Everyone understands hunger, illness, poverty, slavery, and torture. No one understood that at this moment at which she crossed the street with every privilege granted her, of not being hungry, of not being imprisoned or tortured, all these privileges were a subtler form of torture. They were given to her, the house, the complete family, the food, the loves, like a mirage. Given and denied.
They were present to the eyes of others who said: ‘You are fortunate,’ and invisible to her.
– Anais Nin, “Ladders to Fire” (via Lili)
I have a certain fascination with watching people cross the street.
I used to go to Cosi in Evanston and order a vanilla latte and a piece of flatbread and sit on one of the stools and just watch people cross Sherman Avenue.
The runner looks right for incoming traffic. The musician glances down at his iPod and bobs his head to the new beat. The girls in groups of four and six laugh, flip their hair, whisper half-secrets – confident that they can deliver a perfect performance with their Burberry earmuffs and Longchamp purses. The business student speed-walks past everyone else without once looking up from his Blackberry. The young Wildcat stumbles as she tries to balance all the new textbooks in her arms. The lovers stroll and share a cup of Red Mango.
The road itself is rarely noticed or remembered.
Its worn curb, cracked pavement, and stained sidewalk fail to entice the hundreds of people who traverse its length to CVS, Barnes & Nobles, Panera, Crossroads, The Gap, Starbucks, and beyond Church Street.
Perhaps there is nothing particularly special about Sherman Avenue.
Perhaps Sherman Avenue is only one step of many to reach a destination.
Hong Kong, you are the first true city of my winter travels.
Paris and Rome glow with the warmth of time-tested beauty, but you, Hong Kong, soar and glitter and burst with beauty that is New! Here! Now!
You astound me.
I stand in the Admiralty MTR station and watch the crowds of people running frantically from the Blue line to the Red line. The next train brings more businessmen, teenagers, moms who stand pressed against the glass of the MTR, muscles tensed and jaws clenched, in anticipation of the next mad dash across the station.
In front of Times Square, parents elbow each other in line to get their kids a picture with Santa Clause.
This year, Santa is a frail white man with a drooping yellow-white beard. As parents argue over who is next, kids stand meekly to the side until they are plopped onto the faded velvet lap and they stretch their mouths wide, wide, wide for the camera.
Inside Times Square, more jostling and elbowing to get pictures with a display of hundreds, if not thousands, of Barbies.
Here, one army of plastic dolls occupies the floor, equipped with purses and heels and blouses and ball gowns. And then there is the army overhead, plastic lipstick smiles frozen in glass cases.
A mother shoves her daughter into the pink Barbie chair as another mom scrambles to get her child next in line. Click! Click! Okay, finished? No, do another pose. Click!
The moms waiting in line clench their teeth and push to get closer and closer.
Next, the Barbie box. Look, you can pose as Barbie! Quick, go stand in the box. Click! Click! Click! But wait – I want a picture too!
The mom tosses the camera to her husband and rushes into the box. She poses. Click! Click!
And again, a different pose. Click!
Many people enter Times Square with giant suitcases, and I ask my friend if there is an airport shuttle nearby. She laughs. “No, no, those people are from the Mainland. They bring suitcases to go shopping.” She points to a store at the corner. “That’s a locker room for the suitcases when they’ve filled one and want to start filling up the other.”
The Times Square escalators lead to the usual stores: Burberry, Kate Spade, Zara, Coach, Max Mara, Gucci. But tucked into the corners of the mall, far away from the elevators and escalators, are dozens of obscure shops – little boutiques with misspelled random French phrases beneath their store names. They sell clothing that looks vaguely similar to the products of their high-fashion designer neighbors. When I walk in, the sales associate assures me “No China, no China.”
The phrase rings a bell. I remember that that’s exactly the phrase that vendors in Venice posted outside their Venetian glass and mask stores: “NO CHINA.”
On the streets of Causeway Bay, there is a protest. A throng of masked individuals in colorful garb wave banners and signs from side to side as they chant and perform traditional dances.
What is this?
In Hong Kong, much like in Kigali, most households have domestic workers.
When I first came to Rwanda in summer 2010, I rented a room in Kimihurura for $400 per month which covered water, electricity, internet – but also included Alphonse the security guard, Marie the cook, and Jean-Pierre the cleaner.
I knew these domestic workers had relatively decent jobs considering the widespread unemployment in Rwanda. But I wondered whether I had become a colonialist of sorts, a foreigner enjoying a privileged standard of life at the expense of locals.
I felt reluctant to let others serve me when I had come to Rwanda to serve.
For the first few weeks, I woke up early and ran around the house to sweep up bread crumbs, fold linens, hang up clothes, neaten toiletries, organize make-up, re-align the broken toilet seat. But over time, my morning rush started to leave more discrepancies. Still, the sock I left on the floor ended up in the correct drawer, the bathroom remained just as organized. I started to sleep in and left more dishes in the sink. After a month, I became accustomed to not cleaning up at all.
