Of course, there were easier ways to see I was new to Hong Kong. Trying to navigate the streets for the first time, I got lost using Google Maps, I made a fool of myself trying to speak broken Cantonese with a shop vendor, and a taxi nearly ran me over because I forgot cars drive on the left side of the road. All of it told me I was in way over my head: I barely knew anyone in Hong Kong, I had made absolutely no plans for the days ahead, and I didn’t even speak the local language.
Looking back at this inauspicious start, it’s a minor miracle I’ve come to treasure this summer as much as I do now.
My plan — if you can call it that — had come together months before. At first, given my journalism background, I thought I would end up interning at a local news organization. But my heart wasn’t sold on the idea: What I really wanted was to write on my own terms without having time or format constraints imposed on my stories.
So, instead of sending my résumé to newsrooms, I applied for Princeton’s Martin A. Dale ’53 Summer Award, which grants rising juniors a stipend to pursue an independent project for the summer. In my proposal, I laid out an audacious plan to travel to Hong Kong and work as a freelance journalist in the city. To my surprise, Princeton signed off on the idea.
Having the freedom to write across a wide variety of mediums meant I was often juggling different roles. Sometimes, when I was aiming to write for foreign policy-focused publications, I felt like an intelligence analyst of sorts. I scoured Hong Kong local news for the latest political and economic updates, then tried to explain what it meant for American interests in dry, concise sentences — in fact, an article I wrote about Hong Kong’s emerging social media trends wouldn’t have been out of place in a briefing book.
Other times, I was a modern flaneur walking through different parts of Hong Kong, trying to piece together the intricacies of daily life. Seeing the city through the open eyes of a wanderer helped me compose slow, meandering articles about independent bookstores and small art galleries while centering the local perspectives that American publications often lacked.
And sometimes, I chose to write because it was fun. One night in June, a friend took me to Hong Kong’s famous horse races. We stood for hours outside in the festival-like atmosphere, feeling the swell of exhilaration and frustration that came with each race. I used Princeton’s money to bet $15 on random horses, lost it all, then went home and wrote a piece describing the glamour and depravity I experienced that night.
I don’t know if all of the writing I produced this summer will see the light of day or make me money — but that’s the beauty of the Dale award. I wrote thousands upon thousands of words this summer, and each sentence and paragraph brought me to a closer understanding of Hong Kong.
As it happened, in my efforts to write about the city, I had also found small pockets of belonging. In my last week in Hong Kong, I had to work to squeeze in goodbyes with everyone I had befriended, from café owners and expats to government workers and teachers. I’m hoping the goodbyes won’t be final — and that when I make my way back to Hong Kong, I’ll sweat a little bit less than before.