Did you know Hong Kong is not one place but a group of a hundred and twenty six different islands? Did you know it is nicknamed Manhattan of East? (Mariam said people say it is in fact better than Manhattan of West. “Their subway nothing in front of MTR. And that damn city is frozen half of the year.”) Did you know its airport, where I will be landing in less than an hour now, is one of the busiest and the largest airports in the world and is constructed entirely on a land taken out of a sea! Did you know Hong Kong is the fourth most densely populated places in the world? Many people there, from all over the world, all kinds.
You are no good at Geography or General Knowledge. Like me you don’t know much about the world. What you do know is me, Kuldeep. That is all I know too.
As soon I stepped out of a connecting tunnel, I was pointed at by an officer. I was asked to show my passport and tickets, then to come aside and wait till every other passenger left. For two hours I was grilled, first by the two female officers and then by a smartly dressed male who smiled like young Jackie Chan. I knew why this was happening: 1) My passport was completely blank. 2) I was a young, unmarried, unemployed male. 3) I was from a less developed country compared to their world class country. 4) I needed an ‘on arrival’ visa to enter.
I explained them everything, in my broken English and then in Hindi (they had arranged for an Indian boy for translation). I told them about Mariam, I assured them she is going to be my guardian in Hong Kong and would not let me spend a single dollar. I told them about Dereck waiting for me in Manila, about our talks on Facebook and Skype, and I told them all about my education and plans and dreams. On their request I explained plumbing and waterworks. Stupid, I tried to put my charm on them, as if they were some silly village girl, and they became more suspicious of me. Stiff faced. So I told them more, everything, the gods I believed in and how I thought life worked, that everything in the end works out, how I felt as a kid when I saw airplanes passing over our village… and I told them how important this trip is for everybody, how people back home are counting on me… and I started crying.
We have been in many fights, Kuldeep, and we have got our asses kicked. We have been shunned from home for days and we have spent nights, empty stomach, on the terrace of our school in hiding. But I had never felt this powerless in life. Sitting in that room, with the officers on the other side of the desk, I realised how it would take just a stroke of a pen, a nod of head, a something from me that irritates or upsets them, for them to send me on my way back home.
They let me go, good people, with a warning: if they find out I haven’t caught my plane to Manila, they are going to catch hold of me and send me back to India.
On the night of that very day, when Mariam took me out for dinner and showed me places I could eat at during the week, McDonald’s and Subway and three different Indian restaurants, two cops spotted me and asked for my passport. I wasn’t carrying it. Mariam explained the situation to them. They confirmed Mariam’s details over a collar mike, I imagine with some officer in some head office in front of a computer that has every single Hong Kong citizen’s details, and they said we were OK to go. Mariam laughed after we turned the corner. “Strange. Doesn’t happen often,” she said.
A day later it happened with me again, at the ICC premises, only I was carrying my passport this time.
Dear Kuldeep, this is my fourth day in Hong Kong and I am already confident of wandering in the city by myself. Today I went for a long walk, from Queens Road Central to SOHO Road to Victoria Peak to Hong Kong trail to University of Hong Kong, and all the way back from there to Queens Roads West (where Mariam’s apartment is). Five hours of non-stop walking in foreign streets with Nokia maps.
Do you want to know what Hong Kong looks like?
Grey sky, dense cover of clouds, lean, tall buildings trying to reach that cover of clouds. Clean roads. Marvellous cars. Trees that look ancient than the city. People walking briskly on gravelled footpaths, from point A to point B, from point B to point A, everybody going somewhere. No one strolling like me, whiling away his time. There is purpose in their gaits, purpose to their days. So this is what Hong Kong looks like, Kuldeep— a lot of nice and sure looking people standing at a red light, marching briskly past rows of showrooms selling expensive things the instant the light turns green.
The red lights here make a tink-tink sound, like the sound of metallic gongs we have in temples. When the traffic light changes to green, the sound changes from this hum to something loud and urgent:
tink tink tink tink
That is what Hong Kong sounds like to me.
I don’t know why but people do not laugh here. Maybe they do inside their homes, but not on the streets, not in the shops. They don’t walk in gangs of five, six, like in our village, not even young people. They walk alone or with their lovers or spouses, silently. There is too much silence here. So much that it makes me pine for friends and love and home; and I am sure others feel this too. In my long walks today, whether I passed the deserted Mosque street or the Botanical Gardens, or when I overlooked speeding traffic from a walkover bridge, never had my own thoughts sounded so loud in my head. I walked without stopping so that my thoughts would shut up.
