Finding Kuan Yin

My first day in Hong Kong was spent trying to get to a temple where I could learn to pray with Buddhist monks.  I realize that this isn’t usually what people do when they arrive at  one of the worlds most prolific shopping Mecca’s – but nothing in the world could have convinced me that shopping was a better idea than praying while my whole being was adjusting from living on a farm to being in the world’s most populated urban center.

I had an idyllic picture in my head – of entering a quiet dark place with a line up of happy looking meditating monks. I would quietly sit with them and enter some blissful state of nirvana.  That’s where i wanted to go.

But the universe seemed to have very different plans for me – in fact no outcome could have been more opposite to my expectations.

Looking at my maps, I could see there were many temples within a reasonable distance from our hotel in Kowloon. I asked the front desk of our hotel for help, and the girl, when I told her I wanted to “go pray” inspected me with a quick ironic glance up and down my face and sent me with a wry smile to her co-worker – obviously someone more enthusiastic about temples and “that stuff” as she puts it.

I showed him where I thought I wanted to go but he quickly redirected me to a temple off of the metro line –

“Very easy to get there”, he said with an assured smile.  I noticed that the Wong Tai Sin Temple was named the same as the metro station to get there – so I figure there is a good chance I would find it if I could just figure out how to get to the actual metro station.

Due to the sheer number of people living in Hong Kong the public transit system has been perfected and streamlined.  I found the metro quite easily with help from my trusty GPS  who only failed once or twice, and a kind local lady who saw me turn around with a map in my hands looking exceptionally lost. One thing to say about Hong Kong is that there is never a lack of people who are ready and willing to help out a lost looking stranger, and there seems to be a genuine pride in having rendered someone assistance.

To say the metro was crowded would be an epic understatement.  I was crammed onto a moving train with 5000 of my fellow humans, and being the last one on I was lucky enough to have my face basically squished  up against the window in the door. It gives new meaning to the adage “he who hesitates is lost” – or suffocated.

“No holding door sides” a notice said right under my nose.

So I grabbed anything I could when the train jarred to a stop or start,  which included the poor girl standing beside me and her knapsack.  I notice right away that people who live in hugely crowded cities have a distinctly different sense of personal space then lets say, a Canadian like me who live on a farm in wide open fields and only goes into the city twice a year.  There were times I have to admit where I really felt like a bit of a country bumpkin. My clothes were not fancy, my shoes looked more like what the garbage collectors wear, and my purse screamed hippie-freak!  thanks to my good friend back home who bought me a gift that would have the effect of reminding me who I am even when nothing around me looked even a bit familiar.

The trip to Wong Tai Sin Temple involved me having to switch metros half way there.  I am pleased to report I only got a little lost, with the help of the trusty “customer service” counters and some work on my personal patience which was at an all time low. Eventually I  found myself at the stop Wong Tai Sin Temple stop and I leaped from the anchovy can of a train into the bright sunlight.

The first person I met was a delightful toothless old lady selling “joss sticks” at the entrance to the temple.  “Joss” is like incense but more for ritual appeals to the Gods in Taoist temples, I learned afterwards. She was charging ten Hong Kong Dollars for a bundle of nine sticks – which equates to about sixteen cents Canadian.  I handed her five dollars Australian (equal probably to a week’s work) and all the change I could hand over.  She was soon saying:

“…no no fine…good”,  But I could see she was happy with her take for the day and I was happy to share with her.

Next, in my desire to avoid  the other loud joss sellers who had focused on getting my attention (white tourist in a sea of Asian faces), I was rescued by a sweet  Chinese man who had lived in Calgary and had since moved back to Hong Kong.  He felt a kinship with me when he overheard me speaking loudly to the joss sellers.

The seller, Richard was loud and “carnival like”, standing beside the 100 foot or so long trough of fire that was constantly burning allowing prayers and revellers alike to spark up their joss and go make their offering.

“AH you American right?” the obnoxious Joss seller says to me smiling.

” I am not! I am Canadian”, I say in such an indignant tone, significantly more loudly than any Chinese woman would have said anything. John the kindly Calgarian-Chinese man overheard my exclamation.

“Oh, I am from Canada too”, he was already shaking my hand as he exclaimed this in a thick Cantonese accent.

“Really?” I smile grateful to have my impending outburst towards the carnival guy curtailed. Obviously my plan for serenity and happy little peaceful chanting monks was officially in the toilet.

John and his sweet quiet wife who never spoke a word but smiled often and encouragingly kindly offered to show me around the temple and teach me “how to pray”.

