I woke up early this morning and found myself brushing my teeth next to Ken, a Malaysian-Chinese hostel guest who inquired about my plans today. Since this is my first trip taken without the comfort of a paperback guidebook, I am attempting to make more room for spontaneity. Thus, I shrugged my shoulders and mentioned that I wanted to explore the city. One quick conversation later and I was roaming the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui with Ken, who was searching for a specific Hong Kong breakfast dish and kindly invited me along.
We finally ended up in front of Big John, a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant bizarrely decorated with Union Jacks and dog paraphernalia. It was packed with people sitting on wall-facing counters, quietly and contentedly tucking into their breakfasts. The menu was written entirely in Chinese, but since we were after this special morning set meal—consisting of what exactly, I was not entirely sure—Ken quickly placed our orders.
A few minutes later, a waitress brought a tray with a pewter mug of hot milk tea and a bowl of clear liquid filled with macaroni and topped with slices of ham and scrambled eggs. “Here, the special Hong Kong breakfast,” Ken declared proudly. Albeit the familiar ingredients, the combination was certainly unusual, but my goodness was it delicious. I slurped down my macaroni while dolefully gazing at a nearby bulldog figurine, thoroughly amused by this so-called “Western meal.”*
Thrilled at having found a knowledgeable traveler to tag along with, I followed Ken to Wang Tai Sin to visit a popular Buddhist temple. We wove through the crowds to grab nine sticks of incense each, and he proceeded to instruct me on the ways of properly paying my respects. There are a large number of deities represented at the temple, so people carefully carry their lit incense sticks high in the air as they move from shrine to shrine. Apparently the proper practice is to offer up an incense stick and silently pray by introducing yourself to the god before you before asking a quick favor and bowing three times to show your gratitude.
Hello there. My name is Pearly. I am 23 years old and somehow find myself at this temple while visiting from the U.S.A. Apologies that I do not know who you are, but if you have any benevolence to spare, here is a small request. Have a lovely day!I cheerfully repeated my intro as I made the rounds and met the acquaintances of various gods and goddesses.**
It is also apparently possible to specifically ask for an answer to a particular wish through a method of fortune telling. Ken and I went to go grab our oracles: a pair of oddly-shaped blocks that vaguely resemble a heart cut in half and a small container holding several thin bamboo sticks. Ken instructed that I must first use the blocks to ask for permission to seek a fortune. You toss the blocks into the air and if they land on opposite sides then you may proceed.*** You then grab your open-ended container and shake it gently while fervently repeating your question until eventually one of the bamboo sticks falls out, showing a number that corresponds to your fortune. I closed my eyes and concentrated on inquiry when a stick clattered to the floor. Believe it or not, I drew number 77, the number of days I plan on traveling.
Finding this quite auspicious, I eagerly scurried to one of the many fortune telling booths located underneath the temple. After handing over a few dollars (a clever way to monetize clairvoyance) you then receive a small piece of paper corresponding to the number of your bamboo stick with a metaphorical answer to your inquiry. Thanks to Ken’s translation, apparently my fortune told the story of a military general whose valiant efforts unfortunately resulted in imprisonment.
Ken then tried to interpret how it could apply to my future: Well Pearly, if you were asking about your current job, this indicates that you are currently trapped and should try to break free if another opportunity arises. However, if you are asking about a future job, it is saying that you are leading yourself to prison. Thinking of the many late nights conducting thesis research and studying for exams that await my return, I nodded grimly. Hmph, these gods are good.
Overall, slightly worrying fortune aside, I really enjoyed my temple visit and happily parted ways with Ken after thanking him profusely for tolerating my bumbling attempt to understand Buddhism.
I spent the rest of my day walking around Hong Kong, simply taking in the sheer mass of people and commerce. The coexistence of varying degrees of wealth and business in this city is quite astonishing. For example, having (grossly) sweated through most of my clothing by this point, I asked my hostel guide for directions to a laundromat. Fortunately there was one located next to a Rolex outlet nearby, offering a quick two-hour washing and drying service all at the reasonable price of $42HKD ($5.40 US).1 As in, cheaper than my Starbucks latte and a mere fraction of the cost of a knockoff night market watch.
In the evening, I headed to Wan Chai to grab dinner with a friend who I last saw back in 2011 when we were both counselors at a Japanese-language camp in rural Minnesota. He is currently an Ivy League student in Hong Kong for a finacne internship who happened to have just arrived a few days ago and coincidentally saw my whereabouts on social media. (This world is not only small, but also very bizarre.) We indulged in Korean BBQ while he kindly answered my multitude of questions about the world of investment banking.
We parted ways, and I continued roaming the streets, this time heavily mulling over my future plans following our conversation on job-hunting. I pulled out my paper fortune from my pocket. Had I escaped “prison” or was I about to enter it?
I paused at the waterfront to take in the inexhaustible view of Hong Kong’s skyline. Breathing in deeply, I slowly exhaled. Regardless of what my future holds, I am most certainly satisfied with the present.
15 June 2015
P.S. My apologies to anyone more acquainted with Buddhism if my interpretations of various proceedings are inaccurate. This is not meant to be a comprehensive guide on how to act at a Buddhist temple but merely an account of my somewhat irreverent visit.
*I cannot help but giggle at Asian interpretations of “Western food,” a phenomenon especially present in former British colonies. (Although Japan certainly has its fair share of omelette rice dishes.) I gleefully imagined the bewildered expressions of some of my pickier American friends upon handing them a bowl of steaming macaroni-egg soup and declaring it a normal breakfast. But then again, I suppose our interpretation of Asian food is not exactly the most accurate either, much to the shock of any inexperienced Westernerns unable to find orange chicken on authentic Chinese menus.
**This included one particularly popular trio who take responsibility over romantic relationships. Women go tie a red strand near a rather mischievous looking young man’s statue while men do the same for a rather dainty female one. There is also wizened statue of an old man between the two who I assume watches over his apprentice cupids. Hello mischievous young love god, sir. My name is Pearly, a flightly twentysomething from the U.S.A. If you wouldn’t mind telling all of my suitors to please pause their pursuits so I can focus on my travels, that would be lovely. Cheers, thanks. Albeit slightly inaccurate, I hoped my prayer at least stood out among all the women frantically crowded around me.
***Luckily people are given three chances to play heads-or-tails, so the gods are generally willing to answer questions.
1: It is supposedly cheaper in Hong Kong to have someone do your laundry for you than at a self-service laundromat. (Or perhaps the self-service variety are harder to find?) This particular laundromat offers washing, drying, and folding all of your clothes within two hours. Dry-cleaning services are also available for only a slightly higher fee. For those on an even tighter budget, it is also apparently possible to get your laundry done for half the price if you opt for a laundromat that takes 24 hours to complete your request.