the luxury of dreams

images3edHe was short. When he walked, he lilted—up and down and up and down—bobbing as a buoy on the sea. Maybe because one leg was slightly longer than the other. Or perhaps he had flat feet.

No matter the weather, he wore a t-shirt (fitted tightly over rounded belly) with shorts and flats. Sometimes he wore a sweatshirt. His sandy beard he kept unkempt. His bus, however, was immaculate.

I saw him often—on my way to and from home. He drove the 103M, the minibus between Tseung Kwun O, the closest MTR station, and Clear Water Bay. Around and around he’d circle, letting passengers on and off, waiting in the dimly-lit parking garage for people shivering or sweating to fill the bus so he could take them home. While he waited, he’d wash the bus windows. Sometimes, he’d whistle.

We never talked—my Cantonese is not so good—but I know he knew me. He knew before I called “Som yo-!” where I got off. He was kind and would stop at the school’s entrance rather than making me walk from the bus stop up the hill. (More often than not I was carrying groceries.)

image1And I used to wonder, bumping along in the back of the bus, listening to foreign chatter and the screech of brakes and the clatter of the door opening and closing; watching rain drops fall or mists emerge or sunshine sizzle off pavement . . . Had he wanted to be a bus driver?

To me, it seemed a terrible job, circling endlessly along this route: starting and stopping, opening and shutting, mindlessly jerking along.

And so I asked a good friend. A local. And his answer surprised me: He’s probably never even thought about it.

This is his job; it’s what pays the bills. This is his contribution to society. As a child, he probably wasn’t taught to think:”When I grow up, I want to be a . . .” His happiness is likely his bed and a bowl of rice and pork or noodles, or maybe his family and the TV.

(Oh we Westerners and our dreams.)


Minibuses in downtown Hong Kong.

Image credits: Google

80 thoughts

  1. What a contrast between two absolutely different worlds! It is difficult to say if he’s ever had dreams. Of course, he must have had few desires – a new TV, a new bus, maybe. Nothing indulgent, though.

    • You are very likely right, Subh. It’s kind of like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Certain things have to be taken care of first—food, shelter, etc.—before we can move to the “next level” of desires. Many people have not been trained to “think outside the box” and are very limited by their resources. You know this better than me. In this bus driver’s case, I’m sure he never thought, “What do I love to do…” That’s just not the way things are done there. At least not in the older generation.

    • I’m sure he does dream; it’s not that he doesn’t. And yet. So many around the world are so limited by their resources and the frame of mind in which they were raised that they really don’t think “outside the box.” It really is a mindset, and it isn’t widely promoted there.

  2. Wonderful imagery! I started getting motion sickness :) I think we take it for granted the freedoms and opportunities we have in the United States. Though, the closer my walk to God, the more I think I’d rather be the bus driver. Blessings…

    • I’m glad my descriptions turned out well. It was *not* a comfortable ride! We certainly do take for granted the opportunities here. But it’s more than that, too—it’s the entire Western outlook. Find your passion and follow your dream. That is *not* preached widely in Asia… I’m not sure I understand your comment about wanting to be the bus driver, though…

      • I’ve ridden a few buses with my grandfather in NYC, so I can relate to the overall ride…lol. I’m referring to the simplicity of it. Sometimes when you have so much going on, and so many other distractions, it’s easy to lose sight of the things that are really important. Sometimes, I think it’s a good thing to simplify your life to focus on Him more and us less. Just a thought…and great post either way :)

  3. Hard as it may be for Americans to process, he may be living his dream. To get people safely where they need to go while making a living for himself. Not everyone wants to be a hamster in a wheel or wants to rule the world. Some just want to spend time with friends and family and enjoy this thing we call life. I really liked this post, the humanity of it.

    • Thanks, Jeff. Obviously there is a lot more I could say on this topic—and I plan to. As I said in another comment, it’s a completely different outlook from what people in the West—particularly in the States—are used to.

  4. as always – I enjoy!
    The visuals remind me of my first job in South Korea – and the kindness of strangers. I can smell that bus – but my favorite most definitive line “His sandy beard he kept unkempt.” Bravo! Thank you for taking me back to a country I love.

