A way of life slowly slipping away

In times like these, when you can't really move around, you're much better off travelling in your head. I realized this when I was home for the weekend, and I found myself, my sister and Shalla in a pretty boisterous conversation about our trip to Seoul. The beats were familiar - it started with how Shalla and I chose not to go to the demilitarized zone and instead make our way through Gangnam, and it led to how we experienced our first snow fall while actually exposed to it, rather than while in a bus returning to the capital - and there were several detours along the way, from the first time we tried hotteok in Insadong (at half the cost of the ones found on Nami Island) to the assemble-your-own-ssam restaurant we had dinner in.

That led us to a story somewhere in between all those. We skipped the DMZ in part because we were going to meet one of Shalla's distant relatives, who happens to live in Seoul. We took a train from Apgujeongrodeo and headed to Nowon - a pretty long train ride, from one of the glitziest parts of the city to a relatively far-flung residential district. I think there were ten stations (and one transfer) in between, and we had to cross the Han river.

Before the train crossed the river, this tall, chiseled guy got on board the train. Shalla thought he looked familiar. Could he be a K-pop idol? There was no way for us to know, as he was wearing a mask. I would also imagine he wouldn't be out and about by himself, considering it was the final week of the year, which meant the major television networks would have yearend concerts, and they'd be pretty busy. We assumed he's an ulzzang - roughly, someone who's really good-looking - and perhaps a model.

That didn't stop us from surreptitiously taking a photo of him. Maybe, maybe, he is an idol. One of Shalla's friends decided he might, might, be someone from EXO. Somehow that point was left hanging for almost five years, until last weekend, around the dining table, with my sister looking up... was it Baekhyun or Chanyeol? Male idols will always remain anonymous to me. But apparently one of the photos I took showed the guy wearing this big ring. It might match someone, my sister - who isn't an EXO fan, but watched enough Running Man to know - posited.

"Pero tignan mo yung shape ng mukha," I told her. "Iba."

That said, Seoul is a place I'd want to revisit, because I frankly don't remember much of it. We were only there for almost six days - arrived the night after Christmas, left very early on New Year's Day - and as it was our first visit there, everything relied on tours. We didn't do much exploring on foot, so the anxiety of things going horribly wrong - like that time I thought I lost my phone in Dongdaemun, only to find out it fell deep into the pockets of my trench coat - meant I never got to really experience the place, like, say, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong, cities that I've visited multiple times, some of them by myself.

It's why listening to radio stations from those cities give me a slightly different rush. Yes, I listen more to stations from Europe or the United States, but that's mostly for the music mix and the lingering sense that they do radio better than where I come from. When they start talking about news stories on their side of the world, I listen in as an observer completely from the outside, just taking the facts in without a single reference to anything I have personally seen. When the Singaporeans do their traffic reports, I go, "oh, the PIE, again," even if I've only been there for a week at the longest and have never really worked there. (My sister was there for two months trying her luck. If anything, the PIE should mean a little bit more to her.)

In the past week or so I have been listening to Hong Kong radio. It's done more to make me travel in my head. I've been there more frequently than any other foreign city, including six visits in five years, all but one for work. Even if I'll only be really familiar with that part of Wanchai with the hardware stores instead of the bars - and be able to bluff my way by foot to the Monocle shop on the other end of the district - it's a place that, I can confidently tell myself, I know my way around a little bit more than everyone else, perhaps even Manila, for some reason. At the very least, Hong Kong is the only place where I can get away with packing a vest and make myself look like a Korean college student.

Hong Kong's always fascinated me, perhaps more so than Singapore - and I thought I'd be really fascinated by that place. I've been reading my old essays and I've come to realize most of what I've written about the little red dot is about how distant and cold it can be. By contrast, the stuff I've written about the little black dot (I looked it up, it's a pretty obscure nickname for Hong Kong) had a bit more life to it: how it thrives on intrigue, how you really see Filipinos everywhere and how the locals seem to treat you just a little differently, how the weather there can be wild, how people there really feel strongly about the values they hold dear. Or maybe I'm thinking of the essays I didn't end up writing, like one about Szechuan peppercorns, or one about, well, just how you really see Filipinos everywhere. Maybe it's because I'm just a bit more perceptive. Maybe it's because I feel like I have a better grip of the place than most. Maybe it's because I feel like a slightly different person there.

I first flew to Hong Kong twelve years ago, and I've been listening sporadically to their radio stations - well, the one English-language station I can properly stream - on and off since then. For a city that feels like it's constantly moving, it's a bit amazing how they haven't changed their sound, or most of their schedule, all these years. Or perhaps it's by design. Hong Kong is no longer a British colony, after all; it's been a Chinese territory - special administrative region - for over two decades now, as you all would know, if you've been watching the news and pondering how events over there are paralleling events over here. As time passes it might as well feel like a relic of a way of life slowly slipping away, like the four copies of the same issue of Cathay Pacific's inflight magazine that I took home because it had my name on it.

Anyway, that radio station's a mix: news in the mornings, a lot of chat until around lunchtime, and some interesting music programs at night, including one from perhaps the oldest working radio DJ in the world. There are no ads, as you'd expect from a public broadcaster, but there are a lot of public service announcements. Hong Kong being a hot spot of several pandemics through the years, there has always been a lot of talk about washing your hands and keeping generally clean. It's a quirk I've lived with, and even learned to take for granted.

Today, however, I heard a different PSA, and it stuck out because of what it was about and how it was performed. It was about how you are ultimately responsible for your actions, and that if you run afoul of the law, you will face the consequences. You will face jail time.

Participating in a riot. Ten. Years.

Participating in an unauthorized gathering. Five. Years.

Yes, it was read in a pretty dramatic manner. Ten. Years. And it went on, listing three more offenses that I've forgotten about because I had to draft this essay. But definitely it's about the protests continuing in the city; it's definitely with the backdrop of the Hong Kong government trying to restore order and, in the words of its leader a couple of days back, restore its reputation and competitiveness. But then, the way it's read. Ten. Years. It stuck out from all of the things I've heard this radio station do over those twelve years: occasionally stuck in time, but being forced to move forward to a reality not many seem to be willing to accept.

I haven't been to Hong Kong last year because of the protests, and I don't think I'll be back this year either, because of the pandemic. If I ever do go back - if ever I go back - will it still be like how I imagined it today, as I travel in my head to momentarily escape these four walls?

And your responses...

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