Putting the Tea in Taipei

Need to get away from the hectic streets of Taipei? A peaceful escape is closer than you think…

Taipei is a loud city. That was one of my thoughts as I finally got off the bus after a one hour flight and somehow about two more hours of trying to get out of the dang airport. Any place with as many motorbikes as Taipei is bound to be somewhat deafening, as well as stressful; I’m the type of person who is usually lost in a cloud of half-formed ideas and the narrow side streets built for whizzing motorbikes are not really an awesome place to get wrapped up in deep thought. After almost getting hit at least a dozen times I figured it’d be nice to take a day out of the action.

Luckily it is easy to make a day of an escape to Maokong, a village full of tea plantations located up in the hills surrounding Taipei. The characters for Maokong (猫空) literally mean “cat sky,” and as I found through research afterward it is because the place was at one time overrun with these cute little cat-like things called masked palm civets. Sadly I didn’t see any of those cuties, but I did see lots of tea, with plenty of green space and mountain views too.

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Where can I get one? (Photo: Wikipedia)

You can get up to Maokong by taking a gondola ride from the Taipei Zoo, which is at the end of one of the city’s MRT lines. The gondola is a bit expensive at NTD 120 / HKD 30 / USD $4… okay so it’s not that expensive, but keep in mind you can also just take the minibus up for NTD 15 / HKD 4 / USD $0.50! And saving one hundred Taiwan dollars means you’ll have room for an additional snack or two at a night market later on. (Of course, if you take the gondola up you can also get some cool videos and pictures, which I eagerly did—and took the minibus back down at the end)

Up at the top of the mountain you might wonder what exactly you’re supposed to do. At least, you will if you’re anything like me and only do vague research before jetting off on adventures. I saw a map of the layout of the area and decided I’d walk in one direction until I found something cool.

Maokong

The direction chosen turned out to be an excellent choice. There were some great views of the mountains and tea fields from over here, as well as a bunch of cute little cafes which I kept bookmarked in my brain in case I wanted to stop later. After maybe 15 or 20 minutes of walking (and like 30 minutes of stopping to take photos about every 10 feet) I came across the Tea Promotion Center, a small museum-like place with information about the tea-making process and some tables to take a rest at. My favorite part of the promotion center was the free tea on tap and big mugs given to drink it with, so I stopped for a big cup of some nice hot tea, even though the weather was beginning to be sweltering.

Kaylee in MaokongThe next part is where I made the inevitable huge mistake, something I am almost guaranteed to do every time I travel. I saw a place on the map that sounded pretty cool—though I had no justification for that impulse—called Caonan (草南) which was about another 20-30 minutes into the mountains. Yeah, I can go another twenty minutes, I thought with confidence, and headed off, as the sun hit midday and began boring down and burning my snow-white shoulders. As usual I’d brought no sunscreen, though I did have a hat this time—at least my face was spared from the sunburn!

Alas, after walking about twenty minutes downhill and seeing nothing interesting but some pretty grumpy chained-up dogs, I came to a lovely bridge at the bottom of the hill… and then an empty road. I kept going for a few minutes, but it looked like the road just led to a small local village, and I felt like it was the kind of place where it would be weird if I just turned up unannounced. Leaving Caonan, it looked like there was a minibus that could take me elsewhere, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out if it was going uphill back to Maokong or downhill and back to Taipei. Besides, the buses only came like every 30 minutes and I didn’t want to be a lone white girl standing by herself on some empty backroad. I wouldn’t exactly say I’m cautious when it comes to travel, but I do have my limits, and I trust my gut when it tells me not to do something. So I sighed, resigned to my fate, and began trudging back up the mountain.

Caonan Bridge

To be fair it was a really nice bridge…

After edging my way past the dogs again (one of which was untied and running around all growly now, making me freak out a bit about the risk of rabies), I made it back to a more popular part of the hill and spotted a restaurant I’d seen on the way down that quite a few people seemed to be going into, located near the Tea Promotion Center. I figured here was as good as anywhere to eat, so I headed in.