    • How wonderful! I didn’t know you’d lived in South Korea. I visited Busan for one weekend and loved it! I very much want to go back and have considered going there to teach. Also, I’m glad you liked that line. I almost changed it, but I suppose I’ll keep it now that I read your comment! :)

      • Go! South Korea is a wonderful country! Busan is a great port – go inland and experience the people. I taught in Daejon – Woo Song University. I also taught in Seoul for a year at Dong Duk Women’s University. If you teach Hagwon (children’s academy) try to get out on one of the islands – the potential for “book material” is fantastic! I have wanted to go back for years! But my next stop is Mongolia and Siberia – on the ex-pat tour!

      • Sounds terrific! And I agree that it is a wonderful country. I’ll have to get in touch with you for more info when I work my way there. Enjoy Mongolia and Siberia. I’d love to go, but it *does* sound COLD!

  5. Oh, I so Love your post, Jessica Cyphers! Isn’t it interesting the way they think and do? I know a lot of people who are just like him, back in my home country in Indonesia, and they are often the best of people! You’re right, what seems ‘mindless’ to us is actually is how they contribute to society, that’s what makes them humans. And to be honest, the description of the man reminds me of my favorite uncle. Oh, I so miss him! :-)

    I shared this on Twitter and Facebook Page, I’ve been doing that with all other post of yours that I love, in the past 2-3 months, I think, I hope you don’t mind. And by the way, I have just finished my post for Thursday, it is also about ‘Dreams’, now I feel I can relate better to your post. Synchronicity. Dum dum dum.

    Take care, enjoy your freelance, if you’re still doing it, and enjoy the rest of your weekend and many blessings and much love to you ♥

    #PS: What is ‘Som yo-?’ Is that the bus-driver’s name?

    • Thank you, Subhan. I’m glad I reminded you of your favorite uncle, and I thank you for sharing my work! It means a lot to me. I will look for your post this Thursday… And “Sam yo-” is actually “Sam Yuk” and it means, well… It’s the Canto term for an Adventist school in Hong Kong. To get off the bus you had to call to the driver to let him know where you wanted to get off.

  6. You make a good point. I wonder, sometimes, what the hell I’m reaching for. But I suppose I can’t help myself. Doesn’t feel like societal influence either. Feels like blood and bone.

    I’m probably delusional.

    • Really what I want to get across, and hope to expound on in future posts, is, well, a couple of things. First, the difference in the mindsets between the East and West. Here we are taught to find our passion and pursue our dreams. Not so much there. But that also has to do with resources. There are many people in the world whose dream is having enough to eat and a place to sleep. Things many Americans take for granted.

      I *do* think there is something good about being content with who we are and where we’re at, though. But I *don’t* think you’re delusional!

  7. This is a very insightful read. Thanks for sharing your impressions.
    It struck 2 nerves.

    The first happened here:
    “He was kind and would stop at the school’s entrance rather than making me walk from the bus stop up the hill.” –
    You don’t know what this line did to me, it brought up memories of so many people I’ve met in life who have this same kind of soul, this kindness, this humanity. It made the driver suddenly into someone I know, and know very well, and like very much.

    The second happened at the end. Maybe because the world I grew up in is similar to what you describe there, but I know for sure:
    He definitely has his Dreams too and his own artistic endeavours too… it’s just that they’re defined and juxtaposed, or easier to articulate, within a certain context that probably has more to do with class and level of education than with nationality and geography.

    The heart of humanity.

    • I agree, Aka. He does have dreams, of course he does. But they *are* different, and that has to do with both class/level of education as well as differences between Western and Eastern thought. At least from my experience…

      But, yes. The heart of humanity.

  8. A wonderful post Jessica. It’s possible that in his case this job may be held in high esteem by himself and people in his community- to have a steady income, to have the certainty of being able to provide for his family on a monthly basis – happiness and pride in simply being able to provide. Your suggestion that his happiness is ‘likely his bed or a bowl of rice’ highlights your sensitivity and recognition that we are all different. That what we may consider irrelevant and meaningless – may be the very source of happiness to someone else. Awesome, insightful post!

    • Thank you so much! Coming from you, that means so much to me. I have more to say on this subject… And some of my inspiration has come from *you* and your stories! Certainly we are all different, and, yes, much of that has to do with how we were raised and whether or not our basic needs are being met. To dream “big dreams” is a privilege… Or is it? Hmm.

