Reflections

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ~Mark Twain

I’m still a little sad it’s over. A month ago I landed back in The States from my 30 day trek through parts of Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong. I’m back in New York now: back to the old rat race.

I wouldn’t necessarily call it culture shock, but whenever you come back from a long trip there’s going to be little realizations about where you call home – similar to living in New York City and then going back to Maine, or on a smaller scale, moving away for college, and coming back home. There’s a verbose linguist named Bruno della Chiesa who has a good saying, “A fish doesn’t know what water is.” Hence, when you leave the fishbowl, your world, your perspective, opens up.

The bulk of my time was spent in Japan, so a majority of those realizations and comparisons that pop up in my head stem from that experience, but of course also to a certain extent Korea and Hong Kong. I won’t go into a long list, but there’s a lot we could do better at here, from infrastructure projects, to public education, societal politeness, etc…

And that’s not to paint New York or America in a bad light. Returning from such a trip also broadens one’s perspectives on what they appreciate about their home. Our country certainly enjoys greater liberty. In New York, the diversity, depth, and concentration of culture is a special conglomeration and chaos that’s hard to find anywhere else Earth. The definition of beauty here is broader than anywhere else because of it. There is more at your fingertips here than anywhere else because of it: food, art, experiences, people, you name it.

I managed to unplug from American politics while traveling. Unfortunately political scandal and criminal justice failures in Trumpistan, U.S.A. have been running at full-tilt since I’ve gotten back, and it’s exhausting. To avoid a long political diatribe, I’ll repeat the Mark Twain quote I led off with, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

To me that quote embodies a large reason why I travel, but preceding even that is simply curiosity. What’s it like in a another part of the world? How do they live there, and perceive their world? There’s a fatality in closed-mindedness. An anti-intellectualism leading to rugged individualism has spread across a large swath of America and is doing real damage to the world we live in. Travel, can be part of the antidote. I’m hoping my generation, as it grows in this globalizing world, can do better.

I’ll leave it there. I’ve still got hundreds of photos to sort through, and a healthy portion of my brain filled with excellent memories. I’m feeling creatively rejuvenated now that I’ve gotten that out of my system too. There’s just one itch I need to scratch, and it’s, “When do I go back?”

 

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Final Hours in Hong Kong

I’ve mentioned before that Hong Kong has a beautiful skyline. It wasn’t until the 90s and 2000s when most of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers rose high above its land. One of the best ways to appreciate the architectural jungle of steel, cement, and glass is from the Star Ferry that runs between Kowloon and Hong Kong. The historic ferry dates back to the late 1800s and is a classic way to travel between the two islands.

When the sun sets, the cityscape transforms into a galaxy of lights. Speaking of which, nightly, there is a light show involving more than 40 buildings on the harbor called, “A Symphony of Lights.” Allegedly it’s the world’s largest permanent light and sound show.

I’ll be honest, the show isn’t terribly spectacular. The music it’s set to sounds like cheap midi ripoffs from video games, and the light show itself will probably leave you murmuring a resounding, “Well, that was nice.”

The cityscape lit up at night, looking at Hong Kong Island from the edge of Kowloon, is beautiful, not to mention you’ll see the Star Ferry, and probably a couple junks lit with colorful, ambient light. A gaudy light show is unnecessary, and doesn’t improve it.

I had a final dim sum dinner with a couple of people from the hostel I had only just met on my way to the light show: Taewoon and Sherri. They were both nurses coincidentally. Taewoon had served his 21 months with the Korean military and worked largely with troubled psych patients after getting his nurseing degree after that. Sherri had recently quit her precious position and was on her way to a development summit in Kuala Lumpur. Nurses are always in demand.

I had thought about going to Ozone afterwards, The world’s highest bar, located in Hong Kong’s tallest building. But I still needed to pack for my flight the next morning, which had been bumped up an hour in time, and so I’d get precious little sleep. I opted to pass on it. It’s always good to leave something for next time. I also felt a tickle in my throat. One of the guys in my hostel room had been sick and coughing in the night. I hoped he hadn’t infected me.

