Sap

The piped in music at IFC Mall in Hong Kong sounds eerily at times like the smarmy score of an early James Bond movie, where he is at some nameless casino trying to woo an unwitting vixen.

So, whether Bond is seducing an Asian heiress with looks or an Asian branch of Armani is wooing an American beauty with money, the process and result are quite similar.

Waffles. Wasted.

Early morning, or so it seems for Hong Kong.  It’s like New York in that way – a 7:45 a.m. stroll across the mid-levels and the Zoological & Botanical Garden below Robinson Road reveals early walkers amid the spritely fountains, older men and women (in their 80s?) doing tai chi.

 

Struggling a bit with my ten-pound computer bag down the hills and then back up, around Caine Road and then down Old Bailey to the Flying Pan restaurant, named in an uncharacteristically self-mocking way, where I was yesterday for a “Full English” breakfast – which fell short of expectations – but to which I returned today to try the Belgian waffles, which met them.

 

Toward the end of my time, which was quite pleasant, reading the Sunday Morning Post (South China Morning Post) and noticing Robert Plant’s collaboration with Allison Krauss on a new album, which I have just downloaded, there entered a group in their late 20s:  first a man and girl (who couldn’t have been much more than 21, if) and then two more men and another young woman, all obviously finishing out their evening rather than starting their day, since the Flying Pan is open 24/7.  The girls were American, the men British.  Their still-drunken laughter and sucking the attention of the room toward their epicenter broke the Sunday peace with Saturday night raucousness.  It was an assault by the underbelly of western culture.  I suppose it would have been palatable if it were a scene from Hemingway, or Fitzgerald.  But it was more like Martin Amis.

 

OK.

 

So I sound oh-so-Puritanical.  I realize that.  But hey.  I was in the mood to spend time around the people doing tai chi.  Silently.

 

 

 

photo:  monaz

I skipped the incense

Deciding prior to my trip to Asia that I would take a second day off while here – though I felt the slightest bit guilty for doing so (the Lovely K will chide me for that) because of the cost and trouble to get here and why not work most of the time – I nonetheless knew that today, Saturday, would be another tourist day.  Thursday I went south, to Stanley Market.  Today I ventured northeast, then northwest.

 

Stanley Market is maybe seven kilometers south, as the crane flies, but the #260 bus takes a circuitous route by necessity, showing off break-taking views of Deep Water Bay and Repulse Bay near Wong Chuk Hang and Chung Hom Kok, respectively.

 

Fortunately, the MTR – pronounced MTR-lo in Cantonese (just thought you’d want to know) – goes to where I wanted to go today.

 

Before I got on the MTR to head out of town, I had to get new earbuds for the iPod, as my current set has frayed ear coverings.  Can’t have that.  I knew I wanted to go to Nathan Road in Kowloon, where the hawkers all have cheap electronics, but I knew that my lack of haggling prowess, demonstrated so elegantly in Stanley Market, was potentially deleterious to my budget.  Nevertheless, I walked several blocks to the north, scoping by sidelong glance the various stores to see who had prices showing (“watch out for unmarked products” cried an insider website, 12hk.com), and who generally had a clean, well-run store.

 

I doubled back to one I saw near the beginning.  I went in.  “Jo san” was exchanged, and I indicated that I needed new ear buds.  The man showed me a range of types and brands, one box looking like it had been displayed through a dust and grime storm some fifty years before (that worried me), and one set that he said cost about HK$1000 (about US$128).  I finally settled on a pair of Sonys, with lime green accents.

 

“350 dollars.”  About US$45.

 

I gave him a pained look.  Like, Dude, you just ran over my foot with your motorcycle.

 

“Oooh.  I didn’t want to pay that much.”  I placed the package down on the glass counter with an air of finality.  Finality, like, OK, here I stand, and there I walk…but I could be convinced otherwise.  Try me.

 

He came back, “How much you want to pay.”  I took up his calculator and toyed with the keypad, putting in 350 and dividing by 7.8 to see if my pained look was really painful enough.

 

“265,” he said, while I was typing.  This was about US$34.  I kept typing.

 

“OK.  And I will try them here and if I don’t like, I get my money back, right?”

 

“Yes.”

 

I felt that I had had some small victory.  So what if they were manufactured in Bangladesh for 50 cents and he bought them wholesale for two dollars.  I got a 25% discount.  That was good enough for me.

 

£

 

First tourist stop was Che Kung Temple, 10 km to the north of the central district of HK, accessible for the grand total of about US$2.50 on two different lines.

 

The century-old temple is dedicated to a Sung dynasty general who was deified for his devotion to the villagers of Tin Sam.  Apparently, he miraculously cured a plague and also miraculously brought many people good luck, or so said the plaque outside the temple entrance, where people greet you with happy a “Jo san!” in front of their vendor stands where you are supposed to buy incense before going in.  I skipped that step.

 

Inside the courtyard, which preceded the altar, there are large brass bowls with sand into which you place your 2-foot long incense and bow and pray.  I skipped that step, too.