I didn’t know what kind of temple I was in at the time,  and even when I was staring at all of the gods and deities represented by various animal statues, kneeling monks, dead emperors and other people who had served the emperor loyally, faithfully or courageously, I couldn’t quite understand what I was seeing.  Continuing into the temple, I decided to just keep my eyes open and do what others did.  In front of the temple, standing tall and beautiful with all its red colours and gold filigree archways were two lions. Following what the hoards and masses of temple attendees were doing, I watched as they each took a moment to put their hand on the lions, patting them a little for luck, or a wish I suspected.  I put my hand on the lion too – hoping something magical would happen. It was cold and smooth smiling widely at me with some sort of round ball in its mouth.

Inside the temple was semi-circle of 9 foot tall bronze animal statues – The Horse, Ox, Goat, Pig, Monkey, Rat, Rabbit – all the animals of the Chinese zodiac, each holding an element like fire, or a spear, for protection.   The horse felt like it was for me – a fire horse smiling proudly holding a big flame in its right hand. I am a fire horse too – born in 1966 during a time when the Chinese superstitiously  refrained more than normal from having children for a period because no one wanted to have a female “fire horse” – too much personality, too hard-headed.   Go figure? I wasn’t sure if it was ok to take a picture with them – I remember in Africa people thinking a photo stole the soul of things – so I took two quickly.

I went up the temple stairs into the main area where you make a plea to whichever god fits what you need at the time – money, health. Family, success, sex, love – they are all there.

I took the instructions of my inadvertent teacher john and burnt the “joss” – the woodsy smelling thick incense that we are given to burn at the particular God you want to ask a particular deity for. John told me hurriedly –

“Now you pray!  – pray for what you want. You go now.!” I felt like I should dash into some penitent position – my inner lingering Catholicism knocking on the door. And really until that moment I had not considered “what” I would pray for.  I wanted to ask John what to say if you

Have nothing you want to pray for – but I realized quickly how insane this must sound to someone who has probably experienced so much “lack” in his life.  What did I knowe about being hungry or supporting a family by doing  a job you might hate, working in one of those indescribably inhumane chinese factories maybe. The possibilities were endless so I stayed quiet.

“Quickly – what do you want?”

No time to answer…

“OK you pray for your family ok? Now go, pray ask for what you want now you go ask…”

He shows me how to place the joss sticks in a long rectangular incense box which is situated in front of a temple with various Gods/previous politicians or dead governmental administrators  and emperors.  When the Chinese pray to their ancestors – they pray literally to their ancestors. It is not uncommon for a politician – for example a minister of finance that was efficient with the countries money – to have a golden statues in his likeness made so that the people can bring their requests for money for example, or health or wellness for their families. These are all “deities” that the people in this place feel can help them in times of trouble, some mythical, some historical figures.  In fact the Wong Tai Sin temple is particularly well-known for being powerfully connected and  somehow “superior” in granting more wishes and prayers than any other.

Prayer in the Wong Tai Sin Temple is a speedy business…and the gods are treated like so a little like Santa Clause:

“Now – you go pray for what you want to pray for what you want!”.

All around me I hear a shaking noise, people kneeling down behind the Joss stick  holder shaking cups filled with long bamboo sticks.  John shows me where to get my own bamboo cup and tells me to find a cushion and kneel and….

“shake shake shake – until one of them falls out. You shake now!”, his wife smiles widely at me encouraging me to listen. I shake  with my head bowed reverently. I feel like a catholic in the middle of all these shakers, while inside actually having a conversation with God –

“ok make this good…”

Plop – out comes a stick and number happens to be 26 –

“Come now – we go see the soothsayer” – John takes my hand practically dragging me to my feet  to return the cup of sticks to the stick lady’s booth.  I say a quick “Che Che” (thank you) and am pulled away by the excited stranger.

In front of me is a sign clearly marked “Soothsayer”…I have only ever heard of “soothsayer” or fortune-teller, in the books I read about king Arthur and Merlin. And there indeed behind the temple guards and the oracles and god’s are soothsayers –  a long row of women – no men I notice – who are awaiting customers to have their numbers interpreted.

