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.