Pressure shifts in the cabin and I am awoken from the last of my many slumbers. Glossy and acute, my eyes are blinded by the long warm rays of sun piercing through the swift soaring capsule’s window as my neighbor opens our curtain. The retinas adjusted and at last, amidst turbulence and patiently waiting, the sprawling mountainous terrain of Hong Kong was beneath me. I swallowed my fears and relieved the pressure from my ears. Soon I was to feel the Asian Pacific humidity on my skin as I exit my plane and step foot onto land. I was unaware of how this place would come to shape me and change my viewpoints on self-worth. Even questions on American culture surfaced but not until much later in the journey. Just getting there was the easiest step.
To take the opportunity to move abroad to Hong Kong was the inevitable plan for my jet-set gypsy tendencies. I grew up just outside of Detroit, Michigan, a city branded by fiscal corruption, financial depletion, and dilapidation from fires that charred the neighborhoods far and wide. I admire the city for each and every hardship it has endured and the times the city has rebuilt itself from the dust and rubble. To this day I have a great amount of pride when I remember I am a product of the motor city. But my wingspan was growing exponentially and I needed the room to grow. To make the move to Asia, in a way, saved my life. “If you’re going to try, go all the way.” Bukowski reminds me. When I landed it made perfect sense to me. “Do it for you because you can’t be anyone else’s hero.” It hurts to leave and saying goodbye is never tear-ridden but to manifest my destiny I decided to push my horizons.
The city is environmentally adaptive and color conscious. The precise attention to detail made me believe the city was composed by a master painter, carefully selecting the form and shape, color and composition of what would become the masterpiece it is today. Affluent neighborhoods were decorated by glass and polished stone and the poorest neighborhoods were the most colorful. Apartment complexes cluster on hillsides. Entire slope walls are coated with concrete with portal openings for vegetation growth. Mountain peaks, like the open mouth of a frozen tsunami, cradle the urbanscape with a quiet assertive dominance. But the human element is unarguably ever-present. 7 million persons, 7,000 per square kilometer. Unfathomable numbers until you see how three generations of family live in a 100-square-foot apartment where even the walls ache and sigh. The truth of how our species came to inhabit the city then became the force of nature that shaped it. Mountains were cut into like melted butter. Compacted landfills were later topped-off with beautiful parks for children to play at. At the point of my arrival the cityscape was an alien foreign body swelling and bloating from toxins but shimmering with an iridescent luster so beautiful, anyone to gaze upon it couldn’t help but stare.
The unavoidable every day traveling became a dream. A routine familiar in road names and numbers but never dull in the bank of sights. Driving on winding roads and between sky-scraping mountains with apartment buildings protruding and glowing like crystals became the mirage I miraculously knew so well. Not a day passed where my eyes became tired of the view from the window seat. Swelling hills of green velvet and pink pastel towers, the rising and falling of Lantau peaks with electric blue skies beyond and attentively manicured gardens with not a branch out of composition. “I could replant myself here.” a thought I thought daily.
I met Elaine in Sham Shui Po on a late afternoon for dinner. Native to Hong Kong and fluent in cantonese, she became the guide to less-tourist friendly and traditional gems in the city. I, at that point, had only been in the city for 3 weeks time. I was trusting of her recommendations. We sat in a fluorescent bright restaurant with fold-up chairs and menus sans english. She recommended a meat dish for me and ordered toast for herself. At this point I was beginning to lose all motivations to eat meat. The sights of restaurant fronts with hanging carcasses on hooks waiting to be chopped and cooked burned a frightening image of death into my brain that I couldn’t shake. I couldn’t stomach the thought. I ate around it. Immediately, she asked me something along the lines of: “What was the most unexpected thing you have noticed since being here?” The answer was beyond me. The accumulation of all experiences and contrasting cultures with specific norms and mannerisms didn’t hit me until I returned to America. I didn’t realize how I seamlessly adapted to chinese culture until I returned home. I thought everyone is driving on the incorrect side of the road, most Americans take my business card for granted and most are not polite to strangers, unlike the ladder. When Elaine posed the question to me I was speechless--for it was the hardest question.
An afternoon like the rest, lonesome wandering of neighborhoods were decided from a flip of a coin. I entered the enormous glass shard of architectural design of One Island East. I was in a prism with panoramic views of city from above, deserted of all movement and shaded from blistering heat. Still, quite, sterile. Ascending in the pill of an elevator capsule the doors eventually open to a glowing red platform notifying me I’ve arrive at the sky deck. Situated in front of my opening door, so perfectly planted I questioned the reality, was a man agreeably isolated on the cubelike couch overlooking what looked like heaven. Sky, man, sky. We stood worlds apart comfortably in our found solitude above the crowds and concrete structures that congest downtown, together. You can’t help but wonder how many people you gaze down upon when you’re observant from the glass platform. 180 degrees of vision, 180 thousand. No, more. 1 million. Easily, 1 million. 2 million. Half of 7 million. Millions of individuals in peripheral vision. Both humbling and terrifying.
Over time I began to enjoy the soundtrack of lonesome traveling. White noise of bustling engines and murmurs of a language I’ll never know. Networking webs became a nightmare: the source of anxiety. Comfort zones disappeared. My path was a jagged line. My mind: a mess. Plans and motivations changed with every blurred face passing by on a subway car. “If this woman brushes her eyebrow I’ll take the train east.” “When the train unloads, I’ll exit with the others but I’ll wander in the opposite direction.” The serendipitous detailings of how others moved in their habitat motivated my movements and without fail. The journey was better experienced alone. When I noticed this in myself I began to notice it in others. The answer to Elaine’s question was surfacing. Every lonely excursion was scraping away to what would define my connection to Hong Kong. It was the unexpected, beautiful, quiet white noise of the found solitude in the world’s most dense metropolis. People turn to the city streets for their peace and quiet. Unrelated strangers share their company with one another, undisturbed, unobtrusive, but accompanied. The sought after solitude by the people of Hong Kong and I--the very thing that separated us--was the very thing that connected us. Our worlds will forever be apart but in our untogetherness I found a security I had not known could ever live inside of me.
UNTOGETHER, the essay, first appeared in Habitat Magazine Winter 2015.
Back to WORDS