If you want to understand the mentality of a level 1 gweilo, read my first three posts. A level 1 gweilo has three stages: learning to eat, learning to walk, denial, and acceptance. (More complex skills like forming sentences and reading don’t begin until at least level 5.)
I have now begun my transition into level 2. My gas bladder isn’t exactly functioning at an adult level, but I’m not longer stuck on the bottom of the tank all the time. I know of some clubs that aren’t advertised from the ground, and are at least 9 floors up. I can navigate above or below ground with ease, and I even occasionally use public transportation that’s not on fixed tracks, like buses. In other words, I can now get around under my own power; I don’t have to be carried anymore.
At level 2, I have a few words in my vocabulary, and I can even use a couple of phrases to help me get what I want. I’m constantly listening to the sounds that other humans make, in hopes of producing them myself at some point. I have become like a sponge, taking in vast amounts of visual and auditory information. Occasionally, my brain is able to organize visual information in a way that gives me a reasonable idea of which real world objects correspond to which sensory stimuli. As a result, not only am I able to walk down the street relatively easily, but I’m able to do so without running into other people all the time.
Still, when things don’t go my way, I tend to get cranky. For instance, HSBC, my bank, still hasn’t given me the PIN number for my ATM card. When I went down there to collect it, they told me that they couldn’t give it to me. It had to be sent to my address through the mail. I asked them why, and they said “for safety reasons.” I told them that my mailbox wasn’t actually safe, and that the safest thing was to simply tell me the PIN, or write it down and give it to me right then. I had my Hong Kong ID, my passport, and could verify my signature and my account number. Clearly, the safest thing from my standpoint was for them to just give me the damn PIN. But protocol dictated otherwise. It was one of those DMV experiences discussed earlier in In Defense of Sloth. And so I threw a bit of a temper tantrum. It wasn’t pretty. And I didn’t get what I wanted. You would think that a level 2 gweilo would be less likely to get annoyed at these cultural differences, but you would be wrong. It’s actually the pattern that pisses me off, not so much the isolated instances.
That said, a level 2 gweilo is certainly much more capable than a level 1 gweilo. Just capable enough to be dangerous to himself. At level 1, a gweilo can barely get around, and when he does he’s carried by public transport. But now that I’m moving about on my own, I have more opportunities to hurt myself. One of the things that a level 2 gweilo needs to protect himself from himself is someone with more experience, more cultural and linguistic skill, who can help him learn the ropes. A parental figure, if you will.
This is why it’s so important for a level 2 gweilo to know his ABCs. In HK, an ABC is an American born Chinese. And knowing your ABCs is a major part of the transition from level 1 to level 2. I’ve now met a few, through work and other places. There’s this great little pub down the street from my house, and there are a couple EBCs (English born Chinese) who have brought me into their Cantonese conversations. Obviously, once I join the conversation, the percentage of Cantonese goes down, and the percentage of English goes up. But still, I’m interacting with locals, I’m learning some useful phrases, and I’m picking up cultural nuances that would otherwise take years to learn. Cantonese in the bar is very different from Cantonese in the office. It’s like the difference between Italian and German. In the bar, there is much more gesticulation and inflection, which makes it easier to understand what people are saying, even though I don’t really understand the words at all. It’s really a beautiful thing: something a level 1 gweilo is incapable of appreciating.
So now I can move around on my own, say a few words, and I know my ABCs, but I still get cranky sometimes.