Kuan Yin in Royal Repose…

The process of shaking the sticks is called ” Kau Cim” and is related to the oracle Kuan Yin who is akin to a female Buddha, and in her day was a Bodhisattva and Buddhist nun.  In China and Tibet Kuan Yin is revered Goddess of Compassion and Mercy. Her existence, like the Buddha is based on a real person who was said to have lived long ago.  There are many folk tales surrounding her, each one holding the similar facet that she reacts to great cruelty with compassion and love. In fact she is the Chinese equivalent to the heart sutra – or heart chakra. She takes on the karma of others to relieve their pain, suffering and guilt.  Many school of occidental philosophy and the attainment of enlightenment are related to someone “becoming as Quan Yin” if they deepens their meditation practice continuously. She is also knows as Tara in Tibettan Buddhism. Since His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the representative of compassionate being in this life’s incarnation, this must also mean that he is the incarnation of  Kuan Yin. I suspect that that this is a major cause of his banishment from his homeland – the Chinese government knows very well that they could not continue to survive and control the people if someone is perceived as more powerful and authoritative than they are. Communism is far too weak and fickle a political system for such a thing. In all though, It seems that each of the many varied schools of Buddhism have a version of  Kuan Yin which always boils down to love and compassion – and the powerful presence of the divine feminine as Kuan Yin is very often portrayed as a woman. The Sutras of Buddhism are meant to teach the individual how to attain such a level of compassion – to attain “Kuan Yin”hood.

John, the Calgarian-Chinese man still clasping my hand, brings me to the first soothsayer he sees along the long row of many. They have a quick discussion in Cantonese and I notice she looks annoyed and harried.  I pay her the required 40 Hong Kong dollars and she hands him a piece of paper grunting something with my “26” fortune on it. He explains that it is a kind of poem, and then quickly add that it says I should not stay away form my family too long or they will be lonely. I notice he hasn’t even looked at the paper yet. I wonder if this is the Chinese way of giving what he thinks is sound fatherly advice.  I could see that he didn’t understand my children were all grown and no longer needed me so I took his actions and words understanding his kind intention – but there were no men in those booths that I saw – and i imagined that these “poems” were not meant to be interpreted by men- and he knew it. He pushed the paper into my hand and said a quick good bye, I thanked him as he dashed off and melted into the crowd with his wife.

I almost leave but decide to walk slowly around again and see if I can find the peacefulness in this chaos – surely a spiritual feeling must be hiding here somewhere…it was a temple after all!

I find myself again on the rows of soothsayers and my eyes connect with a young women who has her mother sitting behind her smiling sweetly.

She interrupts her reading and looks at me straight in the face –

“You come here next”, it wasn’t a question – it was a statement, and I felt like maybe she had something to tell me.

I pay for another reading, but now I ask her to do my palm as well.  She tells me that my left hand is for a reading regarding my life before 30 and my right hand after.  She begins, saying my career life has “not been so good” before thirty, but soon it will be very very good – better than I could have imagined.

She sees my kids – the biological ones, in my hand.  Then says I have many more children, I am mother to many – Yup…right on.

Her name is Jennifer I see on her card, and I smile – why do all these obviously non-english people have english names” I wonder.  British rule I suppose – easier to pronounce I expect.

And the reading gets good now:

“You have too strong personality!” Jennifer insists. “You must be softer, be softer for your husband.  You must not speak so loudly.  More patience to make his work go well”.

The words echoed in my head. I must have looked dumbfounded because she kept asking

“You understand ok?”, her english was  great – I consoled her.

You must be quieter, softer – more patient…she keeps repeating.

I finally cut in and say:

“I’m not sure how to explain this to you – but I will never be quieter, nor softer and probably will always have no patience. That’s just me.”  and I smile as sweetly giving her a “don’t you know who I am” look – but you know, everyone has some form of “invisibility” meltdown – where you don’t  quite know who you are in the context of a completely alien environment so you end up saying stupid things…

I try to make it more “chinese friendly” –

“Maybe my energy is Yang and his energy is yin? But it works like this for us…” now I’m babbling…

She says frowning,

“You are married to woman?” she replies curious but unperturbed. I has seen allot of women openly gay in Hong Kong, holding hands even more at ease than I see at home.  But now I thought of my husband who would have cried laughing.

“No, he is a man – but does not need me to be different than what I am – and what I am is NOT soft. Where I come from women can be strong.”

She ignores this.

“AH,” she says now a little confused and simply continues as if I have not really said anything…

“OK then – you be softer now ok? If not for husband then on YOU ok?  You too hard too hard in your mind on YOU. Husband he be ok then…”

I smile.

OK now you’re getting it.

