So I arrive back in Hong Kong, as I’ve done so many times, to dismaying damp and drizzle. My friend Kate sympathises: “I’m sorry you have to come back to this,” she What’s Apps to say. I am already, within half a day, signed up at the gym and back on a Hong Kong number, pepped up on coffee my suddenly 11 year old student has made me. “Suddenly”, because the last time I looked she was 6 years old and adorable, not she isn’t still adorable but, like her then 11 year old sister, is now a trouble-maker, rummaging in the fridge for fish eggs to try and tempt me with (I’m strict vegetarian and having non of it) and getting me all caffeinated when I’d rather be sound asleep.
“It’s okay,” I tell my friend. “You don’t have to apologise for the HK weather.” But she does and we both know it.
We are sitting in the back of Le Petite Cafe on the second wet grey morning since my arrival. I’ve got my much-needed cappuccino while she is trumping me in the ethical, clean living stakes with her peppermint tea. It is good to see Kate. She is about the only person I can tell all this hippy stuff too without fear of being disowned, unfriended, betrayed.
“It’s just so inhumane,” I complain, “so isolating. In India I never felt lonely; you’d go into a cafe or bar and the guy would ask how you are, if you’ve had a nice morning; they know that you’ve been doing yoga or that your friend’s been by looking for you to go swimming. You ask them how they are and they actually look at you and smile as they reply. I mean, can you imagine having a conversation with the person serving you? There was this guy that had a shop where I’d buy some nice dresses and things, and he told me all about where he was from and what it was like. You’d love it, he said; they all said that, that you have to go visit their home because it’s the most beautiful place in India…with this look in their eyes, kind of faraway and dreamy that made you believe it. CAn you imagine doing that here? Going into Zara… Hallo,” I sing in my best Chinglish accent, “welcome to Zara, how are you, nice day. Where you from? I am from most beautiful place in China you must come and visit sometime.”
My friend laughs. I gesture around at the long queue for coffee, the bustling cafe full of smart suited types. “No one talks to anyone, and yet everyone expects and demands so much. We are just rude to each other. Treating people like commodities.”
I knew this would happen. I’d warned myself on the walk down here not to do it. What was the use of railing against it? I knew when I was back in India that it was going to be a shock. That day that we’d sat in philosophy talking about the importance of feeding the mind with purities – not only clean foods, but gentle sounds, pleasant smells, harmonious colours and images… I knew that Hong Kong was going to feel like an assault on the soul like never before. The pollution, the concrete, the noise, the crowds… Where even was the sky above my head, the earth beneath my feet? Where was the nearest fruit stall selling fresh bananas, mangos, coconuts? Waiting to cross the street I had seen a stall selling flowers – such things do at least still exist – but it was not until, finally 2 minutes later, I walked right past could I smell the intense fragrance of two dozen orchids, and then, just as quickly, it was gone. The intensity of colour and smell replaced by the grey of the pavements, buildings, smog and drizzle.
What was the point of complaining though? This was life. This was reality. This was Mrs Dalloway in the 21st Century – what a lark, what a plunge! what bullish*t. But where was the use in complaining? What could you expect – the erase it all? To turn back the clock, unpave all the roads, dig up the sidewalks and go back to bare feet shuffling along sandy paths, pulling rickshaws uphill, carrying sacks of rice on your head? People wanted taxis and roads, tramways and escalators. They wanted skyscrapers and high-rise; they wanted shopping malls and coffee shops and constant wifi. Even in India they want all this and you want them to be able to have it too – your Indian friends who slave away in front of pathetic fans, longing for air-conditioning and refrigeration. To be able to sleep comfortably at night and wake in the morning to an ice cold juice and a hot shower.
I had considered the problem deeply: if yoga heightened your sensitivity to your environment, made you hyper-aware of sounds, smells, tastes… gave caffeine and alcohol, tobacco and McDonalds an intolerable toxicity… then surely the yogi could not survive in the city? But then, on the other hand, if modern city living was so stressful that it drove people to seek the calming, mind-altering effects of yoga, wasn’t it inevitable that at some point – sooner or later – a revolution had to occur? Wouldn’t the city be forced to change in order to accommodate humanity again, in order to be humane again?
In my mind green spaces would spring up everywhere: people growing vegetables on their rooftops, letting the grass grow in the cracks between the pavements, flowers, shrubs and trees out of window boxes and guttering… Instead of red taxis lining the street, children would be running hand in hand to school, picnicking on the sidewalks; businessmen walking to work barefoot, not texting on their iPhones but talking to their neighbours on the earth. The sky would be blue and the air good to breath, scented with flowers and carrying, not the noise of the traffic, but the sound of birdsong.
Yes, it was a crazy dream, but that is what – for a moment – I imagined when I thought of Hong Kong. But then, as my friend Alan reminded me, most people do not do yoga for that reason. They do it because they want to look good, because it is fashionable, because they have bought all the Lululemon gear and look damn good wearing it over post-pilates coffee with their friends. Oh Alan, I wish your cynicism was not quite so justified, but I fear it is.
Still, if Kate is anything to go by, I have reason to believe yet. Kate started yoga with me back in… June, July (?) last year. Hers was the familiar story of being unsatisfied with her body and wanting to join a gym to do something about it. So I did what any evangelical yogi does and signed her up at my gym, selfishly pleased I would get to spend more time with her and eager to share the life-enhancing benefits of yoga. To begin with, I’ve got to admit, I was a little dismayed to find her bringing her iPhone along; I understand she has to work, but this was hardly going to help her to zone out and chill out. Still, she’s my friend so I said nothing, until now. (Sorry Kate).
But, patronising as this is going to sound, I am thrilled to report that Kate is still doing yoga – has been doing yoga the whole time I’ve been away and now has a regular, heartfelt practice. Heck, she’s even doing wheel pose on the top of freakin’ mountains! (Yes, a photo worthy of Facebooking, I quite agree!)
Talking to her about “Everything I Learnt in India” I have to acknowledge that she is already there – spiritually, ethically, intelligently trying to live the life of a yogi and without having to spend a couple of thousand dollars and several weeks on a teacher training course. Kate’s a natural born yogi. My big sister stand in for the past four or five years, she has always have been my go-to guru of choice in this crazy old town. My first gratitude and biggest pleasure, and I will certainly be taking a leaf out of her book and opting for the peppermint tea in future.
So Kate, I break my vow of silence for you, in honour of you. Yes, I have lots to lament about returning to HK, but you are not one of them, and in terms of starting a yoga revolution? If it has only two members (and perhaps we recruit your brother as a third?), nameste. “I bow to you.”