Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Hong Kong-ed

Before I came to Thailand, I didn't imagine that I'd have the opportunity to venture further than Southeast Asia. When a generous family friend offered up their empty Hong Kong apartment for a week, the relatively inexpensive flights made the decision a no-brainer.

Right around the time I began considering my friend's offer, I met Emily through our mutual visiting friend, Colette. Next thing we knew, we booked our Air Asia tickets to explore this vaguely familiar place that neither of us knew much about. We were going to China! Or wait, were we? (More on that, later)

Little did we know that our social lives in Asia would reach their peak during this week. While we assumed we'd be on our own, who would have thought we'd be juggling multiple social groups in a completely foreign city?

It all began with the wonders of Facebook informing me that my best camp friend, Danny, would be in Hong Kong the same time. As life would have it, Emily and Danny also know each other from high school in Chicago. Danny was in Hong Kong performing with his acapella group who recently appeared on NBC's "The Sing Off."

My family friend had left a phone number of her local friends if we had questions. Before we went to the show, we ended up contacting Jimmy and Angie regarding logistics. What would you know - they were dedicated "Sing Off" followers all the way from Hong Kong and insisted on accompanying us to the show. All week, Jimmy and Angie became our navigators, advisers and friends! They went above and beyond to make sure our stay was comfortable and enjoyable - they even lended us a much needed cell phone to keep up with our social life.

You might have thought the Yellow Jackets were the new Justin Beiber the way the Chinese girls screamed for them! Of course, my visit with Danny wouldn't have been complete if he didn't choose me to embarrass on stage by forcing me to participate. No worries - the video already made YouTube immediately after the show.

Danny happened to also know a local Hong Konger, Victoria, who he had studied abroad with on Semester at Sea. We became fast friends with Victoria, as the three of us girls pretended we were part of their after-show events. All night we were introduced as Danny's groupies: Emily from high school, me from Jew camp, and Victoria from studying abroad.

A few weeks earlier, I had made a friend in my Bangkok hostel dorm who was studying abroad in Hong Kong. Jordan happened to be living right near where we were staying, so we made plans to hang out as well. We had too much fun befriending Jordan's friends and pretending we were in college once again.

Our first night out in Hong Kong at Lan Kwai Fong (LKF) included the whole gang: Danny and his entire acappella group, Victoria, Jimmy and Angie, and Jordan and his college friends. Even my family friend's friend, 50+ year old Jimmy, stayed out with the twenty-something year olds til the wee hours of the morning. We were destined to love Hong Kong from the start.

And so our week in Hong Kong went. We explored the glorious city by day, and stumbled around with our old and new friends by night.

We even spent a day at the local amusement park, Ocean Park, with a couple of the acapella boys. Although any American Six Flags would destroy Ocean Park's rides in comparison - it is an amusement park like no other, with adorable panda bears and roller coasters overlooking the breathtaking South China Sea.

Jimmy became the cool, old guy, and had befriended all of our new friends, as well. One night, Jimmy took us out with Jordan and his friends for some traditional snake soup. Who knew that snakes had so many bones? In any case, I can cross chicken feet and snake off my bucket list, but know I won't be ordering either again.

Hong Kong is made up of over 200 islands, but we were staying on the main island in a residential area called "Kennedy Town." We visited a few of the other islands (connected by the incredible transportation system of subway, boats, and buses), all boasting completely different vibes. We loved Cheung Chau, a fisherman island in which we joined the locals to pay respects for the dead for the Qingming Festival. Sham Shai Po was also a quirky area where we met Emily's old friend for some traditional Dim Sum. A traditional dim sum meal is chaotic! Workers wheel carts around with various dim sum dishes (sort of like Chinese tapas) and people yell in Cantonese to call dibs on what they want.

Emily is much more of the type of traveler that likes to go, go, go, whereas, I prefer to go with the flow and am not bothered if I don't get to do everything that Trip Advisor reccomends. However, I did allow her to drag me along for the number one rated thing to do according to Trip Advisor - and I am glad I did.

