I Love You, I Hate You
Last night, we fell asleep to the roar of downtown traffic. Except we weren't living in the traditional sense of downtown. Yet, everywhere feels like downtown Hong Kong. Then again, where is downtown Hong Kong? Tsim Sha Tsui? Central? Sheung Wan? Mongkok?
I woke up this morning feeling like a bus had hit me and I just woke up from the concussion. We have moved in for more than a week now and it has been a love-hate pendulum so far. I am trying my hardest not to be negative but it has been a culture shock for me to say the least. And some of them, not in a good way. Like that tiny fish bone that got stuck in my throat from an apparently flashy restaurant round the corner from our place. Oh those childhood memories of being traumatised by whole steam fish at dinner...
I've alluded that Hong Kong is a bit of a beast. The intensity of this place can only be fully felt when you start living in it. It's the kind of relationship that requires you to dive deep into the abyss of the beast. You can't get by skirting the waters and stay by the edge. Especially when you don't have the means to pay your way through every convenience and comfort.
I know what you're thinking. I'm mixing up the metaphors here. But that's exactly what it is. Hong Kong is both the beast and the deep waters it inhabits. And it gets even more pronounced because we don't have the simple comforts of life. Our couch, our kitchen, our TV and subsequently our netflix and Apple TV. Our nightly rituals, especially our Sunday evening downtime, is now an empty canvas of monochrome. We've made plans to fill it with errands and such but all that walking and commuting along with sardine packed train conditions has been really jarring.
We ventured out on the weekend, mixing said errands with leisure, exploring local eats and such but were met with roadblocks of the old classic language barrier. Yes, we are asians. Chinese asians growing up speaking mainly mandarin. And depending on where in Asia, you also grow up with dialects. But dialects, come in so many different strains and we spoke none that which is the national dialect of Hong Kong. The thing about Cantonese is that the intonation is very delicate. Veer off by a half tone and you'd end up communicating a very different meaning... or be met with pinched eyebrows of disapproval. We've had many of these. I could get by with a few catchphrases but it's only helpful in simpler situations. Ordering food at a cantonese restaurant or engaging in small talk is not one of those.
Yesterday we thought we'd bite the bullet and do it like the locals and order from the chinese menu and try our hand at ordering in Canto. What was meant to be milk pudding came out as milkshake. We are still such noobs.
And you'd think we could use the base language known as Mandarin? Well, not quite so in Hong Kong. You see, I've come to realise, Hong Kong is a little bit like France. If you've been to France, people will tell you to try and learn and speak in French as much as possible. Even something as simple as starting a conversation with, 'je ne parle pas français, parle anglais?' - I don't speak french, speak english? If you try and start the conversation in English, you'd be met with a disapproving wave. Even if they can speak English, they'd turn you away. But if you tried to speak in their language, they'd be more inclined to help you and speak your language. Even the French people I met have told me that. Well, to be fair, when I was in Paris and Cannes for a work trip, it hasn't always been true. Not everyone is like that.
In Hong Kong, we've also been told of a cultural norm regarding Mandarin. If you begin a conversation in mandarin with any of the locals, you'd likely be met with the same sort of frenchman treatment. Hong Kong typically do not like mainland Chinese. So when you speak in Mandarin, and you look Chinese, they'll assume that you are from mainland China and give you attitude. Thing is, a lot of locals here can speak Mandarin. They just refuse to use it to make it a pain for Chinese mainlanders. We get our way around it by starting in English, and then in some hilarious broken cantonese attempt and then ask if they speak Mandarin. 80% of the time, there is a sigh of relief on the other party and then we find polite non-attitude common ground to communicate. It was like that with our apartment doorman, our cable guy and pretty much most of the waiters in restaurants here.
Again, that attitude is not shared by everyone. We've had good encounters. Yet it feels surreal that while we felt the same language frustration trying to communicate in Costa Rica, it is the same here, even though it is Asia, a familiar hybrid we are not used to.
But we'll get there.