I woke bright and early the next day to quietly exit the hostel and make the hour long trek to the airport. Now that it was daytime I was able to really appreciate the surrounding beauty of Hong Kong’s airport. Surrounded by tall, lush, green mountains the modern structure was spacious and easy to navigate.

I gotta say, in relation to New York, the airports and public transportation were far better in Japan, Hong Kong, and even Korea. New York’s transit systems are old, and run 24 hours a day, but in terms of reliability, facilities, customer service, and ease of use, it has some major upgrading to do.

As we taxied on the runway and took off, I felt a wistfulness over me. My journey was coming to an end. I knew it was time to get back to business in New York, but one month had gone by too fast and part of me wanted to keep going. I had a layover in Japan. I could jump ship if I really wanted to, but no, it was time. I can go back to New York and plan the next one better than jumping into it on the fly and improvising.

I took a deep breath, sighed it out as the plane rose above the clouds and Hong Kong disappeared below, and settled in for the long, long journey home.

So long Hong Kong

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Delicacies and the Return of Helen from Canada

I took a “Hong Kong Delicacy” food tour, also offered by Alla, though this was a paid tour, not a free one. We sampled a large amount of various foods that Alla said locals eat regularly.

Every culture back in the day basically had their way to “use the whole buffalo” so to speak. Offal, tripe, blood, bone marrow, tongue, eyes, brains, etc… a lot of it used to be the cheap leftover portions from the butcher or fishmonger and the poor would buy up the unwanted cuts and innards, figure out how to best prepare it, and incorporate it into their diet for some necessary protein and nutrients. As certain places become more affluent, the cheap meat falls out of common use in favor of the better cuts, but then in many places chefs bring it back as a “delicacy,” painstakingly prepared, and inflated in price.

This was a mix of all that, in addition to a bit of Chinese medicine. Which, on another note, I think there’s a good chunk of Chinese medicine that was created as a bullshit way to sell odd leftover bits or typically worthless animal parts to suckers, and when people buy into it, the results can be catastrophic for certain species and food webs. But we won’t get into that here.

Here’s the night’s menu:

  • Spicy pig flesh -cooked down to basically collagen, it looks almost like beehive sans honey
  • Congealed pig’s blood – little brackish cubes with a gelatin texture
  • Cow lung – spongy, a pleasant texture and flavor not unlike liver, but subtler
  • Cow stomach – Surprisingly tasty and tender. Little fibrils coming off it almost make it look like a type of seaweed
  • Cow liver – Not uncommon in the U.S. and tastes like liver does
  • Cow intestine – Better than the pig intestine I had in Korea
  • Deep fried stinky tofu – Its cooking is now regulated by the government because the process is so stinky. Spongier than normal tofu, I’ve had it before, but not prepared this way. Some people hate it, but I found the crispy outside, spongy inside, and overall flavor enjoyable. Dip in mustard and hot sauce.
  • Duck tongue – Duck tongue has a bone in it! Otherwise, tastes like duck in a tasty sauce
  • Pig’s ear – Tender boiled flesh slides off a tougher cartilage in the center. Not my favorite
  • Goose – Delicious. Cooked in very old, concentrated broth
  • Fish air bladder – Had one that was kind of tough, but another that was quite good. Typically
  • Century egg – Aged for weeks or months in alkali liquid that cooks the egg without heat. It also turns it black
  • Deep fried frog – Sort of like bonier chicken nuggets
  • Fake shark fin soup – Slimy and dark colored, comprised mostly of mushroom shreddings and glass noodles
  • Doggie soup – No dogs were harmed in the making of this soup. A light colored seafood broth with udon noodles
  • Snake soup – Very similar to fake shark fin soup, only with five types of snake meat added, venomous snakes
  • Snake penis wine – The dried penises of some unlucky male snakes are added during the aging process. Distilled or fortified, it tastes closer to whiskey than wine, and is about 25-30% abv. Supposedly will give men extra nice orgasms
  • Herbal tea – A black herbal tea, I forget the main ingredients. It was a “cool” food to balance the “hot” we had earlier. According to Chinese medicine you need a balance of cool and hot characteristic foods else you’ll be afflicted from some sort of ailment from acne to ulcers
  • Herbal tea & turtle shell gelatin & coconut milk – I felt kind of bad, but the turtles were farmed. Really tasty! The coconut milk was very sweet. The gelatin part was basically the herbal tea from before, but boiled with a turtle shell in it
  • Bird spit – Yes, really bird spit. It comes from a specific type of swallow with a crazy amount of collagen in its spit, which it uses to make nests. The nests are harvested and served as an expensive delicacy, usually for desert. It breaks down into a slippery liquid that feels like it has jello bits in it
  • Frog vagina with pickled plum – Similar texture to bird spit, but larger. The plums weren’t that great, but the rest was. This and the bird spit are supposed to be great for women’s skin

