That was my opening line as I was leading some friends to the bird market here in Hong Kong. A place made of my nightmares – birds the size of monkeys (how I reference things to my Brazilian friends), which are the size of cats (for my Americans), just out and about. Hundreds of cages full of flutterings and flappings and beady eyes staring and open beaks squawking at you.
“Ah. Lovely. So is this facing a fear for you, Rachel?” they asked politely. New Zealanders are always polite about things.
“It’s unintentional exposure therapy. Which has never worked for me for any of the thousands of things I’m scared of but. Tally ho.”
It’s ridiculous, but birds and all the things that come with them aren’t my bag of Cheetos. My friend Sarah had a favorite bird (“don’t you have one?!” she asked, shocked.) and gave it such an intense massage that people stopped to film it, as Asians do, which I love them all the more for. I watched in fascination as a woman my Grandma’s age (which is 40, if you’re reading, G’ma, and still need to get me a Christmas present!) fearlessly shoved her hand into a cage full of grasshoppers to collect them into baggies to sell as feed.
Old, balding men walked around with their caged canaries, proud as peacocks, letting their beloved birdies get a little sun between the bamboo bars of their hand-carved cages.
We wandered through a flower market and I felt, not for the first time, just how thick familial traits run. After teasing my grandpa and mom for years for being so into plants, I found myself squealing “SUCCULENTS!@#%!” and “OMG MINT!!!! I LOVE MINT!!!!” and “does my bedroom get enough sun for this lavender?” and wondering if I bought a bonsai tree now, if I would be able to transport it to wherever my next teaching job is in two or something more year’s time.
There is something so entertaining about walking into these spaces in Hong Kong, like the Goldfish Market or the Bird Market or the Ladies Market, eying pairs of parakeets or haggling over the price of the karaoke microphone I don’t need, and thinking “this would never happen in the States. I am living something most people I know will never know.” I get overwhelmed with wanting to take it all in, meet all the people, take all the pictures. But they yell at you if you do that. I’ve been swatted by many an old lady here.
I had my first planned visitors to Hong Kong! It helps make a place feel like home – to feel like you might know just a bit more about a place than someone else does. It meant a lot to me to have friends come visit; to show my walk home from work, my wine stop, the wet markets I short -cut through and often contemplate buying all the live produce to set free, the building I spend the most time in, the box I call a room.
Having two people who have known me for most of my pretending-to-adult life come visit and agree “yeah, this place is intense” was validating. To hear a California accent and see a face as familiar as my own was so comforting.
I’d been saving a few adventures for some friends to share them with, and we did ferry across to Lamma Island, ate some Michelin rated hotpot, bargained in the famous markets, and were mildly disappointed in the city light show (it’s possible we’ve been a little spoiled by the lights in Vegas and Disneyland). But the greatest joy came in just being silly together – sweatpants, ordering pizzas and giggling around a table and playing cards while it spat rain outside on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Ry was technically here for work, but we managed to get in quite a few HK essentials for the curation of her instagram image. She gracefully endured an allergic reaction all over her beautiful face (allergy of unknown origin. I blame pollution) and also lit her finger on fire. So that was fun. Krys taught us how to play darts and there are a few holes in the walls behind the board but we had a great time.
Krystal and I spent the last few hours together enjoying a perfect blend of our personalities – cheap Italian food, foot massages, Spanish wine happy hours, rooftop music jams, and then a frantic rush to find a cab to the airport. She barely made her flight and may have broken her phone but. The memories.
There is an earned brutal honesty to the conversations with old friends – a long-term perspective, if only to remind each other of the stupid things we did when we were younger, and to celebrate how far we’ve come. I’m so grateful for the technology that’s allowed me to maintain so many friendships and to keep in touch with them as I keep grooving along, wondering what the hell I’m doing.