      Again, thank you.

  9. This is my kinda hot topic, and it’s also a thesis I’ve been exploring. Have you heard of a movie called ‘Nairobi Half Life’? It’s about a young man who dreams of becoming an actor, moves to Nairobi, and joins a criminal gang for survival, all the while chasing his dream. Though fiction, there is truth to this story. You’re correct in saying its a mindset problem. I find people are more free and encouraged to chase their dreams in the West…but this can also lead to complacency and laziness. I find that folks in Africa are big dreamers, but limited by resources and oppressive leadership. We need to raise up a generation of leaders who can think big and execute to bring about change. We need to encourage folks to be visionaries, thought leaders, dreamers, “out-of-the-box” thinkers, as you correctly mentioned.

    • I haven’t seen that movie, but it sounds fascinating. Africa is actually an example I’d love to use for a story like this, but, since I write most effectively from personal experience, I chose to write about Hong Kong instead. It’s interesting—the paradox that people who have more resources and are encouraged to “dream” often fall to laziness and complacency. We take for granted that which is handed to us… It’s sad. I love your last lines about raising up a generation of visionaries. The trouble is, people learn by example… Raising up a generation of “out-of-the-box thinkers” requires first changing ourselves.

    • Absolutely. Change always begins with us. Children and people model what they see. There are good men and women out there, we just need a load more of them. Keep the conversation going…

    • I’m glad to hear that. It’s very true. Having “big dreams” is a luxury not all can afford. As always, thank you so much for reading and commenting!

  10. Great post Jess! There’s an old Chinese saying, Dreams are illusions, living your everyday life is reality. So enjoy this very moment cause that’s all be really have that’s “real.”
    I’m glad you came to understand the bus driver, he’s a kind person. :D

    • Mmm. That Chinese quote makes me a little sad, but there is truth in it. I’m always seeking and questioning and trying to understand the world around me. That bus driver was a wonderful, humble man. So glad you liked this post. :)

  11. Your post makes me miss Hong Kong! It’s such a wonderful city although the drivers can be kinda crazy sometimes :p How long have you been there and do you love it so far?

    • Thanks for the comment, Abby! Are you from Hong Kong? What’s been your experience there? I lived in Hong Kong for a year. Prior to that I was in Taiwan for two years. I moved home to California about six months ago—but now I really want to go back! I miss it a lot, too… :(

      • Oh, you moved back to California! It’s nice there too :) Yes I can see how you would miss it a lot!! I do too! It’s home to me, still. I’ve lived in HK since I was 11..and I still go back every year because my parents are there. It’s a very unique city and there’s nothing quite like it! Were you teaching over there?

      • Very true! It is very unique. Very crowded! But I loved a lot of things about it. Yes, I was teaching there. What do you do in Toronto?

      • I’m studying to become a Holistic Nutritionist this year! I used to work in marketing. What school did you work at in Hong Kong? I used to attend South Island School…if you ever heard of it! ;)

      • I worked at a small Christian school in Clear Water Bay. I hadn’t heard of South Island School, but I bet some of my friends in Hong Kong have! I’ll have to ask them. Have fun studying holistic nutrition!

      • Thank you!! :)

        What school was it at Clear Water Bay? was it ICS? I have a few friends working in christian schools in Hong Kong! ;)

      • Ooh! I have not heard of that…although a few of my friends go to other christian schools! Did you find a church to go to while you were there too? I went to The Vine – not sure if you’ve heard of it before!

      • I think I might have heard of The Vine. I haven’t gone to church regularly in a long while, honestly. I seem to find God in other places.

      • Ah I see! Regardless, I still enjoy reading your adventures of Hong Kong that you post on your blog! Brings me back a glimpse of home ;)

  12. dayum, kinda left me wantin more. obviously proud of what he does, but wonderin what he’d say about it all. . . .

  13. This is a wonderful observation that illustrates so many of the assumptions we make about ourselves and others. I’ve thought this much on my own and wondered. Thanks a bunch for a thought provoking post!

