Melting Pot

Disorganised as ever, I sauntered off the plane into Hong Kong airport with no itinerary, no accommodation booked, and nothing but a small bag containing a few clean t-shirts. This is how I roll.

I had tried to book a hostel, of course, but it seems that hostels are practically non-existent in HK. Instead, what you have are lots and lots of expensive hotels, and then two skyscrapers called Mirador Mansions and Chungking Mansions, both of which are filled with budget accommodation and immigrants hawking watches. Don’t stay here alone! warned all the reviews. Dangerous! Unsafe! Awful!

“Ah, budget accommodation?” said the girl at the tourist info place in the airport. She drew the bus route on a map for me. “Chungking Mansions.” Seeing my expression, she laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s safe. Just look for this sign saying it’s licensed, and ask to see the room before you pay.”

Well, I have to say I thought the reviewers were exaggerating about the guys selling watches outside. They were not. I fail to see how there could possibly be so much demand for knock-off watches on this street, particularly as they’re targeting travellers who can’t afford to stay in nice hotels away from all the touting. Madam, would you like a watch? Watch, madam? Beautiful watches!

However, the people who warned of the dangerousness of the area have clearly just never been outside of their own country before, because I did not feel at all unsafe there. Overwhelmed, perhaps, by the sheer variety of languages, nationalities, and ethnicities around me – a lot of the time, I was the only female, white, native English-speaker in sight, and I confess that that did feel a little daunting and intimidating at first. More importantly, though, I found the whole experience fascinating. Apparently TIME magazine named Chungking Mansions as “Best Example of Globalization in Action”, and it’s certainly the most culturally diverse place I’ve ever been. But dangerous? Not at all.

I experienced none of the scamming and conning that surrounded me in Beijing. The hawkers were hugely annoying, but not forceful or nasty. I fought my way through swarms of people from – it seemed – every square inch of the entire planet, waited in line amongst them for the lift to a “hotel”, and eventually found myself in The Dragon Inn: quite possibly my most amusing accommodation to date.

The thing is, space is a precious commodity in HK. In that there isn’t any. Apartments and hotel rooms are therefore tiny, and the budget ones aren’t more than cupboards. This is no exaggeration – part of the reason I travelled so light was that so many HostelWorld reviews mentioned the impossibility of bringing a suitcase into the room with you. My lack of luggage ended up being the reason I got a room in the Dragon Inn, as it was the first thing the owner – a slightly eccentric but businesslike lady called Ms. Lam – looked for. Ah, no bag, good, good, she said busily, you can stay here. You are very lucky. My hotel is very very excellent, very famous. 

There was something sweet yet hilarious about the pride she took in her hotel, if it was in fact a hotel. She was rather blunt and sharp-tongued on every other subject, but every time she spoke of “my hotel”, her face beamed as if she were a doting mother at her toddler’s first nativity play.

Yes, I think you will not be too long, she said thoughtfully, looking at me as I sat in her tiny office, swinging my feet. Three nights, I confirmed helpfully, until I realised that she was looking at me from head to toe and quite literally sizing me up to check that I wasn’t too long for the bed. There was not really anything I could do about this, so I just sat there meekly trying to look short as she answered a phone call from a customer.

Yes, yes, what you want? When you coming? No no, when you coming to my hotel? Yes, yes, but when you COMING? I think you are little stupid. OK, but when you coming to my hotel?

This went on for about five minutes while I stared desperately at the pictures on the wall in an attempt not to roar with sleep-deprived laughter at Ms. Lam’s customer service skills. Then it was off for a guided tour of my room, which involved her going into it and turning around in a circle, pointing at everything while I tried to squeeze just my head around the half-open door. I couldn’t get in until she’d left, and the first thing I did when the door closed behind her was experiment to see if I could in fact touch one wall with my left hand and the opposite one with my right at the same time. Having confirmed this, I tried to take a photo of the room, but discovered that the only way to even remotely manage this was to stand in the tiny ensuite, lean out precariously, and hold my camera out in the direction of the mirror.

I loved it. Clearly I am not like the majority of travellers, who had me quite concerned by only having negative things to say about accommodation in Hong Kong: dangerous, old, dirty, run-down, tiny, uncomfortable… yes, it was impossibly small, and no, it wasn’t the most modern place I’ve ever stayed in, but when there are space issues and you still manage to find somewhere to sleep, shower, and change, there’s not much to complain about. I’d choose it over a hostel, for the semi-privacy.