Turns out that restaurant is called the Yao Yue Teahouse (邀月茶坊) and it’s one of the most famous in Maokong (who knew?) That meant unfortunately that it was pretty expensive, at least by my standards, though keep in mind I thought the $4 gondola was a rip-off… At the Yao Yue there were a large variety of classy-sounding teas for sale, but you couldn’t just buy a single cup—you had to buy a small canister. However you got to take the rest home if you couldn’t drink it all, and that soothed my financially anxious heart a little bit.

The teahouse also had both full meals and some dim sum available to eat, so I went with the dim sum and got soup dumplings with tea in them instead of soup, some radish cakes with a wonderful dipping sauce, and scallion pancakes. The food was all super delicious, and the tea was nice too. The waiter even took a few minutes to explain the traditional way in which to brew and pour the tea, so you got a bit of a cultural experience along with the food. In total I spent about NTD 600 / HKD 150 / USD $19, and more than half of that was spent on the classy tea. Considering I was spending about NTD 200 to eat at night markets it felt expensive to me, but also considering I got a very nice atmosphere, unlimited tea, tasty food, and a souvenir to take back with me it really wasn’t so bad.

Maokong Green Tea Ice Cream

After an hour or so of drinking tea and reading Outlander (so addictive!) I headed back to the gondola station, stopping for one last treat—green tea-flavored ice cream. The excursion took most of the day (though it would’ve been shorter if I hadn’t taken my pointless hour-long side trip…) but it was well worth it to get some nice green photos and tasty eats at the top of Taipei.

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Taipei Night Market Review

Lehua, Shida, and Shilin: All different, all delicious

There are around a dozen or so high-quality night markets scattered around Taipei and if I’d had twelve days in the city, believe me, I would have visited them all. I love night markets because the food is local, cheap, and delicious. They pretty much ensure you’re going to encounter at least a few new things, and they keep your wallet nice and full for more important activities, like more travel and more cheap night markets.

Unfortunately I only had a few nights in Taipei so I managed to visit just three night markets, though they each turned out to have a totally different vibe. No matter what kind of traveler you are, there’s definitely a market for you in Taipei, so here are my reviews to help you out!

Night 1: Lehua (Yonghe District)

Crowd Density: Low                                                         English Level: Low

Vibe: Low-key and local                                                  Food Choices: Meat-heavy, but tasty

Additional Notes: I went on a rainy Thursday so it could’ve been less crowded than usual.

This was my first night market and the closest to my hostel, so once I’d dropped my backpack off after my flight I basically rushed right over. The internet had claimed that this was one of the “most Chinese” night markets in Taipei and I was ready to get a taste (literally) of the real deal.

The internet was dead on as usual; here, the vendors automatically addressed me in Mandarin and didn’t offer any special praise for me understanding them (it may sound arrogant for me to have expected that, but hey, that’s what you get in the PRC!) Instead I was given no special treatment—in fact I’m suspicious that the people hawking cheap handbags on the side may have actively avoided me thinking I wouldn’t understand them, and that was definitely a plus!

At this market I ate some meat on sticks (yummy), some spicy mixed meat in a bucket (yummy, though I’m not sure what it all was and I definitely ate something’s balls), some Taiwanese milk tea, and a famous street food called 甜不辣 / tian bu la / “sweet not spicy.” Except the lady also added spicy sauce effectively defeating the purpose, but whatever I guess. I wasn’t a huge fan of it anyways; tasted like a bunch of squishy stuff covered in a weird salad dressing but I have no idea whether it’s supposed to taste different or nah. Total price was about NTD 200 / or 50 HKD / or ~$6 USD.

This was by far the most casual night market in that it didn’t seem to be trying to look attractive or appealing; it was really just some food stalls on some back street. A good variety of food, sure, but nothing luxurious. And I didn’t feel like everyone there was a tourist, though I think a good amount of mainland Chinese travelers were hanging out. Don’t think I saw another white person and I stayed for a good hour plus.

Verdict: Check out Lehua if you want the “real deal” and are willing to try new foods, but if you don’t speak Mandarin you can expect to struggle.

Night 2: Shida (Da’an District)

Crowd Density: Medium                                                    English Level: Medium

Vibe: College kids                                                                Food Choices: Eastern and Western

Additional Notes: This one was my favorite!

