Kicking the Bucket

Not much new. Met a from HK yesterday and gave her a tour of Beijing to show her what real culture shock can be like. I was flipping through some of my essays from HK, and decided the one summed up my experience there pretty well.


I was walking through a supermarket this weekend in a very “local” neighborhood of Hong Kong (that is, a neighborhood with very few Westerners) when I accidentally kicked something that had been left in the aisle. I looked down and saw that it was a bucket filled with live, crawling green turtles. It was just another of those constant reminders that I am no longer living in America, and struck me as a wonderful metaphor for my Hong Kong experience, in which I “kick the bucket” numerous times every day.

In Hong Kong, people like me are referred to as “gweilos”?a mildly derogatory term for a Westerner in general, and a white man in particular. No matter what a gweilo does, he can never be fully accepted by the local people. Some have learned to speak Cantonese fluently, but this only makes the locals suspicious of their intentions. In fact, I have read that the locals simply will not accept that a gweilo can speak their language, and insist on answering a Cantonese-speaking Westerner in English. There is a strange invisible wall between the gweilo and the Hong Kongers, though it is almost impossible to define or to prove. Still, every gweilo I¡¦ve spoken with here agrees that it is there, and the locals I know acknowledge it as well. It is basically a message that they unintentionally send to us as we talk with them and eat with them and work with them, a vibration or a sense, “You are different, you are not like us.” It is not hostile or racist, it is simply, in their way of thinking, a matter of fact.

Do you remember the enigmatic closing of the movie Chinatown? (One of my very favorite films.) Faye Dunaway has been killed, the bad guy (her rapist father) wins, and poor Jack Nicholson is dazed and furious. They are in the Los Angeles Chinatown, and as they stand there a mob of Chinese residents slowly and silently gathers around them. As Nicholson struggles to figure out what to do, his partner tells him something like, “Come on, there’s nothing you can do. This is Chinatown.” They walk away as the camera pans across the amassing throngs of silent Chinese onlookers. This has always been a huge mystery to me: the word “Chinatown” is scarcely mentioned in the movie, and has nothing to do with the plot or action, yet director Roman Polanski named the movie Chinatown and ended it with this cryptic scene. I don’t have an answer, and I’m not even sure why I am mentioning it now. I think it comes to mind because it seems to illustrate the inscrutability of the Chinese culture to the Westerner, the lack of real communication and the vast cultural differences between them, difference that can never be fully bridged.

This is a source of sadness to me, but it is something we expatriates reluctantly accept as a matter of fact. Part of us wants to understand the psyche and the motivation of our Asian colleagues, but they will only let us in so far. Even the ones who were educated in England or Canada and speak English beautifully. I am always the gweilo, separated by something more profound than language. As I said, the separation is hard to explain or define, yet it is omnipresent. “East is east, and west is west, and ne’er the twain shall meet,” as Rudyard Kipling insightfully noted.

On a lighter note: Something all gweilos laugh about (lovingly, of course) is the phenomenon known as “chinglish” — the English that locals speak and write. I recently received this email from a young lady working on my company’s marketing/PR and couldn’t help chuckling, though I realized that my own attempts to stammer away in Mandarin must be far more hilarious to the locals:

“Pls note that the monthly retainer fee I proposed for China 90% will be beneficial to BJ despite I put the press release will be distributing to the other major cities as it does make sense for paving the way for publicity extendable to other major in-city programs if time is mature. If this is case, there is needed to re-define each in-city media lists and the budget will definitely increase according.” I have actually learned how to decipher/translate such messages, and sometimes I fear that if I stay here long enough I’ll be writing like that myself.

Language is my greatest frustration. If I’m sitting with a group of Germans or Spaniards or Frenchmen or Italians, I can understand enough of their words to at least have an idea of what they are discussing. Chinese is another story, another mindset, in a totally different sphere from European languages. You would think that, with no articles or tenses or conjugation, it would be rather simple to learn, but it is filled with complexities and pitfalls that lead the poor Westerner to despair. (Of course, this works both ways, and I have abundant sympathy for the poor Chinese adult trying to learn English.) I have been trying to learn bits and pieces of Mandarin for months now, mainly through online learning sites and a set of instructional tapes and books that I bought. But I know if I end up being able to talk on the level of a three-year-old child I’ll be lucky. In fact, I’ll be lucky if I can reach the level of the majority of local shopkeepers and taxi drivers, whose English vocabulary seems to consist of one phrase, constantly repeated after you hand them their money, “Tank you, bah-bye.”

