Normally on public transport, everyone stares discretely at their phone and plays some form of tetris. I read my kindle, listen to my music, look at other people listening to their music and playing their games. I forgot my ipod at work the previous day, so only had my books to keep me company. Perhaps my lack of headphones was inviting.
I got on at one stop, and at the next stop a big crowd gets on. People walk by, it starts to fill a bit more. The new man sitting next to me says, “Is that an e-reader?”
“Those aren’t very popular in Hong Kong.”
“Not very intellectual. People play games. They don’t want something that’s just for reading!”
I laugh good-naturedly. Read a bit. “Where are you from?” he asks. I turn off the reading display to be polite.
We continue to talk for the next 3 stops, about pot being legalized (he thinks it’s dangerous), about gun control (he thinks guns are dangerous), about his 9 years in California, about traveling, about living in Hong Kong. He gets a phone call when telling me how owning a gun is more dangerous than not, because people will shoot you, but it’s about a block before I get off. I wave politely, heading for the door, and he says, “God bless you!” and goes back to his phone call.
These sorts of conversations don’t happen often in Hong Kong, probably because there are so many foreigners, people don’t just assume you’re from America and want to talk to you about it. But these kinds of conversations tend to focus on the same topics: the president, guns, cowboys (I’m from Texas), their cousin who lives in Dallas, land of opportunity, other places I should travel, and general advice from the non-foreigner.
I was surprised to have this happen on public transport, because of the usual absorption in whatever it is people play in the mornings, and the insane rush to get to the escalator before everyone else. (men in suits with briefcases will sprint from the door to the escalator in their attempts to beat out rapidly moving 70 year old women, scantily clad girls on their way to the club, and tourists getting lost) It was almost refreshing to have such a connection. An unexpected conversation can be nice, if a little pedestrian. It connects you to other people in a way that is more rare in a non-English speaking country.
When I was back in America, for example, I suddenly realized that I had missed out on hundreds of conversations about the weather and pleasantries because I didn’t talk to the bus drivers, or the grocery clerks; I missed the jokes that post men make and their stories. That’s mostly why being abroad can be lonely, because your circle of acquaintance is incredibly limited. In Hong Kong, there are enough people that speak English so you don’t notice it as much. But this small conversation reminded me of what I miss, and what I don’t miss, about being in my land of origin.