I walked over to the Shida night market after catching the sunset at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (an activity I would highly recommend!) On my way there I caught a glimpse of the pleasant-looking National Taiwan Normal University, which, being right next to the night market, means the majority of people who hang out there are college students. Being just 23 myself I blended right in, and it was fun to be somewhere that local people my age would actually hang out.

The food was pretty great at Shida; I had 小笼包 / Xiao long bao / soup dumplings, followed by some nice curry and rice, and then the totally Chinese dessert of crème brûlée in a crêpe. For the last one it was sold at a stall which had an amazing variety of crêpe options, and the guy made it by putting whipped cream all over the dough, rolling it into an ice cream cone shape, sprinkling sugar on the top, and then shooting a blow torch at it for like five minutes. After that, they had to put it into a fridge to let it cool off for about five more minutes, until at last I was able to take the delicious concoction.

“明天见!” See you tomorrow, the woman joked as she handed it to me. I wish I’d had the time! Total cost of the food that night was probably around NTD 260 / HKD 65 / USD ~$8. The crêpe was comparatively expensive, but definitely worth it.

As I munched my crêpe I strolled around checking out the area’s clothing shops. One cool thing about Shida is that it is a hub for small boutiques run by local designers. While sizes made for Chinese bodies are generally not well-equipped for handling my American-size hips, it was fun to browse, and there were handbag shops and such as well. As for the level of English at the market, I was addressed in both English and Mandarin here. It seemed some vendors were bilingual (or at least comfortable enough in English) while others were not.

Verdict: If you’re a 20-something traveler who doesn’t want to go either full-local or full-tourist, Shida is a great balance.

Night 3: Shilin (Shilin District)

Crowd Density: Very high                                                 English Level: Unsure…

Vibe: Touristy                                                                      Food Choices: Huge variety

Additional Notes: I went on a Saturday evening which to be fair is probably peak timing

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There are a few big advantages of heading to the Shilin market as a tourist. For one it was the easiest night market to find and the only one I didn’t use Google Maps for, as there were signs pointing the way from the subway station all the way to the first food stall. Second, it definitely had the largest choice of food by far, and being catered to tourists the food was definitely more geared toward Western tastes than the stuff at either Lehua or Shida. I recall seeing some English translations on signs but I didn’t really talk to any of the vendors here and honestly can’t remember if I was speaking Chinese or English—but I’d assume that at a tourist-friendly place like this English would do just fine.

Still, I personally found Shilin to be pretty unpleasant. At its densest it was so packed I could barely move, let alone decide to turn back to grab that yummy-looking ice cream from a few seconds ago. It was by far the loudest market too, with more of the whole “shouting at tourists to buy stuff” strategy which unfortunately so many otherwise nice shopping spots seem to abuse. There were tons of stores in the area along with the food, including larger international brands, but I didn’t stay and check them out.

To get the food I wanted I actually had to cut out onto a side street and loop around to reenter the fray—the crowd was one-way only. I ate just one dish at Shilin, some admittedly very tasty 宫保鸡丁 / gong bao ji ding / “kung pao chicken.” Of course one dish meant this was my cheapest night market, at NTD 120 / 30 HKD / ~$4 USD. But I was still hungry afterwards so I went to MOS Burger (a Japanese burger chain) back near my hostel. They gave me chicken nuggets with the burger instead of fries!

Oh, and there was one last problem with Shilin: no idea where the public toilets were or where to even start looking for one, so don’t show up needing to pee like I did. I was quite happy to find squat toilets at the Shilin subway station afterward—and trust me I don’t say that often.

Verdict: If you’re in a state of paralyzed culture shock but don’t want to hit McDonald’s, then spend the evening at Shilin… otherwise go somewhere else!

As I said there are probably a dozen plus night markets in Taipei and these are only three of them, but I think I got a pretty representative sample of their variety! In conclusion, you should definitely take the chance to explore and eat cheap somewhere new every night… and one of those nights, if you can, should be spent at Shida!

Taiwan: A Tale of Two Narratives

Disclaimer: I realize the political history of China and Taiwan is controversial and emotional for those invested in the conflict, and so I want to be clear that none of my words should be interpreted as a political statement on who I believe is “right” or “wrong”… it is not my conflict, I’m not trying to make a personal statement, I just try and get the facts as straight as possible.

