What not to do ever
Never lose yourself to anybody or any cause or try to please everybody and neglect your own needs.
What not to do in HK
Talk to strangers
Laugh out loud
Not wait for the green man to flash at traffic lights
leave home without your identity card
not own a Samsung or iphone
be slow and get in the way
admit you are poor
tell your life story
tell anybody anything
invite people into your home
What not to do in HK as a middle aged divorcee
Talk to married men
Eat out with a married man alone even if he is your best friend
Invite a male friend into your home even if it is purely platonic
Drink beer in public, extra bad if indulging in this vice alone
Show any sign of a cleavage even in sweltering heat
Show any emotion like happiness or sadness so no crying or laughing loudly in public
Allow your skin to get dark (fair is considered beautiful)
Don’t be friendly or you’ll be suspected of having an ulterior motive
When I landed for the first time in April I resolved to merge into the crowd hiding my identity as a banana. I failed miserably, could it be the slow motions, the slightly off Cantonese intonation, the lack of vernacular or flamboyant fashion sense or all the above. Whatever the giveaway, I stuck out like a poodle in the Amazon jungle.
At every turn I was scolded or given dirty looks for getting in the way or getting on and off minibuses or taxis too slowly, taking too long to get cash out of my purse, choosing my meal, not wolfing it down quick enough … I think you get the gist.
Not fair skinned enough and therefore an easy target every time I try to creep past the pirahanas stationed at the doors, refusing to let me go unless I purchase one of their extortionate whitening products. I have no wish whatsoever to become a fair maiden; on the contrary I am rather proud of my naturally tanned complexion. It exudes health and is the envy of every Westerner I know, but oh you are living in HK now and here fair rules supreme. It is a symbol of beauty, the fairer the better. How on earth can you get a good husband with a dark complexion like that? Ah, actually I am not looking for one. I tried that once and it didn’t end well. Oh, you are only saying that now, you haven’t met Mr. Right yet. Now come in and I will show you the best stuff, on sale now, you so lucky, half price, now only $500, from South Korea you know …
I digress. Now at the end of the year, a mere eight months later I am proud to announce it’s Mission Impossible Accomplished. Tom Cruise eat your heart out! I find myself jumping on and off minibuses at the speed of lightening like 007, overtaking the slowcoaches on the streets and feeling irritated, seamlessly joining the heavy human traffic at the MTR stations and ordering my meal without hesitation, shovelling it in and paying promptly with the exact money.
I have even succumbed to dying my hair to hide the grey, a first and going to have a facial once a week. Apparently all these are common practices in HK, one must keep up appearances and looking young and beautiful is a priority. One must make time in our busy schedules. Do you know that attractive and slim people are more likely to get the job and promotion? That is what research shows
I have the shopping trolley which everyone seems to pull around. The Chinese are very practical, never mind that it doesn’t look very cool. Back in the UK only the elderly use them. More importantly I have the Samsung mobile and can now go online on the move and Whatsapp. I have a hundred million umbrellas, necessary for fair and foul weather. I have the plastic waterproof shoes and wellington boots.
I have trained myself to be less ‘nice’. It is cut throat here, you have to be quick and alert, it’s warfare. The fastest gets the last minibus seat despite the queue. When you dare to complain you are just rebuffed for not being quick enough, it is your fault. But that is not the point, you reply exasperated and you get the look of pity, like ha, what planet are you from? Now I don’t jump the queue but make damn sure I get on when it is my turn. Definitely survival of the fittest in the Pearl of the Orient and that means SPEED.
I am not sure if this transformation and integration is all positive but what the hell, at least I have made myself less of a target for unscrupulous sales assistants and merge into the crowd which is what I wanted.
Forget about the 3 star HK identity smart card which means you have the right of permanent residence, I have now acquired my very own shiny Samsung mobile. Yep it’s the baby size and the lower range but Samsung nevertheless and has whatsapp, which is how HK communicates. The general Chinese psyche believe the bigger the better as it is a loud statement of status. Yes I can afford this 1 carat solitaire, this top of the range latest iphone, the garage in my mansion could even house your own family etc. I often have to suppress a giggle when I see these massive mobiles or tablets pressed to people’s ears. Granted the larger screen and font are easier on the eye but does one really need it while on the move?
These are the peculiar features of life in HK observed so far: there are children’s playgrounds in every area but no sign of life. Where are the kids when school is finished or the weekends? They are busy doing homework or being tutored either in tutorial centres after school Monday to Friday or individually at home. Tutorial centres are doing a booming business and can be found in virtually every shopping mall, not just the one but a whole row of at least ten and that is no exaggeration. There are huge posters of young good looking tutors on the side and back of buses displaying their credentials as if they were celebrities. Kevin Chan King of English! Only in HK! I would never be featured because I am not brimming with youth and ambition.
