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Vacation Memories : Hanukkah Expressed Orientally in Hong Kong

VACATION MEMORIES: This is one of a continuing series on Memorable Vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel Section.

November 30, 1986|VALERIE SLOANE | Sloane is a Fullerton free-lance writer.

A Happy Hanukkah banner, battered from the trip in my suitcase, hung across the draperies to create a Jewish atmosphere in a Hong Kong hotel room.

Our daughter, Perri, lit the Hanukkah candles in our miniature menorah. We caught a glimpse of her fingernails, all nicely trimmed except for the very long one on her pinkie. She explained the custom, common among Chinese men, of growing this pinkie nail to the length of the ring finger, thus insuring good luck and long life.

But the good luck was ours, to be reunited as a family.

Perri, age 24, had chosen to spend a year in Taiwan teaching English at the YMCA through the Volunteers in Asia program. The reunion in Hong Kong was a family Hanukkah present. What Perri did not know was that our plans included a very special Hanukkah gift. At the Hong Kong airport her 24-year-old brother, Hal, jumped from behind a pillar to surprise her.

Hal was the first of many surprises on the trip, and from that joyous moment both kids brought a fresh perspective to our experiences.

Those experiences began on our drive from the airport, when the frenetic pace of the city crept into the taxi's interior. Torn between the desire to hang onto Perri's every word or to sop up the sights around us, Hong Kong won out.

This water-bound city goes all out for the holiday season. An enormous Santa Claus balloon climbed up the side of a skyscraper. Glittering neon signs shouted "Seasons Greetings" to passers-by.

Shoes Off--Gladly

Perri, our Jewish ambassador to Taiwan, now indoctrinated with the Oriental culture, removed her shoes before entering our room in the Hong Kong hotel.

Soon we all removed our shoes in the room, footsore from pounding the pavements.

In contrast to the freedom with which we moved about Hong Kong, our one-day trip to Shenzhen, People's Republic of China, proved restrictive. We stood in interminable lines while our guide bought tickets and cleared documents for the two-hour train ride across the border from Hong Kong.

In the train station he assembled us in straight-back chairs around the perimeter of a formidable, marble-floored room where we vocally declared, one by one, how many cameras and watches each of us carried.

Popular Polaroids

In the Chinese commune we visited, one member of our group created a sensation with his Polaroid camera. Men and boys streamed into the street to pose for pictures, then huddled excitedly to ogle at their instant images.

We spent an hour in a Chinese kindergarten filled with meticulously crafted learning materials made by the teachers. Bright yellow-and-orange paper daisies and carrots stood upright in cardboard gardens as aids for counting activities. On the playground, cute but unsmiling children stiffly performed dances.

Although deadpan faces marked those children, in the marketplace we drew grins. We stared at women shoemakers and fruit sellers, who stared back in mutual curiosity. Not only did we four Americans have blue eyes, one of us--amazingly--spoke Chinese. Perri astounded them and us with her ability to communicate.

At lunch in a Shenzhen restaurant, just-right chemistry paved the way for an unusual incident. Tour guides distributed post cards for us to write while waiting for our meal. The tourist to my left said aloud, "Who shall I write this last post card to?"

"You can write it to my mother," I responded.

Greeting From China

So my mother in Michigan received a greeting from China when the following post card appeared in her mailbox:

"Dear Mrs. Goldberg,

"I'm sitting next to your daughter at lunch in Shenzhen, China. She is having a wonderful time and wishes you were here.

"Love, A Complete Stranger"

The contrast between freedom of movement in Hong Kong and Shenzhen became apparent again when we got off the bus to stroll through Shenzhen's bustling market. Though cautioned to be back on the bus at a specific time, two of our more intrepid fellow travelers did not return when we were ready to leave. After much discussion and a great deal of anxiety, we left for our next stop, but we all knew we would not depart for Hong Kong until these passengers had rejoined the group.

"You mean if they don't come back, we don't go?" Hal asked.

"You've got it, son. You'd better brush up on your Chinese," his father replied.

"It's not the Chinese that's so difficult, it's the chopsticks," another passenger chimed in.

Dietary Rules Relaxed

Howard, Perri and Hal were adventurous with chopsticks and food. I was more squeamish and, although not kosher, attempted to avoid non-kosher pork products and shellfish. Warned by our guidebook that "The Chinese cook anything with wings except airplanes, and anything with four legs except tables and chairs," I stopped asking what I was eating.

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