11:30am, 7th September, Norton Canes

September 12, 2014 / by / 0 Comment

I’m writing this from what my driver called a ‘comfort stop’ in Norton Canes, which is, as far as I’m concerned, in the middle of nowhere. I thought eating something familiar would comfort me, give me a taste of home, but as I take my first bite of the chow mien with Thai vegetable curry sauce served out of a box and handed to me by an English boy, I feel more displaced than ever. I suppose this is my first real experience with the word ‘orientalism’. There are condoms for sale in vending machines next to the toilet, and absently I wondered if the people who ran this comfort stop centre expected any action to be taking place on the buses. Some stalls even sold potted plants, and I had a good laugh picturing myself showing up at my residential dorm in Glasgow with two suitcases, one bag bursting with books, and a sunflower.

This is my third hour into the nine hour drive from London to Glasgow, and it’s beginning to look like I shouldn’t have packed all these books with me after all; I had spent the whole of the past three hours sleeping. The sky cleared up a little as we drove out of London and headed up North, and once I was jolted awake by the sudden sunlight in my face. There wasn’t much out there, just pretty fences, the occasional abandoned brick houses, and lots of green, but the idea that I was seeing the ‘English countryside’ made me happy.

I love long bus journeys. The first time I had done it was when I was in Izmir, where the cities were well connected by the bus network and I find that they are often the best way of tackling books and movies you’ve always wanted to read or see but are too distracted or busy to in the regular course of life. Last summer a good friend and I took the bus from Hong Kong to Hanoi, with a stop at Nannjing en route, a journey that took a whooping total of 24 hours, and I had finished American Gods, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and half a season of Game of Thrones. I like planes too, and it’s lovely to see the sky outside your window, but after a while the same view of the clouds bore me (or worse, if you’re stuck with aisle, you don’t even get any view except the buttocks of air hostesses). And if it weren’t for the indicators on the TV screen showing how far we are from the destination, it almost feels as if the vehicle isn’t moving. Whereas when I’m travelling by bus, I get to see the changes in the landscape, and I like the sense that I’m moving, that I’m heading somewhere.

The past two weeks have been pretty weird.

I’m no novice in travelling. I’ve taken many trips on my own. I’ve placed my trust in the kindness of strangers. I’ve arrived in hostels sleep-deprived from the journey one moment, and knocking my beer bottle against other travellers’ with a loud clang the next. I’ve slept under the stars on sandbags at hostel rooftops next to fellow backpackers I had met just the hour before. I’ve spent two months in a foreign country where I don’t speak a word of the language and not for a second miss Hong Kong.

This time was different, though.

It wasn’t till the third day that I could bring myself to admit that I was homesick. I don’t like this word, “homesick”. I associate it with wimps and pathetic crybabies. I am now both.

Paris was especially disorienting. Or rather, anywhere that wasn’t Hong Kong was disorienting to me. I had thought that the label ‘city’ came with a promise that the ‘city’ would be bustling and full of life. And Paris was, but just not in the way that I expected. It wasn’t crowded. I thought I hated the crowds in Hong Kong. Who doesn’t, with all those human traffic jams and the suffocation, the need to elbow everyone out of your way to get somewhere? I had always jokingly said that if I could, I would drop a bomb on the streets of Mong Kok just to make all those people disappear. But one time in Paris a friend and I had walked off the main streets and though we were still in the city centre, there was close to no one along those wide boulevards. I motioned for him to stop talking for a bit and together we listened to the sound of silence for a minute. The silence wasn’t soothing, like I thought it would be; it was frightening. I never realized how pampered I had been by the comfort of noises in Hong Kong.

I still remember my first day in Paris. After hauling more than 30kg worth luggage up and down the steps of the metro stations, I finally arrived at my couchsurfing host’s apartment. Only when I got there, I found that I wasn’t going to be staying in an apartment after all, but on a bed in the storeroom of a restaurant my host owned. It was a very neat place where people could eat, drink, and put on music and theatre shows at the small stage he had built into the restaurant. My host was very into arts and culture (which automatically makes him someone I would have clicked with) and he wanted a space where people could be creative. Normally I would have gone on and on with him about the comparison between the art scenes in the two cities, but I was tired, and my heart wasn’t into it. It was located in the quiet suburbs of Paris, and at night when my host had left me to go back to his own apartment, I was all by myself. Even when I was in Turkey or Vietnam or Thailand or Taiwan or London, I had others I could talk to, adventurous spirits who kept me excited – or distracted – enough to make me forget what an alienating experience travelling can be. For the first time ever, I was truly alone, and the prospect that there were four long months ahead of me before I could see my loved ones back home again terrified me.

Eventually it got better, sort of. I met other lonely souls who were similarly wandering the streets of Paris alone, and with the help of the couchsurfing community we met up and launched our bad French on poor unsuspecting Parisiennes together (Excusez moi, je cherche le Notre Dame…). In particular, Adam from Chicago had been great company, humoring me with stories about gargoyles, Picasso’s attempt to bribe restaurant waitresses with their portraits on a napkin, and the saint who got beheaded for preaching Christianity in a Catholic France too loudly, and then apparently proceeded to pick up his head and hold it for 6 minutes before he finally died. But sometimes the homesickness would hit, and when it did, I was defenceless. Once I was out with a Parisienne artist (there were many who claimed the title in this city) and at first we were having a great time talking about graphic novels, but as we were strolling down Champ Elyssey the jetlag struck, then the homesickness. I was soon nodding my head, only half listening as he continued chatting away animatedly; all I wanted to do was to run back to the hostel and skype anyone from back home who might’ve been online. The time difference meant that at night, when I was feeling the most alone and needed someone to talk to, it was four or five in the morning back in Hong Kong; everyone was asleep and there was no one around.

Gradually, it ebbed away. In London I stayed with a group of people in a huge house in Zone 3 (technically it was just the suburbs but I couldn’t stop singing LIVES IN A HOUSE, A VERY BIG HOUSE IN THE COUNTRY), and the incessant banter – even when I didn’t joined in – made the house lively and eventually some of its energy rubbed off me. I also met up with a friend who had been in Hong Kong for exchange last year, and hearing about what a good time he had reminded me why I wanted to go off in the first place.

Sometimes I asked myself why it’s different this time. Perhaps it’s because this is to be the longest I’ve left home yet, and I’m less mentally prepared than I thought I was. Perhaps it’s because I only ever needed the thrill of travelling because I had been bored of the rut of my life in Hong Kong, and leaving always meant there was the possibility of finding something better out there, and I welcomed that with open arms. I thought I wanted to run away. But only just before I left I realized I had already been blessed with wonderful people in my life, and that without noticing it I had made a sanctuary out of their company. I had so taken it for granted. Suddenly, uprooting myself and starting all over again doesn’t seem like the good idea it had seemed half a year ago when I applied.

The reality was that whether or not I had a good time here, I will be leaving after 4 months and it will be unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Soon, I might be counting down not the days till when I can go home, but the days I have left in this city. A loved one reminded me:

“I’ll be here when you get back. Paris, London, these moments won’t be. Count them too. Don’t stay in the past or the future, stay in the present. I am in the present parallel to you. At some distance, sure…[but] if you count you focus on the counting. You reduce days to numbers. I want your stories. Your words. Your descriptions.”

So here I am, writing again.

To all my friends who urged me to be brave: I will.

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