I arrive at the restaurant a few minutes late, pouring sweat and shirt half-soaked through.
“What happened to you? Where did you go? Are you ok?” asks a member of my dinner party, her voice radiating genuine concern.
I laugh weakly and mutter something about the weather and being a fat American. The truth was too embarrassing. I had gotten that sweaty walking the two blocks from the subway station.
Recently I traveled to Hong Kong for the first time and became intensely aware of how much I sweat. I began to sweat shortly after passing through customs — airports make me nervous — and I’m not sure if I ever stopped. After 30 seconds outside in Hong Kong, I sweat about as much as an average Hong Konger might after surviving some intense personal catastrophe — a murder attempt or heart attack, perhaps. I discovered new body parts to sweat from — pinky fingers, the under-eye, elbow sweat.
Hong Kongers don’t appear to have my condition. I realized this one day when I was hiking a 2.5 kilometer trail up to Victoria Peak. My shirt was soaked before I even reached the trail. I took four breaks on the way to the top, fighting the sensation that my body was being slowly strangled by my own sweat-sodden shirt. I leaned against railings, boulders and benches, gasping for air, watching children and men so old they had back humps pass me effortlessly, all in shirts that were powder dry. When I reached the top, I wandered through the mall at the top of peak, looking like a drowning victim, and wondering if I might be the sweatiest person in this entire city.
Sweating in Hong Kong is as embarrassing as it is uncomfortable, because sweaty people are so ostracized. It’s difficult to describe what Hong Kongers feel towards sweaty people. It’s like a withering combination of condescension and disgust, with just enough pity sprinkled in to really make you feel bad about yourself. I often felt like I had overexerted myself at a basic task, soiled myself, and embarrassed everyone around me. On multiple occasions, total strangers reached into their purses and pockets and handed me napkins so that I could clean myself up before they would continue speaking to me. I could only wipe myself and apologize.
This social sweat aversion was confusing, because Hong Kong is like a city engineered in a lab to make people sweat.
Summers are about 90 degrees, with about 90 percent humidity. Walking outside is like being waterboarded, except disclosing national secrets doesn’t make it stop. The city also has a confusing and infuriating shortage of cold drinks. Restaurants don’t offer ice water, and drinks in refrigerators at convenience stores were often disappointingly room temperature.
Many Hong Kongers told me that drinking cold liquid in hot weather was unhealthy, something about upsetting the body’s internal balance. I heard several earnest testimonies about how hot tea actually more was more successful at cooling people down after physical exertion and heat. Those stories, unfortunately, fell on deaf ears. If you tell a sweaty person that he doesn’t need cold water, he will only get angrier, and sweatier.
Avoiding sweat and total social embarrassment became a deeply complex logistical challenge that required daily strategy sessions and sweat cloth resupply runs.
First, I arranged my travel so that I could stop in air-conditioned spaces along the way and keep from drowning in my clothes. I became hyper aware of my proximity to 7–11’s. When I couldn’t find 7–11’s, I pretended to shop. Here is an incomplete list of things I pretended to consider buying in order to stand near an air conditioner.
Hello Kitty pencil sharpeners
Inside Out notebooks
Sex toys of various shapes and sizes
Commercial office space
Women’s athletic wear
Each shirt has a sweat threshold after which you may as well take it off and walk around topless — sort of like the point at which a car sustains so much damage in an accident that it’s considered totaled. When I approached this threshold, I took increasingly desperate steps to prevent it. Sometimes I would just unbutton my shirt and towel off (the subway is really not a good place to do this if you don’t like to draw attention to yourself). Or I’d stand with my back pressed to a refrigerator cooler of beer. Sometimes I’d just buy a new shirt and change into it before I reached my destination. These are all things less embarrassing than being incredibly sweaty in Hong Kong.
Quick travel tip: When riding the subway, sometimes the car you’re in picks up speed, and a heavenly breeze circulates the air conditioning all through the cabin, cooling your entire body like a frost-powered Coors Light Party Train in the form of a lover’s embrace. When this happens, don’t close your eyes blissfully in the face of the all-consuming, borderline-erotic pleasure that it brings, although you will want to. People don’t like that.
After a week, though, I realized that the sweat was winning, and I decided to accept it. It happened when I was walking back to my hotel one night and it started to rain.
Hong Kong’s rainstorms are violent, torrential and sudden. You walk outside without an umbrella, and suddenly you’re underwater. You can’t just hold a newspaper over your head and run. People usually shelter under things until it’s over.
I was 3 blocks away from my hotel and decided to run for it. I was inundated within 10 seconds, and I wasn’t the only one. I stumbled through the entrance of my hotel and saw rain-soaked people everywhere, squeezing water out of their hair and examining their sodden clothes with disgust. Everyone looked like crap.
It was still 85 degrees outside, and the rain had made the air heavy and humid. I was sweating profusely — but for the first time since I got to Hong Kong, it didn’t matter.
Published in #SWLH (Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking)