The Filial Piety Tour
13-19 July 2003
|Sun 13 July
“You’re staying over a week with just that?” snaps the US Customs inspector at Dulles, her glossed lips sneering incredulously. I hold up my backpack in front of her – with a few changes of clothes, some reading material and a toothbrush, it weighs maybe 15lb. “Sure,” I shrug, “I’m staying with family – what do I need?” I consider sneering back – “would it make your job easier if I had 10 huge suitcases?” Or getting personal – “I’m a guy, not a woman. I don’t take 20 pairs of shoes on vacation.” Obviously telepathic, she orders me to a colleague at one side for further examination. On the wall is a picture of George W Bush giving his famous “We will nuke the enemies of peace” speech. The male officer grins and waves me through.
|Wed 16 July
DC is in fine shape. I have done the usual rounds. The alma mater, where half the students now seem to be Asian, compared with virtually none in my day. The Jesuit Parking Only sign is still next to the library. Then the Air and Space Museum. Let’s be honest – the Bell X-1 beats the Mona Lisa any day. Iranian and Ethiopian restaurants – tragic gaps in Hong Kong’s culinary scene. "You don't know what real humidity is," I tell people while wringing the sweat out of my James Tien for Mensa Chairman T-shirt.
|Dash off a quick email to the appropriately named Bob Footman, head of the HK Transport Department, requesting him to ensure that this year's routine overhaul of the Mid-Levels Escalator takes place during the next two weeks. No one doubts that annual maintenance of this wonder of the public transport world is necessary – staggering quantities of dandruff accumulate in its inner workings – but it will obviously be convenient if they do it while I am away.
News from home is dribbling in, courtesy of the on-line South China Morning Post. Albert Yeung, a businessman of such integrity that Cambodia and North Korea respectively (and respectfully!) host financial and gambling operations of his, is being questioned by the Independent Commission Against Corruption. I sniff a calculated insult – everyone knows the ICAC only goes after the little people. How can the boss of the mighty Emperor Group show his face in society after being treated like a common, bribe-taking civil servant handing out contracts for streetlamps? Or like a Financial Secretary who times his purchases of Lexus cars carelessly? Make that ex-FS. Even on the eastern seaboard of the US, we could hear Donald Tsang laughing. Hong Kong people cheer govt resignations, want more, writes someone who doesn't know that HK people always "want more" – it's a given, superfluous in the headline. We all knew the fragrant Regina had handed in her notice several weeks ago. It must be frustrating to do that, and subsequently have the rabble demand it. Here, meanwhile, the big issue is an attempt to levy a tax on commuters from the North Virginia and Maryland suburbs. Sounds like an excellent idea for Hong Kong. The office fodder from the public housing estates come into Central every working day, clogging our streets, stuffing our garbage bins with Hello Kitty packaging and breathing our oxygen. It’s time they gave something back.
A five-hour drive with John Quincy Hemlock up into the hills. In Memory of Elizabeth Reed by the Allman Brothers and Stagefright by the Band play on the Chevy Panzer stereo. Since being ejected from the Peace Corps in the late 80s for getting Jamaican schoolgirls into trouble, he has settled down as some sort of legal counsel for one of the nation's capital's hundreds of policy think tanks with invisible links to sinister government agencies. He loved the on-line classic I Made Pizza for Kim Jong-il.
We pick up a polite hitchhiker, going on leave from the Navy. Just 19, he will soon be seeing his two-month-old daughter for the first time. At his age, John Q and I drove a car into a field of marijuana somewhere near here. At this rate, this hick will be a grandfather by the time he’s my age.
|Sat, 19 July
This place hasn't changed. We have done the gun fair at the local National Guard armoury and enjoyed a dulcimer recital. Could have revisited Pearl Buck's birthplace but didn't. Can we find a way to avoid tonight's Fraternal Order of Eagles dance? Lucy Hemlock, 80-year-old matriarch, has started canning fruit and vegetables for winter. “When your sister was here two weeks ago,” she says, spooning proto-grape jelly into glass jars, “she frightened the Jepsens – they thought the diamond in her nose was something to do with devil worship. Of course, I told them it was! You should have seen their faces – so funny!” The Jepsens. Snake-handling Pentecostalist neighbours, including a 65 year-old who says “Woo boy, sure like to go thar someday” on learning that I’ve just come up from DC – It would freak them out if I mentioned Hong Kong ("Woo boy, let's see... that's out of this state, I guess"). They drag us to a picnic in the Monongahela at which I avenge their alcohol ban by terrifying them with tales of my sister’s witchcraft.
|I remember asking a Mainland friend of Jenny-the-girl-from-Beijing-but-she's-got-an-American-passport what he liked most about the US after studying advanced political science there for a year. After careful consideration, he solemnly replied "Hooters' Restaurants". I think the USA's finest contribution to human civilization must be huge, relaxing supermarkets, with their wide aisles and multitude of brands and flavours – unlike the labyrinths of Park n Shop and Wellcome, where shoppers and goods are crammed together like Ma Ling-brand mackerel in tomato sauce. American stores have to be vast in order to accommodate their horribly overweight customers, the sight of whom I find to be an effective appetite depressant. The shopping carts' handles have drinks holders, so people can guzzle soda while getting their groceries. The Seven-11s sell the stuff in 64 oz pails. The younger Hemlocks eschew water because they "don't like the taste". They greet my salad – romaine lettuce, tomato and onion tossed in olive oil and lemon juice with garlic and salt – with bewilderment on account of its lack of Baco-Bits ®.
Beyond Lucy Hemlock's kitchen, with its cornbread and home-made ice cream, this cuisine is near-satanic. Krispy Kreme Donuts? You're going to put those in your mouth? It would be easy to imagine that this country has the worst food in the world. But I know better. In just a few days, I catch a flight to...
|................... the UK.|