Tuesday, November 20, 2007

No longer living a lie

Alright, for some time now, I've been living a lie. I've been telling people I'm one way when I'm really another. I've let certain people in on it. I've tried to casually drop hints of it here and there, even on this blog. But the lie is exhausting to maintain all the time and I don't want to anymore, so here I go. I am going to use the comfortable distance of the Internet to say things that I'd probably never be comfortable saying to someone face-to-face.

I hate Hong Kong.

I hate Hong Kong because it is the shallowest, most superficial and culturally immature metropolis in the world. For a city of its size, it is remarkably devoid of art, culture, and music, or any awareness of the fact that it is lacking art, culture, or music. The cultural scenes here range from nonexistent (music) to embarrassingly immature (art). The best museum exhibition in town, by orders of magnitude, is a loan of items from the British Museum. The city is, as I have said time and again, a giant shopping mall. Every MTR station, every bus depot, every office building, and I suspect most personal homes, are malls. If you want to shop, no matter where you are or what time it is, and never tire of that, Hong Kong just may be the place for you. I have to assume that Internet merchants do very little business with Hong Kong, because if they did, the residents here would apparently have no reason left to go outside. It's such wasted potential. People here are so unaware of their remarkable place in the world, in history, so politically and intellectually inert. Yes, I hold Hong Kong to a high standard. Because Hong Kong wants to put itself in the same sentence as Los Angeles, New York, and London (with Boston, the cities where I have spent the most time), and if it wants to compare itself to those cities, then it cannot complain when I inevitably find it wanting. Hong Kong may still be a so-called "world city," but it is a world city of the past. As far as I'm concerned, the city has done nothing to demonstrate itself worthy of the future.

I hate Hong Kong because of the lack of social variety. Why do I complain so much about Lan Kwai Fong? Because there is so little else to complain about. I am trying, I really am. Salsa night, the occasional jazz show that I can find. These are activities that would probably be considered "niche" anywhere in the world, but here, the very desire to seek any of them out is apparently considered "niche." Every bar and club seems to be a minute variation on the same theme. I like some better than others, but I'm utterly exhausted with the one theme. And the theme was never for me in the first place. The generically cool room full of status-obsessed drones who seem to be concerned about everything but having fun. I said back in October, "I'll know I've truly reached maturity with living in Hong Kong when somebody says, 'Hey, Ken, we're going to Lan Kwai Fong, wanna come?' and I finally say no." And I have reached that point. But that just means that more often than not, I just go home early. I've embraced the islands and rural areas - which, in all fairness, must be considered part of the total Hong Kong equation - as my primary means of staying sane, but by themselves, they just haven't been enough.

I hate Hong Kong because of my own living situation here. I have discussed this at length (and even that selection of links is woefully incomplete). I realize that the university and the halls are not synonymous with Hong Kong, but at the very least they are cultural indicators, and they are so very central to my experience. This was in large part my fault...I chose to be cheap and stay in halls rather than seeking out the costly comfort and privacy of my own accommodations. I regret this and take full responsibility. But I still blame the pollution for my bout with bronchitis, the first time I've even gotten the disease.

I hate Hong Kong because of the people. With locals (whatever that means), I just don't feel comfortable. I feel like I have next to nothing in common with the local students, no shared experience or sense of joint understanding. The way I feel with other Jewish people, where we all seems to draw on the same bank of neurosis? It's the exact opposite of that. We just don't see eye to eye. And as far as cultural differences go, I am a cultural relativist in the sense that I don't think that my culture should be imposed on other people, but I am a cultural objectivist in the sense that I don't think that all cultures are equally good, at least not for me. And I find the local culture to be inscrutable and rude (important note: I don't think American culture to be perfect or even best, but I find much more in British, continental European, and Latin American culture to be admired than I do here). Sorry, political correctness. Marie has eloquently noted the frustrating conundrum of being a white person in a non-white culture: that no matter how deftly we internalize and apply the cultural idiosyncrasies of our host country, we will aways be distinctly, obviously, physically foreign. I share this frustration, but I really don't feel particularly compelled to embrace this culture, so it isn't as strong for me. And as for the ever-dominating expatriate community, my friend (who shall remain nameless, lest this person appear as judgmental and curmudgeonly as I) and I have a theory that Hong Kong appeals most to people who can't quite cut it in their home country. Whether they be successful but just short of the pinnacle in their industries or careers, or somehow socially or personally lacking such that it would just be easier to buy coolness with foreignness and whiteness, the people who seem to be the real HK diehards are not people that I would surround myself with at home. I typically find them at best mildly bemusing, and at worst actively off-putting.

