This essay was originally published on February 16, 2018.
Hong Kong is an island that sits in the South China Sea near the mouth of the Pearl River-- China’s third longest. Approaching from the west we flew over Taipei and continued far out into the ocean where hundreds of cargo ships queued up in a shotgun spray pattern across the bay waiting to enter the harbor. It is nighttime and their deck lights sparkle in the water like fireflies in the desert.
Whenever possible, planes prefer to land into the wind. The captain informed us that there were light winds coming from the East, sloping upward and over the peaks of Lantau Island before breezing gently across the airfield. We banked hard to the right and made a U-turn, touching down moments later purposefully and without much fanfare. We taxied off the runway and within a few minutes were parked at the gate. The captain shut down the engines and very matter-of-factly turned off the fasten-seatbelt sign, signaling that our nearly 15-hour trip across the Pacific had finished, and that Jaja was officially in Asia!
It is not possible to overstate the number of Asian people in Asia. I know that sounds obvious and completely ridiculous, but it’s just something you have to experience to understand-- and those who have experienced it will understand. I think the culture here recognizes this, because they seem uniquely adept at moving huge amounts of people very quickly.
Take my experience going through immigration as an example. My flight landed around the same time as four others— so there were roughly a thousand people at immigration. Men and women in baby blue blazers led groups of about a hundred people to different areas in the terminal. They walked so fast that most people had to trot to keep up. (Imagine getting off of a 15 hour flight and then having to run with all of your bags and kids across a terminal the length of a football field. Nobody’s happy about it. Everyone is complaining loudly. Nobody is listening. And everyone complies.)
I joined the first line and had a few hundred people in front of me. When I reached the front, I was met by two older men (65+) in blazers who were firmly and forcefully sorting people into lines to the left and right. They’d vigorously motion in the direction you were expected to go. If you stopped at a line too early they screamed at you from afar to move down. If you weren’t paying attention or not moving fast enough, they grabbed you by the arm or waist and physically moved you along. I was definitely focused!
I was put in a line with an agent who looked to be in his late twenties. He was asking the lady in front of me why there was a mole in her passport photo, but no mole on her face. Before she could say that she had had it removed recently, another agent had arrived to take her to secondary screening. As the lady cleared the space, the agent leaned out of his chair and stretched his hand out through the glass toward me. I didn’t so much give him my passport, as he snatched it from me. We exchanged no words and fewer than 10 seconds later, I was through.
Take this scenario as you will, but the fact is I deplaned and got through immigration in less than 20 minutes.
My friend Andy, who I’m here visiting, met me at the airport. In the Uber he told me some unfortunate news. Because of a recent bus accident that claimed the lives of 19 people and injured 65, Hong Kong’s chief executive placed the entire bus company under investigation and canceled the annual Chinese New Year fireworks show out of respect. (There are also reports that because the driver was driving recklessly, surviving passengers tried to beat him up after the crash!) I was disappointed.
That night— less than two hours after landing— we linked up with some of Andy’s friends and went to the Lunar New Year Market, which is known locally as the Flower Market. Throngs of people flood Victoria Park (Hong Kong’s Central Park) to buy Chinese street food and special holiday desserts. It’s the year of the dog and little canine-themed trinkets and figurines are everywhere. There are vendors selling trees for good luck, and bouquets of flowers for loved ones— it is Valentine’s Day after all. Young people with megaphones rap along to their favorite songs next to salespeople hawking everything from scissors to mops to pieces of wood that are supposed to help you sleep at night. It’s a wonderful, and very human, mishmash of life where you can watch kids delighting in the blissful glow of first loves while munching on grilled dried squid or frozen candied strawberries, all the while holding onto a bag of doggy knickknacks. By the time I went to bed, it was nearly 3am.
I woke up the next morning to the news that a high school in Parkland, FL was shot up by a former student. I know the school. It’s not far from where I went to high school, and it’s much like where you went to high school, which is probably very similar to the other schools that have been shot up since the beginning of this year in the US.
One of the most valuable parts of travel is just bearing witness to how others do things. In Hong Kong, there was a tragedy and we see how they chose to react. What will we choose to do in the face of ours?
February 16, 2018