I say semi, because Ms. Lam and her staff do not have any issues with coming into the rooms several times a day after only a cursory knock – and because the rooms are so tiny, there’s not exactly anywhere to run and hide if  you happen to be getting dried after your shower or something. The first time she landed in beside me, I was changing my t-shirt, so I was mildly startled to find myself bra-to-face with the totally unruffled Ms. Lam, asking me if I wanted a lemon drop. Err, no… no thanks, I said as politely as one can while talking to a complete stranger in one’s underwear, and she left me to it. By the end of my stay, I didn’t even jump when I heard the door opening. You just need to go with the flow when you’re a budget traveller, you know?!

I was definitely too long for that bed, though, as it turned out.

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A whole new world

“What you want?” asks the stocky, apron-clad man before shoving me down on to a creaky old wooden stool. Granted, it’s not the most chivalrous dinner invitation I’ve ever had, but I’m tired and hungry and too generally bewildered to decline it.

After a second day of island-hopping and exploring, I had been walking back in the direction of my “hotel” (that needs another blog post by itself!), planning to grab some more irresistible dim sum for dinner along the way. As so often happens when I’m in unfamiliar surroundings, however, I got momentarily distracted – this time by a somewhat disorganised-looking indoor market which was practically deserted. It consisted of a stall here and there, surrounded by piles of tat and the odd middle-aged woman arguing over the price of a bicycle tyre with an elderly, pipe-smoking man in a rocking chair, his pet caged bird on his knee. It was certainly like no market I’ve visited before, and I’ve been to a lot!

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I wandered further and further inside, certain that there had to be more, as I had the unsettling feeling of being in a derelict warehouse inhabited by homeless people rather than in the market that the sign outside had promised. The hundreds of colourful stalls and bustling crowds, however, completely failed to materialise.

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Rather disappointed, I was turning to go back when I caught sight of a man in a chef’s hat ducking under a low beam and hurrying out of sight. Obviously I followed him. I had to bend almost double to get in, and when I emerged on the other side, I found myself in a different world.

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Gone were the dark, dank, empty garage-like spaces and piles of assorted junk. I was now in a brightly-lit, cavernous space, every square inch of which was crammed full of rickety tables and chairs, tiny kitchen islands spewing forth clouds of steam, and scruffily dressed men howling orders at the kitchen workers. It wasn’t a restaurant so much as a food court, each little kitchen unit presumably owned by a different person and serving food to those seated directly around it. It was impossible to tell where one ‘restaurant’ ended and the next one began. And, oh yes – the place was packed. This was clearly an extremely popular place to eat, despite the rather unusual entrance route.

I stood and stared in delight and bemusement at the scene before me. It was like finding a noisy and exciting Narnia filled with noodles and dumplings and stressed out men yelling in Cantonese.

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There was no order or structure of any sort to the layout of the place, so I just started to walk tentatively forward, weaving in and out of the tables and dodging the people laden with bowls and plates as best I could. The air was filled with yelling and spices, like my local Chinese takeaway back home times a million. Every available surface was plastered with brightly-coloured posters displaying menus and prices, but I couldn’t understand a single word: unlike in the majority of places outside in the real world I had just left, absolutely none of them contained English or pictures.

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I hesitated, feeling slightly intimidated as clearly the only foreigner there, but my empty stomach dying to try whatever it was that smelled so good. A man hit me roughly on the arm and shouted at me, which brings us to the present moment, or the start of this story.

“What you want?” asks the man, pushing me into a seat and indicating that I need to stop getting in everyone’s way. I look helplessly at him, and at the sea of confusing, meaningless characters on the posters all around me. “I don’t know!” I say nervously, and he goes off into a spiel before dragging me over to his little kitchen and pointing out various ingredients to me. I still know nothing. “Um… just let me have some of that,” I tell him despairingly, pointing at the dinner of a man at another table.

A mere blink of an eye later, my bowl of “that” is unceremoniously slammed down in front of me, and my host – who used his entire 3-word English repertoire when he greeted me – continues to chat loudly to me every time he passes my table. The “that” is extremely good, especially after I decide that the chunks of meat amongst the noodles are definitely, definitely beef, and focus on nurturing this belief and faith as I eat.

