It’s sticky hot, and dripping sweat often burns my eyes. But I don’t mind. I arrived in Hong Kong this week, and the adrenaline I feel – day in, day out – reminds me of the rush I experienced when I moved to Budapest, way back in 1993: I’m damn lucky to have this kind of adventure.
This time around, more remarkable is that my wife and kids allowed me to do it.
Hong Kong is my foothold into Asia, just as it was in 1841 for Dirk Struan, the seafaring merchant in James Clavell’s “Tai-Pan” – a 700-page epic I began reading on the flight over. In fact, it’s the farthest east I’ve ever been, eclipsing my journo-adventures Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Where those Central Asian countries are more “Russified,” after seven decades of Soviet control, Hong Kong is China. Or perhaps it’s better described as China* – the asterisk to denote the lasting cultural, capitalistic legacy of 150 years of British rule, which only ended in 1997.
At least I’m not alone here. No, I don’t mean the 7 million Hong Kongers crammed onto these rocks and islands. Turns out, of the 100 first-year graduate students I’m teaching at Hong Kong Baptist University, almost all of them hail from mainland China – and also have never been to HK before. In fact, they, like me, don’t speak the language: the Cantonese unique to this region, versus the Mandarin spoken by 1 billion-plus other Chinese. So, as I tell the students with a smile, “We’re in the same boat.”
Other than that, they have a clear advantage. They know the proper way to each jellyfish or chicken feet. They know their personal chopsticks from the table’s communal chopsticks. They also know why it’s acceptable to belch at the table. Me? I’m learning … quickly!