My phone screen displayed the time—21:30, an hour when most restaurants back in Arkansas would be closed or closing. Meanwhile, here in my beloved hometown of Hong Kong, just from where I stood, I counted 11 places still open, busy and bustling, their noise trickling through the Taylor Swift in my earbuds. If I turned right and walked down, I would find even more tucked along the sides and alleyways.
The smell of beef brisket stock, fresh-made Chiu Chow chili oil, and warm congee topped with pork and century egg wafted from open-air tables and blended in the air. I loved urban Hong Kong at night, when the heat of the workday bowed to nightlife and mismatched aromas danced in the wind. I loved walking these streets free from humid sunlight, when everything—people, cars, life itself—relaxed and I could build constellations in apartment window lights that winked out as the night grew deeper.
With a glance left, I crossed the dark street towards the park. As I walked, I heard laughter loud and deep from a table toasting lime green Tsingtao bottles. I glanced at the workmen in stained vests and kept walking. Only when I took a shortcut through a dark alleyway did three things hit me in a thunderclap of realization. It was night, men with alcohol were laughing, and I was a sixteen-year-old girl walking alone. In the United States, I would have frozen, clenched my keys in my fist, and walked faster or ran. Meanwhile, here in an “old and rundown” district of a cramped little city, I ambled on at a steady pace, earbuds still in, my aunt’s apartment keys swinging in my jacket pocket.
I remained the same in Hong Kong and the United States—either way a young girl lined with Chinese features, vulnerable in the shadows. Hong Kong held fourteen years of memories growing up. America had nothing but several vacations and two years of monotone living, yet the only times I felt fear because of eyes on my body happened there, half a world away from these gritty streets that my white suburban neighbours would forbid their children from ever entering because “those Triads would get you, and God knows what would happen then”.
I grew up on these “filthy streets”, and never once was I ever followed or catcalled. I never had to say “leave me alone” or bat away hands that tried to touch more than they should. The only times those things ever happened, I stood on American soil.
Funny how I felt safer in nighttime streets surrounded by dingy alleyways and cursing strangers drinking beer on the pavement than I ever did in a land of bluegrass lawns and wooden fences. Funny how crinkled eyes that smiled from shadows and cigarette smoke carried gazes warmer than the raking leers that followed me across classrooms and Walmarts. Funny how it had been two years since I went on a walk alone. I remembered being eight years old and terrified, frozen still in a gas station candy aisle as a white man with a collar pressed against my back. Funny.
The park, quiet and empty, welcomed me with an embracing gust of wind through its trees. Illuminated by distant skyscrapers and moonlight, I walked the winding paths under the bicycle track, thinking of noodles topped with congealed pig’s blood and of weeds growing on perfectly manicured lawns.