My temple experience was amazing – not at all what I pictured – way better than what I could ever have imagined. However, I can tell you that when I returned to our hotel in the busy noisy, bustling moving city, it was THEN that I experienced the peacefulness that I thought I needed to go to a temple to find. In that high up room overlooking the unstoppable world below, I felt a quiet bliss. And I sat, like I would have with those imaginary happy little monks in the humming temple and I found my inside quiet that had been with me all along.

WICKED BEAUTY

Dawn breaks slowly in Australia. At around 6am it appears in a succession of silences broken by bird song, screeches and warbles alerting all the living things to the impending day.  The ocean, only a kilometer away, provides a constant gentle roaring – an auditory background, like big deep breaths by the Great Mother Herself.  In the mist of the morning I can imagine myself as something cradled deep within her, and I feel safe and fine. There is a wildness everywhere you go – even in the cities, and everywhere I look I am reminded that nature has its own way; like the cockatoos that have adapted to the city and float like giant yellow and white clouds between buildings early in the morning. Or like yesterday when I saw a sea gull on the beach who had only one leg.  I was surprised at the intensity of my sadness for this bird – maybe it had to do with the connection we feel here? Somehow I related to him – like any of us could relate to a determined one legged bird.

But Australia is a wild place – and fairness is really not part of the deal.

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In such contrast, it is the most beautiful and the most wicked of all places on the earth.  In terms of Ying and Yang, everything about Australia demonstrates these diametrical opposites.   The first thing I have become aware of here is that even the locals don’t take mother nature for granted. They take things seriously – like if you tell them you have discovered a giant spider that has survived swimming in your pool all day – they come over, and want to see.  There are serious spiders here and snakes and weather.  I was even warned against the birds and that I should not “commune” with the magpie because they were territorial and would peck out my eyes.  But this does not stop me from having frequent conversations with the local magpies that I am coming to know in my back yard.  They are intense in their energy and unimaginably beautiful with their stark black and white feathers. \some of them are as big as a small dog, and when I play music in the back yard I feel like a rock star because they come from all over, and curious about my recording device spend time making funny noises and poking at it, while providing perfect background chorus. But these birds are not aggressive – I have also seen that the very smallest of the birds can push a magpie off their food.  They are big wimps in the face of their feathered  cousins.  And yet sports stores sell helmets with long funny looking spikes  for bikers who travel too close to Magpie nests in the fall and winter (June through august) because the males are known to attack anyone within 50 feet of their nest, and they can

“peck right into your skull they will…”

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Everyone who arrives in Australia wants to know what to do if they are confronted with a giant man eating spider or poisonous snake. So, the second most important saying you’ll want to pay attention to in Australia is:

“Just don’t poke it”.

Sounds good to me mate.

Things are straight forward here – it either IS or it IS’T. There is an absence of conversational beating around the bush that we employ in the more American culture.  Here – things are what they are. Say what you mean and mean what you say.  And if you ask someone a favour the response is inevitably –

“No worries Mate”,

By the way – Koalas look like this because they get high eating the gum of the tree. Buddy here is completely buzzed and will wake with munchies – which is why they can also be a little grouchy.

And that’s true too.  In Australia, you are invited to put your worries away and live each second in its incredible wicked beauty.

The center of Australia is basically a big dry pot of sand, that gets bigger and bigger each year because you can’t plant in it, and roots are what keep soil on top with minerals and hydration able to sustain plant life.  Without plants – the top soil blows away with the wind and keeps eating away at the land around it until everything is a desert.

You see this happening in Africa, especially if you compare maps from twenty years ago to today, the change in the desert is incredibly frightening. Australia however, has been putting actively enforcing eco-protection measures and land protection for a long time.  It seems everywhere you go there is another national park with magnificent beauty all alive and open to anyone who cares to spend time in it.  You can easily within the same day be at the beach, in the desert and in the rainforest.  You can drive up to the mountains and go skiing, and you can be in a city in time for dinner.

The Future…

Because of rapid and irresponsible industrial development in Asia and the natural current of winds, Australia’s ozone layer has been effectively destroyed.  You don’t really understand how important the ozone layer is, until you don’t have one.

The first time I came here I mistakenly did not heed the  advice to wear sunscreen because I thought my well worn skin could take anything after Africa. And frankly being jet lagged and time confused didn’t help my cause.  I went out my first morning at 11 am to the beach for two hours and returned with second degree burns on my shoulders.  I have never seen a sun so BRIGHT – most children wear sunglasses as young as three years old to protect their eyes. It is a very different looking sky from what we have back home.

