Friday, June 22, 2007

if you weren't real, i'd make you up: China part three

So our last day in Hong Kong had finally arrived, and to be honest, I was sad to be leaving. In fact, I was already looking forward to coming back. But we still had one day left. I still had one day, anyway. My bosses were flying to Indonesia to visit a vendor there, but I didn't need to accompany them so I was left to my own devices.

After two long, grueling weeks of traveling, part of me was ready to sleep…hard. I had been through immigration more than a dozen times before we arrived back in Hong Kong again for four straight nights in the same hotel—finally—and I was feeling, well, a bit ragged around the edges.

But a bigger part of me wanted to explore. Plus, I still had to pick up some little souvenirs for about a zillion people, so I had business to attend to as well.

The weather had been unusually mild the entire trip, with only a little rain thrown in for good measure. This morning, however, it was humid and though the sun was hidden behind a perpetual shroud of polluted haze, it was the warmest it had been in days.

Our other associate had business that morning on the Hong Kong side of the harbor (we were staying in Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side), so he too had escaped the visit to Indonesia and was gracious enough to offer to show me around, an offer that of course I accepted.

We had agreed to meet for a cup of coffee and pastries at DeliFrance, a little café about a block from our hotel. Not only was it incredibly inexpensive (read: dirt cheap), it was unexpectedly good! I didn't have coffee, as the coffee in China tastes like straight-up tar to me, but the breakfast was delicious. And, let me tell you, I have some high standards when it comes to breakfast—but I was starting to understand how different Hong Kong was, compared to southern China.

We leisurely finished our croissants and set a time to meet up again in a few hours. Feeling slightly less faded, I took the map, struggled to keep straight the directions I had been given only moments ago, and struck out to explore on my own for a few hours.

The streets toward which I had been directed were not far from the hotel, so I never really had the chance to get lost, but it also gave me a certain amount of confidence that allowed me to relax enough to enjoy my surroundings. And in Hong Kong, one's surroundings consist mostly of people.

I found myself people-watching when I was supposed to be shopping, wondering where everyone was going on a weekday, in the middle of the day, when I had yet to see a business suit outside of the hotel. People were not going to jobs, they were just, from what I could tell, walking.

…I mean, when you are in downtown Chicago during the week, everyone is walking with purpose. Everyone has an appointment to keep, a meeting to attend, a desk to get to. Or at least that's the feeling generated by the undulating crowd of people as they navigate the sidewalks en masse. Here there was a more relaxed feeling, almost relaxed to the point of confusion at times.

Winding my way through the throngs, heading toward the street where I was told I would likely find a number of shops that cater to souvenir shoppers such as myself, I found myself without any desire to shop. It's not like it wasn't already obvious that I was a foreigner, a tourist of sorts, but I had this sudden fear of being taken advantage of, being ripped off, being another American who paid way too much for a shitty pair of chopsticks I could probably find at Target. I wanted to walk softly, to not disturb my surroundings, to go unnoticed so I could absorb more fully what I was experiencing.

And then it occurred to me that by doing just that—nothing—I wasn't experiencing anything. By assuming I could absorb culture through osmosis, I was being more of a tourist than I would be if I actually made an attempt to interact with those around me. I meditated on this while window shopping my way back towards the hotel, finding that although nothing displayed really struck me as special, I was still restraining myself, unable to go inside the shops, afraid to be asked if I needed help finding anything when I didn't even know what I was looking for.

I was almost all the way back to the hotel when something in the window of a small tea shop caught my eye. It was a simple, beautiful jade pendant, and although I had already seen thousands of these in the past hour, this one somehow drew me over to take a closer look. It was small, but luminous, and I was absorbed in battling my inner demons, who were telling me that I was meant to have it, when the shop owner struck a match to light his cigarette, causing me to look up and catch his eye.

He smiled.

I smiled back.

And before I could stop myself, words tumbled out of my mouth.

"How are you?"

Perhaps he did well enough, being so close to the hotel, that he did not feel the need to pressure-sell me, or to even acknowledge that I was surreptitiously admiring his wares. Or maybe that was his business style. Either way, we ended up talking about my trip over the past few weeks, struggling to get past a slight language barrier, and next thing I knew, I was inside his shop. And he was preparing tea for us to share.

The shop itself was empty except for me and the owner, which relieved me somewhat. Teacups have been a secret obsession of mine, so I took some time to look around while the water was being heated. Clay yixing pots, iron tetsubin and tiny ceramic cups lined the walls, displaying designs ranging from simple, painted cherry blossoms to intricately sculpted dragons and tree branches. Everywhere I looked was a new delight.

The wall behind the register was filled with canisters of probably a hundred different teas, most labeled in Chinese, all combining to create a subtle, yet heady fragrace that wafted through the room on each passing breeze. The water was just about ready, and the man asked me what kind of tea I would like to sample. I chose the Dragon Ball, tightly rolled pearls of sencha scented with jasmine. We sat down across from one another at a low table and continued our conversation as he poured the water.

I was disarmed by his pleasant humor and his seemingly genuine surprise that I had not yet witnessed a proper tea preparation, which he demonstrated and explained with the patience of a true teacher, never showing the slightest hint of condescension. He rinsed the cups and pots with hot water, then rinsed the tea leaves themselves, explaining that the tea must be washed before it was ready to brew. Maybe it was the previous events of the day, maybe I was already romancing the moment in my head, but the tiny cups of jasmine tea we shared were sublime.

We talked for what seemed like hours, but could not have been more than 20 minutes or so; he told me about how long he had owned the shop, how the tea trade had always been in his family, and then about his family and children. I told him about my first trip to China and a little about my life back home. It wasn't an easy conversation, as my Mandarin is limited to about five phrases and he was continually apologizing for his English, but the challenge was half the charm. By the time we had finished the entire pot of tea, it was nearly time for me to meet up with my associate.

Of course, I ended up leaving the shop with about three bags of souvenirs and the promise of a carved chop that would be delivered to my hotel room later that night, but I didn't feel as much like a tourist about it. Perhaps it was the discount he gave me that put my American mind at ease, but even when I consider it now, that was just an unexpected bonus. I wouldn't have felt as pleased with my purchases if I hadn't been able to truly lose myself in the experience the way I did.

We xiè-xie'ed (syeh-syeh) and parted ways. I admired the jade pendant in the window one last time on my way out, and then lugged my bags back to my room. And promptly fell asleep.

(as it was, my borrowed HK phone rang about 10 minutes later, calling me back to the city, but that's another story…)

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