One rainy morning, in the common room of the 8th floor of Hall G, a girl I shared the washroom with asked me if she could join me at the table for tea. She said her name was N., that she was from Pakistan, that she was also in her first year of MPhil studies, researching on the social psychology of driving behaviors. This, I have long noted, is de rigueur for introductions by research postgraduate students: Name, Research Topic, Institution, maybe Country of Origin, though some tend to state their research topics first. Finally she asked, How have you been adjusting to life in Hong Kong? I said, Just fine, and you? And she talked about being culture-shocked: the weather, the language, the food, the customs, the people are alien to her. Isn’t it so for you?
Cantonese is an incomprehensible tongue, but signage is written in English too. While I do not eat pork, so common in Chinese cuisines, dimsum and noodles are familiar to me. Like Hong Kongers, I bathe and wash my hair at least once a day and do not throw tissue paper into the toilet. Hot, humid weather and strong typhoons are part of our lifeworld in my country that’s one of the most vulnerable to climate change. I’d already made a few local friends before coming to live here, since I studied for a short while at this university before. What I am not quite adjusting to, but simply accepting: the searing heat, the briskness and efficiency and orderliness of Hong Kong people, their careful attention to and observance of rules that actually make sense (there’s effective governmentality for you). In Hong Kong, I wouldn’t think of jaywalking, or eating in the bus or the train. I celebrate the convenience afforded by the Octopus card, though I rue the difficulty of finding scented rubbing alcohol (70% isopropyl, with tea tree extract and moisturizer), sweet crunchy peanut butter, a French press.
My parents decided to fly with me to HK and stay here for a few days. They wanted to see my university, do some sightseeing around Central, a little shopping in Mong Kok. We spent a day in Tuen Mun, an evening in Tsim Sha Tsui, an afternoon in Ocean Park. I wanted to take them to Victoria Peak, but then Typhoon Hato struck. We spent more time watching TV and ordering room service in the hotel than going around. And that was fine, they said, because what they wanted more than to go around was to spend time with me. As they left, my father handed me a couple of hundred-dollar bills. Make sure you go home in December, he said. He knows too well my penchant for leaving, for being away. But as I grow older, I wonder if I weren’t catching a quaint yearning for home—not just a headquarters, or a base camp, but a fixed, certain state or place, a compass of meaning, a stable point of return—to a house perhaps, or to a person or persons. I am getting older, my parents are aging too fast, I will likely die alone.
Don’t think of moving to Hong Kong as departure, a friend said to me. Think of it as transferring to another city, like Makati, from QC. After all, Hong Kong is just a little over two hours away from Manila. Baguio is even farther in terms of travel time.
But I like to think of it as departure, actually, to have a greater sense of narrative leap, of plot or character development, between departure and return. I have been getting so very bored.
What I watched, stuck in a room during the height of Hato, when T10 was hoisted in Hong Kong for the first time since 2012: Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000). They’re the kind of films that are so well-composed and visually stunning (cinematography by Christopher Doyle), I wanted to screenshot every frame. I didn’t manage that, but here are a few stills:
I’d write a meditation on love, betrayal, missed chances, and time, but I’ve been avoiding thinking about such poignant fancies (as I am, as you know, wont to do). Maybe the briskness of this place is ideal for me; even when watching In the Mood for Love, I do not feel like indulging in melancholy.
… I wrote in one of my Tinyletters, dated 9 September 2015. The last Tinyletter I wrote, I mailed in May 2016, after which I vowed not again to make my writing an exercise in brooding and wallowing. The result has been, for me, a general withdrawal from rumination, which might explain why I have not been very sad for very long this past year, and why I hardly have been writing, if not for research. But I’m in a reflective mood tonight, for I recently moved out of the place I had called home for two years, and spent a few nights in the old house I had lived in and left before that.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me why I moved so often, when I usually moved from place to place within a five-kilometer radius. Didn’t it tire me to never settle down? In the past seven years since I left my parents’, I have lived in five places, one in Manila and the rest in QC. I have never stayed in a place long enough to know my neighbors by name and not by their faces or by whatever bit roles they played in the mundane narrative of my daily life. Every year or so, I tend to move from one rented room to another in houses and dorms and apartment units around the university. Every move was of course self-determined, though not always thought through — some moves where dictated more by whim than any practical contingency. I think now that often what I wanted was not so much to be in one place rather than the other, but simply to move, and thereby feel, or delude myself into feeling, unattached, unaffected, in control. I told my friend, Well, life happened, and it just turned out that way.
From a Tinyletter I wrote, dated 31 August 2015:
I am sitting among empty shelves and drawers, and boxes and bags packed full. I am writing this in the big, airy room in the old house that for more than two years I have called headquarters, sometimes home. Two years is the longest I’ve stayed anywhere since I left my parents’ five years ago. In two days, I am leaving this place.
When the only thing I hear is the electric fan whirring, and the lights are all out like this, it is easy to think and rethink and damn my decision. Depending on how I look at it, what reasons I cite, I made the decision to move either three days or four months ago. I am still not convinced of its rightness or necessity, but when everything’s already in place — the books and clothes boxed, the ex-landlady and the new housemates notified, the car for the move secured, the final rent paid — there is no use second-guessing, there is only follow-through. I well know this, and yet I do second-guess, because I am moving out of fear, and knowing this, I feel like a quitter or a coward.
Generally, I fear stagnation, premature stunting, in this place that reeks of old age and disrepair, that echoes old times, old conversations, and the old’s fears. In this place I feel like I have been living many decades and know only languor. I can no longer accomplish work in my room, which I have come to associate with only dreaming, pining, crying, sleep.
Less generally, I fear that if I stay here longer, I will never unlove the boy who lives next door, not before he leaves me, not before he leaves me for somebody else, by which event I will be wrecked, as I know I will, if our strange friendship comes to that. I have given him so much of my time, my words, my hopes, my tears, my life. I am terrified by the certitude of my love and my desire to be with him as much as I am terrified by the uncertainty of what I really mean to him.
See, I do not like this sense of being stranded. I don’t like not knowing which way we’re headed. If I leave, at least I know which direction I’m going, even if I don’t yet know if I will like it there.
In a month, I will be moving again, this time to another country, where I will study for two years. When I visited my old landlady last week, she asked me why I was leaving, if I’d really thought it through. She asked me if I were not only escaping. Escaping from what, I asked, and she said, you know, alam mo na yan. It hurts, doesn’t it, she said. You’re afraid, aren’t you, she said. I don’t know what she suspects or knows, but in the two years I spent crying in that house, that day was the first time I shed a tear in the kitchen in front of her.
This time I am not leaving somewhere, but moving towards something, that I am sure of. What this something consists in may be another life — a different country, a different language, a different field of study, new friends, new habits, new thoughts and dreams — or perhaps simply a logical extension of the life I have built up to now. I am moving not out of fear, but excitement, an eagerness for the turn of the page. I am moving not to forget, but to remember, to always remember, and to learn.
I like to think that in the past two years, I have grown not only older — that I have also grown up.