I deplaned Tuesday night in Hong Kong International with my heart in my throat. There is something distinctly numbing about 16 hours of flight, with legs and neck cramped no matter how I arrange my body, restful sleep completely out of reach. But it’s calming in a strange way: with my mind focused on my physical discomfort and the dreary boredom of the fact of 16 hours of such discomfort in front of me, there is no room left for fear.
In the airport I repeated the steps I’d set out for myself to keep my nerves at bay. Customs, baggage claim, taxi, hostel. Customs, baggage claim, taxi, hostel. Everything went off uneventfully, which was more than I’d dared to hope for. As I left the airport for the taxi queue and was hit suddenly by the hot, humid air with the lights of the big city jutting up from the distant horizon, I smiled, a thrill of excitement settling in the pit of my stomach and making me giddy. I was somewhere new.
I’ve been to Hong Kong several times, but not like this: as a newcomer, a resident. I was joining the family, so to speak.
Wednesday morning I found a map and confirmed several apartment viewings: six, in fact. I’d been told from various sources that I wasn’t giving myself enough time to find an apartment (including a woman from Hong Kong who was on the aisle seat to my window during the flight and who, in response to me asking, “Do you think a week will be enough time?” kindly said, “Well, no”). Despite the harrowing suspicion that these sources were correct, I carried on as I usually do, stubbornly convinced that my path is sensible and likely to yield my desired results…until nearly inevitably being proven otherwise.
After spending the morning at the Immigration Tower in Wan Chai collecting my visa, my apartment hunt began in Tin Hau, an area very near to Causeway Bay, which is where I will be working. I would live anywhere on the island (or off it, for that matter), so long as my commute to Causeway Bay is manageable. The places I looked at in Tin Hau were awful. It was a depressing realization to confirm with my own eyes what the Internet had hinted at: that I would be paying a small fortune to live in an ugly place the size of a closet. Most of the apartments didn’t have stoves or washing machines, and they were uniformly old and dilapidated with bedrooms the size of a double bed if I squeezed.
I thanked the property agent and returned to my hostel to 有一个休息, or “have a rest,” which in the mainland generally occurs during the working day somewhere between 11am and 2pm, similar to the Spanish siesta. I usually do not need a rest during the day (which worried the teachers last year at Ping Gang almost as much as my distaste for soup), as I’ve never been a napper, but jet lag insisted it was bedtime. I forced myself awake again by 6pm to see one more apartment, this one on Hollywood Rd near Soho, an energetic, expat-heavy, night-life oriented part of the island. It was a nicer studio, but still small, and the cramped layout was a bummer. I didn’t like to think about coming home to what amounted to a dorm room after a long day at work. I know beggars can’t be choosers, but if I’m dropping more than $1200 a month on a place, my one requisite is that I better be happy to come home to it. This studio had a balcony, which was a perk, but it was also over budget, unacceptable for an apartment that didn’t quite hit the spot.
I wearily returned to the hostel, where I put in a movie (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, of course–what else would I watch when I need to calm down?), but fell asleep through most of it. Unfortunately when I woke up to actually get ready for bed, my body decided it was done with the whole sleeping thing and I stayed awake until 7am, when I finally fell asleep again until 11. At that point, my schedule for Thursday was thrown off pretty drastically, so instead of the busy day I had planned, I just skipped to the part where I went into work for the first time.
I walked to 18 Hysan Ave from the hostel, about fifteen minutes away. I got lost, circling the block a few times before finding the place. I think my gaze had averted itself on purpose, because NTK is housed on the 3rd, 4th, 5th (and soon 11th) floors of this giant, high-end, gleaming Cartier building and when I noticed the address on the spotless glass doors, my heart skipped a beat and with rising panic, I thought, “I have to walk in there?” Readers, I am not a fancy person. I was sweating more than a boy who has just tumbled headfirst over the brink of adolescence, my hair was in a braid that was rapidly losing its identity as a braid, and I’d picked out a denim skirt and a (very) floral shirt to wear, a cute ensemble that inside the Cartier building looked like gardening clothes.