I moved to Rwamagana one month ago and one of the first things I did was to hire a helper to cook, clean, run errands, and wash clothes. Sometimes, I still feel uncomfortable watching Noellie – a young woman my age – clean up after me, but I realize that the arrangement is beneficial for both of us. Hiring Noellie gives me more money, time, and energy to spend on other pursuits, while employment provides Noellie with a small but steady income to take care of her son, Isaac.
Yes, in both Kigali and Hong Kong, households rely on the services of hired help.
But unlike Kigali, domestic workers in Hong Kong come almost exclusively from nationalities that are not accorded the same rights, privileges, and respect as Cantonese citizens. Most domestic workers in Hong Kong are from the Phillippines and Indonesia – nationalities that automatically make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to secure citizenship in Hong Kong.
Dear Filipinos and Indonesians,
You are welcome to reside in Hong Kong as domestic workers, but don’t bother applying for citizenship – you can serve us but you are not one of us.
Locals, international school students, foreign residents, tourists – people from all professions and from different countries around the world – gather on the incline of Hong Kong’s busiest and most famous bar street: Lan Kwai Fong.
I meant to say that foreigners and tourists are spread out across Lan Kwai Fong, but the international school students are in Beirut and the Cantonese locals are in the bar further up the street.
“No, let’s not go there,” the international school student says, “Too many locals.”
I don’t get you, Hong Kong.
You attract and bring together people from all over the world. Many of your citizens have access to an education abroad in the States or in Europe where they attend universities with diverse student bodies. They take classes with other Cantonese students, with Caucasian students, Black students, Chinese students, Taiwanese students, Hispanic students, Indian students, Filipino students, Indonesian students. They attend academic institutions that embrace ideals of openness, equality, and tolerance.
But when they return to you, it is the colonialist’s superiority that they apply.
What is this social stratification, this exclusivity, this divisionism?
Hong Kong, your beauty is corroded by your blatant elitism and racism.
You ignore the silent agony of the crab as you break its legs and bind it.
Why do you despise me?
Is it because I am poorer than you?
Is it because my skin is darker than yours?
Is it because I do not wear Chanel, Gucci, Prada, Burberry?
Is it because I do not work in consulting, medicine, law?
Is it because I did not attend an international school?
Is it because I received financial aid?
Is it because I am from Mainland China?
Is it because I live on the Kowloon side instead of Hong Kong Island?
What do you gain from my inferiority?
Does it give you happiness, comfort, security, pride, contentment to know that you are better than me?
You mock others because they do not follow your cultural customs.
They call you “bastards” because you do not speak their language.
You call them “infiltrating locusts.”
They call you “imperialist dogs.”
But it is not just you, Hong Kong.
In Kigali, I see the U.N. official barking commands to “those Rwandans” and dismissing his household staff with a brusque gesture of his hand.
At Ithaca High School, I see students dressing as Ku Klux Klan members and waving the Confederate flag. Others are armed with knives and clubs.
At Northwestern, I see students turning away and laughing at the outcry over the Black Face incident. “There they go pulling the ‘Black card’ again,” they say.
At the U.S. State Department, I hear the Fulbright orientation presenter telling me to promote American values by sharing “Yankee Doodle” with the “tribal” Africans.
Why do we divide? Why do we exclude? Why do we separate?
Is it because others take on the tasks that we do not want, and we mock them, exclude them, avoid them, give them fewer rights – dehumanize them – to somehow justify our own shame and discomfort?
Is it because they live lives that we cannot comprehend because we were born into a world of privilege that we neither earned nor deserved?
Is it because we do not know who we are unless we define the “Other”?
Open your eyes.
When you were a child, you did not judge me because of my age, my gender, my ethnicity, my skin color, my salary, my family background, my food preferences, my language, my neighborhood, my education, my job, my religion, my politics.
Why do you judge me now?
Why am I not good enough for you?
See the road that you cross.
Do you see the car turning at the intersection? Do you smell the cinnamon bagels at Einstein’s? Do you hear the violin player on the corner? Do you feel the brush of the leaf against your skin?
Remember where you come from, look at where you are, consider where you are going.
They may push you, pull you, lead you, guide you; they may tell you what to think, what to believe, how to act. But when it comes down to it, you are the one who crosses the road.
You are no better or worse than the people around you.
Because the anguish, the mysterious poison, corroded all of them, distorted the relationships, blighted the food, haunted the house, installed war where there was no apparent war, torture where there was no sign of instruments, and enemies where there were no enemies to capture and defeat.
Anguish was a voiceless woman screaming in a nightmare.
– Anais Nin, “Ladders to Fire”