I returned to the apartment exhausted. I switched on the air conditioner and stood directly under it— big, deep, long breaths. Mariam’s apartment has two rooms, each room half the size of the rooms in our village. The windows are always closed— it is her rule to always keep windows closed. “Humidity,” she said. Through the glass panes, I saw skyscrapers on three sides, with dots of yellow and white lights on most floors, empty office chairs and wooden desks in one of the floors with transparent glass walls, directly opposite to the kitchen. I thought, who are these people who work here all day and go home to their families? Then suddenly I thought, I am hanging in the air! And I thought, air! I need fresh air to breathe! And then I went out.
Inside her apartment that is what Hong Kong smells like to me.
I met a girl. Yes, sir, I did.
I went to an expensive Indian restaurant as on weekdays they have Happy Hours. A sweet looking Chinese girl came to my table, handed me the menu card and asked something. I could not understand a single word of her English. What happened next I could not believe— that Chinese girl spoke in a clear, fluent Hindi! Of course, she wasn’t Chinese, she was Nepalese. Once I learnt that, I got my game on, you know? I became my natural movie hero like person and she could not resist my charm. She lives quite close to Mariam’s place. We made a deal— if I come to dine at this restaurant again and then if she feels it is okay, she will show me around. I couldn’t believe my luck!
From the restaurant, I went to a shore nearby, sat on a bench and thought how happy my coming days would be, wandering around in Hong Kong streets with her. The sun was setting, people were coming out of a ferry and a strong evening wind was blowing. Below the murmur of life, there was a deep calm. I did not think anything for a long time. Then I thought, possible it is that we will fall in love and settle down in this city. Not a bad city to live in and grow old if you have a good partner.
It was dark when I got up. I switched on the GPS to find my way home. The Hong Kong I knew had transformed this Saturday night. I saw people sitting on the floor, in groups of five, ten, drinking beer and eating food, talking loudly, playing cards and joking…people just like us! Where did they come from? I felt at home seeing them. They were so at ease, unmindful of the large, imposing buildings, of the clean and shiny walkover bridges, of the people in suits climbing up the escalators. Mariam told me later they were Filipino. That Sunday is their off day after six days of very hard work and they make sure they enjoy it to the fullest. I said, Mariam, I like Filipinos. She smiled and said, “Good for you.”
Hong Kong has many Indians. Punjabis too, more than you could imagine. I look at them and smile but they don’t respond. I found Indians are not that helpful to Indians. People of Hong Kong are very helpful. According to Mariam this is one of the most polite cities in the world. And I see that. But I found Indians are not that helpful to Indians. I am sorry, sir, they are not. I don’t know what goes in their minds— maybe they think that unknown Indians will ask for money or job or something illegal? When I go to Subway, a place favourite with Indians, I see nobody talking with each other. Nobody desires for the eyes to meet— meeting of eyes means meeting of people. Oh, but yesterday this funny thing happened there.
A Punjabi aunty enters Subway with her nine- or ten-year-old son. Yes, a Punjab aunty, buxom, dressed in a green and pink salwar kurta, flaunting cleavage (it was when I saw her that I realized the last time I had seen a proper cleavage I was in our village!). She goes to the counter, stops abruptly after saying, “I want…,” stares at the staff, then, turns her head up to read the board hanging above them. I at once know she is new here because like me she does not know where to look at, how to behave. Like me she has to locate English words in between Chinese sentences. She steals a glance at me, finds me smiling naughtily, and orders the sub-of-the-day with fake confidence, and when the staff starts to prepare her sandwich she says, “No pickles, no onions I said.” The staff looks at her oddly but does not say anything. She says again, “I told you no pickles!” Her son says, “Mummy, this is not pickle, that is pickle. This is jalepeño.” Everybody smiles except the woman. I smile the broadest and keep it on till she leaves and closes the door behind her to glower at me.
It was nice to see something funny for a change. Funny things happen rarely here. When I am walking on the road and thinking something (I am always thinking something these days) and I think of something funny, I want to laugh. I don’t because it will look odd.
I know what you so eagerly want me to tell you, you naughty mind. About the girls of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is unlike Punjab in all matters my friend, including those of girls. They are delicate, like daisy flowers. Cute like Barbie dolls. Their eyes are sweet and I notice on their cheeks a god-gifted pink. They wear frocks that show their slender legs, but they wear tops covered till neck. I imagine their breasts to be narrow and pointed, unlike huge, round and jumpy ones back home. You don’t see that type here. No sir, not even cleavages. Our girls have arms thicker than the thighs of girls here. And the skins here are fairer, hairless, smoother— so soft you fear if you touch their skin you will leave a mark.
I miss Punjab, buddy. So many beautiful Chinese girls and I can’t even think about them wrongly. Fantasies are not so completely untrue or stupid, Kuldeep. You can believe in them while you manufacture them. Me and Hong Kong girls— not possible even in dreams.
