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THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT: Moving on to fabulous, fragrant (and fatiguing!) Hong Kong

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT
At the moment when women all over the world are demanding a right to be heard, columnist Indra Chopra is here to remind us that an expat spouse is a person in her own right, with her own voice. Something else that makes her column well timed: it is about Hong Kong. I can guarantee her descriptions (particularly of food!) will put you in the mood for Chinese New Year, which is just around the corner… ML Awanohara

In a previous post, I described my family’s expat life in Muscat, Oman. Our next big adventure was a move to Hong Kong, which took place after a planned hiatus of six years in our home country.

I agreed to the Hong Kong move, not because of the Indian family tradition of a wife walking seven steps behind her husbandbut because I, too, am into adventure.

Join me as I take you into the fabulous, fragrant place I initially encountered.

* * *

Water brings luck

No sooner had I agreed to our move to Hong Kong but I am looking down from a rental suite on the 38th floor of Harborview Horizon in Hung Hom, Kowloon, at the teal waters of Victoria Harbour. There is a line of vessels—scampering ferries, catamarans with orangey-brown sails, nose-in-the-air cruise ships with names like Star Virgo and Pisces, rusty junks, barges and sampans—silhouetted against the vast blue sky, with brawny mountains in the distance.

I spend the entire day settling in while taking sneak-peeks at the unfolding harbour scenes. By the time night falls, it looks as though someone has taken a painter’s brush and dabbed sequined color on the concrete structures in the distance and then streaked the water in rainbow hues…

On the day of our arrival in Hong Kong, a friend told us that staying near water brings luck. Hm, is that what the Britishers felt when they first set foot in “The Fragrant Harbor” in 1841, and is that why they stayed for so long?

fabulous-victoria-harbour

A taste of “home”

The so-called City Island is eons ahead of staid Muscat, and I find myself unsure of how to approach my new life: as a novice or as a widely traveled person critically appraising what was on offer?

Being Indian, I am naturally drawn to Chungking Mansion (Nathan Road, in Tsim Sha Shui, Kowloon), a building full of small, family-run Indian and Pakistani restaurants serving traditional food. Believe me, the best Indian snacks or spices in Hong Kong can be found in little peek-a-boo stores under stairs or between shops—dark patches one could easily overlook while being bombarded with DVDs, mobile phones, suitcases, watches, currency exchangers, not to mention steady streams of locals and foreign tourists. I would taste the best butter chicken I would eat during my time in Hong Kong at a Pakistani eating-place on one of the floors of Chungking. I like the feeling that no one can ever get to the bottom of this cavernous, mysterious place. The possibilities are limitless.

a-taste-of-home

Fabulous…and fragrant

Our fresh-off-the-boat year is mesmeric…and exhausting. We are constantly meeting new people and making new friends among Hong Kong’s potpourri of nationalities. I never get homesick, except for family, thanks to the sizable Indian diaspora.

Now, it would be easy to be a stay-at-home wife who joins the various kirtan (prayer) groups, coffee mornings or kitty parties. Watching me deliberate on which Indian ladies to befriend, a British friend is surprised: “What’s the big deal, aren’t you all Indians?” Well, yes, but each of us has our own individual traits.

But something within me desires a whole set of new experiences. I know I won’t rest until I can understand more about the vignettes of daily life I keep witnessing as I navigate my new surroundings.

Perhaps energized by Hong Kong’s Autonomy Movement, I start asserting my own autonomy. Joining the crowds on the Peak Tram and the Mid-Levels escalator, I step out of my comfort zone and start peeking into the curtained windows of posh villas and spa treatment facilities that reek of Chinese herbs and other concoctions. I sense there is something unique about this place. Part of it is a sensibility but there is also an aroma that is manifestly Chinese.