None of these observations are in any way critical of my colleagues and countrymen. They are simply descriptions of what I see everyday in this amazing, wonderful, overwhelming, exhausting, utterly unique metropolis. I have now been here for nearly five months and I am just beginning to scratch the surface of this multi-layered miracle of a city/country or whatever it is. Every day there is a new “bucket to kick,” a new mystery to ponder, a sight that I cannot understand and that goes against everything with which we gweilos have been ingrained since birth. I have another 19 months to go, and maybe by the time I head back to the US in 2003 I’ll have figured out how the Chinese mind actually works. But I wouldn’t place any bets.

[11/9/2002 9:49:25 AM | richard HK]
I am in pseudo-philosopher mode, so apologies in advance. Looking back, what are the good things that have happend this year and the bad things? Does one category outweigh the other? There were definitely some problems, and I’m convinced the impact of negative experience tends to have more impact on one’s emotions and peace of mind than the positive ones. For example, if we look at the happiness we feel from a compliment and then at the sadness we feel from a criticism/attack, there is usually a common equation: the reaction and the duration of that reaction to the negative is nearly always more than to the positive. Simplified, we hold onto pain and remember it more acutely than we do pleasure. Sometimes we think back to things that happened years ago, and those little memories of painful moments come back to us very vividly, to the point that for an instant we actually relive them as though they are the present. My first grade teacher once ripped up my arithmetic homework in front of the entire class and shouted, “This is garbage.” (Is it any wonder that to this day I cannot add or subtract without a calculator?) When I remember that — and these powerful incidents, especially the negative ones, have a way of staying quite alive in our memories, ready to pounce on us for no apparent reason at all, bringing back in full living color those moments of shame and anguish — the effect is infinitely stronger than when I think back to happy moments, like the applause I got during the school play, the music awards, admission to the Good School. Those things are pleasant memories, but their memory does not bring back a level of joy and emotion at all equivalent to that of the sad memories. It’s not just me; Schopenhauer elaborates at fearful lengths on this phenomenon, going so far as to say that the basic fabric of human beings’ lives is one of sadness, negative feelings, and there just happen to be a few accidental moments of happiness along the way, which in fact are not happiness at all, but rather simply an easing of the oppressive sorrow that due to our very nature embodies our existence. “Always thorns with the roses,” he writes, “but often thorns without a rose.” I can’t go this far; life can be really wonderful. But it does seem that in general, for most people, sadness is by far more prevalent than bliss. And that is today’s lesson in Pop Psychology 101.

Yes, there were lots of things to get philosophical about. It’s been a year since I was robbed, and the most expensive item, my watch, has finally been given to Katie, who will give it to me when I get back to HK. This year has been better, although I found out my stocks tanked and my savings are way lower than I had thought, and I can’t pretend to be happy about that. It was idiotic on my part. But what about the good? Of course, we take the good for granted and we don’t dwell on it. It’s human nature to dwell on the bad things. But all my friends from HK are still my friends, and I email many of them daily. My HK employer and I are still trading emails. I got the job I wanted, and I am travelling around Asia as part of the job. I still miss certain people in the US, and that is what gnaws most at my heart, but we’ll spend the Thanksgiving week together. So all in all, the bad should not be so depressing — lots of people lost money in the stock market recently, and I still have all my IRA money and three other mutual funds and a house. But I must admit that the day I saw how much I lost I was utterly devastated. Life didn’t seem worth it, and for a moment I was absolutely overwhelmed with grief and self doubt. (Which brings us back to negative vs. positive impact — I earned literally 10 times this amount in 1998, but the joy of the winning never approached the misery of the losing.)

