I recently left mainland China for a short stay in Hong Kong.
As I’ve written about in the past, prior to my departure for China I had never left the states, and only very rarely been out of the American mid-west. Within a week of landing in Beijing, the city felt like home to me. It called out to my soul and I found myself feeling more relaxed than I could have put a name to.
I wondered, over the past two months, if that was just a symptom of being in my first new country. If every place I went would feel like home, simply because it was new and the newness was what spoke to me.
After a few hours in Hong Kong I knew that wasn’t true. While the island is exciting and I enjoyed being there, it wasn’t home. The crowds felt oppressive and I quickly found myself anxious to be back home, in spite of the fact that going home meant 22 long hours in a hard seat on a slow train to Beijing.
There were some things I found beautiful. The language in Hong Kong is primarily Cantonese (although nearly everyone spoke English) and I was entranced by the subtle differences in language and culture. In Beijing we speak Mandarin and the simplest difference is in how we say hello.
In Mandarin the word is “Ni hao” pronounced “knee how” not a sharp word, but a firm one. The Chinese people are the same way, willing to help if they understand my question, but abrupt if they don’t (or if the don’t have time). They are quick and to the point about simple things and dance around things that would be direct in America. One of the funniest notes my training group took was a cultural note given to us our first week “Maybe means ‘do it, bitch'” The Chinese people won’t just say “you need to do this my way” they’ll guide you there “maybe we could try this another way”. In Hong Kong the word for hello is so similar and yet subtly different in ways that speak to what I saw of the culture. “Neih ho”, pronounced slightly softer as “nay ho” echoes with the softer people. In Hong Kong several people stopped to ask if we needed help as we struggled to get our maps to work while out phones couldn’t reach the data. When we asked for help, more than once people walked us to our destinations, chatting along the way and pointing out points of cultural interest as we walked.
Despite that, and the easy use of Google in Hong Kong, I still feel more at home in my cozy Beijing apartment surrounded by people chattering away in Mandarin and giggling slightly at my shy attempts to communicate.
I did, however, have a powerful moment that first day we were in Hong Hong. My roommate and I took a cable car to the popular Po Lin Monastery. I’ll have pictures of the sights there another day, but for now, the moment that matters went unphotographed. We went there to visit the Tian Tan Buddha (aka the big Buddha). We wandered the monastery, left a wish at a small shrine in the tourist town, and then grew ever more silent as we absorbed the culture and the believe of the people around us. I was amazed at the shine of the gold Buddhas in the the 10,000 Buddha Temple, filled with respect for the people burning incense, praying quietly, and then bowing thrice before the statues and the peace they seemed to feel. Even the children would rush up to a favorite Buddha, pause for a moment, and then bow three times before rushing off. By the time we made it to the incense burnt in below the Tian Tan Buddha I felt I wanted to spend a quiet moment myself. My roommate identifies as at least partly Buddhist and as she explained the meaning and what the people were doing, I decided it wouldn’t be disrespectful to burn a small bundle of incense and open my mind to the experience.
By the time my incense had caught fire my mind had begun to still. And then I stood before the Buddha, the sun and his calm face filling my vision before I closed my eyes. I felt my mind drift away as I quietly meditated on the paths I could see before me. By the time I opened my eyes again I had felt my soul settle and my future begin to crystallize in my mind.
There are still questions to be answered and adjustments to be made, but in that moment I knew what I wanted and I knew that despite any difficulties, it is right.
Afterwards we climbed nearly three hundred stairs to stand at the base of the Buddha and look up at him in peace. We wandered the silent museum displaying the sutra and eventually made our way to the relic of the monastery. I don’t know enough of the culture or the history to have been sure of what I saw there or the meaning to Buddhists, but to me, once again I felt calm settle over me and all my doubts and questions wash away. At least, briefly. They all arose again as I rode 22 hours on the slow train back to Beijing, but that’s a story for another day.