Everything in its time

About four years ago now, I had a dream, one of the most vivid dreams I have ever had. I was crawling through a tunnel made of rock, spiraling and climbing desperately upwards in darkness. Just as I thought I might be in there forever, my eyes perceived the light, and my head burst through to the surface, where it was a bright and sunny day. I stepped outside and saw that I was standing on a big green mound in the middle of an ocean, and all around me were various other mounds… I turned my head to look around and found I could see miles in all directions, and the bright blue of the sky and bright blue of the ocean were the most beautiful things I had seen, and when I peeled my eyes open in real life those blues were burned into my brain as a memory and promise.


Victoria Peak, Hong Kong

When I went up to the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, 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… 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. (November 9, 2015)

I didn’t know what the dream meant right then. But not long after that, I started searching for internships through my university. I was studying International Affairs, and my school had excellent resources for traveling abroad, so I knew I wanted to pursue a six month internship in another country. But the question, as always, was where? I wanted to go pretty much everywhere. Sure I had a priorities list, but I was pretty much open. That dream, life-like as it was, kept coming to mind. I am a Christian so I had to wonder, was it a sign from God? When I started researching countries, and I looked up Indonesia, I found photographs that looked exactly like this place. Maybe I was meant to go here, I thought. But my parents didn’t want me to go, concerned about the travel warnings they’d seen about the country. So I moved along, keeping the dream in mind but trying to let those images grow dull and fade away. It was only a dream.

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Nathan Road, Hong Kong

I think I might actually be in love with Hong Kong. It was one of those romances which is attraction at first sight, but now that I’ve been here for a few days I’ve realized it’s developing into something deeper. It’s not just its physical beauty… it’s a place that contains everything I love about cities and then some. The rolling hills and glistening oceans of Cape Town, the subtle historical influences of Boston, the streets of NYC. And of course, it shares a nation with China, a country I have come to understand if not love (though of course what is love if not deep understanding?) Every people of every nation seems to be here, each style of food and all cultural influences. And then there’s the pace and the fashion and the modernity, coupled with the dirt and the seediness of the back allies and side streets. I feel I could explore it for years and never learn everything about it, and of course that intrigues me. (February 2, 2016)

Then, I had a second dream. This one was about Cape Town, South Africa. I had never been to Cape Town, nor do I remember ever seeing many pictures of it. But there I was, wandering the streets, vividly viewing roads and buildings and parks. I was just… walking, mainly. The only thing special was how realistic it was, and how when I looked up pictures afterward they looked so similar to what I’d seen in my head. Still, I ignored it. South Africa sounded cool, but it was not a ‘priority country’ of mine. At the time I was interested in India, or Cambodia, maybe even Morocco—South Africa had never held the same pull.

Somehow, after months of hearing others talk about it, after both my advisor and my parents recommending it as an excellent choice for me, I accepted my fate and went. I taught English in South Africa for six months at a center assisting adult refugees from other parts of Africa. I learned a lot of things there about myself, not all of them entirely pleasant. But each of them helped build me into a much stronger person, and after that trip ended I was no longer afraid to travel anywhere.

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Lion’s Head, Cape Town, South Africa

Rush hour in Hong Kong may have replaced Victoria Peak as the most beautiful thing I’ve experienced… As I entered this place with thousands of other people around me, all rushing forward, I felt a powerful and revitalizing energy course throughout my body, filling me with a deep passion for everything. A passion for humanity, where I began to view everyone around me with profound fondness and love. A passion for multiculturalism, where Hong Kong’s diversity became powerful and thrilling. An electrifying passion for living in general—with aching legs, I began walking up on the escalator, where moments before I had been ready to lie down and sleep… The fact that we were all feeling the same things and moving towards the same place—home—filled me with love. Obviously, what I saw on that night was not rush hour in Hong Kong. What I saw was what I needed to see, what God wanted me to see… I saw that Hong Kong makes me feel passionate and alive to a level I didn’t even know existed in myself. (February 28, 2016)

The travel bug had bitten me, hard. I spent the rest of my days at university dreaming of dropping everything and becoming a travel writer, or at least moving abroad to start working. Thanks to a few God-directed chance encounters I began considering going to China to teach English. Before I knew it I was scouring online message boards for the least sketchy-sounding opportunities. I finally found one, with a good salary and the promise of a visa in the major Chinese city of Shenzhen. I’d never been there before, but it sounded like the right place for me to be. Off I went.

