A Tale of Six Cities
My best friend moved to Beijing when I was still living in the States. Fed up with my really-not-that-shitty job one day, I quit and bought an impromptu ticket to China. My best guy friend had just moved in with an Australian girl I had never met. After a grueling 12-hour-plus flight, he picked me up at McDonald’s (a clear sign of Americana in a foreign land), and we walked down the streets toward his apartment. When we entered the building, she was inside, greeting me with Spice Girls blaring from the speakers.
For the first six months that I lived in Hong Kong, I had an Italian roommate who was in every way, well, superbly Italian. Since I was busting my ass at work, I’d drag my feet back home — to a large, Italian smile. Together with my Canadian roommate, we were family. Finally he was offered a job in London, so he moved.
After some time, I went to go visit. One day we went to Hyde Park after he had left work and sat together in the bitter March cold. We reminisced about what we would do — without jobs and someone to hold us back — and how we’d travel to wherever our hearts desired. How our lives had diverted.
That night, while we lay nodding off to sleep, he complained about work, and how time was passing him by. “But you’re so young!” I said instinctively, remembering our almost too-fun days together. “Erica, I’m almost 30,” he said gently. “Time flies.”
He flashed me one of his infectious smiles again. I was quiet, remembering him carefree in Hong Kong. I had changed, he had changed, our friendship had changed. It was no longer bound to a single place.
Back in the days when I could work from anywhere, I hightailed to Mexico so that I could eat al pastor tacos and sip jugs of Mexican chocolate in tree-lined outdoor cafés. In other words, life was pretty damn awesome.
I was paying rock-bottom rent living on the top floor of a Mexican house that had been reconverted into an apartment out in the ‘burbs. My Spanish wasn’t so good at first. My landlord lived in the house with his British girlfriend and his ailing mother, Sara, and Sara’s English wasn’t so good, either. She didn’t leave the house often, because it was hard in her condition. Que te vaya bien! (loosely translated “have a nice day”) she often muttered brusquely from the door.
One day, I came home to Sara making mole. If you don’t know what mole is, it’s a crazy sauce made out of chilies and sometimes chocolate. This is serious Mexican cuisine at its finest.
Te gusta mole? (Do you like mole?) She asked me. No sé, I replied honestly, but I’ll try it.
She stuck a spoon in my mouth. Every taste bud had something to say about this concoction on my tongue while my face contorted into five different shapes. She laughed, so hard.
Every trip has an end, and it was this one’s time. My little cousins were begging me to stay an extra day and change my flight. While I was trying to figure out how much a flight change would cost, the eight-year-old poked his head over the computer.
“OMG! That’s so EXPENSIVE!” he squealed dramatically. “$150?!”
In a second, he ran out of the room. Five minutes later, he ran back in, dumped a safe in my lap, entered the numeric combination (“in my day, we had piggy banks”) and spread out a serious overlay of cash money in front of him. “I only have $80! It’s not enough. But you can have it all if you just put in the rest! Please, just stay!”
I have no words.
I have an ex-boyfriend who lives here.
Dinner was over and it was clearly time to go — he had friends to see — but we found ourselves on the street, in the back of Hong Kong’s Tin Hau neighborhood. We focused on a barbed fence with two tall, decrepit shanty buildings on either side. A crowd had gathered — I had forgotten it was China’s National Day — to look at the fireworks on the other side of the fence, on the other side of Hong Kong harbor.
From the waterfront, the firecrackers are big, bold, and beautiful. This coming from a girl who was spoiled silly with Disneyland fireworks that went off like clockwork daily — since I lived a mere five minutes from America’s most magical place on earth growing up, I had a fireworks show every night for years if I wanted it. This was by far, unequivocally, the least impressive view I had ever had.
We stood there for five minutes, watching in silence, as the colors changed. Red! Green! Yeah, someone must have been using last Christmas’ fireworks. What? Why is there a smiley face? Is that a Chinese smiley face? Finally, like any good finale, we all knew it was coming. Just as it was time, two giant garbage trucks coming from opposite sides of the roads crossed paths and obliterated the fence and anything we could see. Unforgettable, in every way.
Erica Ho is happiest trapped in a space capsule 30,000 feet in the air. Among other things, she is relentless in her pursuit for Mexican food in Hong Kong. Unless it’s mole.