The other day I ate a bowl of sweet black sesame soup by the side of the road. I was at a dai pai dong, one of those Hong Kong eateries whose name translates to “outdoor food stall.” Or, perhaps it means, “delicious cheap eat.” Or, alternatively, “fast food with a dollop of verbal abuse.”
I’d received my first serving of brow-beating when I arrived at 12:43 pm and the woman within the shed that doubled as a kitchen told me they didn’t open until one o’clock. “Don’t wait here!” she said gruffly. I turned and fled and came back a couple of hours later, sat at a table and began to fan myself with a menu. “DON’T DO THAT!” the woman screamed at me in Cantonese. “THAT’S SO LAZY. There’s a FAN!” She pointed at the electric fan that faintly stirred the heavy air. “PUT THE MENU BACK.”
Here’s something you probably don’t know about me: I can understand a little Cantonese. When I was nine years old, my father transported us to Hong Kong for a sabbatical year and my parents insisted that I take lessons. Mind you, I can no longer speak Cantonese — when I try, a jumble of Mandarin emerges, with a few French filler sounds tying everything together — but I knew what the woman was saying. Especially after she repeated herself in English.
I ordered my dessert soup from the bilingual menu and it arrived a few seconds later, scooped from a pot in the shack and set down with a slosh. I summoned up a gigantic smile and thanked the woman with an elaborate m’goi saiiiiii! It was an aggressive thank you, exaggerated politesse intended as a weapon. Alas, my arrow missed its mark, for as I raised the spoon to my lips, I heard the woman say with disgust: “Oh, so she DOES speak Cantonese!”
Oh, Hong Kong! It hit me the minute I stepped off the airport express into Central, not just the humidity — a thick layer that I could never quite wipe from my skin — or the smell — a mixture of garlic, and gasoline, and something else industrial — or the people — so many people crowding the sidewalks, jockeying at zebra crossings. It was the energy, so relentless and vivid it made Paris seem like a backwater. I hadn’t felt that energy since I’d left China in 2007. For five years, I’d forgotten it. But I knew it immediately. And I realized something else, something that surprised me: I had missed it.
At first, it seemed like I’d fallen out of practice in Asia, lost my China expat skills. Soon enough, however, I was back to carrying packets of tissues in my handbag, rinsing restaurant plates with hot tea before I ate from them, and donning my finest duds every morning so that people wouldn’t think I was — Hong Kong horrors! — a Mainlander. Actually, that last part is a lie — in the 98% humidity that is August in Southern China, I couldn’t bear to wear nice clothes. As a result, everyone thought I was the maid — starting from the very first morning, when the doorman at my friend’s apartment building eyed my bedraggled travel clothes and asked me: “Are you here to work?”
I suppose I should have said yes, because I was there to work, which, in my job, means eating. I’ll post details on the project as soon as possible, but I can tell you this: At one point, I ate at six restaurants in a single day. Six! My pants will never fit the same. In between bites, I plotted my trajectory to the next meal, scouring the map before setting out on the metro, in taxis, and on foot, pushing through the moist summer air, fighting the jet lag that had screwed itself around my head. (Turns out, I had also forgotten about the jet lag — oof.)
Lost in the immediacy of my activity, a funny thing happened — I didn’t have time to worry about the Big Move, or where we’ll live in Washington, D.C., or whether everyone is going to stop reading this blog once I leave Paris (er, you’re not, right?!). For the first time in, well, ever, I was living in the moment, absorbed in this short, strange and intense journey.
Being in Asia reminded me again of how big the world out there is, so much larger than one city in Northern Europe — as beautiful and elegant and beloved as that city may be — of how the mind expands with new experiences — experiences that take you out of your comfort zone. I leave Paris in less than a week and I’m not ready — I could never be ready. But I think about the clouds of incense drifting from the ceiling of the Man Mo temple, the piles of exotic vegetables in the market stalls off Queen’s Road Central, the snappy crunch of a steamed shrimp dumpling, the Star Ferry chugging across Victoria Harbour. I think about how many more places there are to discover, and devour, and lose my heart to. And I tell myself: Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid.