By: Landon H. Johnson
Mark Twain once wrote that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Well, this past year I was given the opportunity leave my ‘little corner of the earth’ for a year to live and work in Hong Kong. And it was, without a doubt, one the most educating, culturing, and humbling experiences that I have ever had.
In the fall of 2013, I left North Carolina to travel 16 hours by plane to a place that I knew very little about and had only ever seen in pictures: Hong Kong. I was working under contract for a company based in Los Angeles, where I had lived for the previous two years, to fundraise for future projects. After a couple of medical physicals, and a lot of visa paperwork between myself, my employer, and the Hong Kong immigration offices, I was now legally allowed to reside and work in a city that I had never even read a Lonely Planet book about.
For those of you who don’t know, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world with a population of about seven million people. Hong Kong, in my opinion, is very similar to New York City, in the sense that due to the dense populations, everywhere you go is bound to be crowded.
Other than the crowds, one of the first things I noticed about Hong Kong was the spectacular skyline. Now, I had seen many skylines from New York to Dubai, but the Hong Kong’s is even more impressive. Also, you never need to take a taxi in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has one of the most efficient and cleanest subway systems that I have encountered. Each metro station is almost like an underground mall. There are sushi restaurants, McDonalds, bakeries, Seven-Eleven convenient stores, clothing stores, etc. You can get most anything you need underground at the subway stations in Hong Kong. I mean, they even have a Mrs. Fields Cookie bakery down there, at almost every station. Not only are the subways convenient in Hong Kong, but they are also ten times cleaner than any subway train in Los Angeles or New York. Furthermore, Hong Kong subways do not serve as ‘hang-out’ for homeless people like the subways in New York City are known to do.
Hong Kong, however clean and efficient it may be, is still a city that works! Hong Kong citizens, or “Honkies,” and the Chinese as a whole, have a strong work ethic (not to mention a booming economy). It is completely normal for people to work twelve-hour days, and at rush hours the trains and subways are completely packed. Some days, I felt like cattle being herded when I was going or coming from work. The “Honkies,” were so used to the cramped conditions that they would try anything to squeeze themselves in as the doors to the train would close, or even worse their multiple luggage-style bags, or strollers. I didn’t mind the thirty-minute train ride to work every morning because I would always have something to work on or do, but at the end of long work day, being on a cramped train for thirty-minutes was the last thing I wanted to do. And it got old really fast.
When I first got to Hong Kong, I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of westerners, and English speaking people. Actually, English is one of Hong Kong’s official languages, Cantonese being the other. In fact, sometimes when walking down the Central district in Hong Kong, which is the major financial hub on the island, it would be perfectly normal to not see any Asian people at all. However, it is important to note, that most of these Westerners were from Australia, Europe, or the United Kingdom. Upon doing research on the Westerner expats living in Hong Kong, I found that Americans made up the least percentage them. So, needless to say, I definitely got to experience what it feels like to be the minority. Being a Caucasian American, this was something that I was, well, unfamiliar with, but absolutely grateful to experience.
One major difference between Hong Kong and a quaint city such as Charlotte, North Carolina, is that it is a melting pot of many cultures. Hong Kong is revered as a “world city,” meaning that it inhibits people from all over the globe. India, Australia, Africa, Europe, you name it, and they are represented in Hong Kong. One of the things that I enjoyed most about this experience was being able to just walk down the street and hear people speaking at least three different languages. It was nothing to overhear a conversation in French, English (British dialect), or even German. It was particularly fascinating to me, being one of the only Americans, and being born and raised in a place like North Carolina where 99.9% of people speak with a “twang.”
Working in international operations, throughout my venture I had the pleasure of interacting heavily with Hong Kong natives, Chinese natives, as well as British, African, Indian and German expats. I found it so enriching to experience their perspective of Americans. For example, in my first week of work one of my British colleagues- who to this day remains one of my close friends- asked me, “Mate, you Americans just love guns, right?” I smiled in an understanding way. I see how he could draw such a generalization because all he has been exposed to is all the gun-related news stories that the international media presents to everyone outside of the US. Not to mention, the mere idea of regular citizens having access to guns is an extremely foreign concept to the UK, being that their police officers do not even carry guns.
I was also lucky enough to be abroad during America’s infamous Government Shutdown in 2013. I recall sitting in a Pub in the SoHo district one day after work enjoying a bējáu (Cantonese for beer) with another expat colleague of mine from Cairo, Egypt. We were watching a prominent news station as the anchor was discussing, with a confused look on his face, the story of the Shutdown. Obviously, the story did not make America look like the most competent country in the world, and it triggered a string of comments from the bar patrons such as, “America is so stupid,” “America is silly,” and “How can they not agree on a budget to avoid a Shutdown?” I thought about speaking up and defending my homeland, but in some situations I have found that is better to just to sit back, observe, and ultimately, to just pick your battles wisely.
Experiencing all the American stereotypes first-hand was ultra enlightening for me. The most common stereotypes that I encountered were the ideas that all Americans are ignorant (unaware and lack a multi-national conscience), obese, and arrogant. So, needless to say, the international media does not portray America in very a positive light. And many foreigners, unless they travel to the United States, may never get to encounter the real American, because the majority of US citizens do not even own passports. Thus, people abroad assume that all Americans act like the cast of the Jersey Shore, or Larry the Cable Guy, casually yelling, “Get-r-done” at every opportune moment. In fact, according to a recent study done by the State Department, only 46% of Americans actually have passports, and only 30% of the of North Carolina residents have passports. This is not a testament to our intelligence, and I encourage everyone to go get a passport, and to make plans to use it!
I returned to North Carolina this past summer a more humbled and enlightened man. I have a newfound appreciation for my personal space, international travel, and have developed more of a multi-national awareness. I no longer take a train to or from work, nor am exposed to exotic cultures, languages, and traditions on a daily basis. I am back to eating egg whites and orange juice for breakfast instead of the delectable dim sum and authentic jasmine tea. Sushi is little more expensive but the air is cleaner. And from the people that I encountered on my journey, whom I now refer to as “teachers,” to the sites that I saw, and the experiences I had- I will forever be enriched and grateful.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” –T. S. Elliott
For the published version of this article please see: Triad City Beat – A North Carolina Publication
Follow me on Instagram: @landonhjohnson