Saturday, with no plans, deliberately. A vast blank slate, the world a playground. Too bad it is so fucking cold up here. Who ever thought I would miss HK weather? But I do; I would take perpetual heat and humidity over dry Arctic cold anyday. And it’s not even winter yet! Off to Guangzhou Monday night, then to New York in 12 days. Four separate flights, more than 26 hours of total flying time each way. I can only thank whatever gods may be for the frequent flyer miles that are allowing me to go


Homeward bound

I am carrying my plane ticket in my suit pocket every day, I am so excited about going home and seeing those I love. My father is actually turning 76 in February, and my mother will be 72 (if I remember right). It is painful to be away from them for so long. After Stephen died and I became “the oldest son,” I felt a greater obligation to be there for them, and then, so soon, I had to leave for Asia. I am kind of amazed that my mother adapted to email; my father won’t go near the computer.

I did my first freelance assignment today, two brochures on the dreariest subject possible. The pay is ok, and I’m going to put it in my HK account just in case China collapses sometime soon. Today I have a half-day training session and wonder how I am going to get my three proposals written in 4 hours. But somehow it always gets done.



I got my finances under control last week but I have a ways to go. Luckily, my salary, which seems miniscule by today’s Western standards, makes me a very rich man indeed in Beijing, and I can pay it off fairly quickly if I cut down on the $45 dinners.

Work is good, especially with the boss on vacation — I love her, but she does make everyone feel some pressure, she is so demanding. I gave a seminar yesterday on grammar that definitely terrified some of the less English-savvy Chinese employees. It was pretty tough, but I got a lot of thanks for it.

It is late October and utterly freezing here. It just struck me that October 9 came and went and I never thought about it, the anniversary of my brother’s death. And October 30, yesterday, is the day Roy died, my best friend from college. These are all things that put my own problems in perspective.


The Bombing in Bali

It certainly gives me pause, hearing about all those Australian partiers in Bali having their limbs blown apart yesterday. I was there just a few weeks ago, secure in the knowledge that Bali, as a Hindu community, is safe from all acts of terrorism. As is the US — who, after all, would ever commit major terrorism in the land of the free, right? Yes, we really are all ants, and the foot can come down on us at any instant…. It puts my debt crisis in perspective a bit, though I still feel a deep sense of apprehension (i.e., dread). I guess all those who were blown to pieces last night would do anything — ANYTHING — to be in my shoes. After all, it’s just some money. Better to be out some money than your LIFE. That makes sense, but it really doesn’t make me feel jolly, as I still have to come to grips with my life and my finances.


Months later, in Beijing….

It has been months, and so much has happened. At the end of June I went to Shanghai to in an intense and difficult language course. But it wasn’t really intense enough. I had too much free time, and ended up going almost daily to the spectacular spa on Siping Lu, with its ginseng baths and environment of total relaxation, married couples playing mahjong in pajamas, a great restaurant… It rained much of the time while I was at school, and when it didn’t rain the city was hammered with a brutal heat. I was making no money during these several weeks and lived off of credit cards and my fast-dwindling savings. I ate almost every afternoon at the university “canteen,” where not-bad meals are served on metal trays for about 4 kwai (fifty cents). I wasn’t very happy at the school, where I had only one really close friend; most of the other students in the program were Japanese, and they stuck together and had a surprisingly poor grasp (if any at all) of English.

After struggling to keep my head above water in Shanghai, I traveled to Hong Kong in the late summer, and the next day I checked my email when I visited my former employer, and there it was: an email from the Beijing office of a multinational PR company offering me my dream position. Could it be possible? After weeks of living in sheer terror about how I was going to get financially stable, about how I was going to survive, I finally could relax. That night I went for dinner with Pauline, Priscilla, Katie and her husband at Tung Ah. I had to go to Bali in two days, I had to come back to HK and get a China visa, take care of my stored belongings, go back to Shanghai and pick up two huge suitcases I had left there. Luckily I still had a few weeks.

Bali was beautiful, though not what I expected. Much of it is commercial, at least in Kuta, and over crowded with tourists. But we had some great times, including a full-day boat trip with snorkeling, a grilled-fish dinner on the beach at Jimbara, many cheap massages, and some great food. We also did a two-day tour that was quite beautiful — huge rice paddy valleys, temples, monkey forests, etc. It was a good vacation, though I never do seem to rest enough, ever.

It is the full-week Lunar New Year holiday here in Beijing, where I have settled down in a cozy apartment. Unfortunately, it is getting cold already. I have not experienced real cold in years, having lived in Phoenix and Hong Kong most of the past 12 years. Also, I don’t know anyone, so the sense of aloneness can be pretty intense.