I feel very fortunate to be able to have seen Australia in the summer time – at the height of the sun – and also to be living in the autumn and winter. I wasn;t sure what to expect and our first few days spent here were the worst weather I (or even many of the locals) have ever seen. Every day 50km winds dangerously whipping palm trees this way and that, rain dousing the roads in misty sheets at unforeseeable times.  Contrastingly,  people traipsing about in shorts and tee-shirts or cycling through the maelstrom because they seem to be in denial that it is only seven degrees out.  Sometimes the dogs better dressed than their humans. But that is Australia.

The real land of ying and yang – each day opposite to the one before and SO quickly changing you can’t keep up.  There is a favourite saying in these parts –

“Don’t like the weather in Melbourne? Just wait a minute…”

And it is true – the weather never stays the same for very long. In a way it seems the winter differs psychologically here, not only because it is warmer, but because you know you don’t have to settle into the “horrible weather” daze of -40 degree winters that keep you trapped inside your house staring at the same four walls for 6 months.  In Australia, when the bad weather comes, maybe the streets quiet down from tourists who prefer to summers of +30, but they come alive with locals venturing out into the safety of streets not crowded with confused drivers from Asia and America trying to figure out how to drive on the wrong side of the road, and on the wrong side of a rental car.

I have to admit that I often experience some anxiety, especially on the overhanging cliffs of the Great Ocean drive when I see an obvious tourist blasting down the roads in Australia.  I was saddened but not surprised to read that car accidents are now the number one cause of death in China, resulting in over 2500 deaths a month!  That makes Quebec highways look tranquil.  But whether we are American, Canadian, European or Asian – a tourist is a tourist – and we are all obviously lost.

That’s my pet peeve – I don’t like looking lost and I certainly never want to look like a tourist! Its a strange mentality I have acquired over so many years of travelling through different countries and experiences.  Being a tourist leaves you in the out – you don’t find out where the best restaurant is (where locals eat) and places to hang out. They will tell you the standard “tourist spots”, which rarely if ever have anything to do with authentic culture in the place where you are at.  So the goal is to “fit in and belong” to a place right away.

No matter where we go, for example, my first desire is always to see the grocery store.  If you know what people eat, then you learn allot about them right away.  I have bought food in some amazing places – French Town in Honduras where we had to be guarded by a guy with a big machine gun so we wouldnty get robbed of our food and money as we exited the store.  In Guinea where the food container only came once a month or six weeks across the ocean and you had to stand in long line ups to get even the smallest comfort like shampoo and soap from home. Arguably though I have to say – grocery shopping in Australia brought me to a whole new level of experience.  For example, there is a remarkable and immediately noticeable absence of American products. Like there are none. Not even Tylenol – here it’s called Panadol and it has nothing to do with Tylenol. Everything looks different,  packaging seems to be more simple and even the commercials on TV are more basic.  Not as “high tech” and manipulative as the ones developed for teh European and North American markets.   And because Australia and New Zealand are a traditional cattle and sheep farming culture, there is allot of cheap beef and lamb on the shelves. It seems like  New Zealand lamb, which is very popular also in north America is everywhere.   Eggs are clearly indicated whether or not the chickens are cage raised or free range. I like that. Its more expensive for the free range eggs, but I like eating happy food. The bread is expensive and big – except for the amazing Turkish bread we found, seeded with sesame and poppy seeds like a soft delicious Ciabatta.

As a Canadian I find discovering the food and becoming accustomed to life in Australia,  very easy.  We do allot of the same things, we enjoy similar cultural mannerisms.  When asked by a local man what the difference was between an me and a  person from the United States I was able to answer him quickly and easily:

“Well, if you bump into me, I will apologize”, we had a good laugh because somehow that made perfect sense.  We share a similar gentleness as well with our Australian cousins that I am coming to appreciate not only in the people I meet here, but in the ones I have left back home.

There is still so much to learn.

Lesson 1- Being Remembered: Montreal to Hong Kong Pt.1

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There was no joy in my heart as we left Montreal for Hong Kong late Tuesday afternoon. Just a closed eyed fist clenching oblivion, like when I was a little girl on a roller coaster, and I couldn’t wait to get on the ride, and then once on, I just wanted to scary parts to be over.

When you are uprooting everything you know, love and understand to move across the world, you can’t really afford to think about it too much – you just do the next thing that is right under your foot, not even looking much past your toes.  My friend Jacques, while he was dying of cancer taught me about “doing the next right thing”. It’s a tactic I use in my head to keep myself from imploding emotionally.