I start taking day trips to Macau, China’s Las Vegas clone. I queue up for weekend ferries to the outlying islands of Chueng Chau, Lama, Lantau, Peng Chau, Pui Oh, Tai Wan Long, and Sai Kung. I even join some treks and hikes, including to the Ng Tung Chai waterfall, the biggest in Hong Kong, and within the lush, secluded greenery of the New Territories.

I visit the former Kowloon Walled City (Kowloon Walled City Park), the history of which traces back to the Song Dynasty (960–1279), when an outpost was set up to manage the trade of salt.

Strolling through subterranean air-conditioned passages or along overhead walkaways, I find aspects of my adopted home enchanting. I stand mute in front of the iconic lions as I reach the front of the HSBC Main Building in Central, which was designed by British architect Norman Foster. Catching sight of the International Finance Centre (IFC), I visualize French Spider-Man, Alain Robert, doing loops atop its towers; and, as I make my way through the high rises of Central, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, I feel like Moses as he walks through the parting seas in The Ten Commandments.

Hong Kong has an excellent public transportation system, and I even manage solo travel to Lo Wu, which lies on the border between Hong Kong and mainland China, though I do not cross over to Shenzhen as I still don’t have my China visa.

On brutally hot days, I hop on a bus or a train and escape to an unknown neighborhoods in search of alfresco cafes, local designer stores, tearooms, parks and gardens, art galleries or libraries.

Whenever I feel I have seen and done it all, I have a niggling doubt there is more.

fabulous-and-fragrant-hk

Fabulous, fragrant…and fatiguing

Although Hong Kong still has pockets of antiquity here and there, with links to the region’s rich historical past, much of the region is in flux. For instance, Sheung Wan, one of the earliest settled places by the British, and part of the Central and Western Heritage Trail, is rapidly turning into a dining hotspot and bustling shopping mecca. The same is true of Sai Ying Pun, an area once known for its small lanes and historical buildings.

Similarly in Kowloon, Sham Shui Po—Deep Water Pier in Cantonese—the peninsula’s commercial and industrial hub, is fast becoming a street-shopping mecca.

Talk about change—one has only to look upwards at the constantly changing skyline. Hong Kong has more skyscrapers than anywhere on the planet, with its notorious shoe-box apartments piled atop shopping malls piled atop subways stations. Then, two years ago, a giant wheel suddenly landed in the midst of all these shifting layers, giving Hong Kongers their own version of the London Eye: what a fantastical embellishment to this swathe of reclaimed land!

Not long after my initial arrival, my feet are in urgent need of pampering. I have never done so much city-walking before—so followed the lady handing out leaflets in one of the by-lanes to a third-floor cramped salon that offered reflexology massage. It’s not one of the cleanest experiences, but soon I will have my favorite places, where I take visiting friends and family when they, too, are in need of some down time…

Travel writer Paul Theroux has said that travel is a state of mind. In Hong Kong, the fear is you may never get out of that state… No sooner have you taken in the brightly colored tong laus (19th-century tenement buildings) than you find yourself in a murky alley full of yan ching mei (the essence of humanity). It can be difficult to take in the sounds of traffic and never-ending foot-falls, the smells of traffic fumes, cigarette smoke, raw meat and fish…and not feel overwhelmed.

Making my way around this cacophonous Island city, I pick up many lessons, two of which stand out:

  1. Silence is golden—best exemplified by unblinking people in malls, the surging and pushy crowds of the MTR, and the mute cashiers at general stores.
  2. Survival is an art. You have to learn how you deal with the guttural rudeness of fruit sellers in wet markets, the pestering sales-peddlers of “genuine fake” watches and purses on Nathan Road, and the “No cheap” snide comments of shop assistants in brand showrooms once they notice you’re from the Sub-continent. After a while, I begin to comprehend the “I stay in a beach-side villa” hand-flick of long-time expat residents, the “couldn’t care less” attitude of locals, the jostling Mainlanders on weekly shopping sprees, and the hired helpers laying siege to open spaces and parks on weekends.

