So I recently made a foray to Hong Kong for a week. For the record, I am not an ardent traveler/writer like Rick Steves nor an ardent eater/media darling like Anthony Bourdain. Aspiring to their level of admiration and success, however, has a prominent place on my bucket list. But that's another blog post.
I went to Hong Kong for more personal reasons -- to attend the 92nd birthday party of my future daughter-in-law's maternal grandmother.
A week is a long time to be among "strangers" -- people I had never met and whose culture, heritage, customs and, in some cases, language -- I do not share.
The first inkling of how the trip would unfold started with the plane reservations. In retrospect, I should have heeded the emotional climate I would soon be enveloped in, but I am always a little obtuse in these matters. When Betty and Ed, my daughter-in-law's parents, learned I would be traveling alone without my husband, they immediately offered me some of their airline points. Why? So I could switch to the flights my son and future daughter-in-law, Joia, were booked on. I was stunned by their generosity and thoughtfulness. And I was even more delighted that my future daughter-in-law didn't mind spending 15 hours with me, beside her, on an airplane. In fairness, I didn't realize that for most of the flight I would be in a Xanax-induced stupor, where conversation wasn't possible anyway. But she didn't know that when she accepted me so graciously as a seat mate.
Upon arrival at the imposing, bustling Hong Kong airport, we were met by Ed and Betty, swept into a taxi and whisked to our hotel, where we could unpack and rest. Just as the elevator doors were closing, Joia's parents pulled me aside and handed me a green plastic card.
"What's this?" I inquired, slightly puzzled.
"It's like a debit card," Ed explained. "With it, you can get coffee, subway access, etc. It will make things easier for you." Again, I was stunned by their heightened sense of accommodation to a visitor/guest.
When I came to Hong Kong, I expected to have a nice time. I expected people to be polite and helpful. I even expected to be treated with a degree of respect, because in Asian eyes, I am an elder. And, as Joia has taught me, filial piety is held in high esteem.
But nothing, and I mean nothing, prepared me for what I was met with every single day. Special treatment. Deference to my wishes. Well-planned outings. Affection. Good will. And so many, many laughs and shared good times. It was a well-balanced blend of sightseeing, family time and down-time to relax and re-charge.
I didn't get to experience Chinese Mah Jongg, but I did get a taste of authentic Hong Kong coffee -- no sugar, but well blended with a creamy substance. I didn't take high tea at the Sheraton, but I gambled at Macau and lost $1,000 Hong Kong dollars in about three minutes, while attempting to figure out a very complicated slot machine.
I didn't master the use of chopsticks, but I did embrace with gusto every type of Chinese noodle placed before me. I stayed away from anything squiggly or slimy, still moving or undercooked, but I stuffed myself with turnip cakes at every opportunity.
I was enthralled with the big round tables we usually dined at, all topped with a swiveling round disc -- a Lazy Susan.
The conversation flowed continuously as waiters brought out each new course. And though there were many courses -- usually about 15 -- portions were small and the time between each serving ample. I left each meal comfortably full, but not stuffed. What was in excess was the tabletop banter and animated conversation. The latter reminded me of a Shabbat meal.
On our last Saturday night in Hong Kong, 45 of us gathered in a party room at the Four Seasons to toast, roast and celebrate Lou and Joia's upcoming nuptials in May. As befitting my own love of Judaism, I incorporated Judaism's classic phrase of a bestowal of blessings: "L' Chaim." To life. And I stated that I wished for all those present "good health, long life and the sharing of many more joyous moments."
And then I paused. I lifted my glass once again. And I continued. "To Louie and Joia, not only do I wish for you both good health, ample wealth and an abundance of happiness. But, in the coming years, may you also be blessed with many little kiddos sitting around your Lazy Susan too."
There was dead silence. Had I unknowingly committed an Asian faux pas? And then en masse, all 45 family members -- aunts and uncles and cousins -- stood. They smiled broadly. They lifted their glasses. Their voices rang out, strongly and with great gusto, echoing my toast. "L' Chaim!" they roared.
No crystal ball sits on my kitchen counter. Who knows how my son and his bride will mesh their cultures, as they begin their lives as husband and wife next spring? Our first foray into the world of getting to know each other went smoothly. And that's enough for now.