In the tourist area of Kowloon, down near the Hong Kong harbour, where I’m staying this week, clusters of South Asian men hang out on the street corners, saying “Copy watch? Copy handbag? Hello Madam!” as we pass. You learn not to make eye contact. They remind me of the touts in Kashmir when I was there as a youngster, although the men in Hong Kong do not grab you by the arm and try to physically drag you into the shop. In 1982 in Kashmir, the sales pitch was stronger. They were selling carpets — silk and wool, many from neighbouring Afghanistan or distant Iran. I didn’t have a house then, and was living on bread, dhal, bananas and boiled eggs. No budget for a Persian carpet.
Here in Hong Kong I see the touts having fun with each other, wrestling affectionately on a street corner near the ferry terminal. It’s a respite from their frustrating, almost useless, jobs. In the evening, sitting in the hotel bar, I see one of the touts on the street, lounging on a corner fence. A couple of Australian tourist women (in shorts, with back-packs) pass by and he barely raises his head. He is engrossed with the game on his phone.
It can be a great comfort, a mobile phone. I was an early adopter. I had a cell phone in 1998, when I was working a couple of jobs and studying. The phone meant that I could be contacted by my family, friends and employers when I was out and about for long hours. I was living in Sydney then, which meant hours on public transport (or waiting for it) or sitting in traffic. Having a phone made me contactable, so I could take an hour to explore the city, perhaps go for a ferry ride between jobs. It gave me a great sense of freedom. My son knew he could call me, or I could call him. “Is there anything there to eat for dinner?” “There’s spaghetti,” was his usual, easy-going reply. His dad was also a student and part time worker with community commitments then. The mobile helped connect us. I remember feeling quite self-important organising things. The whole train carriage could hear how clever and important I was.
When I began work as a junior doctor we still used pagers in the hospital. Sometimes in a regional hospital a doctor might have two or four different pagers for her different roles. You just tried not to think about them all going off at once. The pager would text a number that you were required to call back. We junior doctors were deeply ambivalent about our pagers. We were carrying around contradictory feelings about life and death responsibilities and the mountains of administrative work, none of which we felt adequately trained for. Every time the pager buzzed these feelings came up.
In later years, I was often given a work mobile from each employer, to supplement my own phone. Having two phones was normal, three not unusual. I grew into my role, became less fearful of the intensity of the learning experience, less resentful of the sheer hard work awaiting me when my work mobile rang. As my skills developed, I began to work more independently, often in rural and remote areas. Sometimes I was the only doctor for miles around and the phone ringing could mean anything from stitching up a cut to a multiple trauma accident. Sometimes I was called for little reason. Sometimes being called for good reason was still hard to bear.
Starting in my intern year, I would hallucinate that my phone was ringing, a common occupational hazard in my profession. When it did ring, I would sit bolt upright in bed, wide awake at the tinny burble of the Nokia tune. The ringtone of my phone carved a track in my brain, an ear worm that never went away. When I did on-call work last year I would wake up and race to the door, telling my startled wife that someone was knocking on the door and I had to go. There was no one there.
I’m very grateful now to have signed a contract for a job without weekend and evening work (except in dire emergencies). I suspect I am catching up on rest after years of light sleeping. Nowadays I wake up naturally, refreshed and ready. Its morning in Hong Kong now and the sun is rising over the blue-grey harbour. I think about waking my love for breakfast, but her eyes are dreaming under closed lids. I’ll leave her be for a while longer. A little bit of deep peace is necessary every day. Even the touts are home asleep. Out the window, down on the street, people are making their way haltingly toward the harbor, armed with maps. I could go down by myself and wander the neighborhood while Claudia sleeps, but how will she reach me when she wakes up? I have no mobile phone. Instead I sit by the bed, gazing at the Hong Kong harbour and the bronze shadows on my beloved’s face.