The Cliche Post-College Self-Discovery Travel Blog
It was the quintessential post-college summer travel experience: I graduated and was in that sweet pocket of time between fulfilling society’s expectations. I bought a backpack, a plane ticket, and a lot of bugspray and flew to the other side of the world with minimal plans and little idea of what to expect (travel guides are for reading on the airplane).
Did I discover myself?
What the hell does this even mean? I don’t know.
Did I have a great time?
Did I experience and witness entirely new ways of living life?
I think the best thing about travel is that it permanently expands our conception of the world in a very real way. The world, for all intents and purposes, gets bigger. Consequently, we get smaller. That may not be such a bad thing.
With this travel philosophy in mind, it felt imperative to visit the place that, in many ways, is the most different from the Western world I grew up in.
What follows are a rambling series of anecdotes and digressions that will poorly capture what it feels like to travel to a handful of places in Southeast Asia.
One of the greatest cities in the world. Former British colony. Weird Chinese protectorate. Coastal economic powerhouse.
That was about the extent of my knowledge of Hong Kong.
My taxi drove me from the airport as a grey dawn broke over the waters, cookie cutter high rises, and islands of the city. Each cluster of skyscraping apartment buildings seemed to be HK proper, which became hilariously naive when I actually saw HK proper.
I later learned that HK has the most skyscrapers (50+ floors) of any city in the world. I was awed when the bulk of them came into sight; nestled between small mountains, they formed a concrete archipelago.
When I arrived at my friend’s apartment (I stayed with a fraternity brother who had grown up in HK), exhaustion trumped awe, and I went to sleep at 6am.
The apartment was spacious by NYC standards (the only city with a real estate market anywhere close to as expensive as HK’s). The weirdest part for me as an American was the live-in maid who thrust food at me and insisted that I leave my food and trash where I sat. It honestly felt exploitative, but apparently it’s the norm in HK. The maids get a pretty good deal: a place to live in a ludicrously expensive market and enough income to send remittances home (typically the Phillipines or other poor Southeast Asian nations). Some of them save enough to retire and hire a live-in maid in their home countries in some kind of weird domestic servitude inception.
Hong Kong: where even the underclass is privileged by global standards.
After breakfast, my host, another fraternity brother who had lived with him for a month in HK, and I took a bus to a small fishing village. After eating the cheapest Asian meal of my life (at least at that point) and gawking at a seafood restaurant that had tanks of everything (60lb groupers, shellfish, reef fish, and things I weren’t sure had been identified yet by scientists) literally waiting for their number to be called (or, more appropriately, for their net to be cast), we took a cab to a trailhead that took us to a much smaller fishing village after a few miles.
Wild cows wandered abandoned shanty houses and a restaurant sat overlooking a pristine beach. The only evidence that one of the largest cities in the world sat just a few miles away was the steady stream of jumbo jets trailing across a blue sky. The tropical water gently crashed on a wide beach, which was framed by the dramatic rocks that were common in the many coves surrounding the city. A short, hazardous trek into the rocks led us to a deep pool and waterfall where locals climbed and jumped cliffs. Considering that I had just traveled close to 22 hours and thought it was 4am, I felt pretty good.
I even made it out that night…kind of.
We walked through Hong Kong’s famous markets that peddle cheap t shirts, electronics, and other nick nacks in tents set up on densely packed streets. We passed a group of Umbrella Movement activists speaking out against mainland Chinese oppression. A legacy of the 2014 protests, the movement against the Chinese decision to pre-screen HK electoral candidates, the group reminded me that I was in a place where free expression was a live political issue. Hong Kong occupies a privileged political space as a member of the Peoples’ Republic of China due to its wealth. China has allowed most of Hong Kong’s legal structures to remain in place (for example, internet is not censored and these protesters appeared to speak freely).
Still, this privileged treatment may not last and China has shown signs of increasing its political control over the city. All of the locals who I asked about this wanted to retain the freedoms they were accustomed to and resented increased Chinese influence. Hopefully this kind of passionate activism can protect the social freedom that I believe has been integral to Hong Kong’s success.
