Dear Yunbo, Unique and Separate, Similar and Same

Dear Yunbo,

I’ve been looking forward to writing to you my whole trip, eagerly holding off until visiting Hong Kong, feeling excited to regale you with stories of the region from which you originated.

One of the first and most important things I realized when arriving in Hong Kong, however, is that it’s not the same as China. I want to make sure I emphasize in writing that I understand Hong Kong is a separate entity–with a unique ethos–than mainland China. Your hometown of Shanghai is in no way equivalent to this other sovereign nation; in fact, I feel embarrassed for my prior ignorance about the distinct differences between the two. The native language in Hong Kong is Cantonese, rather than Mandarin; there is a separate government and authoritative bodies; different currency, cultural expectations and societal priorities.

It was helpful for me to gain some context on the historical background of Hong Kong and China, and the complicated relationship that’s evolved over the years. In many regards, Hong Kong is a part of China, though the residents don’t view it as such. They have a separate government, yes, which is technically a democracy, and they have some degree of authority in realms of jurisdiction. But many projects are funded by mainland China–including public improvement and beautification, and the installation of new highways and train lines connecting China to Hong Kong. In the not-so-distant past (pre-1997), it was the British that were spending their cash on Hong Kong, especially when relations were rocky and they were trying to win approval and regard. But at this point, China has a strong hand into most aspects of the Hong Kong infrastructure, despite the One Country, Two Systems principle. (And what exactly this principle entails may also be in question, given a story that made worldwide news just days ago about China temporarily shutting down the Marriott International website when they listed Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Macau as separate countries on drop-down lists.)

Another quick preface: Yunbo, though Shanghai is only 750 miles from its Southerly counterpart, I am not sure if you have ever even been to Hong Kong! In any case, I am delighted to tell you a bit about its current spirit, right now, as 2018 opens and we usher in the year of the earth dog. There were reminders of this upcoming calendar turn everywhere in Hong Kong: preparations were beginning for Chinese New Year celebrations, and many stores were selling festive, shiny red and gold decorations and the quintessential envelopes.

I want to tell you in particular about a particular alley in central Hong Kong, about a 3-minute walk from our hotel, that doubled as a vibrant wet market during the day. Early mornings, booths were full of fresh fish with fins sparkling–many varieties, some of which I recognized (grouper, yellow croaker, sea bass, tilefish), and others that were new to me. Meat vendors were also out in full force, with dry sausages hanging around the edges of their stalls, encircling fresh chickens and big portions of pigs hanging on proud display. The fruits and vegetables: wow! Variety after variety of greens (Bok Choi, tatsoi, water spinach, morning glory…), long beans and cucumbers, Asian pears and melons and pomelos and all sorts of other citrus. And nestled between all these fresh goods, there were gorgeous spice and herb markets! Some of them seemed solely geared for medicinal purposes (I’ve never seen so many wild-looking dried fungi in my life!), but others were fragrant, herbaceous, perfect for pairing with vegetables or meats or seafood and cooking. All in all, on a walk through, I was surrounded by so many raw ingredients that I longed for a kitchen to cook them in. We could have made such beautiful feasts together, Yunbo, out of ingredients found only within a tiny 2-block proximity!

And I didn’t even mention the prepared foods yet: tiny shops with people slurping up breakfast noodle soups; stalls making dumplings and fresh rice rolls; street food displays that did double-duty, serving the quintessential egg waffle or “eggette” alongside fish balls, grilled tiny octopus and sausages on sticks, sweet corn, and a whole slew of other ingredients that were dipped in fiery sauces and gobbled up by hungry passersby on their way to work or school. If I could only share the smells with you…

When walking in the mornings, I also witnessed a striking sight: many boys, wearing full suits and ties, on their way to school. They weren’t walking or running–rather, they were trotting–down the street. I smiled out of curiosity the first time I saw this, then my smile grew wider and became laced with amazement when I realized that this was a common occurrence! Child after child, on their way to school, dressed to the nines, trotting their way to class. It’s possible that the city of Hong Kong’s population is made up of little boys who are always collectively running late, but I think a more plausible guess has to do with the value placed on timeliness, speed, and productivity, that I’ve mentioned in past letters. After all, walking is much less efficient than trotting 😉

And oh, Yunbo! The dim sum scene was extraordinary. I’ve been to dim sum restaurants around the country–in San Francisco, Houston, Seattle, Portland–but this was a whole different experience. Once again, it’s hard to put such an immersive and stimulating experience into words–one with such rich smells, sights, sounds, tastes. But just picture a raucous, wild mass of about 200 cheerful diners, all talking noisily; many parties (including my parents and I) seated at big round tables with strangers. People crowded around the carts of food whenever they emerged from the kitchen with their trays of steaming contents, jabbing at which selection they wanted and handing their paper slip to the attendant to mark it off. There were constant hot water refills of the tea pots filled with tea leaves, and a never-ending stream of people entering and exiting the room. And despite dim sum being notoriously messy food, there were no napkins on the premises! I will make sure to post a video on Facebook to further depict this amazing, explosive, sensory overload.

Clearly, Hong Kong is distinctly itself, but I imagine the scenes I describe are not so different than ones you remember from early childhood–or ones your parents experience, still, on a regular basis. And my reflections on similarities versus differences have been provocative for me. How different are any of us, really? Let’s take you and me, for example. In many ways, we are extraordinarily unlike each other. We are of different generations. We have different cultural heritages. Our childhoods were radically different: yours in China before you fled in the Cultural Revolution, mine in the Midwest, before we fled (with a very different flavor of urgency…) to Seattle. You are married and have children; I am single and have none. We don’t live in the same city, have the same friends,

And yet, there are ways we are also very much like each other. We share a similar passion, and affinity, for playing and teaching piano. We adore cooking many comparable dishes, and have a deep understanding of how to work recipes, guesstimate quantities, pair spices and herbs and seasonings. We each love (many people and things, including each other) deeply and fully, are loyal and respectful and caring and kind, go for long walks everyday, and speak both the languages of English and music with ease and proficiency. And we have spent thousands of hours together, in deep learning and exploration and education and enjoyment.

And though our connection is, admittedly, special, I’d posit – postulate – that I could find both similarities and differences with nearly everyone I’ve encountered throughout the last month of traveling. This includes time spent in 5 countries and 2 continents; lands rugged and rural and cosmopolitan and urban. I’ve been close to as far from “modern civilization” (200km from any town or village, double that from any cities whatsoever, in the middle of Botswana? Yeah, I’d say that’s “out there”), and as immersed in frenetic city of high-rises and bright lights (Hong Kong is one of the world’s densest cities), as is perhaps possible. I’ve found innumerable unique qualities, everywhere. And also, true real human-ness. Spirit and energy that’s reminiscent. Joy and jubilation and sadness and fear and turmoil and peace. And laughter! And music! Wow. So much to celebrate. And so much that connects us. What I notice seems to depend most on how I orient, and where I’m looking, and if I’m orienting towards acceptance and togetherness rather than fragmentation and tension.

Much love to you, Yunbo. You were there with me while I walked down that alleyway laden with food; while I ate Peking Duck and rode the double-decker public buses down the noisy highways; while I walked through city hall and read about the chamber music festival, dreaming of catching a concert. In many ways, just experiencing Hong Kong has helped me begin to understand your cultural background a little bit more than I had before. Maybe we’ll have to plan a trip together sometime, Yunbo. I would love to journey back to that part of the world with you: to share food, music, so much else that unites and connects us.

PS Check our that amazing fish display on today’s cover photo! Another story for another day…

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