Third-wheeling by Accident

The man across the street did a hand stand, pushed himself out of it and flipped into the splits. The way he looked was the way the street felt: bouncy, alive, energetic, flexible. People who didn’t look like me looked at me and smiled. People who looked like me looked at me and nodded. It was a night of adventure in Hong Kong for tourists and locals alike, and I was just a fly on the wall.

As some on Trip Advisor have called it, I’d just entered the ‘Mad Place’, or Sai Yeung Choi Street, a pedestrian shopping street in Mongkok. After a long day of wandering the streets in a black rain coat that hardly kept the secret chill from seeping in, it was refreshing to be warmed by the energy of so many people enjoying themselves. Now, there’s a key difference in the temperature of a street where people are there for fun, versus a street used solely for the purpose it was made – to get around.

Many of the streets in Hong Kong are crowded with people rushing one way or another, filing into buses, setting up small streetcarts, stopping to chat with friends outside of a mall, but Sai Yeung Choi Streetat night is different. When the sky fades to royal blue and the lights glow even brighter, outlined by darkness, the buzz of the mall is palpable.

I stumbled upon the street by accident. I was heading back to the hostel, playing a game I often play with myself when walking in large cities to see how far I can make it without stopping. Zig-zag in the right direction, turning when the light changes, never pausing. I’d recently lost and was stopped at an intersection with so many people flowing into one street like a funnel used for placing large amounts of water into small containers. At the mouth, I was getting pulled by gravity into this street with the others around me.

A tall out of place red-head ran across the street, his strides twice the size of the locals. I wondered where he was going and wanted to run after him. He seemed so excited, in a rush to something fun. But these are the instincts you must suppress when traveling alone, or just to be socially acceptable even when not traveling.

Instead, I crashed a date without knowing it. After steering clear of a two men serenading people with music and avoiding a woman selling watches, I spotted an ice cream shop. There was a line of teenagers surrounding the shop, congregating as they do. I couldn’t understand them, but from the way the boys and the girls would come together and then separate and flow in circles and cycles, I imagined their conversations about crushes and who likes who and school and regular teenager things. In my black raincoat that starts narrow at the top and flows down wide for strategic purposes (the water flows off you easier), I felt like the ugly duckling that couldn’t keep up.

Eating alone is something you learn to do when you travel solo. For me, it’s strange every time. You become more aware of yourself. Although, it’s not abnormal to travel alone. According to a Visa Global Travel Intentions Study, over 24 percent of people traveled alone overseas of fun in 2015, a statistic increasing each year.

Still, normal or abnormal, eating alone unveils a new level of consciousness that is hidden when in groups. So there I stood, in line, completely aware of my raincoat. Which I was only wearing for a thin layer of insulation because it was definitely not raining. Did the teenagers talk about me? Did they notice my blonde hair? Maybe it was just me who noticed my own blonde hair and the new haircut that I didn’t quite enjoy.

I studied the menu looking at pictures and the scrawling figures of names below that I couldn’t read. When it was my turn, I smiled and pointed and tried to make my face as friendly as possible. I’m not sure what friendliness looks like, but I think it has to do with a feeling of warmness. I tried to be warm, to send a non-verbal message of ‘hello’.

izzue-ice-cream-hong-kong

They smiled back and began preparing my large vanilla ice cream with chocolate popcorn. (…How come we’ve never thought of putting popcorn on ice cream?). It was a quick process and then it was over.  There was swirling and twirling and an exchange of words with someone behind me an exchange of money that wasn’t mine, and three ice creams were handed out the window.

The young man behind me was now beside me. He handed me my ice cream and exuded the same warmth I had tried to give the cashier earlier. Was he trying to communicate friendliness with his face? Does friendliness fit everyone differently?

‘Thank you,’ I told him, hoping he would understand how surprised and grateful I was.

‘For you! Are you traveling alone?’ He and the young girl with him grabbed their ice creams from the counter as well and we floated to the side of the shop so the line could continue.

‘Yes, well, meeting a friend soon,’ I hated the question about being alone. It made me feel exposed.  ‘Are you from here?’

He put his arm around the girl and they nodded. With broken words, they told me they didn’t go to school, but worked. We stood in silence, eating our ice cream and watching the crowds move in rhythm with the performances.

They spoke softly to each other, and I wanted to join but felt that permission to stand with them was enough. We watched, soaking in the drawings of tourists being completed on the street and the music from stores pouring out into the pavement.

They waved at me and disappeared into the crowd. My dates were gone before I could even finish my ice cream.