 

Once inside the temple, you face a 30-foot high golden Buddha whose gaze down on you feels intimidating, like maybe you shouldn’t have skipped those steps.  People stopped in front and stood, bringing hands into a silent clap position in front of their noses, and prayed.  I also skipped that step.

 

Behind and to one side of the Buddha statue were five tables with two chairs in front of each.  One table was staffed with an older man who was counseling a young couple.  He was doing all the talking.

 

The feel of the temple reminded me of many Catholic churches in Italy and France.

 

Once back on the MTR, I wrote this poem in my Moleskine:

 

Angry Buddha statue

towering

over me

 

points me to the

God

Who stooped to wash

my feet.

 

I couldn’t help but think of the marked contrast between Buddhism and gospel Christianity:  fear and distance versus love and intimacy.  Otherness and cold separation versus God-with-us and humility.  Sorry if that pisses some of you off; I’m just calling it like I see it.

 

–

 

Second stop.

 

Took the MTR back south to the Tai Wai station to transfer lines.  I wanted to go the Sheung Shui station out in the countryside, about 23 km north.  I overshot the nature preserve I intended to go to and wound up in Paramus, New Jersey, on steroids.

 

Now, I must tell you, Dear Reader, that the train ride out was quite lovely.  We went by Tolo Harbour to the east of us, a pleasant stretch of water surrounded by hills up to 700 meters high.  The people-watching on the ride itself was fun, too, which is the same reason I like riding the NYC subway.  Shing Mun Country Park, which is where I intended to go, was accessible with the Tsuen Wan line to the south.  In any event, I ended up about 5 km south of Shenzhen, with a population of eight million and one of the fastest growing cities in the world.

 

Not exactly a bird sanctuary.

 

So, it was late morning and I was ready for lunch, and, I admit, I just had to:  McDonald’s.  I had to try it halfway ‘round the world, if just to say I did.  I queued up behind an army of grandmothers and schoolchildren, hungry for their chicken nuggets or “Shogun Burgers,” a regional combo meal choice not widely available in the States.

 

I got a Big Mac meal for the equivalent of US$3.31.  And I didn’t even have to haggle.

 

I walked around the mall – c’mon, this is Paramus…you think they didn’t have a mall there?! – and went into a sneaker store just to look around.  The salespeople, all under 10 years old, eyed me greedily with my wallet full of American dollars, which are currently as weak against the eastern currencies as a noodle against a bamboo shoot.

 

(By the way, this is worth a digression.  Downtown, when work is done on office buildings, the scaffolding erected is made from bamboo.  Not like bamboo that is processed.  Just plain old dried out bamboo, lashed together, some as high as 40 stories.  Couldn’t believe it.  Apparently, it’s as strong as steel…but that would mean that…  Never mind.)

 

In the mall going down the escalator, I saw a 3-year-old boy refuse to hold his grandfather’s hand.  He wanted to stand on his own while riding.  Same in any language, folks.

 

Back on the MTR-lo to go back to Hong Kong Island.

 

In the MTR, which is one long connected tube, so you can ostensibly see everyone sitting some five or seven cars down, they have TV screens every so often.  I was cranking the Cars’ first album on my iPod and enjoying my new haggled-down-yet-still-too-expensive earbuds when the news on the screen showed a 50-year-old woman from the Sichuan Province, where the earthquake’s epicenter was.

 

She was looking at a piece of paper with rows of neatly typed characters on it, apparently a list of the dead.  Her face was in profile, her lips parted slightly.  Her eyes followed the list down, her left forefinger guiding her gaze.  Row by row.  Slowly.

 

The next shot was of two men holding her by each arm, supporting her unsteady gait.  Her face was reddened, her gaze set ahead.

 

Unfocused.

 

 

 

photo:  FDB Graphics

Taai gwai laa!!!

Not until I had been in Hong Kong a full 72 hours did I feel even halfway normal.  That was yesterday.  Today I sit in the ubiquitous locus of international coffee and social civilization, the Starbucks conveniently located near the Island Shangri-La Hotel, whose wireless service for guests I have tapped – not hacked – into.  I read the “Agreement,” which had nothing about Use By Registered Guests Only, but rather called for my willingness to be subject to the Laws of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region should I transgress any of the regulations that I possibly skimmed over as I was letting Dierks Bentley blast through my iPod and wait to see Ironman with Robert Downey Jr. in about 90 minutes.

 

This morning I took bus #260 from Exchange Square over to the south side of Hong Kong Island to Stanley Market.  I somewhat expected a sprawling sea of vendors with whom I would have to haggle prices – using my sparse but carefully practiced tai haa (just looking), gay daw chin (how much is it) and taai gwai laa (it’s too expensive).  That last one I had practiced with a little New York attitude.  Like, Try me, buster…I’m walking away.

 

It was much smaller.

 

Yet, as I bought some cool things for the boys, for the Lovely K, and for my brother and sister-in-law, I encountered people who had dealt with many before me who, like me, had practiced only enough Cantonese to appear fully like the pushovers they were.

