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Every Virtue and Vice June 28, 2004

Posted by LHK in Uncategorized.
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Today I got my first incredulous “You didn’t eat any Chinese food in Hong Kong?” from one of the students. To which I matter-of-factly replied, “No, I didn’t.” And if that’s a sin, it’s one I’m happy to live with, because Dorothy and I treated ourselves to proper versions of all the Western food we had been craving. Because I live in Japan, Land O’ Food Obsession*, I deem it necessary to make a list:

It’s the Hong Kong Western Food Bonanza!

Delaney’s Irish Pub
vegetarian potato and leek soup (me)
steak and cheddar melt (Dorothy)

Hotel Breakfast Buffet of DEATH
fresh pineapple and bananas, obviously canned peaches in too much heavy syrup, tomato baked beans, hash browns, uber-creamy scrambled eggs (the latter three were best when mixed together), croissants, bacon and ham for the non-vegetarian, and french toast with maple syrup. The staff was very slow in keeping the buffet fully stocked, and when we decided we wanted more french toast, we had to ask several times. We finally alternated in going back up to the buffet to check for more french toast, and giving signals to indicate if it was there yet or not.

The Spaghetti House
green salad with properly creamy Thousand Island dressing
properly thick deep-dish pizza with mushroom and green pepper

(Here’s a page from The Spaghetti House’s menu. I like to research restaurants I patronize, because I’m a nerd. They’re a Hong Kong-based chain, it seems. How hard is it, really, to put a cute little broccoli stalk icon next to all vegetarian items on the menu? According to the entire restaurant culture of Japan, nearly impossible.)

Oliver’s Super Sandwiches
properly topped cheddar cheese sandwich on wheat toast (me)
properly topped tuna salad sandwich on wheat toast (Dorothy)

some restaurant / bar in Lan Kwai Fong with an American-aviation-inspired name and a claim to sell the world’s best hamburgers
utterly amazingly proper veggie burger and shoestring fries (me)
chili cheese fries (Dorothy)

Coyote’s Bar and Grill
5-PAGE-LONG MARGARITA MENU
chicken, beef, and cheese nachos (Dorothy)
grilled veggie tacos, black beans, guacamole, and Mexican rice (me)

Italian restaurant in SoHo that was full of foreign tourists, including a group of about 20 young Australian women who only drank daiquiris, talked about stupid things like spam e-mail, and ordered all low-carb shit until the end of their meal, when they all caved and ordered cake for dessert
tomato bruschetta
mushroom, parmesan, and cream sauce pasta (Dorothy, who finished her “American-sized portion.” Yes, the menu really said that. Internationally, America is famous for starting wars and being gluttonous.)
spicy tomato and red pepper pasta (your humble narrator, who shamefully had to ask the waiter to take away her unfinished American-sized portion)

Ben and Jerry’s
Oatmeal Cookie Crunch (me)
Chunky Monkey (Dorothy)

even the cafe at the blasted airport could get international breakfast right!
banana pancakes (Dorothy)
mushroom and tomato omelet (me)

* = Japan is the Land O’ Food Obsession. I bet Adam thought I was exaggerating about this until he came to visit. He, too, would now confirm this label. There are food stands everywhere, every town smells like food, and people are eating eating eating everywhere you go. On his last evening in Tokyo in May, he and I were sitting at the beach at Odaiba, and we were the only ones on that beach without food to go with our milk tea. Even the seagulls were munching on cheese curls. If you turn on the TV at any time of day, at least one channel (but usually 2 or 3) will be airing these baffling shows that feature people tasting food and always, always having a culinary orgasm in which the climax is marked with a shrieked “Oishii!” (“yummy!”). This evening on the train, I sat beside a man reading a magazine that appeared to be dedicated to nothing more than the latest menu additions at Tokyo restaurants. To say the Japanese people are proud of their cuisine is an understatement. They are immersed in it to the point of being on the defensive about it. They are shocked if foreigners know about it (“Really? You eat sushi?”), but they want to make sure you like it, too. It’s an insular, sharply defined culture and cuisine, and yet it barely exists beyond this little strand of islands. I’m sure the Japanese people are pleased when they can send a crazy American girl back to her home country extolling the wonders of yakisoba and inari sushi and 99-yen tofu. If only there wasn’t so much discussion of it! I have had enough talk about food in lessons these last eight months to never need to have another more-than-five-minute conversation about it again. Every discussion of Japan locales eventually makes the inevitable segue to food. I can’t mention wanting to go to Hokkaido without being immediately hit with, “Oh! You must eat Hokkaido crab!” or “You have to eat the Hokkaido camembert!” No. I do not go on vacation to eat. Except, well, with Hong Kong, I sort of did.

Now that I’ve returned, I’m back to my usual grapefruit and bananas and bran cereal and plain yogurt and plain tofu and too too green salads and wheat bread, with the occasional trips to the Evil Bakery of Sin, Sunday outings with Dorothy to get cheap, bastardized Italian at Saizeriya, and listening to Craig’s Japanglish chatter with the cooks at the yakisoba / okonomiyaki joint.