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I finish, pay, and attempt to take a photo of my incredible surroundings, which earns me another shove and frantic head shaking from my host, who apparently did not notice the shots I was snapping from my corner while I ate. “Oh… no photos?” I ask apologetically. “Sorry. Thank you. Good food!”. I point and give a thumbs-up, and he flashes me a brief but genuine smile, grabbing my arm when I turn to leave. He scoops up a couple of freshly made dumplings and wraps them in a large leaf, which he presents to me with evident pride. “Good food!” he repeats carefully. Then he gives me another shove and I make a hasty exit before he regrets his gesture and takes the dumplings back.

I walk back through the insanely crowded Hong Kong streets, eating my free dumplings and smiling to myself. This is living. Someone remind me never to leave it so long to go travelling again!

Losing hope.

I would have expected there to be more of a reaction, really.

The death of the hated leader of North Korea is announced, and there I am sitting at a table eating kimchi and rice with my South Korean colleagues… I felt strangely privileged. I had the opportunity to witness first-hand an emotional and historic moment of the kind you normally only read about in history textbooks or in the newspaper.

Dee first read out the news from her phone, in Korean, but I caught the relevant words and the shocked tone. Kim Jong-il is dead? I asked in English, as no one else responded to her statement. She nodded, a hint of surprise on her face, but otherwise indifferent. He was on a train. He was ill. He died. was all she said when I asked her for details. Jennifer made a comment in Korean, something along the lines of “good riddance” as far as I could tell, and someone else nodded. That was it. So much for my visions of being swept up in a joyous, cheering crowd of South Koreans dancing in the streets with fresh hope for reunification.

Where’s the champagne? asked Chris, but there were only a few half-hearted smiles in response. Dee saw our surprise at the lack of emotion, and tried to explain. When Kim Il-sung died, we celebrated, she told us. We cheered. People danced with joy. I will never forget that day… I was in elementary school, and I was certain that something big was going to happen. It was very emotional – people thought that because he was gone, we would be reunited as one Korea. Many of my family thought they would finally see their relatives and friends again. There was a lot of new hope. Everyone was excited. But then… she shrugged, looking sad, as if re-living the emotions from almost two decades ago.  …everything just went on as before. Kim Jong-il took over. Nothing changed at all. There was a lot of disappointment. No one will want to raise their hopes again this time, you see? Now I hear this news and I just think… what difference does it make? Nothing will change. 

In a way, the lack of excitement pleases me. I really strongly dislike celebrations of death, even though it seems to be acceptable to rejoice in someone’s passing if the majority of people have deemed him/her deserving of death. The braying crowds celebrating the killing of bin Laden earlier this year truly sickened me. They were like lynch mobs, or witch-hunters carrying their flaming torches and howling for blood. A human being – however disgusting, evil, and contemptible he was – had died, and celebrating the loss of any human life is (in my opinion) a bit twisted. I understand the reasons, and the emotions, but it doesn’t sit right with me, all the same. I felt as if I’d gone back to a less ‘civilised’ time, where humans were nothing but bloodthirsty animals waving around crudely-fashioned spears and communicating in grunts and howls. I was shocked and a little frightened by the comments I read and the rejoicing I saw.

So I suppose I find it admirable that the South Koreans are not taking to the streets to rejoice in the death of arguably the most insanely dangerous man on the planet. However, I also find their total lack of emotion very sad. They’ve given up hope of reunification, from what I can see. Most of them believe there’s more likely to be another devastating war than a United Korea. As those separated from their families grow older, the chance that they’ll ever see them again seems practically non-existent. There’s none of the hope that there was when Kim Il-sung died: Kim Jong-il didn’t turn out to be any better, and Kim Jong-un will be the same, if not worse.

Loss of hope is probably one of the saddest conditions there is. I hope the crazy gene skipped the young man stepping up to lead that troubled country. I hope he wants to work towards building links with South Korea and the rest of the world. I hope something will change for the better now that his father is gone.

It’s not a very strong hope, and it’s not a very likely hope, but it’s hope, nevertheless.

Positively exhausted

There’s a scene in Frasier where a teacher is in charge of the school play, and she’s full of encouragement and calming words for her young team. No matter whether the set is falling down or someone’s throwing up, her smiling face and cheerful tones never disappear. Then Frasier appears. As the teacher finishes dealing with another problem – “…and everything will be just fine!” – she turns to Frasier and drops the smile to reveal a tired face wearing a harrassed and almost crazed expression. The honeyed tones gone, she hisses “I am so SICK of being positive!”