But most of all, I hate Hong Kong because of how it makes me feel. As I've said, I don't truly know if my recent mental state has been a product of my Hong Kong experience or a cause, and I suspect it's both. And the same question would exist if I were overwhelmingly happy too. London is perhaps my favorite city in the world, and my time there was one of the happiest periods of my life. This is probably not a coincidence. But does it even matter what the mechanism is? When I came back to London, 3 years later and in a totally different period in my life, the city was so firmly entrenched in my psyche as synonymous with happiness that I was walking around with a moronic grin on my face for the entire week, contemplating life plans that would let me call it home again. When I'm here, I feel anxious and stressed and yes, depressed, actually depressed, constantly depressed, clinically depressed, in a way I don't feel in other places and have never felt before. My trip home for my sister's wedding was supposed to recharge my batteries for the stretch run, but all it did was remind me what it feels like to be happy, to feel like myself, and bring into stark relief how often I am not happy here and how much I don't feel like myself.

I hate Hong Kong for making me think like this during a period of time that should be a celebration, of my exploitation of Harvard, of my own internationalism, of the end of everything in my life that comes before becoming a working adult. I hate Hong Kong because in the end, it doesn't matter if people disagree with me or if any of the things I said above are even true, because they feel so true to me. I hate Hong Kong because even the faint optimism of posts past rang false to me at the time it was written, and there is no doubt on my mind that this is the defining journal entry of my time here. And that is a tragedy.


Marie said...


Trevor said...


I always wanted to grab expats by the lapels and shake them vigorously, shouting "Go home! There is nothing for you here! Are you too good for your home?"

Also, nice line:
status-obsessed drones

smc said...

So. How do you like Hong Kong?

pbb said...

Deep, man.

Perhaps I will recast my near-total lack of world travels as knowledge that I've already got it plenty good where I am.

Ken Basin said...

Trevor: The language crafted by our kin will alter the way I think, speak, and write for months.

Stephanie: I guess what I'm trying to say is, I could do with or without it?

Andrea: It's not everywhere that sucks. But you do have it good, yes.

John Fitzpatrick said...

In the consciousness of the truth he has perceived, man now sees everywhere only the awfulness or the absurdity of existence and loathing seizes him.
-- Friedrich Nietzsche

Andy said...

I spent 2 years in Hong Kong and loved it. Best times in my life. And I can cut it in my own country thankyou very much.

This was pre 1997 though. Yes the locals are rude and have a very different concept to westerners of personal space, amongst other things - but that shouldn't stop you enjoying yourself.

Anonymous said...

Hi I so agree with ALL the things you said in your article. I was on exchange at HKU a year ago, the same period as yours. I lived in a different Hall, LSK Hall.

I just want you to know that I experienced everything that you have said in your blog. I even had a bad headache because of the pollution, and was admitted to hospital for a week.

Hope you're doing well now. Merry Xmas!


sgman said...

Thank you for writing this. As a native Hongkongese who moved to the US as a kid and came back in my teens, I can honestly say that it felt like a prison. I didn't hate every minute of it, but if you were to look at a chronological progression of my pics, its interesting that the ones with me really smiling, really smiling like i meant it, were taken when I was in the States. The US has a lot of problems for Asians, not the least being some kind of perpetual "foreigner" stereotype. I'm still trying to weigh the costs and benefits of both places, see which one I like better. Maybe I'll move to Canada.