21? x 40: Hong Kong

To Joyce, my wonder girl.

It’s 2019. It’s been two years since our trip. I can’t say for certain why it took me so long to write about it; it’s been on my mind this whole time. After all, you’re my “wonder girl,” and I didn’t have a way of knowing my own travel would slow down after this trip. I’ve never let this long pass before writing, so why this time? It wasn’t until the recent protests in the streets of the world’s most vertical city when it all came to me, full circle.

For you and I, Hong Kong should be no different than any of our famous adventures, no? We did what we do best. We laughed, we explored, and of course we documented every bit of it with our silly pictures and stories. Since the first day of our sophomore year in Austin together, we were born experts in shared adventure.

So, what made Hong Kong different? Like any trip, it was exotic, educational, and humbling. I guess something inside me needed time. It wasn’t until the mostly-peaceful protests, and the millions of people fighting for independence, that I finally understood. It took this semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong, covered in centuries of ownership and now months of freedom protests, to show me how quickly things can change. It’s time to tell our story.

We all want freedom. I now understand when it comes to freedom, every struggle is different while each one time-consuming. The struggle could be a region’s initially nonviolent protests, a quarrel between friends, a divorce, or the never-ending internal struggle for the freedom we seek from within. No matter the fight – fast or slow – things CAN change fast and WILL leave lasting effects. In the meantime, we explore.


Like the brilliant sites of Hong Kong, our friendship has always been strange and colorful. People just never know what’s going to happen when we’re together. Since we were 15, we’ve made magic out of literally nothing. We invent sandwiches or break into people’s lockers to leave them gifts. We run plays from the backstage and earn the exact same high school GPA, ranking in the same place, woefully missing top 10% by one person. We read every Calvin & Hobbs cartoon there is. Hell, we even love decorating shoe boxes.

Our laughter has resulted in being politely asked to leave bowling alleys and movie theaters alike. We’ve seen Austin’s explosive lighting from eery freeway underpasses, and worked circles around our peers at Dairy Queen. We change lanes at the same time, maybe because we learned how to drive at the same time. We drank $5 “Pulp Fiction” milk shakes in the throws of 90s culture. We danced in fountains, golf courses, ponds in said golf courses, and – my favorite – country western bars. We were “Joyce-ica” before amalgamations were cool.

Reading this makes me realize why everyone thought (thinks?) we’re so similar, yet we both know there couldn’t be two more different people. We just love the same things, and each other, dearly. (Let’s not tell anyone our secret, though, ok?) Over the years, we’ve trail-blazed through many visits in Texas (piercings! tattoos! weddings! kids! wild road trips! dancing! floating!), Washington (flying! hiking! flowers! river-ing!), and eventually, on a whim, Hong Kong. What better place to ring in our much anticipated 40th birthdays! We needed something as unique as we were, together and apart, and Hong Kong seemed to fit. Also, I was already in Asia. So, why not?

Except then our first night was shattered. Literally. After we celebrated a quick dinner during a stormy night, we retired early in the 42nd floor room in Kowloon District hotel, ready for a long day to come. We were instead in for a long night as the glass shower door broke, showering you with broken glass an inch thick, Die Hard style. I found you, stunned, holding the handle rightfully where it belonged had the glass still been there. Your hand required late night stitches as we braved a monsoon to get to a nearby hospital and an even stranger early-morning ride back, thanks to an Asian-version of Uber. Our long scary night culminated in a short scream, as we lay our exhausted heads in a new room and you discover your hair is still crusted with tiny, ubiquitous, heartbreaking glass.

Undeterred – with bandaged hand and all – we explored wet Hong Kong. We conquered her impressive transportation system; carefully and creatively guarding your hand through cramped areas. As I ate my humble pie watching you, I observed you manage pain and uncertainty around injury in a foreign country while enduring you own kind of culture-shock.

We avoided our clashing differences in travel; I’d been in Asia for three weeks on work-related travel and you arrived, fresh, from Texas. I’d been in areas with major language barriers – Beijing, Shanghai, Yichang, Taiwan – and was pleasantly surprised with the language in Hong Kong. Not so much for you; you hadn’t experienced anything like that before. Here we were in Hong Kong, together. In some ways, we might as well had been in different places.


