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…
“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.,
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….