Hitch-hiking to Hong Kong
It was 1974, and it seemed like the time had finally come for me to go to Asia.
I had studied Mandarin Chinese for seven years, beginning in secondary school in Chicago and continuing in university, but the closest I’d been to China or Asia was an American Chinatown. Having been away from Chinese studies for a year after graduation, I could feel my vocabulary gradually evaporating. I no longer had any occasion to use it, and I felt like I was losing it.
It was fish or cut bait time. Either do something with Chinese, or leave it on the shelf as one of those subjects you study in school but don’t really use in later life. I preferred the former, but there were no obvious opportunities to do so knocking on my door.
My first job after graduation offered good on the job learning, and my boss was a good mentor, but I was still restless and heard the call of rice paddies and bamboo forests. I was young and unattached, and the world was my oyster.
The turning point in my decision-making came one morning when I woke up from a particularly vivid dream, one of those epic sagas depicting a long personal story in very realistic detail. In this case the story in the dream was about my journey to China. It was full of adventure and excitement, learning and satisfaction. Within the story of the dream there was an encounter with a Chinese gentleman who became a very good, influential mentor to me.
This seemed to me to be the signal I’d been waiting for.
I started planning, making inquiries about airplane tickets, jobs, visas, etc. I decided to quit my job and buy a one-way airplane ticket to Hong Kong. One-way from the West coast, that is, because that was all I could afford.
I would stay in Hong Kong for a few months, earn some money through free-lance writing, and then go to Taiwan to be in a Mandarin-speaking environment for a year or so before coming back to the U.S. for further studies.
One appealing thing about Hong Kong was its thriving English language publishing market, which seemed to offer reasonable job prospects for me as a writer. The disadvantage was that few people there spoke Mandarin in those days, and improving my Mandarin in a daily life versus classroom environment was important to me.
For all practical purposes, the Chinese mainland was off limits to Americans at the time, so that was not an option.
Once the basic the plan was set, there were a few practical challenges. One was how to get from the U.S. East coast, where I’d been living and working, to the West coast, where my one-way airplane ticket to Hong Kong originated.
Although it’s a distance of some 3,000 miles, this seemed like more or less a technical problem to me. The obvious solution was hitch-hiking.
There were other challenges, such as convincing my parents that it was a prudent move for me to hitch-hike across the country and fly to Hong Kong with no job, friends, or relatives there, with about $150 in pocket money to sustain me after I got there.
Fortunately, persuading my parents was aided by the fact that I had begun writing a novel centered in the sub-culture of truck drivers and truck stops. Thus, my logic went, hitch-hiking across America was an excellent way to gather research material for the novel. As a writer himself, my Dad could relate to this. Eventually he helped bring my Mom on board with the idea, albeit somewhat reluctantly.
In America of the 1960s and 70s, hitch-hiking was a lot more common — and arguably a lot safer — than it is today. You would often see hitch-hikers at the entrance ramps to interstate highways. Those aiming to go longer distances would often hold up a rough hand-made cardboard sign with their destination written on it: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or whatever.
I decided to make a hitch-hiking sign, and initially thought I would write “Vancouver” on it, since I planned to stop there along the way to visit some schoolmates.
On reflection, I thought, why not be the only guy on the highway with a sign saying “Hong Kong”? So that’s what I wrote on my piece of cardboard.
It worked. Not only was it distinctive, standing out from the more common destinations like Seattle and San Francisco, but it piqued the curiosity of passing motorists, most of whom had no idea where Hong Kong was.
Several of the kind folks who stopped to offer me a ride asked me whether or not I was really going to Hong Kong, and if so, whether I was headed in the right direction.
After visiting my schoolmates in Vancouver, I flew to Japan and then Hong Kong.
I landed at Hong Kong’s hair-raising old Kai Tak Airport in the sweltering mid-August heat, with my backpack and sleeping bag as checked-in luggage, $150 cash in my pocket, and an American Express card my Dad had given me for use in case of emergency.
I checked into the old YMCA on Salisbury Road in Tsimshatsui, next to the Peninsula Hotel. The next morning I telephoned my sole job lead, to whom I had sent a letter and resume in advance, to inquire about the possibility of a job interview.
“No need.” was the initial response.
I was discouraged, until the second sentence:
“You can start work tomorrow.”
I went in the following morning and found the new boss a charming and engaging Chinese man with various business interests including publishing and communications. He was also a native Mandarin speaker and struck me as potentially a very good mentor. I accepted the job offer, and soon found my instincts about him were right.
Little did I know that my plans to spend a few months there would turn into 35 years, and counting.
Hong Kong is that kind of place. It’s full of people who arrived for one reason yet stayed for another, often for a much longer time than originally expected. Its immigration, tax and business incorporation rules are relatively friendly.
In hindsight, I am convinced my first boss in Hong Kong was the good mentor in the original dream which persuaded me it was time to come to Asia.
The lesson to me is that it is important to pay attention to your dreams — both the kind which you have while asleep at night and the kind which you develop during your waking hours.