I'm Walking Here

Sreedhevi Iyer
Mar 25th, 2014

Sree Iyer takes us for a walk through Malaysia, Australia and Hong Kong.

You start from Cornwall Street out towards Mei Foo, past buildings that alternate between shiny and shabby, past screaming signs and traffic bustle, past your own frontier. Your feet do Tim Robinson’s ‘the good step’ on pavements past two metres, and enter a supermarket world where everyone rushes to procure something - money, worth, love. There is no point to maps when there is enough to turn the mind inside out – the makeshift soft toy shop at the traffic corner where you are to turn to find the restaurant you need, or the shoe-polish shop in the alley outside an MTR station. You say ‘ng-koi’ several times within the first twenty minutes of the walk. Once it’s to a well-dressed Chinese man with his back to you, having stopped short on the path as he delves into his smartphone. He says ‘sorry’ in a light international accent as you hedge past.

 

‘That’s alright,’ you joke. ‘I’ve done the same.’

He chuckles without once taking his eyes off the phone. It doesn’t feel rude. 

 

Tall businessmen in Armani suits talk to themselves. A Sri Lankan domestic helper walks a poodle dressed in a pink tutu. Disabled beggars lie face down on tiled floors, unmoving as coins clink into plastic containers. Women with genuine Prada handbags strut with pursed lips, probably miffed at having to be walking on the street in the first place. Two policemen speak roughly in broken English to an African American male three times their size. A group of expats holding plastic cups of beer walk with their heads turning at the sight of any pretty Asian girl. Some Asian girls smile back. An old lady in a samfu and walking cane shuffles along, trying not to get in the way. You wonder how they would all describe you.

 

You were always on the other side of things until here. Eavesdropping is useless now because all you hear are clatters of Cantonese, like a bunch of spoons falling to the floor all at once. Small talk with salespeople is out, but you have a troubled face, and another face will see it and come help. It is not what you are used to, strangers being compassionate as a reflex. You ask a bystander the way to an MTR station, and because their English isn’t as good as yours, they decide to accompany you instead. When you don’t understand the menu at a restaurant, you look at the waiter in confusion, and he brings you samples in small bowls so you know what you’re getting into. You found your rental space because your real estate agent admired your literary and academic ambitions.  

 

Things in public, like chairs on a ferry, or grimy cemented pavements, feel thin and temporary, as if made to mock your inner princess. They scare you into thinking you’ve arrived mistakenly, to the wrong place, away from the comfort of first world suburban Brisbane. You had couched yourself there, believing you belonged there, and you now react to anything that looks cheap, as if it would translate into your own worth. And things inside shopping arcades and office skyscrapers and hotel complexes hold whispered conversation, a fulsome brightness and the quietness of status, as if you must now prove your right to them with your pores. The money ladder here is taller than you know and the rungs too slippery to find the right perch.

 

Your upheaval to cosmopolitan Hong Kong has resulted in categories of belonging clashing so loudly you still have aftershocks in your head. You have been searching for your place for so long, wherever you are, you no longer know you are doing it. Malaysia, the land you were born in, is completely at odds with your adopted country, Australia. One is a land of old traditions scared of the new, leaning towards racial and religious fundamentalism. The other is too new to know itself, with pop culture so white a retrospect blackface skit on national television is still seen as funny. Like a rebel child refusing good-for-you greens, you resided in opposition to your habitat. You were stubbornly Asian in Australia. You had to leave your footwear at the door when visiting a friend. You had sixteen different kinds of chilli sauce in your pantry. You welcomed guests with open arms and waited on them hand and foot, bewildering them. In Malaysia you displayed your Australianness like an inaccessible accessory. You exaggerate your Australian accent. You talked of the value of a classless society. You openly missed alcohol, offending some of your parents’ friends. But now, in Hong Kong, each of these two women exists together, side by side. They have nothing left to say to one another.

 

The concrete pavement is made up of elongated strips, like wafers arranged in a row of three. The gritty edges contain weary histories, urban bustle, money-making lore – the real maps. The resonances of this hub, teeming, overblown, draining, pulsate along with your rhythm. They rise up your feet as you plod, imbuing anonymity. It tingles you. You form yourself more, swinging, sashaying, imposing your movement onto this space, this gray polluted air full of deliverance.

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Sreedhevi Iyer
Hong Kong

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Sreedhevi Iyer
Australia
Last blog date: Oct 4th, 2014

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