So –  leave at night – get through the line ups – get on the plane – don’t look out the window cause I’ll cry – let the plane take off (what’s the alternative?) – up in the air…close your eyes.

Its a one hour flight from Montreal to Toronto, then 15 from our connection to Hong Kong. Ouch.

Arriving in Toronto at 11:30 in a sleepy airport with only a few hundred Asian travellers, closed stores and dark hallways was a part of airport life I had not yet seen. Like a city tucked in for the night – I felt like a trespasser.

At the time I thought that the terminal for Cathay Airlines flight to Hong Kong had more Asian people in one single space than I had seen – in a long time.  Everything about Asian cultures to me seems crowded.   I had already been to China, the first year they opened to tourists…it was a very different place then.  I was very young, maybe 15, and my father was the only parent who joined us on a high-school field trip. It’s one of my favourite memories with him, because he was the only parent who came and we had such a terrific time together.   My school mates in the private international boarding school I attended were mostly from all over the world, didn’t get to see their parents very much so my dad was “the cool dad”. He would arrive at school with a trunk full of groceries and delicious things for all of us, he took us out for dinners and “real food” (not mystery meat form the cafeteria)  He attended my soccer games, called, wrote me letters, an for my 16th birthday rented two school busses and surprised me by secretly bussing half my school to another town for a party in a beautiful hotel restaurant. I think I was abit the envy of the other kids, but he loved all of us, and they felt it.

During our time in Asia, dad had become very good friends with my soccer coach and our school’s chemistry teacher Mr. Chen.  I remembered Mr. Chen during my flight; patient, kind and probably the only teacher that had not had a reason to get incredibly angry with me at some point – I wasn’t exactly the easiest kid in the world. I found them both entering my mind during the long flight; in a fresh way – not the way you think of people so long after they had died and the memories of them have dimmed to a sad grey or some faded sepia that takes the poignancy from the joy of the moments you live with them, and only leaves the sadness of loss. I saw them with a joyful vibrancy that allowed me to relive the happy feeling of the moments without the tugging at my heart.

Now, I saw my father again in  vivid Technicolor – struggling up the great wall of China with me. The Wall had not yet undergone renovations, so the road was broken and  treacherous. He was always dragging his enormous video camera, panting determinedly, recording every moment.   More memories, ones that used to make me cry for longing, now make me smile. I see him again, on a bridge over a pond, in a small village in surrounded by little girls at a Chinese orphanage who saw a “fat silver hair’d man” as a person of affluence and wisdom. “Lucky Buddha!” They called him – I’m sure he loved that more than anything.

He would kneel on the ground and tell them stories in a language they didn’t understand somehow they understood the intention of the story and would watch quietly wide eyed in rapt attention.  I had bought a guitar at a pawn shop in China and we would travel in schools and to children to sing songs – Old MacDonald Had A Farm seems to be a universally known ditty. We even met Dick Clark who joined us for some of this fun.

During our first time in china, Hong Kong was like a break for us.  The New York of Asia – in a time where I cared about what I wore, and enjoyed the vibrancy of night life, music, dancing and fun- Hong Kong had all of that to offer. Because China had only opened it’s doors that first year to tourists, the hotels and places we stayed on the Mainland were abit rough to say the least. Little gangs of cockroaches, scary bed sheets, and there was no chance in hell I was putting bare feet on the ground. Food always seemed to still have a face on it, eye balls as delicacies, and wormy things for breakfast – Hong Kong was a break – it had pizza! I cherished these great memories with my friends in the New York of Asia. I was returning to a place that was once brand new – the Royal Garden Hotel had just opened that long ago year of 1983. Now, 31 years later, it was older – like me- and was undergoing some major renovations – like me.

The flight from Toronto to Hong Kong is 15 hours long. You are in the air without really standing or walking or moving.  My ankles swelled to about 3 times their normal size, and I began to remember stories of a woman about my age dying in mid flight of a pulmonary embolism that had accumulated because of lack of circulation.  Great.

The female flight attendants, John and I noticed, all looked like beautiful dolls. Perfect shiny skin, smiles and sweet faces, gentle and attentive.  I have to say – our North American airlines could take a serious lesson from Asian airlines.  They put us to shame.

The food was delicious, the service was incredible and since there is a TV right in front of your face, there was a plethora of mindless movies to choose from – mostly Asian (no lack of Bruce Lee) and notably (and happily) very little American viewing.  This was my first taste of life without American influence.

