Coming to a home

So that we can buy ourselves1

It struck me yesterday that I’ve spent more time in malls this past week than I have in the preceding three months. In one way, that’s to be expected – I’m not here working, so I’m not terribly occupied with more pressing activities – and in another it’s deeply annoying. I haven’t been autonomous in the slightest here in Hong Kong. But I have no one to blame for that but myself, and I think I will have a chance to be more adventurous closer to the end of this trip.

The consumerism I encounter in Hong Kong strikes me (granted, with my mostly-outsider perspective) as particularly insidious. The ads are larger than life, but largely about the same as the ones in Vancouver. The malls seem to have almost no seating. In Canada, I think we are accustomed to being left alone to our consuming experience if we are not shopping in groups; this is less true here, where the shopkeepers invite you to look the moment you step in whether it’s a brand store or a tiny shopfront, and they often give you no more than twenty seconds before asking if there is something they can recommend to you. It drives me crazy mostly because it forces me to speak Cantonese. At the same time, it indicates to me that shopping here is mostly viewed as highly a functional experience, or there’s a different norm around the service industry (not entirely unlike what I experienced in the Philippines last year).

I notice that there are almost no benches at the malls I go to, though some of the more posh ones do. The very high-class City Super mall was the first place I saw that had an art installation serving as a public space (it was also temporary). Otherwise, it strikes me that commercial places, especially restaurants, seem to be the default. There’s some, but not a lot, of lingering on concrete blocks and whatnot. The streets in the shopping districts are generally unpleasant, stuffy with heat, smelling of cigarette smoke and loud with bumbling trucks and buses. The promenade along the water has typically been and remains the best place for solace.


I consider myself, as I’m sure other travellers abroad also do, a cultural ambassador. I take my role pretty seriously, in recognition of the way geopolitics have subtly but strongly shaped my experience and indeed the very form of both my immediate and extended families. I haven’t done a whole lot of reading into work on the “satellite kids” phenomenon, but I am acutely aware that parts of my experience are similar to that of many others, known and unknown to me.

Hot on the heels of my friend’s father’s memorial, after the banquet, we went to the mountain cemeteries to visit the final resting places of my relatives, the majority of whom I had never met but who I’m told, are pivotal players in our family history and who were quite close to my parents. We don’t tell the stories a lot, but they always strike me as amazing, worlds away from what I think my life will be like. Since we went so soon after rain, the mosquitoes were relentless, and two of us suffered particularly, unprepared and easy prey in our skirts and sandals. In the midst of it all, as I shook my clasped hands to pay respects to my ancestors, I thought about what I do in Vancouver to get to the same place, of knowing how I got here. To feel the weight of that whole balancing act: of properly shouldering my responsibilities to the past and future, while properly living enough for myself to not feel utterly repressed.

I like the basis of my conversations about the differences between Hong Kong and Vancouver to be about values rather than culture; for me, it frames differences as something more tangible, whereas describing something as “cultural” mystifies it as something I can never understand as a result of not having grown up in Hong Kong like my parents. I wonder, would I define the difference between conservatives and liberals or social progressives that way? I find it a useful thought exercise. I’m more than a little aware that I consciously defined myself in opposition to the superficial, consumerist experience even before I started the Communication program. I want to find something about Hong Kong that doesn’t leave me feeling utterly empty inside with a suitcase full of things I’ll have to make room for back home.

Hearing my parents talk about where they grew up, and how they’ve watched the city grow, I realize that they feel for Hong Kong what I feel for Vancouver. They are connected to this place as I will probably not ever be, just as I am connected to Vancouver in ways they are not
(and, perhaps, they are not able to let themselves be).


I’m super-disappointed and feeling more than bit of a goof for not knowing earlier about the Chinese Internet Research Conference, which took place yesterday and the day before, hosted by the Journalism and Media Centre at the University of Hong Kong. That would’ve been quite my scene, with the academic bloggers and social scientists, and I would have preferred attending to what I was doing each of those days. My bad for not doing better research beforehand. I suppose I will have to console myself with the abstracts. I likely won’t be able to make the monthly Web Wednesday event in July either.

Otherwise, I’ve been scouring for free events. There is a film screening series taking place at the Hong Kong Film Archive, called Care for Our Community (screening schedule). I’m looking forward to catching a film or two when I’m back from Thailand on the 28th. (No Sergei Eisenstein retrospective for me due to the trip, alas.)


We’re going to Macau for tomorrow and the day after; then a few scant hours later, on Wednesday, it’s off to Thailand, where the real vacationing (as most people conceive of it) begins.

1 From the ever-insightful Duncan Sheik, in “Shopping”

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