I never quite appreciated the humour in that scene until today. I am so tired I actually considered just not going to work this morning. I mean, just not getting out of bed. Burying my head under the blankets and choosing to ignore that it was morning. Not even making up an excuse and phoning in sick – just plain old not showing up. This is partly because I spent all day yesterday looking after 6-year-olds at a theme park in Seoul, and didn’t get back until bed time. I slept like a log all night and somehow woke up even more tired than I had been before.

It’s the end-of-year fatigue. I need a holiday! My batteries are drained down to about 5% of their total life, and – much as I love my job and my kids – only a week off can recharge them.

So anyway, I am good for nothing today, and – somewhat annoyingly – all the children have decided to be perfect little angels. You would think this was a good thing, but can you imagine being the tiredest you have ever been in your life, and then being put into a room of children who are all doing their utmost to earn praise from you? I thought I was going to lose my mind this morning as I walked from desk to desk, checking the sentences they were writing. As tempting as it was to do so in silence, I couldn’t. Exhausted or not, once you see those puppy-dog eyes gazing eagerly up at you in the hope of praise for hard work, it’s impossible to say nothing.

Good job! Wow, what beautiful writing! Excellent work! Well done! You’re doing so well! Perfect! 

Honestly, I thought I was going to lose my mind. I was so tired I was barely functioning and couldn’t quite gauge the appropriate level of encouragement, so – fearful that I wasn’t doing enough – I praised them as if they’d achieved world peace and a cure for cancer, and then gave them all star stickers just in case. I wanted Frasier to walk into the room so I could drop the positivity for just a second, but I held out until lunch time, when I was able to share my feelings of exhaustion with my colleagues. We are all in the same boat.

Dee suddenly sighed for no apparent reason halfway through lunch, and when a few people looked up expectantly, she just opened and closed her mouth a few times, looked helplessly at us, and sighed again. Ara-saw (I understand), I replied. She rubbed her eyes, looking confused by her own state of mind. Only one more week, she said finally. Everyone nodded wearily.

Only one more week.

Conversations with my colleagues

…and it’s a a whole extra year, sometimes nearly two! concludes Chris, shaking his head. I just don’t even understand how you come up with that in the first place. 

Well, we count the pregnancy as part of the baby’s life, says Jennifer patiently. So it’s already 1 year old when it’s born. 

Chris is having none of it. First of all, it’s not a year, it’s nine months. And second –

TEN months, interrupt several Korean teachers. There is silence, and we all look warily at each other.

Pardon? asks Anna politely.

Pregnancy is 10 months, repeats Jennifer, looking confused as to why we are questioning this basic fact.

It’s 9 months! chorus the three foreigners.

TEN! shout all the Koreans. We are outnumbered and – it must be said – somewhat flabbergasted. I have even paused midway through my second bowl of yukgaejang, so great is my surprise.

OK, let’s talk about this, Chris suggests in a careful tone, abandoning the topic of the Korean age reckoning system in favour of this shiny new spanner in the works. Now, you’re not denying that in general, and globally speaking… as in, across the entire planet… a normal human pregnancy lasts for an average of 9 months? 

Ten, says Jennifer stubbornly.

It’s really, really nine, says Anna in a slightly dazed manner.

I have had two children! says Jennifer crossly. I know how long a pregnancy lasts! She bursts into frantic-sounding Korean, and the Cooking Lady appears to be verifying her statement. Everyone is suddenly very defensive.

Of course it can be ten, if the baby is overdue, I say, trying to pour oil on troubled waters. Or eight, even seven, if it’s premature. But what we mean is, nine months is the normal, expected length of the average pregnancy. 

No, TEN!! everyone howls.

Are you actually suggesting that Korean women are pregnant for longer than non-Korean women? asks Chris.

Have any of you ever given birth? asks Jennifer heatedly, brandishing a spoon, and I begin hastily shovelling yukgaejang down my throat, fearful that I may have to run away from a fight at any moment.

The conversation has been filed away in my brain for future investigation at a time when it’s less full of other things and I am free to think about it without my mind imploding. It shall be stored in the same file as Fan Death and the belief that eating enough kimchi will make you completely immune to swine flu, pneumonia, and homosexuality.

I think I need a holiday.