Big decisions

Am I crazy? (What a dumb question.) I abruptly but not quite frivolously quit my job on Friday, handing in my obligatory 2 months notice. The Boss was pretty dumbfounded, and so was I. I explained that I love the office and the job. I love Hong Kong. But I keep feeling that I’m marking time. Without being at least semi-fluent in Mandarin all my aspirations for growth in Asia are limited. And I won’t attain fluency here in HK. I admit, there was a “catalytic incident” that inspired me to send the email: I got offended, deeply, and felt the situation was not worth enduring.

No, it wasn’t that bad, and if I wanted to stay in HK I would have just let it go. But, with my current state of mind, the incident shouted out to me, Why bother putting up with this? There was a non-incident on Friday, and my expat colleague blew it up into Mt. Everest. My Boss apologised for him and said this kind of behaviour was symptomatic of this fellow’s lack of tact. He kept telling me how good I am at my job, that I will not like Shanghai or wherever it is I am going, how HK is the place to be. It’s a tough one. I like my Boss and all the people, even my insulter (one of the best PR practitioners I’ve ever known), and I do like the job. But there really is no growth for me, and this painful episode just pushed me to make a decision that was probably inevitable. I am now investigating employment possibilities and language schools in Shanghai, Beijing, Taiwan and Singapore. Any suggestions?


Shanghai blues

Shanghai. There seem to be no jobs there for expatriates at the moment and I am so depressed about this. I’m sending resumes out but it’s always the same : “We are seeking local hires.” I don’t blame them, of course. My last resort will be to just pick up and move there for a while and knock on doors for work. It’s been done before!

I’m doing okay at work, but HK seems to be in a state of perpetual decline; the only things going up seem to be unemployment and suicide rates. Yesterday I read how a 28-year-old man who had lost his job killed himself because he couldn’t bear to go to the welfare office, fearing he would lose face. How horrific. So I think I want out. China is the place.

Just made plans to visit Kaohsiung in two weeks, and want to get back to Thailand. Now, if I could get a good job there I’d probably grab it.


More HK Essays

Work headaches. They are cracking down somewhat, trying to make everyone more “billable,” but the effect might be a negative one, with a sense of fear instilled and a reaction from clients who think they are being nickled & dimed. Must be extremely sensitive to these things, especially when in the midst of an ever-deepening recession.

How can it be that a classical music devotee and scholar of the music of Wagner and Mozart — how can it be that I can’t get the bubble-gummish music of Abba out of my head?? Ever since I saw Mamma Mia in London, those songs have been ringing in my ears non-stop. It seems I pick a “song of the week” and focus on it for a while. Now it’s “One of us is changing” (so beautiful) and before that it was “The Name of the Game,” which I used to think was a pretty bad song (I love it now).

Here is one of my essays on HK, written about a month after I moved here:

Hong Kong Diary, Part 2

It was nearly midnight and I was walking down the street in fashionable Lan Kwai Fong, where the beautiful people in Hong Kong go to drink and eat and be seen. As I stumbled toward the MTR station (the HK subway), in a doorway ahead I noticed a young couple engaged in some very heavy petting and kissing. The man was energetically kissing the neck of his impeccably dressed girlfriend, who was running her fingers through his hair. Normally this wouldn’t be that noteworthy except for one further observation I made as I got closer: As they were making out in the dark doorway, the young man’s hands exploring every centimetre of his partner’s torso, the object of his affection was engaged in a lively conversation on her cell phone. Her young playmate didn’t seem to mind at all, and seemed to be rather oblivious of the fact that she was yakking away throughout the intimate scene.

Perhaps the first observation a Westerner makes upon entering Hong Kong is the ubiquity of the cell phone. Everyone has one. It is rare to be anywhere in Hong Kong without hearing a cell phone ringing somewhere. Everyone chooses a distinct ring, otherwise you’d never know if it were your own phone ringing or someone else’s. My own cell phone rings to Beethoven’s Fur Elyse while a colleague’s down the hall plays Mozart Rondo all Turca. Some play pop songs, others strange and intrusive sounds designed to penetrate the noise of the subway and the street. No matter where you are — restaurants, elevators, trains, buses, movie theatres — there is guaranteed to be a cacophony of cell phones ringing and singing and beeping. During one recent ride on the MTR I counted no fewer than 13 people in one car talking on their little phones.