From Shenzhen, it was just a short hop across the border to see Hong Kong. I didn’t rush over or anything, as I knew so little about it. One day I chanced across on my way to the airport, and was hit with an intense rush of feelings, far more than anything I had ever felt about Shenzhen. Each time I returned to Hong Kong, the feelings grew. They were uncalled for, inexplicable. But I chose to listen, and moved there after my year was up in Shenzhen.

I arrived in Hong Kong with a small amount of savings and no job. I started looking… I was looking for months.


Skyline of Shenzhen, China

My life is like the Exodus right now… Obviously slavery is a pretty heavy analogy and I don’t mean to lean on it too much, but the thing is that my life in Boston seems… constricted. I know exactly what to be there and what places to eat at and who to hang out with. My role is defined, my place is set. But right now, even though I’m over in Hong Kong, it’s like I’m just wandering in the desert. I keep asking God to give me stuff and feel like he’s not responding in an adequate way, and I’m nowhere near where I want to be and can’t really be there without having a space of my own and a way of making money. I feel burned out and frustrated and like I’ve just been aimlessly searching for far too long. Even though I definitively decided I didn’t want to stay in Boston, I can’t help thinking like the Israelites. Why did you bring me out here into this wilderness? Wouldn’t I have been better off as a slave, where at least I had food, and a roof over my head, and friends? Out here I have nothing! Why aren’t you saving me? (August 26, 2016)

God came through, though it took until that December. Things have been moving forward, slowly but steadily. I have an okay job, a larger amount of savings, and I know more than one person. Importantly, I still love Hong Kong as passionately as I used to if not more so. Now I know its flaws more intimately, but that is the point where genuine love can begin anyways. And the city is vaster than I ever could have imagined, with places to hike to and swim and explore which will keep me busy for years if I so choose.

Like Sai Kung, an area I visited for the first time just this week. I decided to make my way out to an isolated beach, and on the way, I caught a certain view along the roadside…

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Sai Kung, Hong Kong

It was a view that looked exactly like my dream from four years ago, standing on a hill and looking out at a vivid bright blue sky and ocean filled with deep green mounds. After a long dark tunnel, nothing but blue skies. A promise that was made and kept.

God does not work on human time, but on a timeline where eternity is the only meaningful value. Advice is not given at once, but in fragments. At first the advice makes no sense, and comes in as random bursts of energy and emotion. Added together, it makes a story.

The only way to keep the faith is by absorbing the mantra:

“Everything in its time”

I’m sure I will forever be a wanderer, an explorer, and a seeker. Yet I have felt lately that the chapter of life where I was just watching and waiting for God’s plan is coming to an end. I can’t help but feel that here in Hong Kong, the plan is beginning…

But I guess I’ll have to wait and see.



The Ethics of ‘Expatvilles’

Is it right for expats to form isolated communities, or should they be expected to integrate?

It is not uncommon for people of a similar ethnic background to cluster together when moving to a new city. Chinatowns and Little Italies are scattered across the world, many of which offer great cuisine and at least some cultural memory of the original country. The same seems to hold true today in cities with a lot of rich expats* such as Hong Kong. The areas of the city in which high concentrations of foreign restaurants, and foreigners themselves, reside tend to be quite a bit different from other parts of the city.

Just a few days ago, I checked out Discovery Bay, a beautiful little expat beachside community just a 20-minute ferry ride from Central. Walking around, you’d honestly think you were in Europe; the décor was Mediterranean, the vibe was laid-back and peaceful, and there were white people everywhere. White people sharing picnics with a bottle of wine, white mothers playing with their children on the beach, and everyone was speaking either English or French. A beautiful place… but I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not.

