Kathmandu to Hong Kong: Culture shock central

Hi all,

Part of me wishes (and will always wish) I was still in one of the two places mentioned in the title of this blog post. International travel is an intoxicating mix of new encounters and humbling experiences. I feel fortunate for the adventures I had and the lessons I learned last fall and winter, and can’t help but yearn for when I will be lucky enough to have them again. At this time when I feel myself struggling with a couple of complex feelings around place and direction, I’ve been thinking a lot about the journey I took earlier this year. Because of computer logistics and less notebook scribbles, I never posted anything about my final trip days. I’m hoping to do a bit of that over the coming weeks, as I reflect back and start a new chapter in my life. More on that later.

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Leaving Nepal on January 28 was bittersweet. It was dusk in Kathmandu as I took the taxi from Boudhanath, where I’d had dinner with a new friend, to the airport. One last ride on the pockmarked streets, horns blaring around corners and into the night sky.

Saying 'bye bye' to Boudhanath and Kathmandu - so bittersweet, but I'll be back!
Saying ‘bye bye’ to Boudhanath and Kathmandu

During nighttime take offs, one of my favourite things is to look out the window at the lights of the city below, snaking their way around waterways and geometrically into grids. Not so in Kathmandu. Our plane soared off the runway and up into the sky. I turned my head to the window, and found we left behind almost complete darkness. I shouldn’t have been surprised. January and February are two of the worst months for power load shedding in KTM, and at this point in the evening, the sprawl of the city was blanketed in black. Still, I said my final farewells to that temporary home, and imagined leaving behind all those now-invisible behind-a-curtain restaurants, street vendors, and mountains.

This in mind, Hong Kong hit like a bag of bricks. Kathmandu is a sensory experience because of the honking and monkeys and traffic and dust. In Hong Kong, it’s the never-ending light. Electricity everywhere, screaming at you with the equivalent of a thousand caps-locked novels. I felt as though there were more lights in one square block of HK than in all of Kathmandu. It was jaw-dropping. I felt like I had just been caught escaping jail, every floodlight of the institution suddenly shining down on me.

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A constant theme throughout my travel-related blog posts were experiences that provided dramatic foils – concepts of day and nightmadness and calmness in Janakpur and Ilamplaytime in the Western world versus in Nepal. The contrast between Nepal and Hong Kong was one of those so-called opposites. I went from a country that is in the midst of such development, to one of the most high tech and densely populated cities in the world.

Kathmandu (left) to Hong Kong (right)
Kathmandu (left) to Hong Kong (right)

The culture shock hit the moment I got to the airport. I realized I had “forgotten” how to use an automatic soap dispenser and was surprised when the toilet flushed itself. I got nauseous and motion sick on all forms of public transportation because my body was no longer used to travelling faster than 40 kilometres an hour, not to mention on smooth roads. There were street lights, street signs, garbage cans, and skyscrapers. I stared at my sweaty, backpacked reflection in the window of Dolce and Gabanna and Gucci stores. Starbucks and McDonalds waved with Western World hello’s. Everything was efficient and clean and everyone was in a rush.

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It was easy to feel overwhelmed by the change. I think Hong Kong would have been intense coming from Canada, but it was even more so coming straight from three months in Nepal. Still, I was grateful for the order of travel, and the perspective Nepal gave me for this new city at hand.

Suddenly, “Western” ideas of consumerism and capitalism in Hong Kong seemed absurd when compared to the poverty I had witnessed in Nepal. In Gatlang, one of the only opportunities for women to “shop” was when two young men walked the five hours from a local village, peddling Hello Kitty polar fleeces and fake leather jackets. In Hong Kong, material items seemed much more important. Shopping malls marked every corner like a neighbourhood coffee shop.

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Market scenes
Market scenes

It’s here that we should note that Hong Kong is not China (no, really, it’s considered a “Special Administrative Region” and is so much more British/Western because of that controversial little thing they call colonialism). When I talked to some people at home about going to China, or even going to Hong Kong, the reaction was: do you know that China is a communist state? A: sure, in theory.

But despite the cultural revolution, Maoist hate-on for capitalism and the bourgeois, China, to me, is really the ultimate expression of Capitalism (in what I thought as a sweet bit of irony, I was even able to buy my very own little red copy of “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” and a lovely wristwatch where Mao’s raised arm is used to indicate the changing minute). And, since we’ve already established that not only is HK not really China, but was also very much Western-inspired, the city’s culture reflects this. HK has one of the highest per-capita incomes, but also one of the highest rates in income inequality among developed countries.

I felt the sudden urge to get rid of most of what I own.

When do we want a revolution? Right Mao!
When do we want a revolution? Right Mao!

All this in mind, HK was exciting, too. It felt like being in a non-stop amusement park. I ate oily, deep-fried fish balls and squid sold at corner street vendors, chunks of eggplant oozing with cheese. I wandered market after market, taking great thrill in haggling for fun; I ate noodles and drank beer in outdoor night markets. The Hong Kong subway and mini buses hurtled me around the city, to take in the sights and scents at Taoist temples, and awe over manicured city gardens contrasted with the highest of skyscrapers.

Hong Kong Island (Kowloon in the distance) from Victoria Peak, the highest point in the city.
Hong Kong Island (Kowloon in the distance) from Victoria Peak, the highest point in the city.
Food stall
Food stall (the woman is telling me off in Cantonese)

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Incense burns at Wong Tai Sin Temple in Hong Kong - Chinese New Year offerings.
Incense burns at Wong Tai Sin Temple in Hong Kong – Chinese New Year offerings.

To be fair, I was also in the city during Chinese New Year celebrations (as I had eagerly intended), so things were perhaps even more frantic than usual. Stay with me over the next little bit as I explore the fun follies of cultural identity, colonial remnants, celebrating three New Years in one year, and the impressive hilarity of choreographed water fountains!

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