I Know When to Cross the Street! What Little Things Make You Feel at Home in a New Place?

I have reached "functioning amateur" level in this city -- I'm awesome.
Publish date:
October 16, 2015
moving, living abroad, anxiety, city life, new kid in town, Hong Kong

I've always been a weenie when it comes to crossing the street in a big city.

Despite having lived in major cities for the majority of my life, most of those cities were not "walking cities." Driving three blocks to the convenience store was no big thing. I'll admit it, I used to pat myself on the back for choosing to walk a few blocks instead of driving. I'd count it as a "workout."

Crossing the street in major walking cities (cities that always seemed so much cooler than where I lived) began making me nervous in my late 20s. Having known FIVE street-savvy and way more "with it" adult-people who had been hit by cars in Los Angeles and New York, I began regarding crossing busy main roads with the kind of wariness most people reserve for fording a river. (FACT: I have indeed forded a river.)

That all changed in Tokyo and Yokohama. Not only did I not have a car and walking everywhere was a necessity, but walking (crossing big scary streets included) was the single best way for me to get to know Japan. How else was I supposed to confuse and confound the Japanese?

As a timid street-crosser, Tokyo/Yokohama was a great training ground. Despite being giant cities with hordes of people and vehicles going about their business everyday, everyone was quite orderly.

Aside from a few rush hour situations, by and large traffic patterns were pretty easy to predict in Japan. People more or less stayed in their "lanes" — of both the "foot" and "vehicular" kind, but lanes nonetheless. Even crossing the street near Shibuya Station (the famous busy intersection that is in all the Tokyo stock photos), I felt like I could just "follow the leader" and be okay. Everyone basically played by the rules.

So I got a little cocky, and thought, "Whatever Hong Kong! I can handle Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku — I'm a pro! BRING IT!"

Ha. Hong Kong laughed that sharp old-Chinese-lady laugh at me. "Ha! You think you're so good? Ha!"

Part of the anxiety that enveloped me in my first month here — and is only just starting to slowly abate to tolerable levels — had to do with walking between my apartment and my subway station.

It's a straight shot, I could probably walk it blindfolded. But I wouldn't. Because I'd die.

The stretch of street is several short blocks long spanning one of my area's main roads. It's loud, busy, and clogged with cabs, buses, and peoplepeoplepeople.

Unlike the the ordered chaos of Tokyo, Hong Kong streets are often choked with people needing to just GET WHERE THEY'RE GOING by any means possible. It really seems like many people are in their own world, their feet having long ago memorized how to carry them from point A to point B.

I'm sure this is true in any major city where people walk everywhere.

And while I can weave my way through the crowds with some learned skill, it's crossing the street that feeds my anxiety.

It's partly my ego's fault. Wanting so badly to "fit in" as a local and not some bumbling American, I at first tried to cross the street like a local. That is, cross against the light or know just when to cross a street with no pedestrian crossing light. Essentially I would try to look bored and effortless — the exact opposite of who Louise Hung is.

This is stupid, and how I might die.

What I've come to realize is that crossing the street in Hong Kong, be it giant intersections or even just bustling side streets, is a skill that is practiced and honed by tuning one's senses. Senses that have just recently reached 'functioning amateur" level here.

While you still might catch me standing at an intersection twitching amongst the people, I feel like I have gotten a handle on the rhythm of street crossing now. It's a small but important victory in making me feel at home and like I belong in Hong Kong.

No crossing light? (Mostly) no problem! I may not have a sixth sense about when cars are coming like the locals seem to, but I'd say I have a fifth-and-one-half sense about cars. And when in doubt, I've embraced the act of standing still while looking angrily at my phone — like I'm purposely not crossing the street because someone is pissing me off via text message. (I like to imagine it's my troublesome co-worker Fox Janeway.)

As absurdly self-conscious as this sounds, it gives me a moment to collect myself, get a handle on my anxiety, and cross the street without feeling frantic. Plus, honestly, I make myself laugh.

Anxiety is a weird partner in crime, and can make you believe you are under a microscope that doesn't exist. So why not have a little fun with it?

But crossing the street isn't the only little victory that is making me feel like at home here. Walking around the city everyday, I catalog dozens of new "skills" that bring a smile to my face.

I'm now going to brag about a few of those skills. Prepare to be awed.

I have a mental map of all the shops that sell veggie tofu skin rolls within a 12-block radius.

Have you ever had a tofu skin roll? It's sort of like the egg rolls many of you are familiar with from your favorite dim sum joint or Panda Express, but the skin is a little thinner, more delicate while at the same time chewier, and yes, comes from soy beans.

Basically it's the skin that forms when you boil soy milk. You collect it, dry it, stuff it, cook it, eat it. It may not sound tasty, but TREAT YO SELF, and seek them out at your local Asian market or Chinatown.

Plus they are gluten free (beware soy sauce!) and can be usually found filled with just veggies. Harder to find in the US, they are pretty common here, and in the short time I've been in Hong Kong I've made it my business to know nearly all the places that I can procure them while ambling around my neighborhood and the surrounding area.

When I've had a crappy day, it's such a comfort to go into my brain AKA food database and BEEP-BOOP-BOP-BOP-BIP know where I can find my favorite comfort food close by and usually for cheap.

There's no victory like a food victory to make you feel at home.

I can ride the subway without looking up from my book.

I'm sure some of you can relate to this: It feels so good to just know where your stop is when you ride the subway or train.

For my first few weeks in Hong Kong I was the person in the subway car carefully checking the map at every stop to make sure I was on the right line, going the right way. While the Hong Kong subway system is pretty straightforward, I was still a little paranoid. "WHAT IF I END UP IN MAINLAND CHINA?" (Nearly impossible...though now that I've written "impossible" it will happen to me through freak occurrence. IHTM: WHY AM I IN SHENZHEN?!)

Nothing makes you feel less at home than not being sure which direction is home.

But slowly I started to learn the subway system — I even came to memorize which exits lead to which streets, which I'll admit made me feel COOL. Now I can lean up against the side of a car, or snag a seat, and calmly read a book trusting that my Subway-Powers will alert me when to get off.

I know where to hold my breath on my way home.

There are two alleys on my walk home where I'm convinced all the Hong Kong creatures great and small go to die.

By mid morning there is a pungent, "rotten crab" aroma wafting in stink-lines out of these alleys. It smells bad, but the stink is recognizable as food garbage. So it's OK. Not good, but tolerable, and frankly very Hong Kong.

But after a day of humidity, and more garbage being piled on top, those two alleys smell like your zombie baby's diaper: death and shit. And rotten crabs.

After crossing the path of these alleys in the first couple weeks I lived here, and every time involuntarily exclaiming, "SWEET SWEATY JESUS!", I taught myself to hold my breath. Now my body just does it for me as I near those alleys. I barely even think about it.

My body is protecting me from the zombie-diaper-crab stink.

I am home.

What are the little victories that make you feel at home in a new place? What gives you anxiety? How do you get settled?