Frozen Pineapple Slice
Summer in Hong Kong has always been unbearably humid. Beads of sweat form on one’s skin and glisten under the sun. Locals prefer the malls. If they must go out, they like hiding under an umbrella for fear of getting tanned. After all, Asian women are brought up to believe fair skin to be superior. As for men, they don’t mind the tan but prefer the comfort of an air-conditioned environment.
Growing up, I used to heed my elders’ advice. Despite it being part of my upbringing, I genuinely (and still) think that a whiter complexion looks better on most Asian women. It also helped that I was not active. I would occasionally ride an indoor stationary bike to maintain a reasonable weight. It was the only physical activity I did. For that, I was certain it was my favourite sport. Naively I imagined it would remain so for the rest of my life.
Life being as predictable as the weather, my adventurous side was awakened by the taste and joy of life not long after taking up a job. Meeting people from all walks of life and different countries gave me new perspectives on how to live. I wouldn’t call it a cultural shock unless one can be shocked culturally by looking at their fellow countrymen and their lifestyle from a foreigner’s point of view as if one has only moved here recently, even though this fresh pair of eyes have never resided in another city.
The rebel in me decided to live fully. The first step is to enjoy the sun without worrying about a tan. The umbrella is gone; I learnt to swim; I started hiking. I even took up the activity I hated most — running, and joined a running group. This new person is so different that you might expect her to take up triathlon soon. But you see, one must be into cycling in addition to swimming and running to become a triathlete.
If you have ever lived in Hong Kong, you should know that it is not bicycle-friendly. I learnt how to cycle when I was young, which is uncommon since many of my schoolmates do not know how to cycle even now. In most parts of the city, cyclers must share the busy roads with cars, taxis, and buses. There was no place for beginners. On top of that, owning a bike is a luxury in a city where people could barely afford room for themselves. With such limited experience, I realised I wasn’t well acquainted enough with cycling outdoors, which was what bicycles were invented for.
The number of times I have cycled outdoors is countable with two hands. There is a famous track by the harbour in the New Territories. It is calming to be close to the sea and trees but make no mistake; tall buildings are right next to the track, so you shall remember you’re in Hong Kong.
The popular track is always packed with families, friends, or couples looking for a weekend excursion. It is lively and filled with laughter. If you sniff hard enough, you can almost smell the happiness in the air. Of the several times I have been there, I enjoyed the solitude of cycling by myself among a group of friends. The feeling of being alone and accompanied at the same time is wonderful. If you are inclined to have a chat, you can ride close to one of your friends. If you like to absorb the environment with all your senses, you can observe it in silence. You can be carefree, and there won’t be any consequences. Perhaps I do like cycling.
Walking around in the summer guarantees a soaked T-shirt, let alone an actual physical exertion like cycling. Ice-cold water is refreshing; ice cream is more than welcome; ice lollies are most tempting. The best, in my opinion, is a slice of frozen pineapple sold by hawkers and provision stores. In my 28 years in Hong Kong, I have only had it fewer than 10 times. I am not a big fan of pineapple, yet somehow when I thought of the possibility of never cycling on that track again, I became acutely aware of my loss of the many frozen pineapple slices.
I wouldn’t miss the skyline of Hong Kong, for I took as many pictures as possible and spent my time in awe of its beauty whenever I took walks by the harbour, which was fairly frequent. I wouldn’t miss the food in Hong Kong, for I am sure I will find them overseas, or I will learn how to cook whatever I crave. I wouldn’t miss the people, for I shall meet them again. No, of all the things, it has to be something so trivial, something I didn’t care enough to do often, something that can be found on the other side of the world, although not quite the same. It has to be a frozen pineapple slice sold by an unnamed frail elderly on that particular cycling track on a hot summer day.
Our minds love playing tricks on us. I pride myself on knowing my needs well most of the time. I thought I would not miss anything too much, considering that this departure was years in the making. I have done everything I could to indulge myself. In reality, no one can escape the pain of being torn away from where they belonged. The minor details we thought we never cared about in our day-to-day life have suddenly become important. The way the moon shines upon that specific part of the Earth, the sound of the birds and crickets outside the windows, the terrible driving skills of the average car owners — all of these suddenly conjure up an alluring picture of home.
I would be a fool to declare that I will not miss Hong Kong. It is a city of many flaws. The stress of constantly proving oneself to be valuable by hoarding materialistic trophies, the authoritarian structure and expectations in families and society, and the high living cost are all too much for most to bear, yet we all make do. Hongkongers have so much grit that we keep going. We could even crack a self-deprecating smile when our self-confidence is nowhere to be seen. We continued to live, even when we were not living. It is this twisted way of being that bonded the population. Who else would understand the insanity of the city imposed on us? Who else would appreciate a 400 sq feet home as much as one of us?
These people, who are not bonded by blood but by the stress of being, are mostly leaving. At first, it was only those with kids hoping for a better future for their children. Then one day, departure is as viral as Covid-19, if not more. For once, we have collectively decided grit alone is not enough to help us out. People are meant to have a less stressful life, we discovered. Things that we cannot change, we lack the serenity to accept. So why don’t we summon the courage to change the things we can?
I have no illusions of a new Hong Kong emerging on another side of the globe. Neither will I believe Hong Kong people to be as united as the exiled Jews. We had little shared culture and identity, at most half a century’s worth. The eventual disintegration of Hong Kong and its people will be short of a surprise, and probably for the best because it would mean the departed people will have integrated into wherever they have moved to. The remains of the metropolis will have become an entirely different city, and therefore no one will have any control over our beloved Hong Kong, for it will have ceased to exist. By then, I will still miss Hong Kong but it shall not matter. I will treat it as a vivid years-long dream, recounting adventures and people from my dream to my children and grandchildren, hoping that they will learn the moral of the stories, and perhaps we will be eating homemade frozen pineapple slices on a picnic when I share my stories.