Archive | October, 2012

Honkers – come and have a play

22 Oct

Mount Parker hong kongIf you’re lucky enough to get accepted on the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme – a one-way ticket to fun, adventure, intimate knowledge of the locals and alcohol-related liver damage – you’ll be treated to a seemingly endless parade of pre-and post-orientation seminars. The purpose of these sententious survival guides is to teach the naïve young uni grad of the dangers of culture shock. It goes something like this:

According to JET, culture shock forces individuals “to re-examine assumptions and social behaviours which were once thought absolute, and may cause discomfort, disorientation and emotional conflicts”. The four stages are as follows: initial euphoria (honeymoon); irritation and hostility (culture shock); gradual adjustment; adaptation and biculturalism (‘going bamboo’ as my granddad might have put it).

Now, the whole lot played out as predictably as a particularly bad Hollyoaks plot for the three years of my particular tour of duty, but here’s the thing – it’s not really happening in Hong Kong, which is a blessing and a massive disappointment.

The problem with Hong Kong is it’s one of the easiest places in the world in which to live. Once you’ve found somewhere to live (probably as expensive as a London flat but a bit smaller) utilities, internet, phone are all set up on the day. There’s no council tax and income tax is a famously low 17%. Ikea delivers and assembles furniture for an embarrassingly tiny fee. Hailable mini buses zip around the island for less than 50p, or you can get a real taxi for about a third of the price of a black cab in London. There are international supermarkets and authentic Western restaurants on every street corner. And great, cheap local Chinese hole-in-the-walls. The locals are at least on grunting terms with English. There are wonderful beach-side bars and sleepy villages, and more hiking trails than you can shake a stick at.

All of which was beginning to stress me out a bit, until I gave up trying to play this the Japan way – knuckle down at the local lingo, learn cultural no-nos: adapt, change, enjoy. It’s an international city state which prides itself on being all things to all people, which has a rich cultural history if you want it but won’t push it down your throat. Most Hong Kong Chinese would not like to be mistaken for a mainlander, and a lot of their difference comes from living in this cultural melting pot. That’s right, I just said melting pot.

In this spirit I ate a brunch of Eggs Benedict last Saturday, caught a £3 cab down the road a few miles to Quarry Bay and went on a stunning 10km hike across Hong Kong island – and was back in Central in time for several pints of cider and a steak sandwich down the pub. Looking for the difference can be exhausting and not much fun if you come to Honkers, enjoy it on your terms.

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Yokoso Japan! Come ye and stay for a while … but not too long

12 Oct

kinkakuji kyotoJust come back from a glorious ten days in Japan. Ahh, Nihhon – every time I go back I wonder why I ever left. And then right at the end of the holiday, when all my endorphins have withered and died, when my belly simply cannot stomach another grilled chicken ovary on a stick and my liver is cowering at the thought of more Asahi. Then I remember why.

I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the place, it’s just that the rabu rabu, when it’s good, is so bloody good, and the bad, well is so bad it just gets pushed to the darkest recesses of my mind as if it never happened. If you haven’t been yet I’d urge you to go, especially if you live in Asia. It’s so bloody close but literally unlike anything on Earth.

All the rumours are true: neon-infused Blade Runner-style city scapes; beautiful snow-capped mountains; peerless temples and hill-top shrines … child porn that would make Jimmy Savile blush. It’s all here. It’s all fighting for space and vying for your attention in the most utterly polite way possible. Like the people who inhabit this archipelago, bad manners is not an option. Learn just a smattering of traveller’s Japanese and you’ll be set – no shrugged shoulders and blank Parisian stares here – and the food has enough variety and quality to keep you happy for at least a fortnight, never eating the same dish twice.

You probably don’t want to hear about how much fun we had though, so I’ll tell you about the darkness. The politeness gets too much after a while, inevitably. Japan’s a walled garden, a playground for the foreigner, but also eventually a bit of a prison. It locks you into the same endless cycle of polite conversations with locals who really should know you better by now – complimenting you on use of chopsticks, linguistic dexterity or just being tall as if the past three years never even happened.

Its otherness, its difference, becomes intensely frustrating. “Why can’t I use my credit card anywhere? Why does it take foreign films two months longer to get here than anywhere else? Why do all the girls have a borderline personality disorder and squeak like a child’s toys when you try to get intimate? And why the hell can’t I find decent CHEESE anywhere!?” Sometimes you just want a beer in a bar without having to order food, a cigarette in the street without having to find the nearest designated smoking area, or a shit without having to operate a Buck Rogers toilet from the future.

That’s basically why I couldn’t live there any longer. That and the child maintenance payments. But post-tsunami Japan needs all the help it can get, and that’s certainly not going to come from Chinese tourists any time soon. So get your collective fingers out and book a trip tomorrow. The soaring highs and the crushing lows are waiting just around the corner…