HK has no open container laws (apparently this is an unfortunate American invention), its convenient stores sell liquor, and the rarely-enforced drinking age is 18. All of this makes for an interesting night life. Think Bourbon street except with young Asians instead of fat Americans. Everything in HK is dirt cheap except the housing and alcohol, which resemble NYC pricing. Fortunately(?) a lot of kids in HK have a lot of money. Their parents work in banking or were part of China’s economic explosion. This means that free drinks are easy to come by if you hang out with the right people. After all, they’re not really paying for it.
I never actually made it into any of the clubs. The only one we can find without a $20 cover wouldn’t let me in because I was wearing shorts (in a tropical city in July). It seems that night club pretension is a globalized phenomenon.
It also turns out that 7–11 can host a hell of a party, especially if you’re one of the few who has to pay for drinks yourself. Unfortunately(?) my jet lag caught up with me and I bailed around 1:30am (this is early for HK). Apparently I missed a good night.
After a fairly late start, I traveled with my host’s family to visit “the Buddha,” which is exactly what it sounds like. On the way, we dropped their dogs off with my friend’s grandmother who lives in a “typical” HK apartment: small quarters with 4 or 5 people sharing the space. Even in this small apartment, far from the city center would sell for over $1 million USD. It is much more common for people to live in multi-generation homes (as it has been for most of history and still is in much of the world). The American expectation of kids moving out of their parents home soon after they complete their education is a function of the American privilege of abundant space (which HK doesn’t have) and an extremely prosperous second half of the 20th century (which HK has had).
I’m not really sure which norm I prefer. Being raised in an individualistic, fiercely independent society has biased me towards the American norm. Frankly, I can’t imagine living at home again, and I believe in the virtue of struggling through a more independent early 20s. But there is something beautiful about spending your whole life surrounded by family (provided your family is a good influence), and the sense of community and selflessness that such an environment could engender seems sorely lacking in contemporary America.
Anyway, the Buddha. On the top of one of HK’s tallest peaks is an enormous statue of Buddha (not the fat kind) with a few beautiful temples and Pagodas nearby. The statue sits at the top of about 20 flights of stairs and is nothing short of majestic, both the view from the top and the feat of building such a monument in such a remote place. I don’t know very much about Buddhism, but elements of its philosophy, such as viewing life as suffering and the goal of transcending material desires, have always interested me. I certainly felt closer to transcendence in the mountain mists than I do on a busy street.
One of the paths leading away from the Buddha led to a series of tree trunks that had been split in half and carved with Chinese characters. The path looped around over dozens of these towering messages written in a tongue alien to me. Mist rolled through the nearby peaks and it felt easy to believe that the inspiration for this place was otherworldly.
That night, we visited the peak, a tall mountain with stunning views of the city center. It’s also home to some of the most expensive real estate in HK, and, consequently, the world. I can see why. Hong Kong’s skyline tops many lists of best city skylines. From what I’ve seen, I agree. The combination of kaleidoscopic, frenetic neon facades nestled between dramatic cliffs overlooking a beautiful natural harbor is done no justice in words or photos.
Many places I’ve had the fortune to visit have stunned me, either with cultural significance: Rome, Paris, Brussels or with profound natural beauty: New Zealand, Costa Rica, the Carribean. Despite this, I’ve come away from these trips with a greater appreciation for the United States. But Hong Kong is pretty confronting to my internalized notion of American exceptionalism. The city is unbelievably safe, clean, navigable, well-educated, and affordable (aside from its housing).
I think that most people have a love for the place they grew up in that isn’t governed by rationality. I certainly love my country, but I think it’s becoming increasingly important for us to look outward as our political systems fail to deliver satisfactory outcomes and as the rest of the world begins to catch up (or surpass) the US in key metrics of success (beyond GDP, things like income inequality, crime rates, and educational outcomes).