    • And thank *you* for reading, Matthew! I thought and learned a lot while living abroad—about myself and the culture I grew up in and others’… Which is why I want to go back. ;)

  14. Very nice story. I love reading and experiencing other cultures. It reminds me of my many travels to foreign countries. In Japan I would pass by villagers and wonder if they knew that there is a better world out there. But then reading this makes me realize that here in the USA we are privileged to many things others are not. I enjoy reading your blog. It is very thought provoking. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks, Frank. That means a lot. Yes, we are very privileged in many ways. And yet. It all has to do with outlook. We place a high priority on some things here that other cultures do not, and vice versa. I think that that was the biggest eye opener I experienced while living abroad.

  15. Yes, contrasting hemispheres and their cultures. I’d have some different questions for him if I spoke decent Cantonese. What sort of questions Jessica do you think he might have for you? Curious…

    • Mmm, I’ve no idea. Although he knew he I was, I never got the feeling that he thought much about me. There are many foreigners in Hong Kong. However, he might’ve been curious about what I was doing there, what had brought me there, etc. What sorts of questions would you have asked? I must admit I wondered if he *had* a family. Although I mentioned that in my post, this particular fellow actually seemed like a loner.

  16. Is that photo really his bus?? That’s awesome. I’ve thought about this a lot during my travels too. It seems we are sometimes so overly obsessed with our lives and our futures and we forget that so much of the world has it much simpler and it’s not really that bad. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have a million choices for what I want to be and I was thinking more about the small things that can make me happy day to day. Very nice post. -AB

    • Thanks, Arash. :) That photo is *not* actually his bus, but it looks just like it. I guess my eyes were just opened to the fact that not everyone in the world is taught to think about or in a position to say things like, “I want to be an astronaut someday.” And you make a good point about a simpler life and choices: I’m sure you’ve heard about those studies that show that having a greater number of options (about anything) do not necessarily mean we’ll feel happier in the long-run? In, fact, we might even be *less* happy because we’ll second guess our decisions? Crazy. Great comment!

    • I have indeed heard of those studies. It’s something I think about a lot, not because I want to romanticize the life of a bus driver in another country, because in a lot of ways it’s probably not what I want but I find it helpful to at least consider these things in my thought process. Really enjoyed this piece. Looking forward to the next one -AB

  17. oh! what a great post. it reminds me of a quote from one of my fav books:

    “Mom’s eyes held yours for a moment. ‘I don’t like or dislike the kitchen. I cooked because I had to. I had to stay in the kitchen so you could all eat and go to school. How could you only do what you like? There are things you have to do whether you like it or not.’ Mom’s expression asked, What kind of question is that? And then she murmured, ‘If you only do what you like, who’s going to do what you don’t like?’ ” Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin

    (If you haven’t read this book yet, I highly recommend it.) =)

    i often think about this. about chasing dreams, hard work, sacrifice. my refugee parents had no choice but to work labor jobs.. dreams, what are those? their dreams are nightmares of war. their “dreams” are not for themselves but for their children.

    i think many immigrant family echoes these sentiments. as well as families across the globe whom try to get out of the cycle of poverty. they may not have the opportunity to live the life they desire, but they do what they have to do so that their offspring can perhaps chase those dreams they’ve only heard of.

    • I’m so glad you liked this post. I LOVED your comment. Yes, there are people whose dreams are only for their children, who spend their entire lives working so that their children will be able to pursue dreams that they themselves never had. It’s a fact easy for many “well off” Westerners to forget. Here, children are taught to “reach for the stars!” from the time they are two. And the “stars” are whatever interests happen to catch their whimsy. It’s interesting, but not altogether good.

      I haven’t read that book. It sounds wonderful, and reminds me of my own mom. I’ll have to check it out. :)

    • Haha. Thank you! I have no idea how to say that in Cantonese! I do, however, know how to say “thank you.” 唔該 (m̀h-gòi—sounds like “mm-ghoyy”)

  18. Your post is awesome, kinda sounds like some of the thoughts that goes through my head sometimes. But when I read this,

    ” (Oh we Westerners and our dreams.) ”

    the last line of your post, it kinda struck a nerve. I know you are probably not trying to compare Asians to Westerners, but trying to compare poverty stricken people and ‘well off’ people.

    There are tons of Asians that has the luxury of dreams and ways to fulfill them too; like those rich kids that are sent to “international” boarding schools, or even just ordinary kids that just graduated from HKU, they all have dreams.