I actually liked it all! The pig ears were perhaps my least favorite, a tender meat, surrounds a tough, cartilage, the combination of which is a little underwhelming. But the rest was all enjoyable to try, and some I’d definitely order more.

But Helen, oh Helen. She had been on my two walking tours, and talked incessantly when I was trying to listen, which got on my nerves. Her comments during the Kowloon tour seemed very ethnocentric and closed-minded, but the annoying thing on this tour is that she commented how happy she was to be trying everything, but these delicacies were just too delicate for her. The joke got old about the 5th time. I think she only enjoyed the goose and one or two other things. She looked pretty miserable. I had also caught a subway with her during a particularly busy time on it. She barged in before others could get off. Inside she told me about how she knew how to ride a subway when it was busy. I held my tongue, because In absolutely loathe people in New York who don’t step aside to let others off. Anyways, good riddance Helen. I shouldn’t be so hard on you because you seem like a perfectly polite Canadian, but man, you got on my nerves.

After the food tour I checked out the Temple Street Night Market. Not a whole lot of interest to see, but if you need some cheap purses, usb cords, other odds and ends or kitchy things, it would be a good place to haggle for it.

Meh-cao

I spent about a day in Macao. I’ll keep it brief: it wasn’t worth it.

Macao is an odd place. Originally a Portuguese colony about an hour ferry ride from Kowloon, it never reached the renown (or economic success) of Hong Kong. These days, and I guess historically, it mostly consists of huge casinos, an old town area, a few beaches, and some more generic districts that look similar to smaller neighborhoods in Hong Kong.

The interesting part of Macao is that the Portuguese influence is strong. Walking down some streets in the old town especially you could swear your were in Lisbon or Porto from the classic looking pastel, Portuguese architecture. Portuguese food is popular, and the population is still likely to speak it (most signs are in Chinese, English, and Portuguese too).

But then, there’s not much else to see. Perhaps it would be a fun vacation if you planned to hit up the beaches, take a leisurely stroll through the lovely old town, and party at some of the opulent casino resorts, but for me, it felt like a wasted day. Oh well, one wasted day in the whole trip isn’t much, but I wish I had spent it in or around Hong Kong instead.

Hong Kong Round Two

My next day in Hong Kong I decided to check out the famous view of the city from Victoria Peak, one of the highest points on the lush, green mountains overlooking the Hong Kong skyline.

It seems like most cities have their version of, “Let’s climb to a high place and look at the skyline.” I’ve gotten tired of things like that to be honest. However, the view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak is worth it. There’s also a historic tram that will take you up there. Or you can take a hiking route and drench yourself in sweat due to the humidity. I saw a couple brave women who had finished the Old Stone Road hike, the steeper of the two options, and it looked like they had taken showers. 100% humidity will do that to you. At least it was a mostly overcast, cloudy day.

I’m glad the sun wasn’t beating down on me, and the clouds were a picturesque touch. There was a risk of no view because of them, but all of us up there got lucky with the weather. Someone told me the humidity and heat started only a few days ago. Not lucky in that regard.

There’s also a lot more to do up there than take in the pretty view, and take pretty pictures. There’s an old estate and garden you can hike up to, a shopping center, restaurants; they’ve built up the peak to be much more of a destination than a high view of the city.

After returning from the peak I walked around the old town area of Hong Kong. I checked out a small, famous Taoist temple that was thick with incense smoke, and wandered along “Antique Street.” I didn’t buy anything though, as most of what I liked looked bulky or heavy, and I had some carry-on requirements to meet on my upcoming flight. It’s hard to tell what might actually be antique, and what’s a reproduction too.

