We touched down exactly six months ago, when Hong Kong was alternating between freezing and raining, and moved into a dirty subdivided flat in a six floor walk-up with an incredible rooftop surrounded by pastel-coloured cement buildings. They were cloaked in mesh and supported by bamboo scaffolding that I was always certain would collapse over the crowds that seemed, endlessly, to gush out on the sidewalks. I don't think I blinked in those first few weeks, just trying to take it all in: the chaos, the smells, the crowds that would bowl us right over; groups of men in sleeveless shirts smoking on plastic stools outside of congee restaurants, women with domestic helpers trailing them as they go from wet market to street stalls, packs of uniformed kids with matching yellow backpacks bounding down the packed sidewalks. Two months after that, Adam turned to me on one of our walks and asked, "Are you used to these streets now?" and it felt strange to say yes, because somehow, I was.
And now that I'm used to the streets, the crowds, and the pace, there are things that make sense to me that didn't six months ago.
I used to wonder why there were malls everywhere: In our village, to get to our closest MTR station, we have to walk through two malls, connected by an overpass. When we go grocery shopping, we go to the Wellcome in a mini-mall, then take an overpass over to the wet market for fresh produce, and then we take another exit from the wet market through another overpass, and through another mall to the 759 for wine and "international items". There are no one-stop shops in Hong Kong: a single grocery run might have you going to three or four places to get enough for the week. That outing—between the distances, the traffic, and the heat—could get exceptionally annoying without air conditioned malls and pedestrian-only overpasses.
Another. In our magazine there are frequent mentions of "staycations": Win a staycation; how to make the most of your next staycation; we even had a Staycations issue where we each went to different hotels in the city and reported back (it's a tough job, somebody's gotta do it, yadayada). I thought it was just a cheeky way to get free hotel stays until a colleague told me that people actually go on staycations here. I explained to him that back home, a staycation is when you take your annual leave to stay home and bingewatch Netflix for a week, or you tell your friends you're going camping and just end up camping out in your room. He said, "That's because you all have huge houses, why would you ever want to pay money to stay in a hotel for a night?" And then I remembered: We had a staycation our first month here. We went to Macao when it was freezing cold and our apartment had no central heating or hot running water. We went to Macao to stay in a hotel, to take a hot bath in a real bathtub. Young people staycation when they live with their parents (as many do) and want to have a romantic night with their significant others; they staycation when they want to get their friends together for a board game night; people staycation when they just want a warm bath in a bathtub, because, why wouldn't they?
In a lot of ways, living in Hong Kong is physically harder than in Canada, despite the above photo. The weather is almost unbearable, so it's hard to be outside of long stretches of time. There are mosquitos; they are relentless. There are so many people that politeness isn't always going to cut it, like when you're waiting for people to get off the MTR before you can enter but there's a line of people standing right in front of the doors, blocking their way. (I often say to Adam that when we move back to Canada, people in the metro will think I'm such an asshole, because I'm no longer against shoving people with backpacks in crowded MTRs, or cutting into the mass of people crowding the foot of the escalator.) Everything we took for granted in Canada is prohibitively expensive here: Bread, cheese, drinks in bars, rent.
But now that I'm closer to understanding the root of these perceived inconveniences, I've really started to embrace the natural solution to things: who needs baguettes, for example, when you can get fresh baos from the corner bakery? The bars charge $60+ HKD for a beer, so we might as well load up at the 7/11 and take a seat by the piers. If you're a young person living with their parents and saving up to buy an apartment, then it makes sense check into a hotel room once in a while. If it's 32 degrees outside and humid, I'm going to bring my motorized handheld fan with me and count the minutes until we get to the nearest mall. With this in mind, a culture of the every day has begun to unfold. I feel, finally, that I'm no longer just used to my surroundings; I've embraced them.
We've been here for six months and we're sure we're going back. A few months ago, I was miserable here, stressed out and homesick. Some of the people I've talked to have said they went through same thing, that transitioning here was hard. One said they were compelled not to move back until they were having a good time and by that point, they were having too much fun to go and now it's been ten years. A friend of mine has sworn never to live in any city for less than two years; it's just too hard to pack up and start all over again. Another said that her friend moved here, hated it, moved back home within a year, and at the time, I nodded, said, yeah, I totally get that, and I do still, but less. But now it's been six months and the worst of it seems to have passed. I could live here for two years, I think, but if I did, I might just as easily stay ten. But I'm pretty sure I would be less happier than if I had just gone home in the first place.
It's an expat problem, I guess, and a first-world problem, certainly: People move all the time here. This city is a revolving door of people privileged enough to move as they wish, rent be damned, and everyone else is tired of hearing about it. No city is perfect, and this one is pretty amazing. But I'm constantly having to remind myself to live moment by moment, and not to worry too much about where I'll be in the next six months. In the meantime, I have a lot more day-to-day culture to take in.