I’ve just read Exciting Times by Naosie Dolan which begins in Hong Kong in the summer of 2016 so naturally I’m thinking about the summer of 2016 spent in Hong Kong. How on the first page, the book makes reference to the typhoon (Nida) my plane took off into. How I’ll see the protagonist’s 22-years-and-does-not-know-a-thing and raise you my 20-years-and-definitely-does-not-know-a-thing.
How I would be the only one in my family to ever leave Europe, to get on a long haul flight— at that alone. I still am. And when I needed the push, dad said go; this is once in a lifetime. So Heathrow — so the big airport with the big planes with the plane food and the tiny televisions. The ones people who are not me frequent. How I have been one of them now too.
How I could never quite keep track of the territories and what they all meant. Wait, so this is an island and now this is mainland? And isn’t it all just Hong Kong? And am I imperviously disrespecting something sacrosanct by experiencing them as interchangeable? And I probably should’ve or at least could’ve picked up a map before I got on the plane. And I probably should’ve or at least could’ve hit a quick Google search to learn what the Umbrella Movement was.
“Everyone was terrible aged twenty.”
How I cried upon seeing a real-life panda, how I cried at the Vivienne Westwood cafe because cakes branded with orbs?? How I was mostly unaffected by getting locked in the 12th tallest building in the world, overnight, because it is not the strangest thing to happen at twenty. How I was charmed by this one particular Banyan tree that’s roots poured over the traffic lights at a junction somewhere in Tai Po. How I could never get a good photograph of it because I always passed it by in motion. On a bus, listening to HONNE. How I bled damned near everywhere because aeroplanes do funny things to my insides.
The place that taught me how to use chopsticks. The country my vegetarianism fell apart.
A time in my life that I did not stop to consider how things were unfolding. How I cannot tell you with any certainty about who I was back then because in many respects things happened in a way that flowed through me rather than to me. And things were already unravelling at home and then in the autumn things began unravelling overseas and the world was changing and I started changing too, because there are things to know, now.
Because there are things you can’t not know once you tick ‘remain’ but the majority tick ‘leave’. Because there are worries far greater than where the next night out might take place. Because fashion week can no longer cut it. Because it is hard to keep the rose-tinted shades tilted in the direction of the light when you’ve landed back on the tarmac with a thump. Because there are things to know, now.
In one scene in Exciting Times, Julian is talking to his friends, comparing Hong Kong’s Octopus card to London’s Oyster card and Ava feels outside of the conversation because she has never been to London to be able to inject herself into the context of comparing the respective cities subway passes. I have been to both London and Hong Kong — I have used both an Oyster card and an Octopus card but I have definitely felt outside of conversations. Unable to find my in. There is so much I don’t know.
And these are things we can speak of in retrospect but that we didn’t have the tongue for when it mattered. It’s what Leavers say now — that they were misinformed. It’s what Remainers say now — that they didn’t believe it could actually swing that way.
In the glow of lights reflecting down onto the waters from across Hong Kong’s island, there is something to know. There is something I cannot yet get to. A creeping feeling followed by small denial. That the flame of my friendships had been burning to gasoline all along. That a photograph of us tied at the hip in front of Victoria Harbour after 8 months of us running separate continents would not be the glue of which could stop us falling apart.
One of the first things I saw in Hong Kong was the Zhuhai–Macau Bridge. All 34-miles of it; the longest sea-crossing in the world. It wasn’t yet finished nor open to the public in 2016 but it stood there, unavoidably. The first picture I have time-stamped from my time in the country is of me looking out to it on the way home from the airport the first time, my blue bob and sun visor (?) gazing off into its distance. It would later be one of the last things I saw of the country as I made my way back to the airport.
One long bridge on the near horizon, just out of reach, not yet mine to travel across. Like me, still under construction. Just like the cracks of truth beginning to appear in both my personal life and the politics of the time but that which I was not yet quite ready to cross over into the full light of yet. But there, all the same. There is something to see, now.
I think it is Meg Fee who writes that a place often gets good right before you leave. I could add that perhaps a life does too. A life shines brightest right before you leave it. Or it leaves you.
That summer, a snapshot. A fleeting, dazzling, liminal one. A brief encounter with a girl suspended between two lives — an Octopus card in one hand and a life slipping through her fingers in the other.
“We agreed it was an exciting time to be alive.”
It was. It was, it was, it was. It always is right before you fall.
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