Imagine my relief (and contradictory vague disappointment) when the marble-and-gold-embossed elevator deposited me on the very homely, smudged white-tiled 5th floor. Walking out of the elevator there was a low L-shaped table with students and parents setting up appointments on one side and employees drawing up schedules on the other. I informed the first available person that I was new and would like to speak to HR or the principal, and was soon ushered into the principal’s office, a small room covered in textbooks with a white meeting table and flimsy blue chairs. The principal showed me around (basic classrooms and a teacher’s lounge) and told me the start date was flexible, and that I should wait a week or two or three until I get settled before actually beginning the job. Two more new teachers from the USA are joining the staff mid-September, and he introduced me to four other young teachers, an eclectic group, one each from Poland, USA, Canada, and the UK. I had all sorts of good vibes from the place, and already kind of loved this ugly little learning center couched in a jewelry department store, because while dressing up is fun, it’s also a costume, it disappears at midnight, it’s uncomfortable by virtue of being something other than what I usually am. This place wasn’t hiding. It had on its gym clothes.
On the way back, I stopped at a little shop I had spied during my disoriented rambles, which featured a menu in English as well as Chinese. I ordered the Yunnan noodles, which was a big bowl of soup with rice noodles, ground pork, those sour pickled green beans I inexplicably love so much, plenty of bean sprouts, and a bit of spice.
At this point, jet lag reared its ugly head and I headed back to the hostel to obey the call, but not before scouring the Internet for more potential apartments. I found one that looked too good to be true (and when it looks to good to be true, it usually is), but I gamely emailed the guy and set up an appointment for early the next morning. I slept until 4am when hey, jet lag decides I might as well start my day. I read and putzed for four hours before setting out to see this place, trying to quell my excitement at what couldn’t possibly be.
But it could possibly be, and it was. I bussed to Sai Ying Pun, on the far west side of Hong Kong, right on the water. As I walked through the neighborhood to the complex, Connaught Garden, I noticed immediately that this wasn’t the Hong Kong of Causeway Bay or Wan Chai or Central. It was more like a neighborhood on the mainland, like a back street of Longgang, than anywhere else I’d seen. There was a flower shop, a plastic store, a place that sold dishes, small Chinese restaurants, a dried goods shop, and a paper supplies store… anyone who has lived in a Chinese neighborhood will recognize these types of shops immediately as distinctly non-Western and also generally indicative of a lower income level. I felt right at home in the mess and the bustle, and was smiling as I turned the corner toward the complex. The apartment is on the 26th floor, and the price comes in at the very top of my budget, but somehow it was worlds away from the rodent hovels I’d been shown the day before for the same price. There’s an unbelievable sea view, which just shouldn’t be an option at my budget level. There are window seats. The place is entirely furnished, newly renovated, and although it’s a studio apartment, the layout is accessible and spacious and there is, believe it or not, a glass partition that visually, at least, separates the bedroom area from the rest of the place. It is Grade A adorable and I was giddy. After leaving the place on cloud nine, I assured the guy I would be emailing him shortly to let him know if I wanted it.
I visited the library–so big and beautiful and so many English books!–to see what it would take to get a library card (a local Hong Kong address and identity card, apparently) and to have lunch while I deliberated about the apartment. It’s only day three of my search, after all. Will something better come along? Am I being too hasty? Can I even afford the place, what with the start-up leasing cost of 3 months rent total? And it’s a bit far from work, probably a solid 40-45 minute commute. Another downside is I can’t move in until September 1, so it will cost me quite a bit to extend my stay in the hostel by another 8 nights.
But…so what? I immediately felt good about this place; it felt like it could be home. So I’m going with my hunches on this one, and I emailed this afternoon saying I’ve decided I’m in love with the place, tell me how to make it mine.
I’m in love with you, Hong Kong. Tell me how to make you mine.