I shadow a friend as she navigates past umbrella-poking pavement walkers; impervious-to-others, 70+ matrons pushing carts laden with used cardboard boxes; cell-phone strollers; feisty old ladies twirling to “Sugar Sugar Honey Honey” in a neighborhood park; and Rambo seniors swimming in the cold waters of Hung Hom Bay. Little by little, I am getting in step.

It’s food!

A member of my writing group suggested I should spice up my writings rather literally, with more mentions of food—not a difficult task when it comes to Hong Kong, which entices its visitors into alleys, eateries and restaurants with its distinctive smells.

It is not long before I learn there is more to Chinese cuisine than my favorite dishes of Indian-Chinese Manchurian chicken, chow mien and hot & sour soup. In my various gastronomic quests on both sides of the Island, I discover finger-licking fish balls, succulent dim sum dishes, as well as slurpy wanton noodles, at the cha chaan ten (traditional Chinese eateries). In time my list of favorites comes to include:

Food is a kind of entry point into the mysteries of Hong Kong, the key to pinning down some of its elusiveness. I learn what people consider to be esoteric or exotic (e.g., snake soup, whole pigs or fish varieties) and become aware of the apparently important need to distinguish between dim sum, the word for a traditional lunch or brunch where one eats small portions of food served with tea, and dumplings, consisting of small pieces of dough wrapped around various fillings (meat, veggies or even fruit). Dumplings are not dim sum but a dim sum dish.

By making the restaurant rounds—from Michelin starred restaurants. to neighborhood open-air food stalls or dai pai dong, to book cafes and fast food outlets—I come to know parts of Hong Kong I might not otherwise have encountered.

Most important of all, I discover The Toothpick: the fine art of flicking food particles from in between tooth gaps, after one finishes eating. It is fascinating to watch all the Chinese people immediately reach for a toothpick at the end of every meal. A friend always carries a packet of toothpicks because “some eating places do not place it along with sauces and the salt-and-pepper set.” Now I, too, am addicted and my mouth craves that instant gratification.

its-food-hk

* * *

In John le Carré‘s The Honorable Schoolboy, it is said at one point that “when you leave Hong Kong it ceases to exist.” That was not my experience. After a seven-year stay, Hong Kong never ceases to exist for me.

To be continued…

* * *

Thank you, Indra! As always, you bring a unique lens to your travels and expat experiences. I wonder, does Hong Kong seem familiar in some ways to you because of its British colonial heritage, not unlike India’s? —ML Awanohara

Indra Chopra is a writer/blogger passionate about travel and curious about cultures and people. Her present status is that of an accidental expat writing to relive moments in countries wherever she sets home with her husband. With over twenty years of writing experience Indra has contributed to Indian, Middle Eastern publications and online media. She blogs at TravTrails

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Photo credits: Opening visual: Airplane photo and India photo via Pixabay. Other photos supplied or else downloaded from Pixabay.

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT: A stopover in Toronto, the world’s most multicultural city

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT
Columnist Indra Chopra is back. Born in India, Indra embraced the life of a trailing spouse to become a globetrotter. In this post she shares her impressions of Toronto, a place that arouses her curiosity and makes her feel (somewhat) at home. ML Awanohara

In my last column, I promised to deliver the Hong Kong chapter of our diasporic shenanigans, beginning in 2008—but the present keeps intruding on my thoughts.

This summer I am visiting Canada for the fourth time. Every visit has been an exposé on the resilience of immigrants waiting for the “turning point.” They start anew not knowing what is around the bend.

“Canada is a place of infinite promise.” —John Maynard Keynes

English economist John Maynard Keynes once said he’d prefer emigrating to Canada over the USA. It’s perhaps a good thing he never experienced driving along Don Mills Road in Toronto…

The morning-evening views of humming cars and twinkling lights of Highway 401—said to be the busiest highway in North America (around half a million vehicles travel along it per day)—does not lull me into a poetic trance; I am too busy counting heads. The car lights represent the people from all over the world who have made this land their home, and the cars…their search for permanency.

