It’s Already Tomorrow In Hong Kong

Hong Kong is certainly not the most ubiquitously “Asian” place* I could have chosen for my Cansbridge summer. In fact, I’ve frequently been asked if Hong Kong isn’t totally Westernized, for lack of a better word. And looking at the remnants of British colonial rule scattered amongst the the city centre, one might be inclined to answer, “yes”. I’ve been wondering, over the past two months, why I’ve been so slow to feel the effects of culture shock (if any at all) and for a period of time assumed that this might be the reason why. Upon extensive reflection, however, I’ve come to concede that this idea that Hong Kong is a Western bit of Asia is totally wrong. Hong Kong is not “Western”, by any means.

Hong Kong is international.

The most interesting aspect of immersing yourself in an international centre is the astonishing speed with which you lose a hold on any idea of “normal”. That which we take for granted, things as fundamental as time or currency, quickly lose their status as absolute frames of reference. Those cherries are 52 HKD, which loosely converts to 8 Canadian dollars, but also to 45 Chinese yuan and 430 Indian rupees. It’s 4:00pm in Toronto, which is also 9:00pm in London and 9:00am the next day in Hong Kong.

Living for too long in one place with little exposure to the bigger picture had left me with a sense of absolutism in regards to my current state of the world. The time in Toronto was the time, the Canadian dollar was the dollar. English, with the Canadian accent, is the language. The attitude extends beyond the fundamentals to permeate into social and cultural facets of life. What I took to be polite in Canada seemed to be inherently polite, what was humorous was inherently humorous, what was interesting and important was inherently interesting and important, and so on. What living in Hong Kong, amidst friends from mainland China, from Bangladesh, from India, from Italy, from England has given me is much better picture of the relativity defining, structuring, and weighting these values. This joke isn’t funny, per say, it’s funny in Canada. Likewise, coffee isn’t expensive, it’s expensive in Hong Kong. This meal isn’t particularly special, but it’s special in India.

Those examples are mundane, but the broadened perspective lends itself to better understanding of how the world around me operates, in a given context. For a long time, I thought of the people in Hong Kong as rude — no one holds the door here, no one thanks the bus drivers, no one smiles on the subway. It took a very long time for me to realize that idiosyncrasies were not so much a function of manners as they were a fact of life in Hong Kong. The way it was explained to me was that the sheer lack of physical space here (apartments are minuscule, the streets are narrow and crowded, the metro constantly jam-packed) that the people generally tend to carve out a significantly larger mental space for themselves in order sustain a bit of quiet and privacy in their day-to-day. That understanding has made interactions over the past couple weeks far more palatable for me — until now I’d been generally put off by what I took to be sheer unwillingness to engage and interact at a very casual level. Likewise, what I took to be a severely limited sense of humour was simply a search in the wrong places — people here do, in fact, laugh and crack jokes, but the form had escaped me for well over the first half of my stay. Most importantly, I think that there’s a bit of an unconscious bias in the West towards the notion that if a person cannot express themselves in English, what they’re expressing is of diminished value. It’s ugly and unflattering when stated so explicitly, but if you look carefully, you’ll notice its presence and effects almost everywhere around you. Being here, struggling to understand multiple versions of broken English, coloured with various accents, and trying to convey my own thought in a way that is universally comprehensible to all parties has taught me that language is but an interface for the true meat of an idea. English is but one of these interfaces.

I’d always prided myself in having what I took to be a fairly adept perspective and sense of empathy for other people. And I did, perhaps, given the frame of reference from which I was working. But from picking up bits of overheard conversation to having the opportunity to speak and listen in-depth with co-workers, friends, travellers in the hostel, Hong Kong has given me the opportunity to broaden that sense of perspective and empathy to a truly global one, and an added appreciation for humour, intellect, and value that extends beyond the Canadian sense.

*I believe the correct term for Hong Kong is a “Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China” — be careful not to make the mistake of calling it a “country”, lest you be quickly corrected by semi-sarcastic cries of “One country, two systems!!!” in reference to the increasingly apparent reintegration with parent China.