For 15 hours we slept, woke, slept. Shifted, stretched, grunted – its like being in a fever – you don’t quite remember the time passing like a foggy haze. My neck cramping head bobbing open one eye position – checking the flight status on the screen – 8 hours left to go. Ugh.  8 hours – a full work day, is the worst part. Its the endless part which seems like an infinite and impossible amount of time when you’re stuck in a tiny 2 foot space squished between your snoring husband and an Asian lady who wont make eye contact with me but keeps putting her head on my shoulder to sleep.

AND SO….My lessons in patience began, and as I would soon come to learn – and certainly patience would be the focus of my time in Hong Kong.

Miraculously the flight ends and we arrive in Hong Kong.  It’s 5:30 in the morning, and still dark over the city.  They have built a new airport – in the late 1990’s, which is the size of a small city.  The old airport was an epic landing – supposed to be the scariest landing in the world between the insanely crowded buildings on Hong Kong Island.  I was grateful for the less freaky landing I must say.

We unfold our bodies, everyone grunting and stretching trying to make a impossible mad dash for the front doors.  The Flight attendants routine “Thank You…Thank You…Thank You….” as we leave the plane. They still look perfect.

We are there for sunrise, and John’s work mate – Rodika and I chat excitedly about all we will see.

This was Hong Kong waking up.

I had no real idea what day it was.  We had left on Tuesday – and now it was Thursday – where did my Wednesday go?   John, I had to remind myself, was here on business and had a meeting later that afternoon. This was our first taste of the “Chinese work ethic” – which is something like “all work and no play all day every day”. Relentlessly hard working people – everything about Hong Kong culture, we were soon to see, is geared towards doing business.

The Royal Gardens was still as beautiful as I remember it. A Center garden atrium, hotel rooms overlook the interior, glass elevators and a piano player every night. Stores inside that I would never shop at – Rolex, Dolce & Gabanna, Versace.   I was happy to see things had not gone downhill since I had been – it felt exciting for me to bring John and his co-worker to a place I knew and remembered with such fondness, allowing me not to feel so displaced from my family.

Because I went to an international school, and thanks to the benefit of social networking, I had been in touch with two old school friends before I left, who had moved back to Hong Kong after high school. We had travelled together during springs  breaks and I really liked these guys, so we arranged lunch and drinks.

I missed dinner the first night with Johnny, only because I didn’t know what day or time it was. He was a sweet friend who I had gone on spring break with to Florida when we were younger.  I had always liked this guy, and when he suggested we get together for drinks that first night, I was excited. I felt like a kid again – going out after 9:30 just for fun.

I met him and his lovely wife Linda downstairs at the RG and we walked a short  ways away to find a small cafe for drinks.  The city was quiet – although stores only close at 11 each night, a store keeper explained to me that the rents were so high they couldn’t afford to close.

We hugged happily like old friends, and right away he says

“Did you know Mr. Chen moved here again?”

My heart exploded. I couldn’t believe it!  Mr. and Mrs. Chen were alive and well! I had assumed he had died I guess because my father was dead – so this felt like such a miracle!  Johnny quickly dials his phone and within seconds the bridge of three decades disappeared and I hear Mr.c’s voice…

“Sir!!!”

“Marie-Josee?” – he was one of the only people that called me by my full name.

I hear his trademark laugh…

“You’re alive!!” I said.

“Well of course I’m alive…” he laughs.

We make excited plans like old friends to meet the next day with his wife and another old student friend.  We will surprised Derek who also had not seen M. C in so many years.

I have to say – my reunions were amazing. Mr, Chen was very sad to hear about my fathers passing – he was one of the only people in the world, I saw that had a real “friendship love: for my dad. Most other people just saw him as a business guy, or politician.  But here – he was a friend, and we talked about things I hadn’t talked about in so long, my heart was exploding with happiness. I felt so at home in this strange foreign place after this meeting.,

R

Mr Chen an his wife took Derek and I to the Kowloon Bowling and Cricket Club, a beautiful private club on the island facing Hong Kong.  I must mention here that Hong Kong is a VERY small city. The most populated city in the world, everything is built very very tall, and on top of each other.  During the day, the streets are nearly impassable for walking.  You are regularly jostled by incoming walkers. Very few regular citizens have cars, public transit is absolutely the only way to go.   But at this place, in the quiet of the club, it was cool and quiet an spacious.

\Just like when I was young, Mr. And Mrs. Chen ordered food for us. Delicious crispy sweet and sour tofu, Mushrooms marinated in something unpronounceable and yummy.

“Remember sir…nothing with a face please”, I smiled at him

“I know, Marie-Josee, I remember you”.

