Seth Barham Design
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spartan wanderer

Hong Kong is Not China

"What the hell is going on?" I wondered this aloud on the hotel shuttle from the airport. Something wasn't right. The driver was staying in one lane as opposed to absentmindedly drifting over the yellow line. All of the oncoming traffic had their lights turned on after 8pm. Everyone was indicating when they should be indicating. When we stopped at a traffic light, the vehicles behind us came to a gradual, safe stop rather than jockeying for position between the gaps in the cars ahead of them. All traffic laws were being obeyed. Then it hit me. I'm not actually in China anymore.

Hong Kong is kinda-sorta, technically under the Chinese government's control. But for de facto purposes, it's a completely different place. Hong Kong has its own government, holds democratic elections and operates under its own constitution, all of which the residents are very proud of. In fact, if you don't know much about the political situation, it's best to keep your mouth shut around a Hong Konger, lest you risk lumping them and their mainland counterparts into the same category. They don't take too kindly to that, and I can't really blame them. So in order to avoid that, it's time for a brief history lesson from uncle Sethy, who didn't know most of this stuff until about a month ago. Try to keep up.

Seth's Crash Course on Hong Kong (He just read the Wikipedia Article)

Hong Kong, like most of the world at some point, became a British colony in 1842. Then in 1997, a more civilized time, the UK basically asked China, "Hey, uh, you guys want HK back?" China replied, "Duh!" Unfortunately for China, the thorny problem of capitalism and personal freedom had been alive for years and years in HK, and immediately taking that away from the citizens might incite a few pesky uprisings. Keep in mind that Tiananmen Square was only 8 years ago. The solution? Do some political magic/make some shit up that allows China to procrastinate on some pretty big issues.

The Chinese government amended its constitution, allowing it to establish a Special Administrative Region when needed. And so the "one country, two systems" system was born. This allowed the market and the people of the new SAR Hong Kong to remain free and mainland China to continue to be communist and oppress its population. Everyone wins! So everything remains much the same in Hong Kong. While its sovereignty is still firmly clutched in the right hand of China, HK is free to do whatever, except in regard to foreign relations and defense. That is, until 2049 when the SAR status will expire, after which nobody really knows what the fuck is going to happen.

My guess is that China will "hold a vote" amongst its plutocrats to extend the SAR status because that nasty capitalism over there is actually a big chunk of its economy. Oh, and there WOULD be blood. Trust me, Hong Kongers would not go quietly back into the arms of the mainland. So either 50 more years of the status quo or the next chapter in the world's book of anti-government demonstrations, which would not end well.

Yep, I'm in a different country

So now you know that since 1842, Hong Kong has been roughly separate from the rest of China, giving its culture a chance to evolve in a completely different trajectory. People commonly describe the vibe as "East meets West", and that's pretty dead-on. There's Chinese writing everywhere, strange food that you need a second to consider before consuming, wet markets filled with the sounds of fish being slapped against tables and Buddhist monks commuting on the MTR. And then there's McDonald's, Starbucks, Armani, Burberry, 7/11...pretty much any piece of home you want. But because I've been living in China for six months, the first thing I noticed most was the...un-Chineseness.

  • Civil Driving - I spent 12 days not fearing for my life as I waited at actual pedestrian crossings where traffic actually stopped, giving an actual window of time for pedestrians to actually cross the street. Nope, no vehicular clusterfuck here.
  • No Staring - I may still be a laowai, or gweilo in Cantonese, but no one felt the need to stare into my soul for it. I'm just another dude on public transport. It was nice to be completely average for a change instead of the borderline zoo animal status I sometimes have in Daqing.
  • Woah...lines - Holy shit, people are waiting in line? This was the first thing I noticed, even before we got out of the airport. There's no pushing, shoving or battle royale over who can be first to complete their mundane task. In fact, Hong Kongers often get very pissed at mainland Chinese that behave this way.
  • Freedom - I did blog stuff without needing a Virtual Private Network to surpass the Great Firewall for the first time in six months. There were anti-Communist Party of China political parties advertising in the New Year flower market. I mentioned enjoying freedom in China a while back but...this kind of freedom is obviously different.
  • Organized - It's easy to say that nothing works in China, at least in the way I expect it to based on my cultural background. What I view as "organized" is simply a foreign concept here. Just sit in on one of my school's meetings. Hong Kong is closer to what I'm accustomed to, not that that makes China wrong. Public transport was seamless. People show up on time for stuff. Lines.
  • Concept of sustainability - Hong Kong had a groundbreaking idea at some point: hows about integrating the surrounding nature into the city instead of completely destroying it? It has a distinct feel from the average Chinese city that has been leveled with a few trees and fake rocks sprinkled in.

So, yeah, by un-Chinese I basically meant an absence of the things that really annoy me in China.

Life Lessons from HK

The fact that I enjoyed these social and cultural aspects of Hong Kong so much taught me something: my time in China has an expiration date. I have six months left here, and maybe I'll even come back for six more to save some money, but I will not, and could never be "a lifer" in this country. That really pisses me off, actually. Any time I go somewhere new, I do it with a completely open mind and no preconceptions. I tell myself that I'm going to embrace every little interesting cultural thing, eat that weird stuff over there and just try not to automatically shut down at something new and strange to me.

In the beginning, this was easy. But now, all of that stuff that was endearing about China - the horrible driving, the constant stares, the pushing and shoving in "line" - just irritates me. Every traveler has experienced this at some point, feeling who they are as a person slowly rejecting a country like a bad organ transplant. It just doesn't gel with you. On the one hand, someone might advise you to just leave before a part of you slowly withers and dies over your 9th drink at the expat bar. I'm being stubborn and trying to look at it as a challenge. My rose-colored glasses were shattered early on, but, gangbei! I'm in China. Might as well enjoy it.

And possibly move to Hong Kong as soon as my contract expires.

Read about my "shitty" experience in HK.

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