搭车去香港 / Hitch-hiking to Hong Kong

搭车去香港

1974年,我前往亚洲的时刻似乎终于到来了。

我在芝加哥的中学开始学汉语普通话,上了大学继续学习,一共学了7年,但我曾经去过的与中国甚至亚洲最接近的地方只是美国的一处唐人街。毕业后的一年,我远离了中文学习,能感到词汇量正在逐渐蒸发。由于不再有机会使用,我感觉自己正在丢掉中文。

这是一个继续坚持或干脆放弃的时刻。要么做一些与中文有关的事情,要么把它丢在书架上,就像那些在学校里学过但在后来的生活中根本没用过的科目一样。我更希望前者,可是,没有明显的机会找上门来。

毕业后的第一份工作给了我很好的学习机会,老板是很好的导师,但我还是不能平静下来,我听到了稻田和竹林的召唤。我年轻,又是单身,可以做任何我想做的事情。

让我下定决心的那个时刻出现在一个早晨,我从一个特别鲜活的梦中醒来。这个梦有点像英雄传奇,以非常写实的细节描述了一个个人的长篇故事。它讲的是我去中国的情节,整个旅程充满了冒险和兴奋、求知和满足感。在梦中,我还遇到一位中国人,他成为我的良师,对我产生了很大影响。

这个梦似乎就是我一直在等待着的那个信号。

于是,我开始计划,打听机票、工作和签证之类的事情。我决定辞职,买一张飞往香港的单程机票。这是一张从西海岸起飞的单程票,因为我只能负担得起这么远距离的旅行。

我计划在香港待几个月,通过自由撰稿挣上一些钱,然后去台湾,在讲汉语普通话的环境里呆上一年左右,再返回美国继续学习。

香港的一个吸引人之处,是它的英文出版市场很繁荣,似乎可以给身为作家的我提供合适的就业机会。不足之处是,当时那里很少有人会讲普通话,而对于我来说,在与课堂完全不同的日常生活中提高普通话水平十分重要。

由于各种实际原因,当时中国大陆还没有向美国人开放,所以我不可能去那里。

在基本的计划确定下来之后,我遇到了一些实际挑战。其中一个问题就是如何才能从我居住和工作的美国东海岸前往西海岸——我飞往香港的单程票的始发地。

两地之间相距3,000英里,对我来说多少有点技术难度。最明显的解决办法是搭车。

还有其他的挑战,比如让我的父母相信这是一个审慎明智的举动:我要搭车横穿美国,飞往香港,事先没有找到工作,在那里也没有亲戚和朋友,口袋里装着大约150美元,到那以后,要靠这点钱维持生活。

幸运的是,当时我正写一本聚焦于卡车司机和卡车驿站亚文化的小说,这有助于我说服父母。我的道理是,搭车穿越美国是为小说搜集调研资料的绝好方法。父亲自己也是作家,能够理解我。他帮助说服母亲同意了我的想法,尽管她有些不情愿。

在上世纪六、七十年代的美国,搭车比现在普遍得多,也可以说比今天安全很多。当时,在州际高速公路的入口处,你经常能够看到许多搭便车的人。路程比较远的人常常会举着一个手工制作的简易纸板,上面写着他们的目的地:纽约、芝加哥、旧金山或者其他什么地方。

我也决定做一块搭车用的纸板,开始我想写上“温哥华”,因为我要顺路去那里看几个同学。

转念一想,我觉得,为什么不做一个唯一在高速路上举着“香港”字样的标牌的人呢?于是我就在纸板上这样写了。

这样写有了效果。不仅与众不同,在西雅图、旧金山等非常普通的地名中很显眼,而且引起了过路司机的好奇,他们中很多人都不知道香港在哪儿。

几个好心人停下车,想带上我,并且问我是不是真的要去香港,如果是真的,是不是走对了方向。

在看望了温哥华的同学后,我飞到了日本,然后飞往香港。

我在香港令人恐惧的老启德机场着陆,时值8月中旬,天气湿热。我背着双肩背包,唯一的托运行李是一条睡袋,兜里揣着150美元和一张父亲给的美国运通卡,以备急用。

我住进了尖沙嘴梳士巴利道的基督教青年会旧址,在半岛酒店旁边。第二天上午,我给唯一的求职线索打了电话,询问他们面试的可能性。我已经事先给他们寄了求职信和简历。

“不需要。”对方首先回答说。

我感到泄气,直到他说了第二句话。

“你明天就可以开始工作。”

第二天上午,我去上班,发现新老板是一位有魅力、招人喜欢的中国男人,他涉足多种生意,包括出版和传播行业。而且,他的母语是普通话,一下子让我觉得,他可能成为我非常好的导师。我接受了这份工作,并且很快发现,我对他的直觉是正确的。

当时,我根本不知道,原本在香港停留数月的计划将最后将变成35年,而且还将延续下去。

香港就是这样一个地方,很多人为了一个理由而来,却为了另一个理由留下,而且他们停留的时间通常比预期的长很多。这里的移民、税收和公司法规相对友好。

事后回想,我甚至相信在香港的第一个老板就是当初梦中的那个人,由此也让我下定决心要去亚洲。

我学到的经验是:关注你的梦很重要,无论是你夜晚睡觉时做的梦,还是你在醒着的时候编织出来的梦。

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.


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