Taiwan is an island off the coast of southeastern China and its capital is Taipei. Taiwan is also called the Republic of China, but should not be confused with the People’s Republic of China, which is the official name of mainland China. The exact relationship between mainland China and Taiwan remains a matter of dispute.

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The National Palace Museum in Taipei holds thousands of ancient Chinese artifacts

A Brief History____________________               

The last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, fell in 1912, an event which can be seen as the turning point between ancient and modern Chinese civilization. The Republic of China (ROC) was the first government which emerged from the chaos. Through the 1920s the ROC government (led by the Kuomintang Party, or KMT) worked to unify China and establish itself as a legitimate government. Specifically, the KMT claimed it would make China a modern democratic society.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, was also growing in popularity as an opposition party which craved a revolution. They attempted to fight back against the government in the 1920s, but were too weak to pose a serious threat at the time. While the two parties were able to cooperate in fighting the Japanese invasion of the mainland during the 1930s and WWII, this truce collapsed as the war ended and the two were once again on different sides.

The parties entered an all-out civil war in around 1946, but this time around the Communists were better prepared. By 1949 the CCP had emerged from the war victorious. As the KMT retreated to Taiwan (along with two million refugees) and declared Taipei the “temporary capital” of the ROC until they could return to the mainland, Chairman Mao stood in Tiananmen Square and proclaimed the formation of the CCP-led, Communist, People’s Republic of China (PRC) with Beijing as the capital. The PRC is now the state most closely associated with the name “China,” although as you can see from the above, Taiwan also emerged from the same civilization.

Taiwan Today                                                                    

There is a split narrative between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese views of the current situation. In the PRC, the government position is that when Mao and the CCP won control over the mainland they also gained jurisdiction over all territories which constituted the historical civilization of China—including Taiwan—and therefore believe Taiwan is under their control. However, in Taiwan the government claims that the PRC has never had jurisdiction over Taiwan, the CCP is an illegitimate government occupying China, and the ROC is the only legitimate representative of the nation of China.

In terms of international recognition, the majority of nations now recognize the PRC as the official representative of China. In the United Nations, the ROC represented China until 1971, when member states voted that the PRC should represent China instead, which basically cancelled Taiwan’s UN membership. Due to its contested status and a desire to preserve the relationship with China, few nations have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. However, a number of nations conduct unofficial relations with Taiwan (and China turns a blind eye, but still does not want to hear about it).

What do the people think?                                           

The KMT succeeded in leading Taiwan down the path to democracy, and so there is an active debate amongst the Taiwanese population over this issue. While the mainstream position in Taiwan is that it does not belong to China, the question is whether it should go on being the Republic of China and claiming the mainland as its own, or if it should relinquish the claim and officially become the independent Republic of Taiwan.

Meanwhile in the PRC, the mainstream position is most definitely that Taiwan does belong to China… and I personally have never met a mainland Chinese person who was in any way willing to question that position.

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Chinese map of China… that ocean boundary is also controversial

On Political Correctness                                                 

  • On my blog I may occasionally refer to Taiwanese people, culture, or food as being “Chinese” and I want to be clear that I mean this ethnically, not politically. In Mandarin there a useful distinction between the two concepts; if one is a 中国人 / Zhongguo ren one belongs to the country of 中国, or the PRC; if one is a 华人 / hua ren one belongs to the 中华民族 which is more like “Chinese ethnic group.” When I say Chinese in the context of Taiwan I mean the ethnic 华人 not the political 中国人.
  • There are three topics mainland Chinese hate talking about, called the three T’s: Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan. All of these topics make Chinese people visibly uncomfortable when brought up. If you try and talk politics on these themes you should expect either a fiercely political answer or a very Chinese-textbook sounding rehearsed answer and then closed lips. Talking about these topics in China feels as rude and uncomfortable as telling someone in America that they’re fat (something which is actually totally okay in China!) In short, every society has things which make people uncomfortable. Don’t make people uncomfortable.
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Don’t mention it…

Victoria Peak

It would be difficult to overstate the beauty of the view from Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak. Of course I haven’t been everywhere in the world (not even close) and I’m still young, but I like to think I’ve seen some pretty beautiful things. I’ve walked along the Great Wall of China and seen the Eiffel Tower at dusk… but the reaction I had looking out at the city of Hong Kong from the top of the Peak was borderline spiritual, and probably the best place I’ve seen yet.

