Lunch Break

A summer afternoon in the life of a Hongkonger.

Photo by David Clarke on Unsplash

It was time for Kenny’s lunch break. His bony buttocks, which had been parked in a cheap IKEA swivel chair since 8:35am, felt numb. His eyes ached, and when he closed them, he could still see the bright light of his computer screen emanating from the back of his eyelids. The photo of his wife and two young children, thumbtacked to a corkboard in front of him, was lopsided, so he straightened it. He dislodged himself from his cubicle and made his way out of the building.

The company that Kenny worked for occupied the first five floors of a modern steel and glass skyscraper in Wan Chai. Too shiny and unblemished, the silvery tower looked misplaced amidst the tired, mold-and-grime-coated concrete buildings surrounding it. The office was the Hong Kong headquarters for a large, multinational IT business, helmed by half a dozen British men in tailored suits, who would saunter along the corridors whenever they visited the Wan Chai office, flashing neat rows of white teeth as they shared private jokes.

As Kenny walked towards the elevator, he passed rows of desks filled with dark-haired busy bees — systems analysts, UX designers, software engineers like himself, sales executives, technical support staff and others, hypnotized by their desktop screens, headsets attached to their ears, some watching Korean dramas dubbed in Cantonese on their mobile phones, some gobbling down cups of instant noodles at their desks.

The office felt like a freezer, and Kenny had to wear a jumper to stay warm, but as soon as he exited the building and stood outdoors, the sweltering air quickly made him sweat, so within minutes he had to take it off. The sun’s rays, reflecting off dense layers of smoggy-white pollution, made Kenny squint, and his small eyes shrunk to black slits. He couldn’t decide which he disliked more, the cold or the heat. He thought about retreating to his cubicle, but he was hungry and wanted something to eat.

He’d left Hong Kong in 1995, thinking his prospects might be better abroad. During the six years he spent as a single man, studying, then working as a computer technician in Vancouver, he had enjoyed spring and autumn, and even the sunny but crisp summers there. But in winter, when the sun set too early, he would get lonesome. The dark days made him realise how few friends he had, how much shier he seemed compared to everyone else, and how isolated he — the quiet man from the East, who spoke English as a second language — really was in the beautiful, snow-covered land, where the people rolled their “R”s effortlessly, and said “try” — a word that, try as he might, always came out of Kenny’s mouth as “twy”.

In wintertime Vancouver, getting dressed to go out was a ten-minute ordeal. Kenny had longed for the warmer climes, double-boiled soups, and familiar voices of his homeland, so he returned to the place where he was born.

Now, Kenny has been back in Hong Kong for more than a decade. Here, summers are long and soporific. Laundry needs to be done every two days, because even a short stroll outdoors means perspiration-drenched clothes. The steamy air often makes him irascible, and in the afternoons, his brain feels like a soft-boiled egg. Lately, he’s been having dreams about strolling through Vancouver’s broad sidewalks, about the bubbly waitresses who say “Hi, how you doin’ today? What can I get you?”, and of peaceful, solitary bike rides through tranquil cedar forests.

These days, when he walks around Hong Kong, he notices long lines at the bus stops, scowling waiters who don’t need to be friendly for tips, cockroaches scurrying along the sidewalks, squawking Mainlandersswarming the swimming pool in the housing estate where he lives, and cups of coffee that cost more than he thinks they should. He has no time for leisurely bike rides, and no longer strolls, but marches. He has no time to feel lonesome. There are too many people he has to think about now — the wife, the children, the domestic helper, his parents, grandparents, in-laws, relatives, colleagues, and bosses. He feels like a chicken roasting in a pressure cooker, changing colour as it readies itself for the table.

At noon in Wan Chai, the hordes were now streaming out of their offices, spilling onto the streets. Harried couriers were rushing around with massive lunch deliveries. Kenny’s belly gurgled. Already drained from three straight hours of coding, Kenny found it difficult navigating the narrow sidewalks. He walked for a few minutes till he arrived at a crossroads. If he turned left, he would be on the street with the western restaurants and cafés. He could have a burger, pasta, pizza, or steak and fries. If he turned right, he would be on the street with the Chinese restaurants. He could have a bowl of wonton noodles, roast duck with rice, or maybe dim sum. He stood at the intersection for some time, unsure what he felt like eating, his body getting warmer and wetter. He looked at his watch and realised that almost a quarter of his precious, one-hour lunch break had gone by.

In a daze, he crossed the road and grazed the bonnet of an oncoming taxi. The driver honked his horn, releasing a prolonged and vicious blare that sounded to Kenny like an expletive. Kenny raised a hand in apology to the driver, then walked back onto the curb. His heart was racing. He envisioned what his body might look like if he had been hit. He could see himself splayed on the ground, his skull cracked open, but he couldn’t tell if his spilled brains were yellow or white.

Kenny was now famished, but it was too hot, and there were too many people around him. He couldn’t decide what to eat, so he turned around and returned to the freezer.

Michele is the author of “Without: Stories of lack and longing

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