Monday, October 22, 2007

Back in the HKSAR

It's surprisingly weird being back in Hong Kong again. For one, I'm running into linguistic issues...Cantonese and Mandarin sound noticeably different, and even with my extremely limited knowledge of both, I'm still forced to re-adapt a bit. While buying a pork bun in Hong Kong today, I told the woman at the bakery "shye shye," which is "thank you" in Mandarin, rather than "mm goi," which is the Cantonese equivalent. We both had a bit of a laugh.

But the people are just incredibly different between Hong Kong and mainland China, and the differences were apparent within an hour of being in Beijing. We had about a 5k trek (with full backpacks) between where the airport bus dropped us off in Beijing and where we were staying the first night. Of course, we had no idea the walk would be anywhere near that long, but it did give us ample opportunity to observe Beijingers in their natural habitats.

What follows are my observations about the mainland Chinese. I realize they are based on an incredibly limited sample size, both in terms of numbers and time. And obviously, I realize that they are generalizations. But still, this is my sense of things:

The clothing in Beijing in particular is strangely timeless. Watching people walk the streets, you could imagine the year being 1977, 1987, 1997, or 2007. Track suits are incredibly, inexplicably popular, for all age groups. Groups of teenagers wearing matching track suits are not uncommon. The hot thing in toddler fashion, on the other hand, is chaps. As in, assless pants, except in the Chinese case, they're often crotchless too. Basically, the Chinese have realized that you can save a lot of money on diapers for non-potty-trained toddlers if you just cut open the pants and let whatever happens happen.

Staring is acceptable, and if you're white, pretty much to be expected. If you're white and you're doing something they'd find unusual (eating Chinese street food, taking oddly-posed pictures, interacting meaningfully and socially with locals), you should actually be surprised if no one stares. While it's usually just intense curiosity, with the women, it also sometimes takes the form of a lecherous up-and-down check-out. I don't know what you women complain about all the time, I think it's fun being treated like a piece of meat.

Compared to Hong Kong, there's more street food, but fewer bakeries. Eat the yams. They rock, so much so that we were forced to coin the phrase, carpe yam. Seize the yam, kids.

Mainlanders seem generally nicer and more directly friendly than people in Hong Kong. Within an hour of arriving in Beijing, Britt and I were staring at a large street map that was written entirely in Chinese, and a woman randomly approached us and, through surprisingly good English, offered to help direct us toward our destination. They're more open to making eye contact with strangers without looking down embarrassedly. In general, while English is much harder to come by than in Hong Kong, the locals are very patient with trying to bridge the communication gap.

Despite these elements of niceness, though, the mainland Chinese also have ways in which they're exceptionally rude. There's apparently no real concept of personal space in any public setting. In markets, hawkers would not just make physical contact with me, but latch onto my arm or jacket and refuse to let go, forcing me to literally writhe my way to freedom. There's also no concept of a queue. Anything you'd expect to involve a line is really more of a free-for-all for position. These two notions combine rather unpleasantly, as it means that I was getting shoulder-checked by locals, constantly.

Cab drivers come in a range from "competently assertive" to "smoldering with impotent rage." One driver, frustrated with the evening traffic and the slights he perceived from other drivers on the road, went on an expletive-laden tirade in Mandarin that my friend Kathleen (a comrade from high school and college currently studying in Beijing) related to us only in the vaguest of terms (so very polite, Kathleen). Another driver became locked in a mortal struggle with a nearby cab for lane position, and the confrontation became so heated that we were eventually literally run off the road. Our driver accelerated quickly to catch up and restart the battle, but finally thought better of it. I was simultaneously disappointed and relieved.

The pollution in Beijing and Xian is miserable, on the level of Hong Kong or worse (Shanghai was a noticeably better). Particularly in Beijing, the locals seem to be in disastrously poor respiratory health, with many residents sporting disgusting, wet, hacking coughs.

The fact that everybody's lungs are apparently being ravaged by the pollution exacerbates the worst thing about mainland China: the spitting. When I got to Hong Kong, I couldn't figure out why the introductory packets we received were so adamant about not spitting and not squatting in the street. Who spits and squats, I wondered? The answer, it turns out, is mainlanders. Especially in Beijing, you cannot walk down the street for 5 minutes without hearing some conspicuously loud hocking noise, as a resident tries to summon all of the mucus from every part of his or her body (usually his) and expel it all at once. In Beijing, it seems to be like a competition, like whoever can produce the loudest, longest scraping noise before spitting is the manliest. In Xian and Shanghai, people are at least marginally more civil about it...they usually aim the spit for a trash can or bush instead of the middle of the sidewalk, and hocking sounds are comparatively muted.

The Hong Kongians take a certain pride in their British affiliations, and certain aspects of the society - the penchant for horse racing, the prevalence of afternoon tea - continue to reflect lingering British cultural influence. Not unjustifiably, people in Hong Kong consider themselves to be a more civilized breed than their mainland counterparts. I think that's probably true, but the trade-off is a loss of distinctiveness in their cultural personality.

For me, though, context is everything. I never really got used to the hocking and spitting in China, though I eventually came to expect it. But I hadn't been on the ground in Hong Kong for 15 minutes when my ears were assaulted by a particularly rancid-sounding loogie accumulation coming from the visitors line at immigration. I immediately scanned the area for the perpetrator, hoping to stare him down with a gaze that would say, that may fly in the mainland, little man, but 'round these parts we do things a little differently. For better or worse, I never found him, and I passed through immigration and back into Hong Kong: no longer Hong Kong, China in my mind. Just Hong Kong.

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