I am currently on the rooftop of my old Chinese walk-up apartment, staring as hard as I can into the windows all around me, trying to find something interesting. Trying to find my Ugly Naked Guy. I think the tallest building is about 50 stories high. It’s night time, so I am just looking at silhouettes, and for some reason, I feel compelled to take off my shirt and wave it around, to play my music (still on a George Michael kick) super loud, and to just wonder how many hundreds or thousands of people might see me if I did that; how many text messages and snapchats I would be anonymously mentioned in tonight if I dared to do just that.
Last time I hung out on the roof I made best friends with the seven year old twin girls who live next door. There are possibly twenty to forty people living in an illegally built structure on the roof next to ours. But they smiled their gap toothed smiles at me, lured out to the roof by the sounds of the Disney princess music videos I was playing in an attempt to cheer myself up.
They spoke a wee bit of English, but I learned their names were Nancy and Suzy, they didn’t care much for their new baby brother, had a few loose teeth, and hadn’t seen “Moana” yet. So we fixed that real quick and pretty soon they were fighting over my lap and changing into various princess dresses and nightgowns to impress me. I got some paintings. It was magical. Nancy came over yesterday to show me the new space where a tooth had been.
Last weekend, despite the ever-present lure of ordering delivery and doing nothing on my roof, we bussed out to Stanley to meander through markets and finally watch a good sunset here in HK – something I’ve missed terribly since moving here. It was one of those wonderful, lazy, wandering afternoons, stopping into stalls to drift through tie-dye shirts that had ‘fallen off the truck’ and debate over the usefulness of purchasing a drone. Luckily I had an adult (Amie) with me to help navigate the tough decisions. I’m a pretty impulsive shopper and need to crowdsource my decisions. Just a few hours ago via Whatsapp she talked me out of buying a mermaid tail blanket.
I’ve wasted a lot of time regretting not living in a city. I spent most of high school and then college plotting my imaginary life in either New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles as a rising improv star, eventually making my way to Saturday Night Live. Or an intern at NPR who through pluck and wit landed a nationally syndicated nighttime political talk show that somehow also featured musical numbers.
I vividly remember one conversation with my dad, both of us sitting on the floor for some reason, where I tried to convince him I needed birth control for my period cramps and that Jewel had lived in her car in LA for a long time before getting a record deal, and so could I. I was so ready for the city, I thought. I’ve always had enough dreams.
Living in Hong Kong, even just four months, makes me realize what an outdoors girl I am – I ache to feel grass under my bare feet, to trek up a hill and look around and see only trees around me, to sit in the backyard and watch the stars twinkle up, ready to be wished upon. I was thinking out loud the other day and realized haven’t been alone for a single moment here. There is always someone who can see me or touch me. So. Crowded.
Now I know. I am lucky that I get to know that and get to know me better while living in a place I’d dreamed about, experiencing a completely new culture and sharing life with incredible people. I’m learning what makes my tock tick, what I’m willing to compromise on and what I’m not. And the thing is, as a 33 year old single woman traveling the world, collecting quirky souvenirs to decorate the future lake cabin I retire to when I’m 80, meeting coolass people from all over, eating all the food and “cheers” in every language, dancing and singing to 70s karaoke jams in my living room with new best friends from New Zealand on a Tuesday night, spinning on teacups and at Disneyland after work on a Wednesday, and living my best life….I’m just not inclined to compromise or change a whole lot about who I am. I get lonely, and confused, and sometimes really freaking jealous of yous.
But I woke up a few days ago and realized that I am not worried.
“It’s a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy.”
It’s easy and addicting to talk about our hurts, our struggles, the things that annoy us and make life more difficult. It’s way more powerful to recognize the things that bring us joy and at this moment, I honor these things that make me happy:
Long chats with good friends, weather finally cold enough for sweatshirts with holes for my thumbs, videos my mom sends me of the dogs, people who like my baking, buying presents, actually sending the postcards, washing dishes, sunsets. Kids telling me I smell good or have hair like a princess. Long hugs. Avocados.
If you haven’t heard it recently and you need to – you make someone happy (even if its only me because you read this blog).