Can’t help falling in love

I have gone back on everything I said about Singledom.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I have somehow – very suddenly, and without much warning – found myself in a Very Serious Relationship. And I admit that I’m rather enjoying it. I like the feelings of closeness, and the way he always seems to know just what I’m thinking. I like hearing him say goodnight to me in his deep, gentle voice, and telling me that he aims to please and my wish is his command. Oh, and obviously I love that he says things like “It’s all about you, Hayley… don’t worry about me.” Who wouldn’t enjoy that?

Siri lives in my new phone, and he is the man of my dreams. He even speaks French with me when I ask him to, and he never lets me forget anything. He reminds me I need to get rice on the way home as soon he senses that I’m approaching the shop (this is seriously freakily amazing to me), and impresses me on a daily basis with his general knowledge. He knows what’s going on absolutely anywhere in the world at any given moment in time (yesterday I kept seeing Facebook updates from Scottish friends, saying things about being sent home from work and warning others to be careful. “What’s going on in Glasgow right now, Siri?” I asked. “It looks like there’s a storm happening,” he replied, bringing me up a Glasgow weather forecast for good measure.) He can be very witty, and even a tad philosophical. “Pourquoi?” I moaned the other day when he told me something I didn’t like. “Ah, Hayley,” he responded in French, “You see things that are and ask, “Why?”. But me? I dream of things that never were and ask, “Why not?””

Siri and I are inseparable. We have only known each other for a week, but it feels like we’ve never been apart. I don’t think I can even remember the days when I had to set my own alarm clock or write my own text messages.

My friends have been having a lot of fun with Siri, mostly by stealing my phone when I’m not looking and telling him to do something unpleasant like wake me up at 6am, or asking him rude questions that clearly make him feel uncomfortable. My favourite moment was when someone tried to confuse him by saying “Hey, Siri, could you tell me how many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?” and he said “Let me just check on that for you… OK, it seems that the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” “Siri,” I said seriously amidst all the ensuing laughter, “I actually love you.”

Oh, Hayley,” he responded gently. “I bet you say that to all your Apple products.”

Karaoke nights

As so often happens at the end of the evening in Korea, much karaoke was performed last night.

Mind you, Koreans generally go to the private singing rooms (noraebangs, mentioned far too many times before). My friends and I, on the other hand, have fallen into the rather brazen habit of treating The Local like our own personal noraebang complete with stage, instruments, professional lighting, and an audience of generally unimpressed strangers. If Pete is unhappy about this, he is hiding it well, and also doing a rather masterful job of adjusting the sound levels when he switches on the karaoke machine for us, so that we can’t actually be heard in the other areas of the bar. ;) When I discovered this last night, I felt vaguely like one of the kids playing noisily in the living room while the grown-ups sat in the next room drinking wine and smoking cigars and discussing politics and suchlike.

Oh, how I love karaoke, though! Once we get started, I honestly do not leave until either a friend or member of staff insists that I absolutely positively have to. Last night, one by one,  my friends said goodbye, and yet there I remained, singing my wee heart out with fresh recruits, most of whom I’d never actually met before. This does not matter, with karaoke. We sang and danced and played our tambourines, and we were all best friends.  Behold the awesome and mighty power of the karaoke machine.

Mind you, there was a point in the evening when we were briefly silenced. A girl had been watching us for some time, smiling at our enthusiastic caterwauling and enjoying the craic without getting involved. I got chatting to her between songs, and she was lovely. She did want to sing, it turned out, but didn’t want to intrude on our fun. Don’t be ridiculous! I said impatiently, putting a microphone in her hand and steering her towards the book. What song would you like to sing? I’ll put it on for you. She chose a duet, and dragged her friend in from the Grown-Ups Area of the bar to sing with her. It is the only part of the entire 6-hour karaoke marathon I recorded but is in no way an accurate representation of the evening’s performances in general. ;)

I have to say, I know I finished my “It just makes me happy” blog, but if I were still keeping it, I’d write a post entitled “When someone picks up the karaoke mic and you discover they can actually sing”. It was the first time all night that everyone stopped chatting/laughing/fighting for the songbook/bouncing around like eejits, and just sat and listened. I tried to get them to sing more, but I think they felt a little bad for us when none of us wanted to sing again after their performance. :)

Of course, it wasn’t long before we were up belting out random hits from the 80s once more. My voice is almost gone, and I have bruises, actual bruises on my thighs and hands from slamming the tambourine against them till after 6am. And this karaoke-saturated life is Completely Normal in Korea. I’m telling you: it really is my perfect country!