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The promenade in Discovery Bay

I have taken to checking out different areas of Hong Kong lately because I’d really like to move out of my shoebox-sized, shared flat and into a place of my own as soon as possible. Hong Kong offers a lot of diversity in lifestyle, both in terms of the population density and scenery of your neighborhood, and in its ethnic makeup.

I am a white girl from an upper middle class background used to living in a certain environment and culture. But I am also a girl who chose to try something new in coming to Hong Kong while accepting that things would be different here. And so when I look at where I want to live, I am always torn. Should I stay in an area that offers comfort and familiarity, as I will be engaging with the city anyways at the office and in my free time? Or must I immerse myself at all times in the most ‘Hong Kong’ environment possible, to get the full experience from this portion of my life?

The thing that raises the most red flags for me is that many expat-dominated areas are actually nicer than where a lot of Hong Kongers spend their time. Much of this is because of the city’s colonial past. Central district, for example, was originally built up to accommodate the needs of the British, and the Britishness of that area has been retained even after the 1997 handover. While many Hong Kongers spend time there and can afford to live there too, it is still amazing to walk down the street and see 50% or so white faces, whereas in most other areas it’s maybe around 1%. On top of that expats have continued creating new isolated communities such as Discovery Bay, where even native Hong Kongers with plenty of money would likely feel out of place.

When Chinatowns formed across America, it was not because Chinese people could afford to live in a nicer place than almost all of the local population. It was the exact opposite—they mostly stuck together because they needed to find financial assistance, employment, or translators to help them out. It must be acknowledged that there is a big difference in clustering together to find people to assist you in surviving in a new country, and clustering together because have no interest in speaking Cantonese and can afford a beachfront property. Expats don’t really need to live with other expats—they just want to. So in short, expat neighborhoods represent a form of privilege that other ethnic neighborhoods generally do not represent.

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Major shopping area in Discovery Bay

And yet, these expat havens may also serve practical purposes. Just like for Chinese people coming to America, who I’m sure were often overwhelmed by the culture, going the other way can be overwhelming for us too. Hong Kong is just very tragic in a lot of ways, and the more you speak to people here the more that can weigh on your soul. I have empathy for Hong Kong and its citizens but in the end their problems are not my problems, as I can go home at any time. Is it better for your own health, then, to stay in a place where you can in a sense “go home” each night?

I guess what the question comes down to is this: Should expats be expected to have a certain “goal” or maintain a certain moral code when they move abroad? Is it okay for an expat to go abroad with the sole intent of enjoying his or her privilege as compared to locals, or must there always be a higher purpose of wanting to explore a new culture and see the world through other people’s eyes?

It seems to me that although it would be impossible to set formal rules as to what expats should and shouldn’t do, I think it is very important for people in this category to critically examine our behaviors while abroad, and our motivations behind those behaviors. Abusing your privilege comes more naturally than you might think, and the cheaper a country is to live in, the more ways there are to do it. Living in the nicest environment you can afford with your own income isn’t necessarily an abuse in itself—but you do have to also ask yourself the question, what is my real motivation for choosing this particular neighborhood, and why did I not choose a nice home in a more ‘Hong Kong’ part of town?

If you choose to live in ‘Expatville’ in order to meet others with similar backgrounds, stay close to familiar foods, or have access to schools for your children to attend, I think all of these reasons are in some way justifiable. However, if you live in ‘Expatville’ because you don’t like spending time with locals, you think everyone else’s standard of living is too low for you, or you plan to stumble around the city a drunken mess every night with folks just like you, you might want to take a step back and think about why you even wanted to be an expat in the first place.

In the end, if it turns out you’ve only moved abroad to live out some neo-colonial fantasy, then I would suggest sparing the locals and staying in England.

* It’s worth noting that “expat” is inherently a racially loaded term, as it tends to mean “white person who lives abroad” (or at least someone from a mostly-white developed country like France or the US). When it’s someone from India or Ethiopia or something we tend to call them an “immigrant”… even though they’re basically the same thing.

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Tai Pak Beach, Discovery Bay

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.

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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