Looking out onto a city that has a strong claim to being the greatest in the world and realizing that it’s not in America was a challenging experience for someone who badly wants to continue believing in the promise of the American project. Obviously the awesomeness of a place outside of America does not diminish the US, but it was hard for me not to feel threatened by it. I had to consciously choose to look at Hong Kong as an inspiration for ways to improve upon what we have.
Ultimately, my attachment to the concept of American superiority is probably rooted in the attachment of my ego to my identity as an American. America is indisputably the most influential country in the world, but that doesn’t make our citizens superior on an individual level.
Intellectually, I believe that people are people, and they should have equal rights and be valued more or less equally, however impractical that may be. Frankly, it’s hard to internalize such a belief. My emotional response to the deaths of Parisians at a rock concert is more visceral than my response to the deaths of people in Iraq or Yemen. I’m not proud of this. It’s simply much easier to imagine myself attending a concert along the Seine than shopping at a Baghdad market.
I think visiting places where the threat of violence is much more present and interacting with normal people who live in the spectre of death can help turn that intellectual belief into an emotional one. Again, HK is safer than almost anywhere in the US, so this digression is probably out of place.
For my final day in HK, I visited one of the local markets with my host’s mom, a HK native who regularly shops there. Fish and other animals are butchered in front of you, fruits I had never seen before are on offer, and a kind of structured chaos dictates the action of the stalls. I tried lychee, a strawberry-like fruit with a spiky, tough skin and wondered why I hadn’t eaten it before.
After a failed attempt at a hike (getting to the nature in HK requires navigating hectic city streets), we met an American backpacker on the walk home. He was traveling solo on some time off from uni (as I’ve taken to calling it after meeting so many Europeans). He had just grabbed drinks with some American expats who he had met on Reddit. They were celebrating the 4th of July. I had forgotten what date it was. Oops.
We met up with him, an old friend from Cornell who was studying at Hong Kong University and a few of my host’s friends. This ragtag bunch of travelers and locals went to Ozone, the tallest bar in the world. Situated at the top of the International Commerce Center (ICC), the tallest building in an overachieving skyline, Ozone offers breathtaking views (and prices). Looking out over the neon world with a $20 USD drink in hand, it’s easy to see that HK can rival any city in its glitz and glamour.
It’s a popular destination for recently minted Chinese industrialists, many of whom are escaping the pollution that they created. The tensions between mainland China and this former English colony were brought up a few times by the locals. Mainlanders were described with a near-universal, quasi-racist derision. Their wealthy buy up real estate and sit on it, artificially driving up prices across the board. Their tourists don’t respect lines (British people love their queues) and squat on toilets designed for sitting.
As an American, especially one with a liberal arts degree, I have grown allergic to any descriptions of groups of people in sweeping terms. Most of the America I’ve been exposed to is extremely race conscious and is terrified to appear racist. Much of the rest of the world, and Asia in particular, does not have the same norms against open racial stereotyping.
As an outsider, I could see that tensions with the nouveau riche and foreigners are not limited to China or Hong Kong. NYC properties are purchased by anonymous shell companies to launder dirty money for wealthy foreigners. These apartments are often vacant and these buyers drive up property prices for the renters who actually live there.
Contemporary Chinese norms around lines and restrooms differ from much of the rest of the world. Many of the mainland tourists have probably been exposed to little of the world outside of China, leaving prevailing Chinese norms of line-waiting as a contact sport as all that they know. Jostling for spaces in line may seem rude to an outsider in the same way that tourists view hustling New Yorkers as rude, when, really, hustling is the only way life works in one of the world’s busiest, densest cities.
Obviously, I prefer that people respect lines and sit on toilets when they’re designed for seating. Not all norms are equivalent in their outcomes but blaming actors for the problems of a system hardly seems fair.
The only real difference between your average Hong Konger and mainlander is that the Hong Konger happened to be born on the right side of an arbitrary, invisible line set by an empire over a century prior.