Bagpipers on the Subway: Learning to See in Hong Kong

“Keep a record of what you’re learning every day,” my uncle told me on the drive home from the airport. He swerved around a merging taxi—red-topped, unlike their yellow American counterparts, and infinitely more daring.  “Then you can write a report for Alan at the end of your time here, about, you know, what you’ve learned.”

Alan* is the senior partner in the organization for which I am interning this summer: not just my boss, but a friend my uncle’s, and he has said nothing that would indicate that he would like such a report. But my uncle is the reason I am here, in Hong Kong, in the first place, and so I don’t say anything besides “sure,” and continue to stare out the window at the orange streaks of light that swim out in the darkness as cars rush past us.

Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, is a massive constellation of neon and steel. Composed of the mainland New Territories, Kowloon, and surrounding islands as well as Hong Kong Island itself, the city is a hub of capitalism, the asterisk on the People’s Republic of China that is explained away by the “one country, two systems,” principle. I am interning and living with my family here for the remainder of the summer.

I have saved a Word document on my desktop, ironically titled “What I Learned on My Summer Vacation,” a testament to the stock school assignment that hung over our elementary August nights and supposedly warded off complete mental deterioration on the off-months of our education.

In those days it was easier to equate learning with doing because there was so much to be learned: this summer I learned to swim, I went to camp and learned to ride horses, I sat at home and learned how to make friendship bracelets or about the U.S. legal system with daytime reruns of Judge Judy. The lesson behind the action was clear, tangible, repeatable, and the learning itself affirmed the value of the action, the experience.

This idea is reinforced as we grow older. Many of us have encountered an evolved form of this elementary school report around college application time, when in the attempt to portray ourselves as interesting, well-rounded, desirable people, we are encouraged to mine our experiences for meaning, for a lesson, something we can point to and say “this, this made me smarter/better/faster/stronger.”

“Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?” -essay prompt on the 2014-2015 Common App

This often leads to a variety of personal essay cliches, one of which is the Travel Essay: at best, the insipid equivalent of someone showing you their photo album from a trip abroad, and at worst, a condescending portrait of a developing nation in the name of “community service.” The latter type is particularly wedded to the idea of the “lesson,” and usually ends with the author trivializing the customs and “philosophy” some foreign culture and then affirming their gratitude at being blessed to live in a place with readily accessible vaccines and HBO. Even in the best travel writing, the patronizing specter of “learning” casts a shadow, and often seems to be the unconscious impetus behind the writing itself.

My “What I Learned on My Summer Vacation” document is blank: I don’t know how to incarnate what I’ve learned during my two weeks in Hong Kong so far, or even if I’ve learned anything tangible. Instead, I have a note saved on my phone called “Things I Saw,” and it is just what it sounds like it is:

Owner on street putting down mat for dog to shit on

Illegal to feed pigeons, 1200$HK fine

Shop called “Bra Zoo”

All joggers wear camelbacks

Bagpipers in kilts on the subway

Shop with drawers full of snakes–for eating

At bookstore: book about sketching called “Best of Hand Jobs”

Skinny orange cat in bar

There is so much to see, and while I make it a point not to gaze around wide-eyed and open-mouthed like the tourists on the street (two weeks here and I pretend that I am mildly superiority to them), sometimes it is hard not to.

Being here is a new kind of seeing, a literal, physical shift in my worldview: as the city grows but the island it rests upon does not, the world sprawls upward into the only space left unoccupied. Shops and restaurants are often found on the second or third floors of buildings—a simple fact of life that I learned the hard way, after circling a block for fifteen minutes trying to find a café, only to look up and see their sign twenty feet in the air above my head. Everyone drives on the left side of the road (a remnant of its time as a British colony), which confuses me to no end and has nearly ended my life on several occasions trying to cross the street.

I find it difficult to write expressively about my time here, to assign meaning to an experience that I haven’t had time to fully understand–or perhaps it is disingenuous to believe that one can “understand” a place at all. But if I have learned anything so far, it is an affirmation of the value of simple observation–a “seeing” without interpreting, without the desire to assign meaning. Except, of course, when crossing the road.

*obviously not his real name