In retrospect, I cannot claim I was as patient or the helpful companion as my memory serves. Traveling mostly solo for two years, I’d forgotten how I often get lost as part of the travel experience, and how this may not jive with my companion. Or I over-correct or under-correct or just plain correct instead of simply “being.” Maybe sometimes I felt the same in return, because, well, we are Joyce-ica, famous for our benign quarrels. Looking back, I’m proud of how we proved our friendship exists the exact same way, literally anywhere, on Earth. We make the best of any situation- injury, culture shock, and all.

As for the seeing the sites, we walked through historic parks, ate dumplings, explored the rides and dolphins at Ocean Park (also in its 40th year), hiked to the Giant Buddha (Happy Buddha!), and saw the dreamy parting of rain clouds from Victoria’s Peak perfectly timed for our arrival. That was one of my favorite experiences, ever. Your very generous friends who live there hosted us to a meal. We shopped for fabric and knockoffs in the beautiful districts. You pet bulls on the street. Sometimes we’d have time to talk about the changes in our lives, our quests for independence and freedom in our own ways; yet as you know, we were very busy doing what we do best.

Have you ever met anyone who has not remarked on our laugh? Yeah, me neither. I’ve been told our combined laugh can be heard miles away. Excluding a bowling alley or two, it’s also brought us to a lot of wonderful places! No matter how tense things get with you and I, no matter how different or similar we are, we ALWAYS find a way to laugh it off and be patient with each other. As our short and bumpy trip came to a close, we had our final dinner, strangely without laughs. You confided in me how you didn’t really want to visit Hong Kong, but just wanted to visit me and do something different than your life and marriage waiting at home. What an odd thing to hear at the end of a trip, and it kinda stuck with me. That’s a long way to go for a birthday getaway. Was it unhappiness, or exhaustion from the trip, speaking? The fight for freedom? Or maybe just wanderlust?

I finally figured it out. The protests showed me what I was missing. Like Hong Kong’s relationship with China, the quest for freedom may have sharp corners and unforeseen consequences. Sort of how my independent life has taught me how all choices have hidden costs. Independence and freedom are not destinations. Like you and I, they are similar but no where near the same. These things are not vacation spots, like distant beaches with a drink waiting for us. Independence has a cost and we fight – mostly-peacefully – for freedom. We lose things in order to get one or both of these precious commodities. We may seek a nomadic lifestyle or a divorce in hopes to find freedom. In the end, however, winning independence can be just as much a responsibility. And we may not know if or when we get it, either, just like you never know when the world around you will shatter. I don’t claim to understand the difference between independence and freedom. All I know is independence can be heavy, and freedom ain’t cheap.

Looking back, there’s a chance I remember Hong Kong differently than it actually was. I’d like to think I was humble, or at least sharing ways to tread lightly during travel. I’d like to think I was also sharing how travel is the best teacher since it shows us windows into our past, present, and future. There’s no real way to know. What happens in Hong Kong stays in Hong Kong…

Hong Kong did teach me to accept how we are all somewhere on the path to freedom and independence. In life, we will move swiftly toward these goals or be halted abruptly. Either way, we can’t stop the mostly-peaceful fight. Her stunning mountains, vertical towers and historic shrines taught me to accept the favors – and good – of others with gratitude, even if we don’t agree. The collision of disagreement itself is a marriage in acceptance, together. The longer it’s been since our trip, the more I realize how badly I needed these lessons.

I didn’t need a trip to Hong Kong with you to remind me of the acceptance and forgiveness that comes from unconditional friendship, but being there with you sure did help. We gotta stick together, because you never know what things will be like when – not if – they change. No matter how independent we think we are, there is truly nothing like being able to rely on someone to love and forgive all of you. It’s what we do best. Besides, isn’t that what friendship is all about?

Even though we all know Hong Kong is a city and can’t be considered a country toward my country-count goal, I’ll forever leave it here as 21? with a loving, symbolic, question mark to honor the millions of folks in Hong Kong fighting – mostly-peacefully – for freedom. It just might count someday.


(c) 2019 Jess(ica) Rowell.

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