You see babies in uniform with schoolbags bigger than them. Toddlers go to nursery and have to be ‘interviewed’ for the good or posh international schools. Often you will see a grandmother or grandad doing the school run or a Filipino or Indonesian maid. That’s because the young able bodied parents work long hours. It is more common for an elderly parent to be living with his/her child than in the west. Family is the cement which keeps society intact; especially the next generation and their education. With the increasing high cost of living most can only afford the one, so all their attention and expectations are focused on that little darling and sadly the trend is many are spoilt, especially by the doting grandparents.
The fast pace of life means everything happens last minute and you don’t get a lot of notice. For example they ring you in the morning oh your fridge is repaired and will be delivered back between 1-3pm. What if you had to work? The same with meet ups, you kinda negotiate roughly when but this is subject to last minute changes. It takes a lot of perseverance to actually make it happen.
It is virtually impossible to have a platonic friendship with the opposite sex, especially if he is married. No one will believe you are just good friends or that nothing untowards is going on. Being a single woman you are perceived to be a real threat, on the prowl to ensnare their man because they just don’t understand why you actually prefer to be on your own. For all its advanced technology and being one of the main financial centres of the world, HK really lags behind in its conservative attitudes and values. Conformity is highly valued and expected and any dissent is despised as it undermines the status quo and tradiition. If you are a rebel and anarchist then HK is not for you.
All the locals seem to do is eat out and walk round the millions of shopping centres. The ones into health cycle in large groups sporting professional wear from head to toe. Art galleries, museums and so forth doesn’t seem to feature big and creativity is not seen as something to be encouraged or celebrated. The nearest thing to culture that the populace will indulge in is flocking to see their idol sing at the massive Coliseum in Hung Hom.
Everybody with a bit of spare cash including the elderly dapple in stocks and shares and every five minutes there is an update on how they are doing on the radio. Some also follow the foreign exchange rates closely in an attempt to make a killing. Many conversations I eavedrop on in restaurants, on the bus and on the street are related to money, whether it be the lack of it or how hard it is to earn it or how unfair that one son has got all the inheritance.
The shiny new life I had hoped to return to is not terminal anymore; there is hope and treatment options, phew! New shiny Samsung mobile is working perfectly and after much fumbling the techno-challenged me has worked out how to answer, text and even use What’s App and check Gmail. That’s all I need. After the dog saga, at last the fridge has been taken away for repairs; I suspect I will soon get the call to say no can do and fruitflies and larvae infestation is not covered by the warrenty. But the best thing is I am rid of it, because getting goods to and from this obscure hamlet with the curse of the thousand concrete steps is the major problem. No wonder fly tipping is rift. Thank goodness the temperatures have dropped significantly and a mini-carton of milk satisfies my tea addiction and the posh supermarket next door means I can buy daily. I tend to choose food that can keep and don’t need refridgerating. I’ve managed so far, it takes some thought as any new lifestyle would and I need to go on a diet anyway and this way I am always eating fresh produce. So goes my positive train of thought.
Best of all I’ve started tutoring which I love; the interaction with the kids on an individual personal level and doing what I’m good at. Of course it is fantastic to be earning again, albeit small sums but every drop eventually turns into an ocean. I’ve started putting the big notes away for the rent and just using the smaller $10, 20 and 50 notes for daily living. I’m saving on transport cost by walking and getting fit at the same time.
I have a lot of spare time during the day as my services are not required till the kids come home from school or the weekend. I may do some volunteering at a home near Sheung Shui with kids with physical disabilities. Then there is also a part time cashier job at the posh supermarket next door but it only pays the minimum wage, which in HK is a measly $30 per hour, the equivalent of £2.50. By contrast tutoring the rich kids I earn at least seven times that. But then it is regular more secured work and instead of facing the four walls with time to kill, I could be interacting with customers and colleagues and learning more about the local culture. I guess I have nothing to lose. I could be fussy about the hours I do, say like two five hour shifts from morning to 2pm so I leave free slots for potential pupils. If they are desperate they might take me on and the supervisor did say I had an advantage because I speak English. A good command of English can really open doors here and if you can speak fluent Mandarin then the sky is your limit.
Less shiny is the pettiness and ignorance from the dog owner who has taken revenge on my calling for police assistance by chucking the feeding and water bowl down the hill. I am crossed as I paid good money for them. I had used thin plastic ones but they bit through them. But I take a deep breath and tell myself to rise above it all. Maintain the moral high ground is my mantra. What I don’t get is you use them as guard dogs but you don’t feed them properly and a neighbour forks out instead, surely you’d be jumping for joy rather than sabotaging. When I first spotted the bowls down below my initial response was oh sod it. But then I thought why should she make me stop feeding them if I want to. I refuse to let them go hungry; it is cruel. I also thought I am really on a tight budget, counting every cent, wouldn’t it be more sensible to save on the dog food? The pragmatic me says yes but the compassionate me says an emphatic no. How would you like it if you were constantly hungry? Luckily I’ve never experienced that and I hope I never will but I can imagine. Life is life and it is only us foolish homo sapiens who’ve crowned ourselves king of the animal kingdom.
So the shiny new life is getting shinier by the minute … Watch this space. Mama G over and out.