Archives for the month of: January, 2012

Me: At the risk of sounding sentimental…I think I’ve discovered something in myself here in Hong Kong that I never quite understood before.

Friend (back home): That’s the beauty of traveling.  Good for you.

– Excerpted from a recent Facebook status.

Stress: it’s a funny thing, really.  Most people would rather do without it, or at least minimize its presence in their lives as much as possible.  In the realm of physics and engineering, stress is a measure of a material’s resistance to “breaking” or falling apart.  Materials that are near this breaking point are said to be “tense.”

Different materials, of course, can handle different loads of stress before they begin to deform in shape.  At the molecular level, their bonding arrangements become distorted; no longer an organized lattice (i.e. three-dimensional network) of atoms, they stretch into awkward arrangements, often to the extent that they can’t be driven back to their more orderly, more ‘natural’ layout.

Today I discovered – not intentionally – that my upper limit of tension is not as high as I’ve always thought it was.  In effect, the “culture shock” I received today didn’t come from a miscommunication with a local Hong-Konger, or an awkward moment with a mainlander, or even a mistaken assumption of another international student.

None of those.  Instead, I realized that my vision of myself, particularly at the extremes, was starting to blur.  What seemed clear and organized…had now begun to unravel.

It was the unraveling that made me feel afraid of myself.

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Fishing boats in Tai O

Who are we, really? What does “Hong Kong” even mean to us?

It is the question that has plagued my mind today, even as we ride the tour bus back home. I’m trying to sleep, hoping that my legs will loosen up to combat the soreness of walking.  (They’re only slightly better now.)  We’ve just completed a day-long tour of Lantau Island (大嶼山), and despite my exhaustion it’s hard to block out the strands of conversation between the other passengers, all of whom were fellow exchange students.  There’s the usual mix of small talk, banter, and political discussion – most of the riders presumably haven’t met each other until this return trip to the university.

But amidst the exchange of ideas, thoughts, and facts, there seems to be something missing.  Something that, to me at least, is crucial to the whole point of even boarding a “tour bus” in the first place.

This absence brings me back to Tai O (大澳) in search of an answer.

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Entrance to the Wong Tai Sin Temple

The entrance to the Wong Tai Sin Temple, located in the neighborhood of the same name (黃大仙) in Kowloon, Hong Kong. It is also known as the Sik Sik Yuen (read as 嗇色園, from right to left on the blue portion of the gate) Temple.

There are some days in one’s life where self-confidence flows out smoothly, like (to use the overused-but-still-apt simile) water falling over rock.  On such days, people are at perfect ease with themselves; they have no questions to ask of others, no need to probe deeper into the supposed mysteries of life.  It’s not easy to describe the external signs, but they’re recognizable – the gait and posture, the ease of conversation, the overall ‘vibe’ that a person exudes.  Certainly the internal signs are all-too familiar (or are they really?) for the individual.

For some people, these days happen often, maybe even on a regular basis.  It’s not second nature so much as it is perfectly natural; no shuffling of the priorities here.  For others, like myself…well, it’s more of a rarity.

But then there are days where the self must seek out its…spirit; charm; character; substance.  Call it what you will, but the path of ‘becoming’ and ‘understanding’ oneself proceeds – not necessarily in a linear, let alone ‘charted’ fashion, but it does wind its way toward something greater, something inspirational.  Indeed, the path may very well be filled with ambiguities (personal, social, cultural), some of which may never truly be shorn of their complexity.

Yes, I’m talking about a lot of abstractions that I probably don’t have any right to define, maybe even invoke.  But I want to make an attempt – if feeble and unstructured – to give voice to the realization I experienced today.  To communicate how, in a series of fluid moments, I found something greater within myself that I couldn’t quite grasp before (and, admittedly, cannot grasp fully right now).

For that process to take some shape, I need to tell you something about Wong Tai Sin, and how it encouraged me to seek out a glimpse of myself in Hong Kong – or more appropriately, the ‘Hong Kong’ in me.

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Phew! Finally made it to HKUST in one piece. I don’t have much to say about the flight (all sixteen hours of it), except for maybe a couple of things:

– Cathay Pacific, I tip my hat off to you. Great service, comfortable seating (though I got lucky with the row all to myself), and good entertainment options, which leads me to:
– The Office (UK) is almost more hilarious than its American counterpart, which is the one I watched first. Shame it only lasted two seasons.
– I like kids, and I like flying on airplanes. But I can no longer stand it when kids fly on airplanes.

Anyway, upon arrival in Hong Kong, my friend Bill (who’s also a Rutgers student studying at HKUST for the semester) and I took a taxi straight to the university. This was admittedly the more fascinating part of the journey, because it provided a compressed montage of possibly everything you can see in Hong Kong at a distance: skyrises jutting out like silicon computer chips; lush mountainous islands connected by expansive suspension bridges; expressways seemingly winding in and out of buildings and malls; masses of pedestrians crowding the sidewalk markets. At last, the taxi arrived first at my dormitory (Bill lives in a separate hall), and I departed and stepped onto the parking lot with my luggage in tow.

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Winter seems to have come and gone, just like that – the snow has melted and the weather is bright, warm, and sunny, if only briefly.  You don’t expect an ‘old man’ to be so capricious, let alone in the middle of January.  But then again, it’s only the middle of January, after all, and unless you’re as capricious on issues of climate as…no, I’ll just leave it at that.

Anyway, today is my last day in the United States, and, like winter at last, I’m set to depart for Hong Kong (though I suspect – or at the very least, hope – winter won’t exactly follow me there).  Everything important, as far I can tell, has been packed, and logistics have more or less been settled.

It’s difficult to articulate what’s been running through my head during these past few days of preparation.  “Departure” is the kind of situation I’ve observed more often than I’ve experienced it – usually, at least recently, it’s involved my family and me hugging my mom as she leaves to take care of her parents (which, incidentally, happened nearly two weeks ago).  But now that I’m the one in the family departing, and alone at that?  Lots of mixed emotions.

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Hello, and welcome to the Hong Kong Project!  I’m Chris Chan, and for the next few months – and possibly for even longer – I’ll be writing here about my stay in HK, as an overseas exchange-in student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST).

Although I’ve been to Hong Kong before (back in the summer of 2004), I stayed for just two days with my family as a ‘stopgap’ between our visit to mainland China and our return to the states.  This time, the experience will be very different, and, I hope, even more rewarding than my previous  journey abroad.

I can’t say for sure yet what direction this particular “project” will take.  At its best, it will be a reflective and informative account of my experience as a student, a traveler, a (returning) visitor, and, ultimately, a tourist.  Given my previous experiences with “blogging,” though, I can’t guarantee that I’ll supply a steady stream of commentary – especially since there is the small matter of academic study to take care of first. I suppose I will let the next few months decide where this account will go.  In any event, I hope you’ll find the posts as enjoyable and rewarding as I intend them to be.

At any rate, that’s all I have to say for now.  So thanks for reading, check back here once I check in there, and have a Happy Lunar New Year!

祝大家恭喜發財,新年快樂!