In the United States only 40 percent of the population own mobile phones. In Hong Kong it is above 80 percent. Elderly women shopping in the run-down little market near my apartment hold the little shopping basket in one hand, their phone in the other. It is a social phenomenon that, for whatever reason, has taken root more firmly in Asia than anywhere else. (I witnessed a similar phenomenon when I was in Singapore two years ago, and I’m told it is likewise in Taiwan and Japan.)

When I asked a native why everyone seemed to need a cell phone, he looked at me in dismay. “Don’t you get it?” he asked. “All they care about in Hong Kong is money, and they are afraid that if they miss a call they might miss an opportunity to make more money.”

Was he on to something? Is the cell phone craze just a symptom, a reflection of a broader and more deeply rooted social trend in Asia, i.e., the worship of money (which is not necessarily a bad thing)? Mainland China, too, has been bitten by the money bug, and it is this love of commerce and profit that will apparently make China the world’s next great power. It doesn’t take a newcomer to Hong Kong long to realize that the city lives and breathes money and opportunity. With more Rolls Royces per capita than any city on earth, millionaires live here in abundance. There is no capital gains tax, no sales tax, a small 15-percent flat tax on income and a strong sense that anything goes when it comes to making money. “The wild, wild East” is what my employer calls Hong Kong.

I’ve been here a month now, and for half that time I’ve been down (but not out) with the flu. My one consolation is that everybody else seems to be down with the flu as well. I’m told that Hong Kong is flu capital of the world, thanks to its high humidity and heat, which together form a breeding ground for mold and rot. Then there is the constant and sudden change from the high heat of the outdoors to the ice-cold air conditioning of Hong Kong buildings. This apparently causes a shock to one’s system and further encourages those little flu bugs to flourish.

And still, for all its oddities, for all its cell phones and diverse strains of influenza, I am definitely in love with this little city-state, or whatever Hong Kong is. My office provides a breathtaking view of the spectacular harbor, and just beyond the skyscrapers one can view vast expanses of lush green mountains. For all the buildings here, more than 70 percent of the land remains undeveloped, and I’m told that hiking in the hills is one of the most enjoyable ways one can spend the weekend. I’ve discovered lots of new restaurants where I can eat cheaply (at least relatively speaking), and despite the fact that everyone here is in a hurry and rudeness is taken for granted, there are a lot of wonderful people here, some of them right in my office. I shall elaborate with my next instalment, but now I need to take my flu medication.


HK Essay

It’s been a long time. I was depressed to see that someone chopped out a big slice of my last entry and posted it on a local site for expats, but I guess that’s always the risk with a public weblog. I went to Shanghai last weekend for one of the most interesting and unforgettable trips of my life; the entire trip report has been posted on TW, with all the details.

Meanwhile, I got really pissed at the way people push me whenever I step out of an elevator or subway car — they believe they have to run in before the people get out, not realising that this only slows things down for everyone. I guess it’s “a cultural thing.” I posted this on TW recently and was amazed to see how many locals agree with me. Here goes:

Hong Kong: I love it, but…

It was all over the newspapers last week: Movie theaters and concert halls throughout Hong Kong will soon be implementing a new technology that will block all mobile phone and pager signals in their auditoriums, ensuring that the audience can enjoy performances without constant interruptions from chirping pagers and phones that burst into song. This was great news, but it was also depressing: Theaters were forced to adopt this last-resort solution for the simple reason that there are always a few selfish people who, despite the pre-show requests for silence, refuse to turn off their phones, terrified at the prospect of missing that one all-important call. When I say always, I mean always. It is taken for granted that whenever you go to a movie here, without exception, there will be at least two or more phone interruptions to ruin the show for everyone. The ringing is bad enough. But since the people who leave their phones on are self-centered and rude, they feel it is their right to answer the call and sit there in the theater and talk, as though they’re in their living room. It’s hard to stay absorbed in the film when someone behind you is shouting into his phone in Cantonese.