 

Now, there are a couple Texans in my life who could haggle in this situation.  No taai gwai laa would they employ…no, they’d simply open up a can of English whoop-a#@ and proceed to get 10, 25, maybe 35% off.  My new friend at Goldman Sachs Hong Kong, Jovi, told me to make sure to bargain down the price at least 50%.  This is why he works for Goldman, and I professionally beg for money.  There is a divinely structured order to the world, you see, and we both – no we all, including the Stanley Market vendors – fall into place in it.

 

One vendor’s daughter, who was ringing me up for my purchases, started chatting with me.  She pulled a jade Buddha pendant on a necklace away from her chest out into the fluorescent light of their stall and started talking about how she, her mother and “Buddha-san father” went into China to help people suffering from the “terrible earth shaking in Sichuan.”  She told me she was a vegetarian but not an angel but also believed that Jesus Christ, like the Buddha, would sweep all the evil away, but did I eat beef? she asked, no no no, don’t do that, please, because look at the horses, look at their eyes, they look so kind in front of the cart, why don’t you pray for them, and look at the oxen in the fields, they eat only grass and they are so much stronger than man, they don’t need to eat meat so you shouldn’t eat them.

 

I was losing the battle with this herbivore and couldn’t find a way to work in Ben Franklin’s oh-so-Western epiphany when he cut open a fish and saw another fish in its interior and exclaimed in his Autobiography, “If they main’t eat each other, then why main’t I eat them?”

 

I was still swirling with this gal’s theology and also her crusade to keep me from eating the ham and linguine that I was to consume in about 15 minutes – she lost that one…HAH! – but I tell you what:

 

I paid full price for all that I bought.

 

And they smiled as I walked away, a bit shell-shocked by these gentle people who have survived invaders for 5,000 years.

 

 

 

photo:  patra

Looking through the mirror

In the mornings after I’ve dropped off the boys at school, as I’m crossing Broadway and 84th – my mind and iPod set to Destination Subway and the downtown #1 train toward work – he’s sitting there on a bench in the median of the avenue, facing south, downtown:  A man, sitting within a large amount of unstable flesh as if he’d been poured into a 7-foot oval cake pan and left uncooked.

 

His skin is dark brown; his eyes are disarmingly sharp as they spot me looking back at him.  Like an oversized Ewok from the last Star Wars movie, those eyes piercing.  And somewhat innocent, but ready to fight.  Brown and grey raggy clothes are draped over his round shoulders and hang down the front of his body like sheets over furniture to be kept free of dust during the off-season when the family’s away.  An unlit cigar butt projects from his mouth.  It looks the same length today as yesterday.  There are hundreds, it seems, used paper matches on the hexagonal concrete tile walk in front of him and around him.  I’m not sure if they’re his or not.  I wonder why they don’t get swept up.  His presence is not intrusive but neither is it easily dismissed.  He causes me to think about him.

 

I wonder what it’s like to be him.

 

In our inane way of distributing humanity into different groups, let me continue the madness by saying there are really three groups of suffering people.  First there are people who suffer but whose lives continue on relatively unscathed.  They either have enough money, or enough of a support system, that they can carry on their lives with little to no interruption in their schedules or habits or even to an extent their dreams, and their suffering – whether self-imposed or not – goes largely unnoticed, because it largely does not intrude on anyone else.  This is the vast majority of suffering people.  Some of them medicate their suffering with a substance, and their friends and family enable them, and their suffering is seen as almost romantic.  This group ranges from the eccentric billionaire child to the starving artist in New York City.

 

Second there are people whose suffering is more visible and whose support network is tenuous and often ad hoc.  These people are in and out of AA rooms and in- and out-patient rehab centers.  They have friends, but they are often friends who, too, are in and out of treatment facilities and programs.  They have family who are not always close, and who are not always caring about their condition.  Sometimes they’re there for them, sometimes not.  These people are trying to live and struggling.  They sometimes medicate their suffering with a substance, but it is seen as tragic.  This group is like the 19-year-old meth head I met at AA in Morrow, Georgia, who was in and out of his parents’ home and rehab and kept coming in and out of our meetings.  I never knew what happened to him.

 

Then you have people like this man who I see.  I would not be surprised to learn that the only people who know his name are nuns who operate soup kitchens and nurses who provide emergency care at clinics.  These people are off the grid; they have no system.  Their lives cannot be calibrated using the same scales of relationship and citizenship as the other two groups can.  They sometimes medicate with substance and it is seen as hopeless.  It almost seems as if there is no suffering left to medicate, only sheer existence, and their substance is part of that existence.

 

Yet, he seems undaunted.

 

He is not like the man I see when I get off the subway many evenings.  This second man, standing in front of a Gap store on 86th and Broadway, alternates between shouting and laughing hysterically at the concrete.  His mind is gone.  His name may be known by nuns and nurses, but he doesn’t know that they know his name.  Nor does he care.

 

My man in the median seems to care.  Seems to know something about life and have an opinion.  He watches me.  Follows me with his Ewok eyes as I continue across Broadway, turning up the volume on Dierks Bentley.

 

One day I will talk to him.  I will learn his name.

 

I don’t know which day.

 

 

photo:  tourlesnomssontdeja