As a contrast to everything I’ve just said, I bought a copy of Fast Food Nation at the Hong Kong Airport, and I haven’t felt like eating much of anything since I seated myself on United Airlines #890 and opened to page one. I avoided the book for a long time: “Self, you really don’t need to read that book. You’re already a vegetarian, and you don’t even set foot in McDonald’s. Reading it will just gross you out unnecessarily.” Always the literary masochist, I traded HK$150 for my appetite. Even if I hadn’t read the slaughterhouse chapter, I’d still count it as one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. On the plane, I read the chapters about the beginnings of fast food and children’s marketing — how Mickey D’s and their ilk need to reel in consumers as soon as they begin cutting their teeth. The majority of their advertising is directed at human beings whose brains are still forming. What frightened me the most were the business-speak names given to all the methods of marketing analysis: “The Character Lab, a division of Youth Marketing System Consulting, uses a proprietary technique called Character Appeal Quadrant Analysis to help companies develop new mascots. The technique purports to create imaginary characters who perfectly fit the targeted age group’s level of cognitive and neurological development.”

I remember being three and four years old and calling to my parents, “Let’s pretend! Today we’re McDonald’s characters!” I still get a little guiltily wistful when I think of Grimace and Birdie the Early Bird and Mayor McCheese. But not that damn Hamburglar. He haunted my nightmares for years.

Back From the Republic June 25, 2004

Posted by LHK in Uncategorized.
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Our co-worker Luke said Hong Kong wouldn’t know what hit it after Dorothy and I blew through the island and the mainland over the course of these past four days. I can’t quite determine the final verdict yet, but I have to say that Hong Kong put up a good fight against us. I’m back in my apartment in Japan now, vaguely unpacked but still dizzy from the unreality of whirlwind travel. Tonight would have been a good night to lie down on my futon and take it all in: the excess of food and the lack of sleep, the fact that just yesterday afternoon I was riding on the top of a double-decker bus that careened toward Repulse Bay and Stanley Market on a bed of green mountains and oceanside cliffs, the fact that I was really there and those Hong Kong stamps on my passport aren’t accidents or imaginative embellishments. Just because I didn’t stop to journal about it, just because I didn’t read a page of Ulysses over the whole four days, just because I spent more time talking and laughing and eating Western food … doesn’t mean it wasn’t me. I’ve got the pictorial evidence still stuffed into a memory card in the digital camera in the backpack I borrowed from Kristy, burrowed in with Ulysses and my fat journal and some Dar Williams CDs. The usual trappings of Vacations With L. I didn’t use any of it.

I think Ngo was more excited by the “50 Hottest Bachelors” edition of People magazine I surprised her with than by the other gifts I got her: an incense set and some Cantonese DVDs she asked for. Perhaps I don’t blame her. Hong Kong left Dorothy and me with just enough of a taste of Western culture that we started to miss it more than ever. Japan lets you forget you ever knew such things as tacos and English bookstores and Old Navy. Hong Kong gives you a little of each one, with a dash of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream on the side. Last night we were eating bruschetta and proper American-size portions of pasta, and this morning we were buying the Asian edition of Time and the British Cosmopolitan at a W.H. Smith bookseller at the Hong Kong airport, where there may as well have been a physical line drawn down the middle of the bookstore: English books here, Chinese books there.

All food and literature aside, it was still impossible to forget we were in Asia. I should write about the night we went trotting optimistically to Causeway Bay from our hotel, thinking we’d find pleasant upscale urban scenery along the way. Instead we were met with the feeling that we were on the back streets of a mid-size southeast Asian non-capital city. Dripping plastic awnings and shoe repair shops and fruit stands run by hunchbacked women. Legless men propped up against the rusty metal doors of key duplicating services. Lines at the bus stops ran all the way down one edge of the sidewalk, forcing us in our dresses and heels to squeeze into the gutters to pass people. When we finally made it to Causeway Bay, we found little more than clothing stores we couldn’t afford, the same chain restaurants we’d been seeing all day, and the biggest Harry Potter movie poster you could imagine. It reminded us of Shibuya in Tokyo, right down to the pack-’em-in crosswalks that create a piece of performance art every few minutes, a big scurrying X of people replayed with every light cycle. We didn’t need to see it again. We turned around to go back to Wan Chai, where our hotel was, where the massive space station-like convention center is, where the reliable nightlife is, and where we should have stayed in the first place. We ducked into a 7-11 to ask which bus to take, but the clerk was unresponsive even after we bought two sticky, lukewarm bottles of fruit juice.

We walked back. On the way, a taxi slowed down on Hennessey Road so that its passenger could make sucking noises at us. “Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look,” Dorothy said.

I stared down at my shoes. Dorothy’s shoes. Black, fake leather, two-inch platforms, from a market in Malaysia. They were a size too big for me and were giving me awful rub marks on the tops of my feet.

skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island

skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island

We were relieved to get back to Wan Chai, where we ducked into an open-air bar called Chinatown. The waitresses wore silk dresses and distributed bowls of salted peanuts to every table. I ordered a mai tai (the weekly special. Half price. I’m cheap) and Dorothy ordered a cosmopolitan. We listened to “One Toke Over the Line” on the sound system and watched some chunky Australian businessmen drink British beer. It should go without saying that we felt utterly displaced, but it should not go without saying that such a feeling isn’t a bad thing to experience. Occasionally.

Must go to bed. I’ve been up since 5:25 AM Hong Kong time, and at 11 PM Tokyo time I decided it was a good time for a 45-minute run. So, yeah, I’m rather tired. In the morning, I’ll discuss the loveliest bus ride ever, Hong Kong markets, Western tourists that didn’t make me miss America, probably some more about food, and theories into whether or not I’m a superwoman, or perhaps where and when I can become one.