Barely speaking basic Cantonese or reading traditional Chinese characters lends imagined elements to everyday interactions. Is the bored-looking girl behind the counter at 7-11 laughing at my question, or the joke her co-worker just told? Does the hostess detect the annoyance slipping into my voice when I ask her a third time for the address of the restaurant? What are the ads with women in bikinis selling–skin cream or cosmetic surgery?
Familiar strangers turn into characters in my mental summer narrative. There’s the tough guy with a reddish brown ponytail climbing the subway stairs. A week later, again wearing a denim shirt and jeans, he gently leads a lady down King’s Road. Every morning the woman in an orange vest grins around sticking-out teeth, blithely handing out free newspapers. There is a man with a two and a half foot beard selling novels on Lamma Island. A shopkeeper in front of my apartment explains how her dresses can also be skirts. The squat blond ex-pat led by four Pomeranians on leashes crosses the bridge where the man with an egg-shaped back leans against the railing, looking over the harbor, as he does every afternoon starting around 6:15 p.m.
And all of us cross the streets where the crosswalk symbol ticks slowly for red and fast for green. This ticking, the throngs pouring out of the subway exits, the escalators with the looping announcement in Cantonese, then Mandarin, then English—“Please hold the handrail” —combine to create the quintessential Hong Kong commute. The fan-wielding dancers under the park shelter, the fishermen holding rods in the downpour, the old woman shaking a metal bowl across from city hall and telling me to get out of the rain, show me that life goes on, even during typhoons.
Does living with a linguistic veil and a heightened interest in detail involve more fictionalizing than processing events at home? Doesn’t retrospection add ambiguity, even to conversations that didn’t have a language barrier? Aren’t we in the habit of corralling observations into metaphors, even when we aren’t trying to discover the rhythm of a foreign place? Don’t we simplify un-mined personalities of even the people we know until they’re stock characters for our unwritten autobiographies?
Chelsea L. Shover ’11, a Crimson news writer, is a literature concentrator in Cabot House.