I headed back to the hostel to rest and refresh myself with a shower before heading out again. I was meeting a couple friends, Alvin and Jenny, whom I knew through Global Citizen’s Initiative at the Dragon Boat Festival on the Hong Kong waterfront.

By the time we arrived the Dragon Boat races had just ended, but I had caught a few earlier in the day. It was Sunday and this was the last hurrah for the festival as well. On our way in we were handed a number of free beer coupons from people leaving (score!). San Miguel beer was a sponsor, so Hispanic beer in Hong Kong was the drink of the evening! It tasted great on such a hot, humid day. There was a slight breeze from the waterfront as well.

The dragon boats themselves are like long canoes, manned by 22 people: 20 rowers, a drummer in the front, and one on the rudder in the back. The gunshot sounds, and 4 boats take off in a sprint along the harbor, paddling their guts out. The paddles are like canoe paddles as well, not like the oars on a scull.

The rowing teams being done, filtered into the festival itself and grabbed some pitchers of beer themselves. There were food trucks, some entertainment tents (saw a couple creepy clowns for the kids), and a main stage for music performances that started a couple hours we arrived and the sun set.

We enjoyed the atmosphere and caught up on our lives, then decided it was time for some dinner. I had heard about Tim Ho Wan, a nearby dim sum place, and cheapest Michelin Star rated restaurant in the world. They had never been, so I thought it would be a good place to go.

The line was big, but went quickly. They hustle people in and out fast. You fill out your menu in line, and food hits your table shortly after you sit down. I let Jenny and Alvin take care of most of the ordering. I think we had at least 12 small plates of various kinds of dumplings, rolls, and other Chinese dim sum specialties. I’ve never been a big fan of chicken feet, but the ones I had there were very good (though Alvin said he’s had better haha). Overall it was a fantastic meal. We had gotten there close to closing time, and ended up being the last to leave the restaurant. They supposedly closed at 9:00, but we found out by that it means they really close down, as in the last orders are probably taken no later than 8:15, and they start cleaning up shortly after. One Chinese server came around to take our empty plates and told us “to step up our game,” as Alvin interpreted it. We ate a lot, and managed to finish our plates. Absolutely stuffed, we said goodbye, and parted ways. It was great to see them again.

An Ode to Onigiri

Onigiri is a marvelous, on-the-go food. It’s a thick triangle of rice, filled with fish or meat, and/or pickled vegetables, and wrapped in seaweed. Healthy, filling, it’s the perfect food to stash in your bag when you’re trying to see and do to much in Japan and don’t have time for breakfast or lunch. It’ll give you some good calories while hiking. It’s delicious. And it’s cheap. What more could you ask for? It’s been a staple of mine this trip and nearly everyday I’ve found myself grabbing at least one from a convenience store as a snack. I’m going to miss them when I’m back in the states.

However, not quite as much as I’ll miss the matcha flavored everything.

Hong Kong Hustle

To fly out of Seoul you need to travel about an hour on the airport express train to Inchon to the Southwest. Getting there, checked in and through security took longer than I thought, so it’s a good thing I gave myself quite a pad to make my four hour flight to Hong Kong that afternoon.

Coincidentally, Hong Kong airport is located about an hour outside of Hong Kong by bus or the airport express train. It used to be located in the city itself, but the old airport went out of commission in 1998. By the time I arrived at the hostel it had been mostly a day of travel, so I settled in to get the lay of the land and plan out the next four days.

In most major cities there exist “Free Walking Tours.” They’re not affiliated under any parent company, but it’s a trend that has spread around the world. They’re set up by locals eager to share their city, history, and culture with inquisitive visitors. Though it says free, they’re donation based, so if you’re dirt cheap, or hated the tour, it’s free. If you liked it, it’s very good form to donate a little money to your guide because they’ve been a wealth of local information for the last 3 hours of your day. Having been around Europe and a decent chunk of the Far East, I always like seeing if one is around, especially if I haven’t had time to research an area much. It might seem touristy, but it’s a really good use of your time because not only do you get a good overview of the area and local history, but the guide is almost always a wealth of knowledge who can offer up tips on food, nightlife, what might be overrated or underrated, etc…

