They say life is too short for regret. My biggest isn’t the obvious one, that of the failure of my marriage but missing the boat on finding out who my parents really are and communicating with them beyond the shallows of small talk. Apart from my earliest fond memories of Mum burning the midnight oil sewing away so that we had new clothes to wear on Chinese New Year’s Day. However empty our stomach and family coffer, Mum made sure we were dignified in our poverty. We didn’t feel deprived or suffer an inferiority complex because everybody else in the Yau Hamlet was in the same boat. And in our cash poor state we were very inventive with making up games to amuse ourselves with our cousins. Roaming the tiny village freely we led not only a carefree existence but got very fit climbing trees, chasing one another and stayed out till our mothers called us for the evening meal. It was a happy childhood that money can’t buy.
Much to my horror it slowly dawned on me how the locals and in particular the boss and staff of my local saw me. Local as in where I eat and not the pub. They don’t exist here, not in the form we think of as pubs back home. Bars, yes, millions on HK Island, the financial and business hub, catering for ex-pats and those on business.
I am discovering being a ‘banana’ has its disavantages. Due to the fact I look Chinese on the outside people expect me to dress and behave in a certain way. In spite of how modern and technologically savvy the city is, it is still a very tradiitonal society and have very definite views on what is acceptable. Any deviation is not appreciated as it threatens the very foundation on which their lives are built, namely the paramount importance of the family and the roles played. Dad’s main responsibility is to provide for the family. Mums, more increasingly as the standard of living is shooting up by the minute has to work but look after the kids and the home. If they are at least lowe middle class then both will work full time and the Filipino Maid will carry out Mum’s household duties and provide childcare. The kids in return have to work their socks off not only at school but attending tutorial centres after home time and weekends. Parents, however impoverished, would scrap and save to pay the fees as their kid must not fall behind. The intention is good, to ensure the child has an easier and better life but the pressure is unrelenting and psychologically damaging. Seeing children ‘play’ is a rare sight, even pre-schoolers, how sad. Whole generations are deprived of their carefree childhood, already learning about pressure, stress, the need to achieve, to be tested and then found wanting. Only one pupil in each class can be no.1 academically.
Every child is in training to be Super Man or Wonder Woman. Not only do they have to be smartypants but olympic athletes/swimmers/dancers/concert pianists and van goghs. What a lot of expectations on such tiny shoulders. No wonder child/teenager suicide is up.
Anyway back to me. I enjoy quenching my thirst under the burning sun with a beer. No big deal right? Not even if you are a middle aged woman on her own and having food with it, not drinking on an empty stomach so you can get drunk easily. Wrong, wrong, wrong. One damn waiter was spreading the rumour I was an alchoholic. One pint? Really? It would take a lot more than that to get me dancing on the table. My preferred posion, namely dry white wine is too dear, so no chance of getting intoxicated. It is taboo, not the done thing. Women of a certain age are supposed to be happily married and devoted to taking care of their family. What the hell is this woman doing drinking beer while she should be home slaving over a hot stove, so that dinner is ready on the table when hubby comes home from a hard day’s work?
Ok fine, I’ll drink at those bars in Central. Surely there nobody will bat an eyelid. I mean that’s what those places are for, for you to drink and chill, friends or no friends. Wrong, wrong and wrong again. A woman lurking in those places must be looking for ‘business’. You get my drift. Even if there are two ‘friends’ chatting, it is just a ploy, they are undercover prostitutes waiting to be picked up.
Damn it, that means I can’t drink anywhere public. Just at home facing the four walls talking to myself. No good trying to convince them. Nobody actually comes out with it but looks from other customers and the manager hinting you ought to order some healthy alternative like horlicks drive the message through, loud and clear.
That’s not all. The suspicion I am a woman of ill repute is confirmed by the way I dress. I am apparently not supposed to be parading around in string vest tops and shorts, letting it all hang out. What is casual summer gear to you and me has become uniform for ladies of the night selling their wares. I only found this out when it was a cool evening for a change, after heavy rainfall and I was in a blue blouse with long sleeves and a pair of thin trousers and also ostensibly to protect myself from being eaten alive. The boss during a lull came to congratulate me on my choice of attire. Nodding approvingly informing me, yes, this outfit is suitable for teaching in gated communities, like the one near me. I have just started teaching a 5 year old girl there. One must dress as a teacher, a professional, that way you gain respect and will be taken seriously. Our body is only for ourselves, not for any Tom, Dick or Harry to gawk at, when you bend down and unwittingly show your boobs. You are not those ‘loose’ women, you are highly educated and you must present that image.
OK. I smile and nod as I know she means well. She has taken it upon herself to be my life coach and guru on what not to do in HK to keep your reputation. Image is all. It doesn’t matter if you are not a secret alccie tart; if you dress and behave like one then you are. If they think you are, then you are. The first impression sticks, there is no shifting their perception.
I could do with Max Clifford here for some PR advice. It’s so ridiculous I should laugh it off but I hate to be judged. What to me is normal behaviour on any other continent is deemed dodgy here. I resolve to cover myself from head to toe and order horlicks at the next visit. Choose the healthiest dish on the menu and not speak until spoken to and in a demure way. I wonder if they’ll sussed out it is an act worthy of an oscar nomination or be overjoyed I have finally seen the light, become one of them, conformed, towed the line.
It must be so hard being ‘different’ in Hong Kong, if you are gay, disabled, have learning difficulty, want to be an individual, live your own life, or reject the ideal of marriage and family as the ultimate goal of human existence and the secret to happiness. Simply to be a rebel. It would take a courageous and determined person to be a Jonathon Livingston Seagull in this schizophrenic modern but upholding values of the dark ages corner of the world.
If the truth be told, I have no figure to show off, it is purely for practical reasons. It is so hot and humid sometimes I would go around naked if it wasn’t illegal and go as far as peel my skin back. My boobs aren’t that big, nothing to write home about, no legs going up to my armpits or a face that would turn heads. I don’t dress in such a provocative way that causes traffic accidents.
So you see looking Chinese but being a westerner inside is like walking the wire. Who will catch me when I fall?