Hong Kong Dispatch: Roommate Relationships

BY KEN BASIN

Things at the dorm have taken another turn toward the tragic, or at least the weird. The first issue has been the evolution of what must be generously termed, for lack of a better word, the “relationship” between my roommate and I.

I am proud to report that the roommate appears to have broken his addiction to World of Warcraft. In so doing, he has demonstrated far more strength of will than many people I know in the States. At first, he seemed to fill the void in his life with studying and actively participating in hall organizations. While neither of these are activities that I feel particularly compelled to pursue, I can certainly respect the impulse to do either.

At one point, we had as many as four actual conversations!

But more recently, he has taken up an electronic version of Magic: The Gathering. If you don’t remember Magic, it’s a collectible card game where you amass decks of spells, creatures, and the like and then fight your friends. It’s pretty great. I mean, I loved it when I picked it up at age 10, was damn good at it when I peaked at age 12, and felt real pangs of nostalgia when I sold all of my cards for cold hard cash when I was 14.

I didn’t even know it still existed, though I suppose I had heard something about it going digital. In any event, Magic seems to offer my roommate the key function of World of Warcraft – interacting with people via computer intermediaries at odd hours of the night rather than doing so in real life – without distractions like “story” or “graphics.”

I would consider that a weird enough development, if my roommate hadn’t taken on a bizarre, vampire-like lifestyle. Several times over the last couple of weeks, I’ve come home late from my own evening activities to find that – in spite of demonstrating no verifiable social life for the first month and a half I was here – he’s not even there. I might go to bed at 5 am in an empty room, and awake at noon to find him asleep face-down, fully-clothed, with his blanket only covering him from the shoulders up.

The obvious conclusion would be that, somehow, this once mousy, demure kid has taken up an even more hard-partying lifestyle than my own. But the nights I’ve stayed in and stayed up late seem to contradict that. He’ll be here till 3 am, happily tapping away at his computer game. Then, without word or warning, he’ll get up and walk out of the room. At 4 am, he’ll return, silently reclaim his spot on the computer, and that will be that.

While I’ve always looked at my tendency to listen to music from large headphones while in the room as a great excuse for avoiding the pressure for meaningful interaction that I know wouldn’t happen even if the headphones weren’t there, I’m getting increasingly curious about what’s going on, and have taken to developing elaborate theories with little or no basis in reality. The prevailing one right now is that he’s an ingeniously-concealed spy/assassin of the mainland Chinese government who’s going off on assignment at odd hours. Perhaps the Magic games are an elaborate communication and assignment system. I will investigate further and report if there’s anything worth reporting. If you suddenly don’t hear from me again, you know what happened.

The second issue has been my run-in with the scourge of college food, as manifested here in Hong Kong. When I first arrived, a local student led me on a tour of my dorm complex. “Here’s the laundry room, there’s the office,” mostly mundane things with little room for commentary. But when we passed Café 113, the cafeteria-style restaurant attached to the complex, she gently cautioned that “some people think it’s…not so good.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but in a culture that is as obsessed with saving face as it is terrified of openly criticizing anything, that was the most damning condemnation imaginable.

Thanks in part to the Hong Kong air, which essentially has the chemical composition of aerosolized batteries, I’ve been fighting a case of bronchitis. So after two months in the dorm, the desire to conserve energy finally overtook my better judgment, and I decided to brave Café 113 for lunch.

I resolved to play it safe with ordering, opting for a roast beef and cheese sandwich. Harmless, right? And when the sandwich came out, it looked innocuous enough. Pieces of white sandwich bread cut into friendly little triangles, the contents so sparse, they could barely be seen between the slices of bread. With far too little caution, I took a bite.

The slice of cheese on the sandwich had the oily consistency and indefinably unnatural flavor of Kraft singles, but with a sinister white color that resembled printer paper more than actual cheese. In fact, I suspect that the cheese was chemically closer to oily paper than to actual cheese. The so-called “roast beef” featured a texture somewhere between ground beef and corned beef, with a yellowish-brown speckled color that resembled corkboard. Even in the one bite, the temperature of the beef was disturbingly uneven, suggesting a smorgasbord of possible intestinal infections that could soon be complementing my bacteria-ridden lungs. Clearly, my selection was a disaster.

But I was hungry. So I took another bite.

The second bite largely resembled the first in flavor and consistency. As I chewed (and, unfortunately tasted) my food, it occurred to me that this sandwich was probably the single worst food product I had taken more than one bite of in months, if not years. I pondered the wisdom of going forward, contemplating whether getting a few calories – from a sandwich that cost me about US $1.25 – was worth subjecting to myself to this culinary apocalypse.

It was immediately after my third bite, as my teeth sunk into – no, bounced off – a hard, granular pocket of alleged beef, that I decided I should cut my losses.So the next time you’re strolling through the Hark, pondering some particularly unappetizing Sodexho options, just think to yourself, “At least I am most likely capable of affirmatively identifying each component of this food, and can say with reasonable certainty that it is not actively dangerous to my health.” Perspective is important.

As for me, at this time, I am proud to report no new bacterial infections!

Ken Basin is a 3L who is currently studying abroad at the University of Hong Kong, and is being every bit as diligent in Hong Kong as he would be in Cambridge. His complete adventures are chronicled at kbasin.blogspot.com.

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