The next morning I was up for an off the beaten path tour of Kowloon, which is both the peninsula I was staying on North of Hong Kong island, and a neighborhood in it. Historically, there also existed Kowloon Walled City, which at one point was the most densely populated areas on Earth, and one of the most dangerous. Due to an oversight in the treaty that granted Kowloon to the British after the Opium Wars, an old Chinese fort was left technically outside their jurisdiction, but within their borders. Kowloon and Hong Kong basically grew together, but the weird district remained. After World War Two it began filling with residents. A major plus is that within the six and a half acre border, you got to live tax free. The residents built what they needed when they needed, and slowly created an absolute labyrinthine monstrosity of overlapping buildings, pipes, halls, and dwellings. Over 30,000 people lived there. But soon the Triads (organized crime groups) moved in to take advantage of the lawlessness of the zone. It became known as The City of Darkness not only because the construction made sunlight rare, but the harsh living conditions and rampant crime created their own darkness as well. That combined with the questionable engineering and infrastructure eventually led to the British evicting (and fairly compensating I should add) the residents, and demolishing what had become basically one giant, cancerous structure. Why the British never annexed their little oversight 100 years sooner is beyond me. Today there exists a very nice park and public space in its place.

Anyways, the neighborhoods beyond the walled city still exist, and to the northwest of the park are among the lowest income neighborhoods in Hong Kong, and the cheapest place to live. It’s still one of the most densely populated areas on Earth too.

The initial impressions of Hong Kong I had were very similar to two broad phrases I had heard before: one being that Hong Kong is the Manhattan of the South China Sea. The density, frenetic life, similarly towering financial institutions, make that ring fairly true. To be clear though, Hong Kong has a flavor all its own as well. The second favorite saying of people is that a Hong Kong second is a New York minute. As a New Yorker, I’ll reserve judgement that proclamation for now.

We met in Mong Kok for the tour. There only ended up being 5 of us on the tour. For about the next three hours we covered the mostly depressing history and current state of affairs of the neighborhoods in the area.

When I stepped out of the subway the edges of the sidewalks, streets, and pedestrian walkways were completely populated by Indonesian women. They had laid out tarps or cardboard and were socializing and picnicking. I was wondering what was going on. Were they homeless? They didn’t look homeless. Was there a religious pilgrimage going on? Was this a protest?

It was one of the first subjects our guide, Alla, talked about. These women were all housekeepers for wealthier residents, in charge of a household’s cooking and cleaning, and taking care of elderly parents or young kids. Sundays are usually their day off, and they use it basically as a holiday to spend out of the house. Kowloon was mostly Indonesian women, and Hong Kong mostly Filipino. They find whatever space they can – in a park, along a sidewalk, wherever, and setup for the day to picnic, socialize, rest, and have fun.

Despite being a large population of laborers in Hong Kong, and a major economic force allowing for stronger dual income households, these “Foreign Domestic Workers” don’t have many rights. They receive free room and board, but their monthly minimum wage is only about $514 USD, much lower than Hong Kong’s official minimum wage. Oftentimes those rooms might mean sleeping in a living room or toilet. They’re not eligible for citizenship either. Normally after living in Hong Kong for seven years you can apply for citizenship. Not so for them.

They come from Indonesia and The Philippines because even though being treated like a second class citizen in Hong Kong is bad, it’s better than where they came from. They save what they can and mail the rest back home. Sound familiar? That one day of the weekend is the only day they have to themselves, all 300,000 of them.

We walked by countless of those classic Hong Kong high rises, concrete behemoths of stained concrete or tarnished pastels. One woman on the tour asked why they were so run-down looking. Basically what it came down to was that the people cared much more about the inside than the outside. Another woman, a Canadian named Helen, murmured to me that she thought it was terrible they looked so shabby. I told her maybe it was a case of don’t judge a book by its cover. We’ll get to Helen later, but she was really getting on my nerves after a while.

The cheapest neighborhoods in Hong Kong are comparable to mid-range neighborhoods in New York. And even though there are only about 1,400 homeless in the city of 7.3 million, over 200,000 live in abhorrent conditions: they live on illegal, ramshackle rooftop structures, others live in “cage rooms,” which would be a ghetto version of a Japanese capsule hotel, and some even live in stairwells, paying rent for a space where they can only put a mattress and few belongings down at night.

