Waiting for coffee this morning, I notice four people staring at me. Not subtly, or even with the smallest intention of trying to look like they might not be gawking – straight staring. Two of them are an elderly couple, say in their late sixties, the other two are a mother and a young daughter, maybe 30 and 7-ish, respectively (obviously, it’s not like I am in Kentucky or something.) I do the quick mental once over… nothing that unusual – I am fully clothed, basically well-groomed, not carrying wild animals or assault weapons; I am positively the morning version of Joanna Generic. Nothing-To-See-Here-People. But that does not matter. Since the day I arrived here, locals have been staring at me in much the same way. One little kid asked his mom if I was a man or a woman when I first got here. What? She said it was because he had never seen “such a big lady.” Wow. Look at my ego be resilient.
Turns out I do not blend.
Initially this bothered me. I would get really uncomfortable on the bus or the MTR as I felt heat rising to my face when I realized that people were staring at me with the fascination (horror?) with which they may behold a tribe of Na’vi casually embarking on the train. Then I went through the phase where I stared back or raised my eyebrows and said “What?” Not a great strategy, I must say, as it seemed to only offer validity for the previous staring. Pretty soon I became mostly oblivious to it.
The fact is, I am 5’10″, I have blue eyes and (basically) blond hair. In a Cantonese community in Hong Kong, blending is not gonna be happening. It makes me wonder what it feels for people who feel different where I come from. I cannot remember staring at people so overtly, but that may be only a function of culture, and I probably managed it in other (possibly) less obvious (unlikely) ways. Still, where I am from there are people from everywhere. You cannot assume that someone is “not from here” on the basis of looks in California. You kind of can in Hong Kong. Granted there is a large ex-pat community population, but once you get away from where the white people are (and those places are pretty specific), it is a different scene.
When I first moved here I lived on Kowloon-side, in a Thai neighborhood (Kowloon City – f’realz.) I was THE only Westerner there. [For the record, I like to say White person not Western person because there are so many non-white people who are culturally super Western here, including vast numbers of Hong Kong Chinese... But people are always on my case for saying 'White' and say I am being racist. I am not being racist, I am being obvious. What distinguishes me - initially - is how I look. Full on gweipo.] Anyhow, in Kowloon City, it was me and the neighbors and it was great. They all knew me in no time and the sense of community was weird, but real. Like, they would have never socialized with me, but they were always there to direct me, lend a hand with packages, and of course, sell me shit. It was totally safe and comfortable. I was the one odd ball and I imagine they were soon tired of looking at me; I was their White person, they did not need to stare.
When I moved to Lamma – The Gweilo Ghetto – the places I hung around changed. The locals who live on Lamma [Chow Yun Fat!] are a special breed and are totally uninterested in the fact that they are surrounded by White people. It is what it is, and they go about their business. As a Lamma resident I often socialize in Hong Kong, but again, this generally takes me to the places WTWPA. Soho, LKF, Wan Chai if things have gone wildly astray, etcetera. However, I do rely almost exclusively on public transportation and my hub is the former fishing village and still economically slower district of Aberdeen. It is in Aberdeen that I get all the attention these days.
I mentioned earlier that the first thing that distinguishes me is the physical part. There are of course other elements of my non-localness. The way I dress. Where I shop. What I eat. The fact that I speak about… umm… 50 words (?) of Cantonese. Myriad other preferences – like wishing that all the public smokers would curl up in their own little bubble of smoke and die float far, far away, my aversion to the wet markets, my tendency to exercise common courtesy with regard embarking and alighting trains, buses and elevators – make it clear that I am not one of the Westerners that hails from Hong Kong. Though there are a good number of them. They move a little easier through the HK milieu, mostly because they often speak the language (go figure.) But they still stand out.
China says, with regard to Hong Kong: One Country, Two Systems. It is a silly platitude to justify the capitalist behavior of Asia’s World City under the dominion of Beijing’s Pseudo-Communist principles. I reckon Hong Kong people operate the same way: One ID Card, Two Social Strata. Locals are paid way less for the same work that Westerners do. Locals get different prices in the markets. Locals speak two or three languages, Westerners not so much. They live in different areas. They have totally different education systems. Of course, within each of these strata exist infinite sub-strata, which is not so much my point here. And I hate to consider that it may be totally economically based… though it could be as that is always the most effective and long-lasting kind of imperialism isn’t it? (Case in point: interesting article discussing the difference between ex-pats and immigrants here.)
How is one supposed to assimilate in such circumstances? Or are you supposed to? It is the melting pot/salad bowl dilemma I guess. If one (like, say, me…) has no chance of blending should you got for highlighting that which makes you stand out or make yourself less conspicuous by always surrounding yourself with like-looking people? That seems counter-intuitive if we assume that people who tend to move from their home country, generally have some interest in getting “out there” and seeing something different. Celebrate Diversity? Well, yeah that it what we are taught in American schools (a lot of good it is doing us: Evidence = Teabaggers.) I think it has more to do with embracing the zoo-like phenomenon of being stared at all the time. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be famous! I used to want to be famous when I was little so maybe this is the universe’s little joke on me…
As I sip my coffee, I smile at the four people who are still looking at me. They do not turn away hurriedly or with any sort of embarrassment. They simply smile back.
And that is a pretty nice way to start any day.