I wonder how many of the immigrants enjoyed their moves, whether it was voluntary or forced, under happy circumstances or tragic.

Not all that long ago Canada was the land of Niagara Falls, polar bears and Arctic wilderness. The steady trickling in of immigrants and other displaced nationers has provided an opportunity to fill in the blanks, the empty spaces, with men, women and children looking for places to plant new roots.

The human surge continues; new faces keep appearing from corners of the world that have been stretched to their limits; and there is talk of getting in still more.

“It is easy to get a Canadian permanent resident card,” state a young couple from India. They willingly chose this option for a hassle-free life and the chance to be accepted into the Indo-Canadian diaspora that somehow lessens nostalgia for the homeland.
canada-then-and-now

“Toronto is a very multicultural city, a place of immigrants, like my parents.” —R&B artist Melanie Fiona

I take the elevator down from the 32nd floor of one of the city’s high rises, stopping at different floors. Soon I am joined by African Canadians, Asian Canadians, Indo Canadians: different colors, different masks. I ask an Asian lady flaunting a diamond nose-pin whether she is from India. Her answer? “From Bangladesh. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh—we’re all the same; we wear the same dresses and speak the same languages.” I agree—it’s time I shed my parochial attitude.

A walk in the nearby mall and it’s a mini-world of myriad tongues and dress: hijab-covered heads, Indian tunic tops, tank tops and short shorts… I wonder how they are all adjusting, what makes them leave their familiar environments to embark on a journey to an unknown land.

“It’s relatives and friends who entice us with stories of luxury, which seldom are true,” they would probably tell me. And, once here, they do not want to return having used their savings but must honor their promises to help finance parents and other family member to join them in hopes of a better life, not only in terms of opportunities but also basic amenities.

Of course, some want to return to their native lands, such as the Trinidad-born banker who tells me: “I cannot see myself retiring here. It is too cold.” In any event, she has no choice but to stay in Toronto for the time being, having enrolled her children in city schools. She thinks they will be misfits in their own country if they leave mid-way. She will wait for them to complete college before she decides on her next move, she says.

There are the lone movers, the refugees fleeing torture, intimidation, famine, and poverty. Canadians recently opened their minds and hearts to 25,000 Syrian refugees and are committed to helping them resettle in their country.

I see plenty of my compatriots: young men and women from Punjab and other Indian states. In 2011 Toronto was favored destination for Indians, with no or few limits on letting them work. Some are even doing manual labor—which they certainly would have felt below their dignity in their own country. Many are now investing in properties and enjoying affluent lifestyles—calculating how this compares to where they might have been had they stayed in India.

“The fact that over 50 per cent of the residents of Toronto are not from Canada, that is always a good thing, creatively, and for food especially.” —Anthony Bourdain

Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world, with more than 140 dialects spoken other than French and English. It is nicknamed the “city of neighbourhoods,”; some of the more famous include:

We are driven around Brampton—aka Sikhland or Bangland because so many South Asian migrants have made it their home. It’s a suburban city in Greater Toronto. Many find it easier to settle in if they can live in pockets of ethnicity rather than having to navigate new neighborhoods.

I read about “white flight”, a term that describes the pattern by which early settlers from England to Canada were replaced first by Europeans and then by Asians, Africans, Arabs…a never-drying stream.

“In all of this, the mighty god Krishna moves, increasingly troubled by his lack of relevancy in this alien land.” —Gary Dickerson, about the Indo-Canadian film Masala (1991)

I attend a Hindu prayer gathering (puja) at a relative’s house; and for two hours I am transported to a gurudwara in New Delhi. My reverie is broken when I hear two ladies whispering—not in Punjabi but in Canadian-accented English. Where am I?