This is called "Dialogue in the Dark" and has absolutely nothing to do with Hong Kong. It is an hour and a half "tour" in which you experience what it is like to be blind. You are put in complete pitch blackness, past the point of eyes being able to adjust. You are given a walking stick and led (verbally) by a blind guide in a simulation of what it would be to be blind. You do such petty tasks as crossing the street, getting on a boat, sitting through a movie, etc - all with this new perspective of being blind. This experience is available in 28 cities apparently, and if it is anything like the one in Hong Kong, I highly recommend it. It was really eye-opening for me, and I won't ever forget the feeling of being without vision - completely and utterly lost.

Hong Kong is easily one of my favorite cities in the world. This city is an island - but unlike Manhattan - it actually has some relatively nice beaches. There is something for everyone: culture, traditional Chinese food, amazing international cuisine, nightlife, beaches, history, shopping and more. If you're sick of the city life, you can easily relax on a beach or pop over to one of the hundreds of other territories for something completely different. While Hong Kong isn't the cheapest (especially coming from SE Asia), $1.50 - $5 meals are still readily available everywhere if you aren't into the hundred dollar meals. Accommodation is the most costly aspect of the island - so we were grateful for a free, comfortable apartment with an incredible view of Victoria Harbour.  The public transportation is probably the best I've seen yet: cheap, clean and convenient. Because of this, the only cars in Hong Kong seem to be Ferraris and Bentleys. Oh, and you can legally drink alcohol in the streets. The bars in "LKF" and "Soho" all compete with our favorite bar: 7/11, where the budget-minded crowd outside to create our own unique space. Hong Kong is also rated one of the safest cities in the world, and it really does feel that way. I think many American cities could learn a thing or two from such functional and pleasant place.

So, were we really in China? We interrogated anyone who could give us a straight answer about the dynamics of the "One country, Two systems" policy. Yes, Hong Kong is part of the Republic of China. They are completely segregated though, with two different currencies, laws and visas. Hong Kongers call themselves Chinese, but you will NEVER hear them admitting they are from "China." There are people from Hong Kong, and then there are the "mainlanders" - not to be confused. Hong Kongers do not like being mistaken for being a mainlander, and they claim they can always tell a mainlander from a Hong Konger before even hearing the Mandarin dialect. The politics are very complicated, and go way beyond what we could understand in a week, especially given some recent tension amongst the two groups. From what I understood, Hong Kong is much more Westernized, "civilized" if you will, and takes pride on being colonized by the Brits (which only just ended 15 years ago) to get where they are today.

Hong Kong is awesome. It is clean, safe and relatively Western, yet it still holds that authentic Asian vibe that I so love. The more I learned, the more I loved, and the more Hong Kong moved up in places I want to move next. Although, I can't help but wonder if I did move, if I would be comparing it to our most perfect week ever where everything fell into place.

Our last night in Hong Kong we decided to keep up the pace, and had another night out with all of our favorite HK people. This time though, when we exited, the sun was up and at that point it was too late to get any sleep before our flights. We had dim sum at 6am, and it was fascinating to watch the bustling restaurant filled with locals getting in their morning eats.

After an unpleasant travel back Thailand, even a good night of sleep couldn't prevent my inevitable sickness that I like to call "Hong Kong-ed." The 12 hour night bus to Chiang Mai whilst running a high fever was unpleasant, but I'm hopeful that was the worst of it.

Yesterday, I spent the day with my family friends. This is the family friend whose apartment in Hong Kong I had just come from - they were in Chiang Mai on holiday and our trips overlapped by just one day. I used to babysit for Julie Mei, and it was wonderful to see her 7 years later and catch up with the family! As if they weren't nice enough for letting us stay in their apartment, they insisted on treating me all day.

Tomorrow begins the massive multi-day water festival, Songkran, for the Thai new year. I have been warned about the craziness in the streets, and I am only curious to see what it will really be like! I am going to embrace my inner-child and purchase myself a water gun. :)

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