It felt so good to be known and remembered – he felt like family.

He told me I was one of about 20 students that really stayed with him in his mind – I figure because I had a big mouth, but he seemed to remember me with pleasant memories. .  I felt so honoured to be loved by this fine man.

Mrs. Chen and I catch up, share pictures of our children, our grandchildren. How remarkable it was to share these things with them.

I have so much more to tell about Hong Kong, but  that will be for another day. I still need time to process the incredulity of it all. For this entry, I am happy to remember and be remembered by these beautiful people and memories.  The next few days before leaving for Melbourne, I explored Hong Kong deeply.  Remember – I am here on a self proclaimed pilgrimage – I want to understand the world, THE TRUTH – not from the perspective of America, Canada or Europe media, but from my own eyes, my own discernment and my own heart.

So, until next time…greetings from down undah….

Peace.

THIS IS NOT AMERICA…THIS is Hong Kong

“Welcome to Hong Kong” is what the taxi driver said to us as we emerged confused and fundamentally exhausted after a 15 hour flight from Toronto. The first thing we noticed is that there is no end to the airport, I think it must be the most enormous building that has ever been built.

We manage to locate the taxi stand after I had a moment believing we would never ever get out of the building and would be there for our entire trip. My husband says something about Hong Kong being like New York and the driver emphatically says:

“No,no no, not America here., THIS is Hong Kong”, he smiled proudly, and looked at us with a twinkle that belied that he knew something that we didn’t – yet.

Hong Kong airport is the biggest single building complex we have ever seen. Inside it has street names (in Chinese) to let you know how lost you are. Taxis are different colours – red if you want to go into Hong Kong or Kowloon, the island situated across from HK Island, where we are – and for something else.  I didn’t quite understand the thick accented but kindly willing young man who tried to explain the “system” to us. I don’t do well with “systems” I suppose.

The half hour drive to our hotel was well timed – just in time to catch a most spectacularly awakening Hong Kong with a bright red sun breaking over huge misty crested mountains. The mountain ahead of us looks very mysterious, all clouded in morning mist topped by a stunning silhouetted monastery.  I feel my heart beat faster at the thought of all of the temples and beautiful Buddhas I will visit here. It is my ultimate hope to spend a day at a monastery in quiet meditation – not exactly a rockin’ time, but it’s what i need right now.

We are staying at the same hotel I came to the year it opened – many millenia ago with my dad who joined us on a school trip to china. The year i came they had just opened the hotel – around 1983.  This was the first year that China had begun to allow tourists. We spent a week in Hong Kong, at this very hotel. Ironically, this year (2015) they have just fully renovated it because “everything had gotten a little old” – like me I guess. But, if I do say so myself, we are both holding up just fine.   It’s still beautiful, I loved it then and now because it had a piano player in an atrium and balconies that overlooked an interior garden.

I don’t remember the place much – my brain has been through almost 35 years of living since then. But I am ready for the new memories. The ones that we will make this time, with our “older bodies” and our more understanding minds. I dont think I understand the power of China when I was so young; but oh now I do, and I will not waste a minute.

We got to the hotel so early (6 am) no one had checked out yet, so there wasn’t a room available for us.  Which was actually a good thing, since we were able to relax over a delicious breakfast in the hotel, and I have the time to write this 🙂

I got restless so I left my husband and his co-worker at breakfast to take a walk on the quiet still awakening streets – even before even the old man who delivers the news papers had come. I looked at the shop windows – all around us are medicine shops and healing tea houses.  One medicine shop had a bunch of skins hanging in in the store front, all delicately arranged around a giant worm statues.I am still hot on my pursuit of becoming a non-smoker.  each day i slip once or twice – mostly from boredom or sometimes because it feels like the only “normal” thing i have in my life.  I noticed one of the medicine stores claim to cure smokers of this terrible addiction. I figure I’ll either come home a non-smoker – or bald.

Each shop has a small alter for burning incense, bringing good fortune and luck for the day for each merchant. I am loving how easily this complicated culture can so easily mix business and spiritual belief.

Its a weird place for me though – as a person who practices Tibetan Buddhism and loves the teachings of the Dalai Lama – China is a two edged sword. So, my own little attempt at “bringing compassion” to this place that has caused such damage to its Buddhist brothers and sisters in Nepal and Tibet I did an open meditation on the busy road of incoming morning traffic sitting under a tree on the sidewalk quietly breathing peace into this space – just like H.H. would have wanted to do himself.  .

And so – it begins.

PEACE