The kirtana (call-and-response style religious song or chant) that take place every weekend are a way to keep the umbilical cord intact. One can talk Indian politics, stay connected with friends, and expose children to Indian culture. Neighborhoods are thereby transformed into extensions of the pind (Indian village), with its internal rules and laws intact.

India was/is a reservoir for brides and grooms for Canadian-based Indians, until the younger generation, born and brought up in Toronto, insists on the much-needed change of deciding their own fate by finding their own partners—a source of pride in their adopted land.

A friend recounts his first few days in the country when his wife refused to step out of the house even though her relatives, parents were living next door. The wife was missing her daily routine of long chats with friends, the shared housework and space. Eventually she succumbed to the “good life”; and now with her children married and settled, she wonders how she could have been so “foolish in wanting to return to Punjab.”

Living an expat life can be full of pitfalls or else promises, depending on one’s family life and their expectations.

I meet up with an Indian lady who started her own spice business supplying to Toronto’s Indian grocery stores, first in her neighborhood, then in greater Toronto, and now to neighboring cities and provinces. Her business grew with support from her husband and children. She says:

“When I came to Canada, newly married, I did not plan to sit in the house, and at the same time, I did not want to take up a nine-to-five job. A few experiments at self-business and finally the right idea came. Fifteen years back most of us would carry our spices from visits back home. In time it became tedious, and this is when I hit upon the idea of starting a business with something I was familiar with. We source spices from India and different countries and package and sell them in Canada.”

At other end of the spectrum is a friend’s relative, who has been slogging away since the time she set foot in Toronto forty years back. The ashen visage says it all: having been married at a young age, she had no idea what she was getting into. The husband was of no help; the only silver lining there were no relatives or in-laws around. “It was not easy,” she says.

She took up a job in a bank for financial stability—and with children to take care of as well, it was a balancing act between work and home responsibilities. Years have not changed her routine. She still gets up early morning to complete chores before leaving for work and returning home to prepare dinner, an endlessly exhausting double burden.

I see the younger generation, my children included, who know what it means to globetrot, to assimilate to new surroundings and find their place under the Canadian sun. A Hindu girl lets drop that she eats beef in answer to last year’s “beef killings” in India (an incident where a Hindu mob killed a Muslim family for slaughtering a cow and consuming its meat).
india-diaspora-toronto

* * *

Whether an immigrant from Europe, South East Asia, Far East, Middle East…the narratives are similar, voiced with a shuttered look as if to say:

“We are here, this is what matters, not how we got here or why we came.”

A walk on Toronto’s streets and neighborhoods and the international flavor of Canada devours you. I think of my own journey and where I would like it to end…

* * *

Thank you, Indra, for sharing your thoughts on Canada’s, and the world’s, most multicultural city. From your description, I think Toronto must be the closest physical counterpart our planet has to The Displaced Nation site! —ML Awanohara

Indra Chopra is a writer/blogger passionate about travel and curious about cultures and people. Her present status is that of an accidental expat writing to relive moments in countries wherever she sets home with her husband. With over twenty years of writing experience Indra has contributed to Indian, Middle Eastern publications and online media. She blogs at TravTrails

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, and much much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Opening visual: Airplane photo and India photo via Pixabay. Second visual: Photos of Canadian wilderness, polar bear and Niagagra Falls via Pixabay; and night and morning photos of Don Mills Road (supplied). Third visual: (first row) 2013 Taste of the Danforth, by synestheticstrings via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), and Chinatown mural via Pixabay; (second row) Immigrant, by Taymaz Valley via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (third row) India Bazaar – Toronto, by The Lost Wanderer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0), and Lord Dufferin Public School Students Watch MLK Day Performance, by US Embassy Canada via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Last visual: (clockwise from top left) The kulffi kid (Little India, Toronto), by sakura via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Toronto Temple, by shedairyproduct via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Sacred Hindu Cows, by Anthony Easton via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and Hindu Markings on a Van, also by Anthony Eaton.

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