Friday, July 18, 2008

Hong Kong

My first visit to Hong Kong left me intimidated. I took my first steps on Asian soil in Hong Kong. Our company sent us to look at both Hong Kong and Shanghai, originally undecided as to where we should live. We walked the streets of Hong Kong with no direction and no budget. We saw no green space for children to run and play. We walked on tight sidewalks, practically enmeshed with the tight streets clogged with chugging trucks and zooming taxis and all holding a thick cloud of exhaust and smog. We climbed steep hills, up and down, up and down. How could I raise two young children in this city? How could I live in this city? We followed that visit with a trip to Shanghai, and stayed in the French Concession. I fell in love with the wide streets, the sycamors growing out of the cafe-lined sidewalks, and the many small parks.

We have lived in Shanghai nearly 1 year, and all of the stars have left my eyes about this city. We visited Hong Kong again last weekend, and I transferred my love back to that city. Such an exciting mix of East and West. In so many ways Asian, filled with tall buildings rising straight from the sidewalks, markets and shops falling out of doorways and spilling into streets, the scent of new food cooking around every corner. But in so many ways a modern Western city.

People still pushed us. People still stopped to photograph our children. Elevators were still located up a few steps from the door. But life was so much simpler. Signs and labels were written in English - I could converse with the taxi driver and the clerk at the store. Everything worked in our hotel room, and the bathroom didn't smell. The tap water wouldn't make us sick (although we still couldn't bring ourselves to drink it).

And although the lack of greenspace made me feel claustrophobic on our first visit, this time Hong Kong felt so much greener than Shanghai. Although Shanghai is spotted with green space, the lawns are cordoned off with lawn police snapping at children who break the barrier. Many of the parks are full of retired men sitting around smoking and most of the city has a standard smell, combining cigarette smoke, pee and Chinese food into one sickening scent. We saw no green parks in tropical Hong Kong, but that hardly mattered. Because trees and leaves and flowers grew from every point, and their mere presence made it easier for me to breathe. The city is small. It is tight and compact because it sits on a small island with a peak at the center. The magnificent high-rises that make up the city centre stand on a small strip of land between the harbor and a peak covered with trees and fog. From anywhere, you can look up and see plenty of green rising to meet the sky. This natural horizon felt much more beautiful than the unending line of buildings over which the sun sets in Shanghai.

We shopped, and I concluded that the day that Shanghai receives a store like Bumps to Babes is the day that this city is no longer a hardship post for expats. We loaded up at baby stores and grocery stores. We ate good food. We ate Krispy Kreme donuts. We spent some extra cash on a photography shop. We spent a day at Disneyland. But we also walked through Hong Kong Park and the Hong Kong Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Everything was within a few miles and we walked or rode public transportation for most of the weekend.

I changed my mind. Hong Kong would have been a much easier place to live than Shanghai, and much greener. I've joined the throngs who love Hong Kong and I look forward to my next visit.

But in case it needs to be said, I've got no regrets. I've got no love for Shanghai, but I am really enjoying our experience here and the community we've built around ourselves. I think I'm a better person for my time here, and what more can we ask of any experience?

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