Travel can (and if you are doing it right, should), make you feel what it’s like to be in the minority. One morning, at the breakfast buffet, a little boy slid up next to me at my table. His parents sat across from me, looking at their phones and eating. He gaped at me wide-eyed. He had never seen a white person up close.The vast majority of tourists in Beijing are Chinese. On the train into Beijing from Mongolia, we rode through cavernous passages surrounded on each side by massive apartment buildings. All constructed during the last few years, the buildings are home to workers and symbols of the transition from a agricultural to industrial economy.
I wondered if this was where the majority of the tourists came from. Or did they come from even further away, from small rural villages that had not changed for centuries?
Shortly after arriving in the city, I met a fellow Philadelphian of Polish descent named Jerzy. He told me about WeChat, the Chinese state controlled social media app. It ingeniously combined messaging, mobile person-to-person payments (for legal and illegal services), location services. and dating. You can even pay your electric bill and arrange for a car to pick you up using the app. All of this activity is heavily censored and monitored by the government, but Jerzy explained there was no alternative. To get anything done in Hong Kong you had to use WeChat. He had even met his girlfriend thought the Friend Seek feature. Luckily, I had already downloaded a VPN that would allow me to access my Gmail and social media accounts, so I was able to avoid having to join this all-in-one state controlled social media.
In Beijing, there are fewer bars than we are accustomed to in the West. Most local people drink on the street. Shops set up folding chairs and tables in the small winding passages, and people sat and talked with each other, drinking beers that they would purchase from the shop. After a few days in town, we found our favorite shop, and each night we would meet there for a drink.
One night a man and his son, who spoke very basic English, asked if they could sit next to us. The man said a few words to the boy and sent him into the store. He grinned at us happily. A few seconds later his son returned with four beers. The boy could not have been older than 14, but it seemed perfectly fine by his father that we all share a drink. They asked us about America and Germany, both places they hoped to visit someday. They said this was their first visit to the capital, and that they liked it very much. The father seemed proud to be able to provide his son with the opportunity to visit Beijing, and for him to practice his English with two real-live Westerners.
It was sweltering hot the day I arrived in Hong Kong. I had shared a second-class cabin on an overnight train from Beijing with a young man headed to visit his family that lived just outside of Hong Kong. It was a twelve hour ride. When we woke up, we were about three hours from Hong Kong, rolling smoothly between giant high rises apartment complex in Shenzen. It felt like I was in a cavernous mountain pass, surrounded by massive stone and the unseen eyes of hundreds or thousands of observers. I met a former student of mine in Hong Kong. Her boyfriend was born in the city. They kindly took me to lunch at one of the city’s oldest tea houses. Women wheeled carts of dumplings and cakes through the crowded room. People clamored over each other to get the freshest plates, and bird cages adorned the walls. On another night I learned about the underground economy, and had one of my favorite meals of the trip. Hong Kong exists on many levels, both physically and metaphorically. It’s not easy to find things on street level – you’ve got to go deeper, or higher, or more in-between to find out what the city is really made of.
In this case, the restaurant (to be precise, the kitchen of a normal apartment), was located on the ninth floor of a high rise. There were no signs, and no directions. You simply had to know the location. Two brothers served us Indonesian food while they watched football on a small TV in the corner.
Surrounding the Temple Street night market in Hong Kong, people scrutinize and haggle over trinkets, teaware, sex, electronics, watches, menswear, jade, black-market goods and antiques, while crabs, shrimp, noodles, and dumplings are noisily consumed. The bar of my otherwise normal Holiday Inn accommodation was punctuated by prostitutes, who hung around in the lobby bar in between European families, men on business trips, and Chinese tourists from the rising middle class. No one seemed to mind each other. My father was in the Navy during the Vietnam War. He served on the U.S.N. Greenfish, a diesel submarine. He told me he’d been to Hong Kong during the ’70s. There were no skyscrapers when they surfaced the submarine in Kowloon harbor then. The sailors, having been at sea for weeks, were ready to spend some time on land. I can only imagine that Hong Kong in the 1970s offered them plenty to do.