Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Horizontal in a Vertical World

Over the past week, I have been remembering The Widow in Michael Meyer's Last Days of Old Beijing, stamping her foot on the ground of her hutong neighborhood and saying, "Connected." I know how she felt--Hong Kong makes me dizzy.

In Bangkok, I live in a house, walk down a Thai version of a hutong to buy my food, and can get almost everything I need from neighborhood stalls and small shops. I don't know anybody's names with a couple of exceptions but I know their faces and their smiles and we always exchange greetings when we meet. I take the subway to go to other neighborhoods but once in them, my feet are usually firmly on the ground except when I go to a shopping palazzo to buy books. My home is a city of millions but it exists on a very human scale.

In Beijing, I stay in an old neighborhood in a courtyard house where I am surrounded by a family. The matriarch and I talk without language; she advises me on how to dress for winter chill and I sympathize with her black eye and rakishly bandaged forehead that occurred during a wild nightmare when she fell out of bed. She goes out to buy green vegetables and eggs every day from street vendors and I walk for hours along streets with one-story buildings that are filled with vitality and music and color and food and children and the people who love them. These are the areas that make me love Beijing--the newer high-rise areas are like reverse ghost-towns filled with incredible extravaganzas of glass and steel and concrete and no people. I walk through them shuddering and wondering when the neutron bomb had struck and how I missed it--or if this is the time of the Rapture and I of course am Left Behind.

The area of Hong Kong where I am--Kowloon to be exact--is what Beijing seems to be striving for--high-rises and shopping malls and people all together in a gigantic mass of vertigo. Behind one large, expansive shopping area is a huge park, but from the street you would never know it, were there not signs giving the secret away. There are a row of stunning banyan trees, but they seem artificial in the midst of so much artifice. Grey is the color of Kowloon to me--and even the harbor, as beautiful as it is, seems a backdrop for the skyline of Hong Kong Island, or a framed exhibit seen from the windows of the nearby Art Museum.

I woke up this morning realizing that the residential areas I have walked in search of are all around me and that Chung King Mansions with its thousands of rooms is replicated all over this city. I have lived in no place like this except for my brief time in Manhattan when I was sixteen.

I am a peasant--it's in my blood--centuries of Irish and German forebears who believed in the power that came from their relationship with the soil. I love cities, but only those that let me feel the earth firmly beneath my feet. I look at the windows that surround the air outside my room in every direction, and my head swims.

In Beijing the matriarch walks with bags of green leafy vegetables, an old man sells garlands of jasmine on a Bangkok sidewalk, Hari, under artificial light at my guest house's reception desk,remembers fishing in the mountains of Nepal, and somewhere I hope The Widow still stomps her foot in a gesture of connection.

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