Posts Tagged 'china'

Til Your Money Runs Out: In Tai O, In Old Clothes

I could live here, I thought. I could stay here til my money runs out. I don’t need to go back; I don’t even know where “back” is.

I thought this as I walked through Tai O last night, down the narrow cement alley of a fishing village on the far end of one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands.

I’d been having fun in Hong Kong the previous three days, running around the city with a friend who just moved here. Running off and on subway cars, in and out of cabs, up and down hills, this cafe and that restaurant and not worrying about any of it.

Something about it made me feel young again—something about the hills and the air and the clatter of street cars, the Chinese characters, the speed and energy of it all. A toy city, trams that move like little clanking trains on a track, beneath tall skinny buildings—“you drew that too tall,” I wanted to tell whoever made them. A vertical city, a vertigo city, hills that remind me of San Francisco, wires in the air like San Francisco, air dry and cool like San Francisco. Homesick city, other-side-of-the-world city, not my real city, blinds clacking in the night breeze above the sofa where I slept, 22 stories up.

I’d been wearing all my old clothes too, things I hadn’t worn in over a year, things that smelled like mold and the bamboo of my wardrobe in my apartment in Hanoi. They were all a little faded though, a little worse for the wear: my jeans had shrunk, my Toms had holes in them, my hoodie was stretched out and linty. But for those first few days I was feeling like the person I used to be; “I feel like myself again!” I’d exclaimed. In the pockets I found boarding passes to flights I’d taken a year ago, on the other side of the planet, what felt like another life—ink blurred and also faded. I’d smiled before I’d thrown them away.

A night to kill out on an island, an excuse to “get away from it all,” though I’m not sure what “it all” even is anymore. Met up with some other friends, took a ferry and a cab up to a big bronze Buddha, “that’s a big Buddha!” Talked about old friends, about Oakland, hugged and parted ways. Bus down, down, down the mountain and into the town of Tai O just as the sun was setting.

Walking through the village, the silence of a day-trip town after all the day-trippers have gone. A fishing village, former village, burgeoning tourist trap, not quite one or the other but perfect in its inbetweenness—the echoes of television sets, voices laughing, the clack-clack of Chinese checkers and the squeak of a toddler’s shoes. Windows drawn and doors open, peaking in at the red altars and television sets, the little line of living rooms and the little line of lives.

Moonlight on the tin houses, a dozen cats crouched in the shadows along a door frame, necks all bent at the same angle. The metal gates drawn and the straw baskets on their bellies, but the smell of fish remaining. The smell of salt, the smell of gasoline, every beach town I’ve ever been in—Puerto Angel and Mirleft and Sveti Stefan, a scattering of places around the planet, all as still and breezy and insect-whiny as here.

I sat down on a stone ledge under a swollen ring of streetlight. Listened to the waves. I could stay here, I thought. Til my money runs out, I thought.

And I thought then of the previous night, when for whatever reason I’d started looking through old photos on my computer. They were mostly from trips I’d taken, a lot of them with an old boyfriend. And it was weird, for the first time the girl in the pictures struck me as another person. Like, I could remember being her but I had this super strong feeling that she wasn’t me anymore.

I’d leaned forward, squinted at the girl. She was prettier than she thought she was; she was skinnier than she thought she was too. Her hair didn’t look that stupid and her skin wasn’t all that bad and she had a lot less tattoos. She had a nice smile and she looked happy, I thought—happier than she thought she was.

What happened to that girl? The question had troubled me, sat in me, stirred in me as I trolled around all day, until I was sat down under the Tai O streetlight.

I’d left her. It’s like I’d been a train—a little toy train—and I’d pulled out of the station of that girl without even noticing, like those moments you look out the window and you think the outside is moving but really it’s you, or you think you’re moving but really it’s the outside, another train passing you by.

She’s gone, I thought, sitting on that ledge in tired old clothes that didn’t feel like mine anymore. She’s stuck there, smiling in those photographs, making silly faces. You slipped away from her, I thought, and now you want to reach out and touch her, smell her, feel the way her body is. Just looking at her hurts.

It’s too much. Sometimes it’s all too fucking much and you just want to curl up in some beach town, some fishing town, walk down the one road over and over, peeking in the doorways, hearing the sounds of TVs, voices and laughs you don’t understand, aren’t a part of—other people’s cooking—and you want to just stay there until your money runs out and your bones get old, weathered by the salt and the wind, become a relic like this, a rock like this—weeds growing up between the cracks.

11 Dazed Hours in Hong Kong

If ever there was a place to wander around in a jet-lagged, head-cold haze with nothing more than a tourist bureau map, Hong Kong is it.

The 11-hour lay-over is actually what made me choose this flight to Hanoi (aside from the fact that it was the cheapest). I love long layovers; it’s like a two-for, a bonus. You get to extend the half-here-ness of transit onto a place—walk through its streets like it were a video game, or bumpy camcorder images from someone else’s vacation, or someone else’s dream, exuding a kind of impermenance that makes you impervious, imperceptible, a kind of illusion, a walking ghost in a half-here city.

Or it could just be the jet-lag talking.

Either way, Hong Kong is a trippy city to spend 11 hours sleepwalking through. Everything is clean, clear and predetermined: signs telling you where to go, signs reminding you to hold the handrailings, signs designating exactly where you should walk and where you should stand and which direction you should look for traffic and when you should be mindful of bicyclists.

It’s a subdued city, a city on Vicodin. Everyone talks in a low, pleasant voice; they smile slightly when they exchange words with you. Skyscrapers rise up to be swallowed in a white fog. Municipal workers sweep sidewalks, trim hedges, wear blue face masks and walk with their hands clasped behind their backs, or piously under their bellies. People walk with the self-possessed composure of business people on their lunch breaks. Shoes click, crosswalk signs hum, the gentle clatter of endless construction (what more could they be building?) echoes. Nothing is loud or jarring or overwhelming. Yes, it’s crowded, but there’s an order to everything—an organized insanity, a colonized chaos.

You could almost begin to suspect that you were in some George-Orwell-esque alternate reality, where everything seems real, resembles real, but really isn’t—just some placated approximation of a real place. Rolex, Prada, Couch, Ralph Lauren, Espirit, Starbucks, 711, Pret A Manger, Citibank, Geox—buildings that stack as neatly as Leggos and fish markets that don’t reek of fish, don’t reek of anything. The thinnest layer of soot covers the awnings, as if to remind you that it’s real—the slightest twinge of exhaust tickles your nose.

It doesn’t feel theme-parky or like a tourist charade, but rather like the city has in fact become this—a large, outdoor office park.

None of which is to say I didn’t enjoy my time wandering around Hong Kong—just that it felt more like one of the alternative realities from Inception than a real place. Which could have been the cocktail of jet lag and DayQuil and caffiene and bad airplane food swimming around inside me. It could have been the pork dumplings and Ramen noodles that tasted like childhood.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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