This is just a manifestation of a far broader issue here in perennially noisy, crowded Hong Kong. When I decided to move here more than a year ago, a Hong Kong native I know said I was crazy: “People in Hong Kong are so rude, they are uncultured, the streets are always packed, the air is polluted, it’s always dirty and the cost of living is the highest in the world.” (He had some good points, though I feel the positives here balance if not outweigh the negatives: great food, great location for Asian travel, many nice people who nearly all speak English, low taxes, bountiful shopping and entertainment, etc.) The point about rudeness is what’s on my mind, because it is so ubiquitous, and it’s a bit startling to a Westerner, and even to other Asians from outside Hong Kong.

Case in point: Hong Kong’s superb subway system (called the MTR) is a real pleasure, marred only by the behavior of some of its riders. “Let the passengers off,” blare the loudspeakers as the train approaches, a request that is almost completely ignored. As the doors open, the waiting mob tries to squeeze into the doors, going head-to-head against the poor passengers trying to exit. It happens every time, and I wonder why there is so little respect and courtesy for others. After all, even in New York City, subway riders extend basic rules of civility toward one another. Someone told me it had to do with the sheer number of people here, that there¡¦s always a crowd and that has generated an “every man for himself?mentality. That’s too bad, because it looks terrible to the outsider who watches, somewhat amazed, as a little old lady weighed down with shopping bags stands in the MTR, and none of the young people who managed to get a seat offers her theirs.

When someone bumps into you on the street in Hong Kong, they rarely say anything like “Excuse me” or “Sorry about that.” I guess it’s just a fact of life that when streets are always this crowded, this thick with unending throngs of pedestrians, you are constantly moving from one bump to the next, always pushing, slamming, evading and strategizing in your mind how you can most effectively wind your way through the masses. There’s no time for “Excuse me’s.” Every man for himself.

Perhaps the example that is most likely to raise culture shock to new levels is the way cars in HK interact with pedestrians. The pedestrian has no rights, and must always be on guard; the cars here simply do not stop for them. In Japan, in New York, in California — everywhere else I have ever been, in fact — motorists extend basic courtesy to pedestrians. Here, if you are crossing the street (even at a corner) and a car approaches, instead of slowing down, the driver will hit his horn and accelerate, forcing you to run. Someone at my office said the only reason they don’t mow the pedestrians down is that they’d have to take time to wash off the blood and repaint their fenders. Again, this could stem from the fact that there are so many millions of people in this microscopic city, and if drivers were always deferring to pedestrians they’d never get anywhere. Drivers are as rude to other drivers as they are to the pedestrians. The concept of “merging” or “right-of-way” is anathema to the local mentality, and cars are constantly scrambling to stay ahead. So when lanes converge at a tunnel, for example, it often seems as though a driver would rather give up his life than let another car in front of him. Twice now I thought my life was over as my taxi driver had to slam on his brakes to avoid smashing into a car that decided my taxi had no right to merge into his lane.

I can go on and on. The way some people insist on cutting into lines, pushing their way onto escalators, never acknowledging that there is anyone else on the planet but themselves…. The “rudeness thing” is probably the most common source of dismay to newbie expatriates here, and I wonder if I will ever really get used to it. Articles appear in the newspapers about it now and then, and public officials will write op-ed pieces admonishing their people that such rude behavior could alienate Hong Kong from the international community. It doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact so far, so for now I just gird myself for battle whenever I go onto the street and remind myself, “Every man for himself.”


London, etc.

It’s been several weeks. I went to London the day of my last entry and never returned (to my blog). The trip was great; we saw shows every night — Mamma Mia, This is Our Youth, Iolanthe, Shockheaded Peter, Stomp — and more museums and churches than I can count. Great weather, great hotel location (beds and rooms were too small), good food, all in all a good trip. London is still too farking expensive.

So I’m back in Hong Kong and the much anticipated humidity and heat are starting to rear their oppressive heads. It was a boring day today, focused on “meeting my goals” — getting laundry done, going shopping, writing a new article, updating my online and print journals, reading more of my book of the month (At Swim, Two Boys, absolutely astoundingly beautiful, pure poetry, whole sections written in flawless and tear-evoking iambic pentameter). Boring stuff.

I’ve been here now for one year and four weeks. I love it. I hate it. I miss home and the people and cats that I do so love.