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 city’s highest point. 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.

One Country, Two Futures

There is something captivating to me about places which can take cataclysmic cultural shifts and absorb them into the place that’s already there, and I believe that most of the best things in this world were formed from a few great ideas colliding. This is one of the reasons America has been so successful—we integrate new notions as part of our own. The falafel carts on the streets of New York City are as vital to its identity as Broadway, and if you understand this, then you can understand how Hong Kong exists today as a living, breathing integration of all the best of both China and the West.

There are probably many symbols I could use to represent this truth, but I think the best way is in the bark of the city’s ubiquitous banyan trees. I saw these trees everywhere, from the calmest corners of the parks to the busiest tourist streets in the city’s central districts. Banyan trees are epiphytes, or plants that can grow upon another plant for support. Contrary to parasites, they do not necessarily harm the host, but simply latch onto a tree which is already standing and reach spindly roots around its trunk and into the ground. The bark of the new can grow into the trunk of the old so thoroughly that it becomes indistinguishable from the original tree, causing two organisms to seamlessly become one.

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The Hong Kong History Museum provides a summary of the intricate cultural integration of the region. The museum has information about everything that’s ever happened in Hong Kong, from the dawn of humankind all the way up until the present. The groups of indigenous people who first settled there met long ago with Chinese mainland culture and absorbed many of their practices. This culture was in turn affected by the British occupation, which encouraged elements of Western culture to flourish under their century-long control of the territory. During the continued development of Hong Kong in more recent years the city globalized even further, integrating a booming abundance of multinational corporations and food and people from every nation. And now, ever since Hong Kong was handed back from the British in 1997 and is starting to come under greater control of the Chinese mainland, yet another layer of culture is settling on top of this complex, beautiful place. Thus far no cultural shift has entirely destroyed the Hong Kong that was there before; it has just been added to and improved upon, layer by layer.

The museum made it clear that the return of Hong Kong to China was the most important event of Hong Kong’s history, which is how I know it was funded by the Chinese government. The somewhat empty phrase “one country, two systems,” is cited as the means to a peaceful future between Hong Kong and the mainland, this idea that while Hong Kong is fully under the control of the central Chinese government now, it is also allowed more freedom and autonomy than is given to citizens on the mainland. Simply put, it is the open admission that the country is united legally, but not necessarily culturally or politically. Hong Kong and China have begun to wrestle a bit with finding out what exactly this policy means for each of them. It’s evidently something which can’t be boiled down to a simple phrase, and yet the problem generally lies in the fact that China cares more about having “one country,” while Hong Kong cares more about having “two systems.”

The very end of the Hong Kong History Museum, for now, is suspiciously blank, having not been updated with details since 1997. One day this will have to change, as “one country, two systems” actually has an expiration date—the year 2047, fifty years after the transfer was made, where China stops making the promise to keep the systems separate. What will happen at this time is unclear, but will likely come into focus in the next few decades.

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What will be the outcome of this policy? We can look to how banyan trees behave in nature for two possible conclusions. The first is the optimistic integration theory, the idea that in fact two non-homogeneous things can learn to coexist peacefully, even becoming one in the process. Hong Kong has already done this time and again, constantly integrating new facets of culture into its history, and may do it again yet. Hong Kong and China should, theoretically, be able to peacefully become more united without losing Hong Kong in the process.

However, banyan trees aren’t always peaceful parasites, and a second future is possible too. Sometimes the banyan starts off by growing peacefully, but then begins to exert too much pressure on the bark of the original tree. This can be so strong that it causes the tree inside to cave in as its life is choked out. The original tree then rots away to nothing. The banyan alone is left standing, completely hollow inside.

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