    On the other hand, there are also tons of Westerners that don’t have the chance to dream too. Those that are brought up in poor families, and now are working in Walmart or cleaning school bathrooms with little kids heckling them, and couldn’t for the life of them find a better job.

    I, myself, was born in Hong Kong, and when I was 3 years old, went to Singapore for 5 years, and then finally went to Vancouver, lived there ever since. I am one of the Asians privileged to dream. And I was taught by my parents, (Asian to the core, western culture almost non-existent in them.) to dream big, and do big.

    There is an age old Chinese saying that describes the feelings of Asian parents that also teach their children to reach for the stars, (translated to English) “Hopes for their children to become Dragons.” In Chinese culture, dragons symbolizes royalty, luxury and power, therefore in ancient times, the “biggest” dragons are the emperors of their respective dynasties.

    There are tons of people out there, living in Hong Kong, in Taiwan, in Bangkok that dreams and have probably reached it too. And on the flip side, there are also tons of people in the States and in Canada that are living from pay cheque to pay cheque, and robbed of their right to dream.

    This isn’t about Westerners and Asians, it’s about the different classes of people, the rich and the poor, the dreams and the lingering thoughts of when their next meal will be.

    • You know, you make a really good point. A really, REALLY good point. I completely agree, and I suppose I shouldn’t have said it like I did. It’s just… I guess here in the States people tend to have *more* opportunity to rise in social status than many people in other countries. There are countless stories of people like Ben Carson rising from poverty to reach a potential no one would have ever imagined possible. You don’t hear of those stories nearly as often in other countries. BUT… You are right to say that those stories are few and far between…

      Culture is so complex. It’s hard to generalize. Obviously Asian cultures tend to be more family-oriented while here in the States we are considered individualistic. Even in rich circles in Hong Kong, for example, kids are often pushed to excel in doing something of their parents’ choosing rather than what they themselves truly love… But even that is a generalization.

      Your comment is wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing. I will try to be more careful in future posts not to make such remarks.

      Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!!

    • Mike, I really hope you don’t mind, but I am writing a follow-up post right now using your comment to correct my mistake. I’m editing it a little for clarity, but all of your ideas are the same. I hope my doing so does not upset you… I *really* appreciate what you had to say.

    • No, it’s all good! I’m not upset at all! It is just like having a conversation with a good friend and having it become a thought provoking debate, love those.

      • I love those, too. Thanks for your comment. I’d been thinking about that anyway, honestly. You just provided the impetus for me to act on it. :)

  19. I have a question. Let just say the driver is doing his best to become the best driver in town and maybe we can also say that he is the best driver in town. The driver is happy because his job pays his bills, bring food to his family and shelter his family (providing basic needs). Then one day a doctor enter his bus. Then suddenly it rush back to his memory that when he was seven years old he dream to be a doctor. The sad part is he cant because of lack of resources. The bus driver is in a retirement age. So to make it short the bus driver is happy to his life because he saw himself as a good provider in expense of giving up his ultimate dreams. How do we measure the success in the story of a bus driver?

    • I’d say absolutely he was successful. Everyone has all kinds of dreams that may or may not be practical. In the case of this bus driver, he would’ve liked to have been a doctor, but that wasn’t something he could work out. And so he did his best with what he *could* work out, and there is no shame in that!

      What do *you* think?… Thanks so much for the thought-provoking comment! :)

  20. hmmm so success does not measure by how you attain your goal or if you completed your goal.. so success is all about attitude not x number of achievement/awards/recognition etc which our society are the only thing they can see (tangible) to determine a person is successful to whatever he/she doing? what do you think?

  21. I’ve wondered the same thing, actually. “His happiness is likely his bed” Love it.
    Photo is right on. Btw, “How To Not Die”…technically we’re not supposed to split infinitives…so it’s advised that we keep it “Not to Die,” which happens to sound better here, I think. But I always defer to the blogger.

    • Thanks for looking back at some of my older work. :) I really liked this post… It’s hard to compare cultures and mindsets, but it’s definitely worth it to think about.

      And yes, I thought about saying “How Not to Die,” but for some reason I preferred it the way I put it. I might change it eventually. Thanks for the input.


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