Mark Twain once wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” Well, this past year I was given the opportunity leave my little corner of the earth for a year to live and work in Hong Kong. And it was, without a doubt, one the most educating, culturing and humbling experiences that I have ever had.
In the fall of 2013 I left Greensboro to travel 16 hours by plane to a place that I knew very little about and had only ever seen in pictures: Hong Kong. I was working under contract for a company based in Los Angeles, where I had lived for the previous two years, to fundraise for future projects. After a couple of medical physicals and a lot of visa paperwork between myself, my employer and the Hong Kong immigration offices, I became legally sanctioned to reside and work in a city that I had never even read a Lonely Planet book about.
One of the first things I noticed about Hong Kong, other than the crowds, was the spectacular skyline. I had seen many skylines from New York to Tokyo, but the Hong Kong’s is even more impressive. Also, you never need to take a taxi in Hong Kong. It has one of the most efficient and cleanest subway systems that I have encountered. Each metro station is almost like an underground mall. There are sushi restaurants, McDonalds, bakeries, 7-Eleven convenient stores and clothing shops. You can get most anything you need underground at the subway stations in Hong Kong. I mean, they even have a Mrs. Fields Cookie bakery down there, at almost every station. Not only are the subways convenient, but they are also 10 times cleaner than any subway train in Los Angeles or New York. Furthermore, Hong Kong subways do not serve as a hangout for homeless people like those in New York City.
When I first arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to see the amount of Westerners and English-speaking people.
Actually, English is one of Hong Kong’s official languages, Cantonese being the other. Sometimes when walking down the Central district in Hong Kong, which is the major financial hub on the island, it would be perfectly normal to not see any Asian people at all. However, it is important to note, that most of these Westerners were from Australia, Europe or the United Kingdom. Upon doing research on the Westerner expats living in there, I found that Americans made up the smallest percentage. I definitely got to experience what it feels like to be the minority. Being a white American, this was something that I was unfamiliar with, but absolutely grateful to experience.
One major difference between Hong Kong and a quaint city such as Greensboro is that it is a melting pot of many cultures. Hong Kong is revered as a “world city,” meaning that it accommodates people from all over the globe. India, Australia, Africa, Europe — you name it, and they are represented in Hong Kong. One of the things that I enjoyed most about this experience was being able to just walk down the street and hear people speaking at least three different languages. It was nothing to overhear a conversation in French, British-accented English or even German. It was particularly fascinating to me, being one of the only Americans, and being born and raised in place like Greensboro where 99.9 percent of people speak with a “twang.”
Working in international operations, throughout my venture I had the pleasure of interacting heavily with Hong Kong and Chinese natives, as well as British, African, Indian and German expats. I found it so enriching to experience their perspective of Americans. The most common stereotypes that I encountered were the ideas that all Americans are ignorant (unaware and lacking a multinational conscience), obese and arrogant. So, needless to say, the international media does not portray America in very a positive light. And many foreigners, unless they travel to the United States, may never get to encounter the real American, because the majority of US citizens do not even own passports.
People abroad assume that all Americans act like the cast of the “Jersey Shore” or “Larry the Cable Guy,” casually yelling, “Git ’r’ done” at every opportune moment. In fact, according to a recent study done by the State Department, only 46 percent of Americans actually have passports, and only 30 percent of North Carolina residents have passports. This is not a testament to our intelligence. I encourage everyone to go get a passport and to make plans to use it!
I returned to Greensboro this past summer a more humbled and enlightened man. I have a newfound appreciation for my personal space and international travel. And I have developed more of a multinational awareness. I no longer take a train to or from work, nor am I exposed to exotic cultures, languages and traditions on a daily basis. I am back to eating egg whites and orange juice for breakfast instead of delectable dim sum and authentic jasmine tea. Sushi is little more expensive ($28 for Salmon sashimi; really, Imperial Koi?), but the air is cleaner. And from the people that I encountered on my journey — whom I now refer to as “teachers” — to the sites that I saw, and the experiences I had, I will forever be grateful.
Landon Johnson is the director of corporate marketing and communications for DH Griffin Companies in Greensboro. Through his five-year career in marketing development he has worked in New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong for companies like Paramount Pictures, ABC and Disney.