Travel is always made more meaningful based on the lens we are looking through. Even with no lens the Peak is phenomenal; one of the world’s most dazzling cities, surrounded by incredible mountains and a clear blue ocean… I truly believe that nowhere in the world is going to get much better than that. But I saw it all at a time when, after having moving to China just a few months before, I wasn’t totally positive that I had made the right choice. I was doubting myself, wondering if just staying in America like the rest of my friends would have provided me with better life opportunities. I never questioned that thought again after this day. No way would missing out on this have been the better choice!

It’s probably best to just show some pictures, and put down what I wrote about it in my journal that day…

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“I identify as being an idealist. This means I have an imagination from my childhood that never quite went away, and it also means that my standards tend to be very high. I can daydream up the perfect vacation spot in an instant. I can make up friends and boyfriends and travel buddies galore without ever having to meet real people or do anything genuine. It’s no wonder I spend so many hours in my room thinking—there’s a huge world going on inside my head, and it’s a shame no one else gets to live in it too.

My expectations for Hong Kong were quite high. Obviously it is a well-known and well-loved city, a place I’ve fantasized about visiting for years now. Everyone just kept telling me about how cool it was, how unique, how energetic. So I went into this place expecting to find an awesome city.

And that is what I found, for the most part. On the ground Hong Kong is pretty great, full of interesting people and places and things to see. I took to it instantly, and vowed, just like last time, to start spending a lot more time there.

And then I went up to the top of the highest hill in Hong Kong, Victoria Peak. And for the first time in a long, long time, reality was so much better than anything I could have possibly dreamt up in my mind.

Because Hong Kong is not just awesome, but beautiful. No one ever told me that this city could be so beautiful. That it was surrounded by peaceful rolling green hills, that the surface of the harbor glistened in the sunlight. That the human-engineered skyline would interact so flawlessly with the nature surrounding it, that the breeze and sunlight and clouds would all align into one awesome and breathtaking day, and that I would be rendered speechless by the combination of it all.

Sometimes because my expectations are so high I become complacent with real life. I feel as though nothing much can really impress me because aren’t my dreams always going to be better than reality?

But every once in a while something comes along that reminds me that sometimes, something being real is all I need for it to be better than dreams.”

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The City With Three Heads

3 head city

The best view in Hong Kong is from the top of Victoria Peak, which is the highest point on Hong Kong island. In the area called Midlevels, Hong Kong’s ultra-rich experience this world-famous view on a daily basis, in apartments which dot the sides of the slope all the way up.

On a humid Monday morning, I was sent to teach a private English lesson in one of the area’s luxury apartment buildings. I’d tried to look a bit nicer that day in an attempt to fit in, throwing on some cheap pearls and my black heels (though I was still pretty sure that with my grey cardigan from Target on, I wasn’t really fooling anyone). I took the subway to a bus station and hopped on a rickety minibus which wound its way alarmingly quickly up the hill. The man in the lobby gave my client a call to make sure she was ready for me, and I was whizzed right up to the 50th floor.

I stepped into a flat that looked like a model home. The furniture was so pristine it had either been delivered a day earlier, or had never been used. Not a single speck of dust sat on the floor, which was a gleaming dark wood. Blanketing the walls were giant windows, overlooking the expanse of the city, the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, and the boats of Victoria Harbour. I could barely breathe just looking at it.

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The view from the top of the Peak AKA about the same as the view from my client’s apartment…

A maid offered to take my shoes and I immediately kicked them off, not wanting to damage a thing. She got me water, then coffee, as I tried to make myself comfortable around the ridiculously elaborate dining table. My client walked out, a middle-aged woman wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

“How are you?” I asked her.

“Yes?” she replied, blinking. Apparently that was the only English she knew.

We spoke a bit in Mandarin, her native language, first, as she was from mainland China. I taught her basic greetings in English, and then watched her struggle to communicate with her maid in Cantonese. After about an hour, I returned to the lobby. There, in fluent English, the doorman led me to a parking attendant who, in fluent English, directed me on how to take the minibus back to the metro.

