A personal essay by Joshua Phoon
for Prof. Eileen Manion’s Creative Nonfiction class
Hong Kong is a sensory assault – its neon signs blaring loudly; its dissonant atmosphere creeping onto my skin. I cannot help but feel uneasy in Hong Kong. It is paradoxically welcoming and foreign to me – its cuisine is unrivaled by any other city in the world and is a stark reminder of how sterile the gastronomy has become in my home. The people are far from welcoming, yet you can see the industriousness in each step they take. It is almost like they are walking up a flight of stairs that leads to nowhere, but are oblivious to their collective ignorance. In some ways, I envy them for only having a mono-directional pull on their lives. The narrow, serpentine streets and labyrinthine subway tunnels are a reflection of this – the sheep keep walking and walking and walking, but they end up at the same place that they began.
Nothing seems to fit here. The juxtaposition of the old and new is evident everywhere I walk. Remnants of British Colonial architecture co-exist alongside modern constructs such as skyscrapers and subway stations. They fit together like puzzle pieces from different jigsaw puzzles. This is what unsettles me – on the surface, Hong Kong comes across as modern and vibrant, but scratching past the surface, I uncover fragments of the past trying to stake their claim, reluctant to give up their place in time and space, struggling amidst the towering office blocks which house an ever-growing plethora of multi-national companies. Roadside stalls display their culinary offerings and although they seem to be extremely popular judging by the snaking lines, which spill into the alleyways, descriptions such as “pork innards” and “smelly tofu” do not resonate well with me. Instead, I trudge down the sidewalk to a nearby McDonalds while being constantly bombarded with the sights and sounds of metropolitan Hong Kong and thoughts and feelings of foreignness.
Tokyo greets me with pinpoint efficiency; the bullet train leaves the station as soon as the second hand on my watch strikes twelve to indicate noon. It whizzes from Tokyo to Osaka in just under three hours. The accuracy and efficiency catches me off guard; although not as much as the female train attendant who bows at the front of the cabin as she enters and does the same at the back just before she exits. This confuses me and I do know not why she does it, but I choose to ignore it anyway much like the rest of the train passengers seem to do. Pushing a cart down the aisle, she hands me a menu filled with glossy pictures of plastic-like ramen and bento boxes, then she proceeds to kneel down beside me. She utters something in Japanese at a rate that resembles the speed of the very vessel we are on, and at that moment I seem to lose all my senses. The myriad of Japanese characters on the menu takes away my ability to comprehend. I whip out my dictionary but instead she places her hand above mine, and motions for me to put it away. For the next three minutes, we engage in a game of what seems to be a mix up of Simon says and musical chairs; me going around the cart pointing out my choices while she follows suit a mere second behind. In the end, she stands up and bows toward me after the transaction has been made. I do not know what to do and can only offer a weak smile.
Beijing very much reminds me of the culture of my ancestors. I see wrinkled, elderly faces looking at me, and I project my own grandparents’ emotions onto them such that they suddenly become familiar too. The warmth that often suffuses across these faces, however is no figment of the imagination, for the more the locals have in age, the more happiness they seem to accrue as is evident by the way in which simple pleasures bring vibrant smiles onto their faces. It is the elderly who wake up before the sunrise to partake in activities such as community exercises in the park. To them, waking up is a blessing and they live their lives to the fullest. In contrast, the young people mill about their daily lives with a jaded tension in their every move – the young executive holding his iPhone, fingernails furiously click-clacking on the glass surface and eyebrows knitted together either in frustration at his boss’ demands for greater efficiency, or in response to stress at the very same request. The characters on his screen seem to overwhelm him and take on a life of their own; a complex script of lines and curves meeting and melding into one another. I know, however, that language is no barrier here and what many take for cacophony in Montreal quickly becomes sweet-sounding music to my ears. It is strange how I completely disregarded the language in Montreal but when placed in its birthplace of my ancestors, the cradle of a civilization thousands of years old, I am simultaneously excited and inspired.
Beijing, however, seems to be a contradiction which I can never figure out no matter how hard I try. The advent of free-flowing cash from the government has resulted in skyscrapers which tower over every living organism; including the swallows which fly in the now smoggy sky during sunset. The skyscrapers are Beijing’s arms held out to the sky, begging for forgiveness from heaven or from a higher being for inflicting inconceivable and potentially irreversible environmental damage in its pursuit of economic prosperity. They do not only ask for an environmental pardon, but also a generational and social pardon for what the old have done to the young; leaving them with the burden of a silver wave which grows day by day even as Chinese families are told not to have more than one child. The young executive bumps into me and his iPhone tumbles down the stairs. I bend down to pick it up but he swipes it off the floor even before I can reach it. I apologize in heavily accented Mandarin but he switches to English and says it’s “no problem” and then scurries off.
Back in Montreal, I experience multi-directional pulls on my life on a daily basis. The mix of the different cultures and languages makes for a superficial and culturally diverse society. Yet, I still feel lost. I step into a boulangerie a few blocks from my neighborhood in the Plateau-Mont Royal. I place my order for a croissant and a cup of coffee in French. “Would you like your coffee with milk or sugar?” asks the waitress, switching to English. Of course, I appreciate the switch to better facilitate the interaction but I cannot help but feel like I am not “one of us or them.” My own reflection in the cafe’s mirror confirms this – sometimes I forget I have dark hair, brown eyes and an epicanthic fold. Perhaps unlike the smiles that radiate so often on the wrinkled faces of Beijing’s elderly, everything here is just a figment of my imagination. The crack which appeared on the screen of the young executive’s iPhone as he hurried off seems to resonate largely with me – on the surface, an iPhone is unmistakably an iPhone, but these cracks prevent a deeper understanding of what makes the iPhone unique and special. An iPhone’s damaged screen can be repaired no matter the cost; but who am I really?