All this: the maids, the living conditions, the high cost of rent and real estate, is unlikely to change soon.

Hong Kong’s legislative body is more and more at the whim of China. Additionally, the wealthiest landowners in Hong Kong hold significant sway. There is also a fear that trying to correct the housing market, by a large affordable housing initiative for instance, could put Hong Kong into a recession. That’s because over 20% of their economy has been built on real estate. It’s a complicated matter but anyone who bought a house recently could plunge into deep debt if housing prices dropped. The government would also earn less money on selling public lands and less money on property taxes. There were a number of other interlocking reasons Alla gave as well, saying there doesn’t seem to be a solution, except don’t build a real estate dependent economy.

During the Kowloon tour we walked through a number of famous markets. In Hong Kong vendors with similar goods often conglomerate and take over a street. We went through the flower street market, a pet market (mostly for goldfish), and a bird market.

We finished up the tour, and Alla recommended a great lunch place. The abalone and eel soup with rice I had was excellent. I wolfed it down quickly because I was hopping on Alla’s afternoon tour of Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong walking tour covered the island’s history in greater depth: from its founding through British colonization, Japanese occupation, and the handover to the Chinese.

It’s funny to note that China used to be a very closed kingdom. The king and government officials considered anyone not Chinese to be barbarians. Additionally, being a Confucian society, they viewed merchants as self-enriching people who were lower in the social strata than farmers, and slightly above slaves. The British, having an unquenchable desire for tea, demanded a port in China be opened to them for trade. Hong Kong, being as far from the capital as you could get, and therefore its inhabitants being the most barbaric of all Chinese, was chosen. However Chinese demands, and British opium resulted in The First Opium War with China, who lost and formally ceded Hong Kong Island to the British. Later a 2nd Opium War occurred and the British took the Kowloon Peninsula as well.

Hong Kong thrived and the population exploded. At the same time the Chinese lost the First Sino-Japanese War, and Britain began to worry about protecting its growing colony. The exploding population also needed room to expand because unsanitary conditions led to an outbreak of the plague. They demanded a 99 year lease of The New Territories, a large chunk of land and islands surrounding Hong Kong and the Kowloon Peninsula, in order to better defend its colony, and allow the population to expand outwards.

99 years later the British stuck to their word and ceded The New Territories back to China, they didn’t technically need to give back Kowloon or Hong Kong, but the infrastructures now being so tied together it didn’t make sense to keep it. They considered decolonizing Hong Kong after WWII, as they did with most of their colonies, but Mao feared Hong Kong’s influence over his Communist dreams for China.

The handover itself was a fraught one. Discussion began in the late 80s, during a very different Communist China. The Soviet Union collapsed, Tienanmen Square happened, there was a market collapse. Over 10% of the population of Hong Kong lost faith and emigrated. Those who stayed were promised a referendum to vote for Chinese or British rule (or maybe independence?), but it never came. The people of Hong Kong never had much say in their fate.

Having talked with some Hong Kong natives, and looking at the difference between Hong Kong and its neighboring China, I think the people of Hong Kong would rather have stuck with the British. Western colonization was a bad event for many people all over the world, but in some places it had major benefits. There’s a reason why hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people from all over Asia have fled to Hong Kong, not China, over the decades to make their fortunes. Even leading up to the handover people were trying to get across the border and settle there to receive a special Hong Kong resident status.

Without the British, Hong Kong may have remained a small fishing village of less than 10,000 people. Hong Kong has its darkness and downsides. Is a quaint, peaceful fishing village better than a vast metropolis that has both enriched millions of lives, and let millions of others exist and subsist in squalor? We’ll leave that to the philosophers.

I learned far far more on the tours that day, and it was informative talking to Alla, a local, about her position on current events, like the Umbrella Revolution. Young people in Hong Kong are particularly unhappy with China’s increasingly stronger thumb on the scales of their government, but the situation seems hopeless. She has immense pride in being from Hong Kong, but at the same time, she’s an avid traveler herself, and doesn’t know if her future resides there.

Chairman Mao and his kingdom.

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