a kernel of sweet, barbecue pork in a doughy steamed vessel that is perfectly suited to nurture the delicate goodness within. If you haven't listened to me by now, you probably never will. But I shall sing char siu bao's praises for as long as I'm here. In a culture whose culinary tradition "is based on clean, clear flavors" (read: is bland), they are a revelation.

- Yun yeung: Coffee mixed with tea, served with milk and sugar, authentically Hong Kong-style. It's so obvious, I have no idea why I never thought of it before.

- Bakeries: Ever since I started traveling in Europe, I've believed that American culture will always be somehow lacking until we have bakeries available on every corner serving delicious freshly-baked buns, bread, and pastries. This, of course, will never happen, because it would make fast food and convenience stores, as they are currently understood and used in the United States, essentially obsolete. Food that is fresh, delicious, and just extravagant enough on fats and sugars to be enjoyable without being totally guilt-inducing. It's exactly the kind of brilliant idea that's too good to catch on in an America that's convinced itself that food should usually taste mediocre.

The People I Hate

- Minibus drivers: Minibuses are much less strictly-regulated and organized than their big bus counterparts. As a result, unless a stop has been requested, minibus drivers tend to drive in the fast lane, so that they're boxed away from the curb by other cars and buses and just race past when you try to flag them down. Of course, even when there are no cars blocking their access to the curb, the position in the far lane allows them to pretend they don't see you. Even when they look directly at you. And have plenty of open seats. And just keep driving. God I hate minibus drivers.

- Minibus passengers: Most of the seats in minibuses are little 2-person benches, and anytime a local minibus passenger has a bench to him or herself, they sit in the aisle position (for whatever reason, this does not hold true on the big buses). When the minibus fills up and the window seats need to be filled, though, the seated passengers make no effort to accommodate incoming riders, whether by moving toward the window or standing in the aisle to let them pass. The thing that confounds me is that it's not just a lack of consideration for other people's comfort or well-being, it's a total disinterest in their own! I take a mini-bus back to my dorm from the dry-cleaners whenever I pick up my things, which is inevitably after school. That means that I'm boarding the bus with a big backpack and a massive stack of hangers, usually around 6 shirts and 5 pairs of pants by the time I get around to doing my cleaning here. In attempting to pass people and get into the window seat, I am inevitably smacking them in the face with the backpack or whipping them across the head with the clothes on the hangers. When a driver starts moving before I'm settled, I'm sometimes surprised that severe injuries don't result. But no matter how incredibly uncomfortable it is for both of us, no passenger has ever yielded the aisle seat to me or stood up to let me pass through. As a result, once I sit down, I actually actively hope that I also have to get up before them, so that I can (still accidentally) smack them in the face again on my way out. Because of the close proximity of my cleaner to my dorm, this is almost always the case. And just like when I'm getting on the bus, no passenger has ever made any effort to accommodate me on the way off. Serves them right.

- Pedestrians: I have no idea how pedestrianism works when a local is trying to pass another local on a narrow sidewalk here, because I would estimate that 4 out of 5 locals I pass on foot make zero effort to move or angle their bodies to in any way accommodate my passing. Inevitably, I find myself either contorting myself into awkward positions along building walls or sidewalk railings, or shoulder-checking a passer-by as a simple act of defiance. I find this behavior particularly egregious in the case of pairs who are walking down the street. People who walk in pairs typically walk side-by-side, that's fine. But the sidewalks here are usually only about 2.5 people wide, meaning that when 2 people are walking on a collision course toward me, something's got to give. In the U.S., the etiquette on this is clear: one of the people in the pair must either file in front of or behind their compatriot, so that traffic in both directions has a channel through which to pass. Not everybody abides by this in the States, of course, but those who don't are clearly assholes. Here, I concede that it's probably a bona fide cultural difference. But just because it isn't a personal slight or an individual act of rudeness when people monopolize the sidewalk doesn't mean I don't find the entire cultural practice to be categorically rude.

Hmm...minibus drives, minibus passengers, and pedestrians. That covers an awful lot of people. I've clearly been feeling great about Hong Kong lately.

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