A Pile of Unknowns


I spent most of my college career fine-tuning ways to memorize Chinese characters.  I settled on a meticulous flashcard system.  First, I inscribed the week's vocab onto index cards--Chinese character on one side, pinyin and English on the other.  I flipped through the cards, English side up, and scribbled a phantom character in the air.  If I scribbled correctly, the card went in the "known" pile.  If I was incorrect, it was stacked in the "unknowns."  I deemed myself ready for the weekly quiz once my "unknown" pile had dwindled down to zero.  

After four years of flashcards and two visits to the Mainland, I marched into Hong Kong with confidence.  I assumed my pile of "unknowns" would be short.

On the ride from the airport to Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), my cab driver spoke to me in Mandarin.  KNOWN.  Halfway through the ride, he switched to Cantonese.  UNKNOWN.  The shopping malls that spanned the city were at once a mecca for commercialization and a labyrinth designed by Daedalus himself.   UNKNOWN.  My Hong Kongese students often expressed disdain toward their Mainland classmates.  UNKNOWN.  With my flawless American accent, I would often get reservations more easily and be treated better than the Cantonese diners one table over.  UNKNOWN.  

The more time I spend exploring the lush CUHK campus in the mountains or the dense network of concrete, chrome and glass below, the more I realize how tall my stack of UNKNOWNS really is.  In the process, I have already made many pleasant discoveries (many of them food-related).  Around almost every corner is a series of stands selling bubble egg waffles, cuttlefish balls and siu mai-- a type of shrimp dumpling.  There is no shortage of art galleries and exhibitions.  It is possible to hike for hours, cool off at the beach and make it back to Central in time for dinner.  

At this point, many of my observations of Hong Kong have been very shallow.  

But for every "Wow!  They sell corn on the cob at movies!"-type observation, there's an experience that makes me feel like I'm slowly but surely carving out my home.  

I can now carry out simple transactions, mostly shopping and asking where the bathroom is, in Cantonese.  I don't have to keep my eyes glued to the MTR map when I travel.  I know that I will never completely understand Hong Kong.  Although the many travel guides I consulted before arriving simply describe it as the city where the East meets the West, it is incredibly complex.  But if at the end of the day, I can add one more "known" to my list, tackling the "unknowns" becomes way less daunting.  

Yale-China Association