While speaking English is not the only marker of educational attainment, and I’m sure my client is a very shrewd businesswoman in her native tongue, the situation still doesn’t feel 100% fair. It’s because the parking attendant and doorman, likely fluent in at least Cantonese and English and possibly Mandarin too, actually had to gain more skills growing up to attain their service positions than my client did to attain her phenomenal wealth. They had to gain more skills than even I did to obtain my job as a teacher of that same client, which most would agree is a higher-class job than a parking attendant, even if it’s at a luxury building.

The scenario is a good representation of the different parties who coexist in Hong Kong today, and in particular, the extreme lengths Hong Kongers need to go to just to stay afloat in their own city.

Still pretty British (Photo Credit: BBC)

After over a century of British rule, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, and ever since, wealth from the mainland has been pouring into the city. Offices have moved across the border, creating jobs for people fluent in Mandarin. Beautiful properties have been purchased by those who can afford them, and hordes of tourists from the mainland flock over and fill the already crowded streets, buying up all the luxury goods in sight.

While the culture of Hong Kong is similar to China in that people tend to be polite and indirect about addressing concerns, somehow when Hong Kongers talk about Chinese people all of this goes out the window. It’s not just the sheer size of the crowds that is a nuisance, but the fact that Hong Kongers believe the Chinese to be uncivilized. “They walk too slowly, talk too loudly, and don’t dress fashionably,” they’ll say. “And they don’t even speak English!” It seems most of Hong Kong’s ideas about “civilization” have come directly from the British colonial attitudes which governed their city up until the 1990s, but the irony of looking down on China as “uncivilized” when there was previously no border there seems to be lost on most Hong Kongers.

Instead, what people here seem to understand is that Hong Kong’s relative Britishness always gave it a competitive advantage in the international business arena, as it made it easier for foreigners to set up shop—that is, until businesses started flocking to mainland China instead. Hong Kongers can laugh at the Chinese all they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that they have achieved extraordinary success without having to jump through the long list of “civilization” hoops that Hong Kongers have spent centuries clearing to engage with the world. Now, mainland China is where big business prefers to go, despite the large cultural gaps there that are not shifting, and despite the skills that most Chinese do not have, such as speaking English.

The irony in that is not lost on Hong Kongers at all.

Now, the region is in a state of cultural whiplash. The rules about what is necessary to be successful have all been scratched, and Hong Kong is scrambling to figure out how to regain its footing. Should it deepen its ties to the Western world and ensure all students speak fluent English? Should it begin using Mandarin as the main language of instruction, while adopting more Chinese-style classes on mainland values and history? Should it forget the rest of the world and double down on local investment, Cantonese, and Hong Kong culture? Or will some combination of the three provide the perfect way forward?

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My favorite picture of the collision of China, the West, and Hong Kong

Like most exam questions, Hong Kong has decided “all of the above” is the best answer here. In an effort not to leave anything out, as it could damage their students’ chances later in life, Hong Kong schools are teaching everything, and students are feeling the pressure. By the time students are in high school, they can speak three languages. They have one class dedicated to Hong Kong society, another dedicated to Chinese history, and a third where they must slog through Shakespeare. In terms of raw skill-building, the students are knowledgeable about an impressive variety of topics. The downside is that there seems to be little room left to teach skills like critically thinking about these ideas, or even firmly arguing an opinion, which is actually what most of my adult students want to work on. Perhaps it’s the great diversity of cultures the students are made to encounter, and the great uncertainty about their city’s own future, which seems to say that every angle is worth considering and every skill is worth having. I guess no one really knows what will come in handy.

Hong Kongers are trying to gain enough knowledge to fill three heads, to keep up with the mainlanders and expats who generally only need to fill one. No matter how competitive Hong Kongers are compared to the other parties, the game is already stacked against them.

I believe this won’t last forever—eventually, things will boil over, and there will be a new status quo as far as what skills are really necessary to get a job here. But what exactly this will look like is uncertain. All I know for sure is that in a city with three heads, only one will be allowed to tell the body—and that includes all three pieces of it—where to go next.