Today I went out to buy beer and at one of the corners I lifted my hands in air and pressed air like I was squeezing one of our girl’s breasts. How strange it is that what a young handsome romantic Punjabi man like me would miss most of all in the Hong Kong is Punjabi boobies.
Should I come back? You tell me.
Once in Philippines, life can only go forward forward forward. Like a cab on a one way street here.
So, tell me, should I return to you and home and our happy ways?
I can ask you this question, Kuldeep, because I know you won’t answer. I can ask you because it is only me talking to myself while having french fries and Coca-Cola in the couch of Mariam’s apartment.
I did not see her again, that Nepalese girl. I know a gentleman should never break a promise made to a pretty girl, but what could I do? Suppose we go out together and she says to the police I am disturbing her? What if we go to her place and she says I tried to rape her? Are you getting it? What if I try to hold her hand while crossing the road and she takes it in the wrong manner? Who is she, what she thinks, what she wants from me, I have no clue. And I cannot afford to get into trouble. No sir. Back to India I will be sent. So much to do in life, so much riding on my future, and all can go away in a minute.
In elevators, in markets, in subway, whenever I am alone, I would say out loud, “Boy! Too much humidity. Can’t wait to leave Hong Kong” or “Boy! What a drag living with Mariam! Can’t wait to be with Dereck” or “Boy! Hong Kong too costly. Can’t wait to catch my flight to Philippines.” I imagine spy cameras following me, secret mics recording my voice because the police would be keeping an eye on me.
In the flight from New Delhi, I was greeted by smiling, courteous airhostesses, offering to help me at the press of a button. They tied my seat belt, served fruits and whisky, and when I asked one of them what a particular greenish fruit was, she brought more of the expensive Kiwi fruit. When we landed on the Hong Kong soil, they stood by the door and said goodbye and thank you for choosing their airlines. Foolishly I believed this is how rest of my days are going to be. The world is waiting to welcome me. And what happened as soon as I got down? Asked to step aside. Ask to show my documents. Asked to prove my intentions are innocent.
Since then, I couldn’t come to think I was equal to all these people around me. I did not think I deserved to be in this land.
It is the job of an air hostess to smile, I realize that now, and it is the job of a policeman to be suspicious. But it takes time to get over the shame of being caught by a man wearing a smart policeman uniform and sunglasses in the middle of a fancy street on your first day in a new country.
You know me, Kuldeep, you know what is inside my heart! But if I think I am a good person, am I good, really? What if those who are suspicious of my character, of my motives and plans, what if they are right about me and you and I are wrong?
And if it is they who are wrong, if I truly know myself to be good, how do I let them know that? How do I assure them I mean no harm? … Is such an understanding between two human beings possible?
All this time, this fantastic park right behind Mariam’s building, and we did not even know!
On a hunch I entered this narrow alley next to our building and what did I discover: Hollywood Park. The famous Hollywood Park which has its own page on Wikipedia!
It has swings for children, where parents come to play with them or to look over them as they play, and there is a pond, not too large, but large for a park this size. It has several fish and terrapins. Terrapins are like tortoise, Kuldeep, only slightly different.
I wonder if it is that you are born here you are a terrapin and if you are born in India you are a tortoise? Just like I am born in India and I am an Indian—I look like an Indian, speak like an Indian, have habits of an Indian— but in the end, what is the difference between me and the person who sat next to me in the park?
Terrapins enjoy sun. They sit for hours on end without moving. They are very slow, like your lazy ass. When some young ones go for swim, they just paddle a limb idly and the swimming happens, so beautiful to watch. I meditated with them for a whole day, trying to guess what was going on in their minds. Some people sit on a bench, sit and read, eat lunch, old people play a game like Chinese checkers on benches, a one or two practise Tai Chai with a trainer, and it is really relaxing to watch them all. Especially the Tai Chi practitioners. They move with the slowness of terrapins but with what wonderful control.
Upon seeing these terrapins, bathing, eating, basking in the sun, slowing down the movement from day to night, I feel… thankful. Isn’t it enough to be alive and to know it?
The Airport Express is moving like a water serpent, and tiny islands are receding from my view. Am I ever going to see them again— these lands, these waters, those people? Philippines is not far, but who knows. I am sad about leaving Hong Kong. I am relieved too that I did not overstay. I want to let those officers at the airport know, and those two cops too, look, I am leaving. I am catching that flight to Manila I showed ticket of. I was not lying.
Maybe I will return to this place when I believe I have more right to be here. When I will know proper English and walk a little more proudly, have money for good beer and have an openness to make friends in bars and parks. When I am less afraid. But to be honest, I can’t come to care about it. Not really. My life lies ahead of me— one that I have to start building right away. Hong Kong was only a rest stop. My future comes now.
Photo By: Mohit Parikh