Monthly Archives: October 2009

Level 2 Gweilo (The Terrible Twos)

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.


In Defense of Sloth, part 2

My Vietnamese commentator makes an interesting point about the Confucian Ethic.  Economists often use  the Confucian Ethic (the Eastern version of the Protestant Ethic) to explain the economic success of countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and most recently China.  Basically, the argument is that Confucius in the East, like John Calvin in the West, taught the value of hard work, this lesson then became a part of the culture, and that hard work leads to prosperity.  These economists would no doubt disagree with my assertion that it is this same cultural trait that hinders economic success by inhibiting innovation.  So that’s good.  Because if there’s one group of people out there who inhibit innovation by requiring unnecessary rigor, it’s economists, and social scientists in general.  In the social sciences, like in China, interesting new ideas are effectively illegal.  Because the peer review process forces new ideas to get past a group of people who all share the same assumptions (demonstrably false assumptions in the case of economists and Big Beijing), new ideas don’t get very far.  There are two ways to get an idea past the peer review process: 1. show that its not new, in other words, cite it, or 2. do rigorous (and usually expensive) research.  I’m glad I’m not in grad school anymore.  Academics, like authoritarian regimes, are incredibly closed-minded and insular.

And that brings me to my next point.  Insularity may be part of the reason that my least innovative students are also in the ethnic majority.  In my experience teaching in the Denver Public Schools, and later at the University of Colorado, the white kids were always much less interesting than the African Americans, Mexican Americans or Asian Americans.  When I tried to get white kids to think a little cynically, they often just couldn’t.  When I tried to get them to see things from other perspectives, they sucked at it.  This week, I met my first student from a Confucian culture who is also a minority in HK (he’s Korean).  And man is this kid smart.  And not in the way that my smartphone is smart (data storage and calculation).  He’s quick witted, adaptable, and cynical.  He didn’t know what the word eloquent meant, so I gave him a definition, and used the example of Barack Obama’s eloquence vs. George Bush’s lack of it.  This prompted him to ask me if I was a Democrat or a Republican.  I told him neither, but that I voted for Obama.  He asked what I though of Obama, and I told him that I was disappointed that his policies resembled Bush’s way too much for my liking.  He then told me that he hated Bush, but didn’t really like Obama much either, and said he thought Obama was a puppet of corporate power.  He’s 14 years old, and has never been to the US!  We then had a fairly nuanced discussion about politics, something my Chinese students seem completely incapable of.  I’m beginning to think that the reason I like my Indian students so much here is simply because they’re minorities.  There’s something about not being from the dominant ethnic group that makes you question established wisdom more.  So maybe it’s not hard work that kills creative thinking, but just being a member of the group that’s in power.

Throughout history, the cities that have been economic, social and cultural innovators have often been places where cultures collide.  New York, London, ancient Rome, Alexandria in Egypt, and Byzantium are just a few examples.  That’s one of the benefits of colonialism; both the colony and the colonizer can’t help but be exposed to different ways of thinking.  There’s nothing like a clash of cultures to shake things up, and get you thinking differently.  Lord knows I’m experiencing that these days.  And on that note, I’ll return to my gas bladder issues shortly.  Stay tuned.

In Defense of Sloth

I’m beginning to think that laziness, not necessity, is the mother of invention.

Recent Chinese economic success has largely been driven by a combination of two factors: wages comparable to much poorer countries and infrastructure comparable to much richer countries.  No country on Earth seems to be able to beat the Chinese in both these areas simultaneously.  They’re very good at taking a product developed elsewhere, dismantling it, and figuring out how to mass produce it at a lower cost.  But they aren’t innovating as well as the West (for now) and they definitely aren’t innovating as well as other Asian countries, like Korea, Japan, or India.

It hasn’t always been this way.  Of the four major civilizations on the Eurasian landmass (the Chinese, the Indians, the Arabs, and the Europeans) the Chinese are probably responsible for more inventions than any of the others, historically.  And Taiwan, which is culturally Chinese, seems to be fairly good at innovation these days.  In HK, Westerners often complain about how difficult it is to get the locals to deviate from their rigid protocols and flow charts, and actually engage in creative problem solving.  Sometimes it feels like everyone here works for the DMV (that’s the Division of Motor Vehicles, for those of you who aren’t from the US–known to be a bureaucratic hellhole).  But not really, because DMV employees aren’t exactly known for their assiduousness, and the Chinese definitely deserve that positive stereotype.  DMV employees are frustrating to deal with because they’re too secure in their jobs, and therefore lack motivation to perform well.  In HK, people work their asses off because they know that there are always thousands of people ready to replace them.  As a result, they are determined to demonstrate that they’re never looking for shortcuts, always willing to work harder.

At work, my students generally fall into three cultural categories: local HK Chinese, local Indians, and Western expats.  All three speak excellent English, and all three tend to be quite affluent with well educated parents.  Of the three, I have the most trouble teaching the Chinese.  In many ways, they are the ideal students.  When I tell them to do something, they do it.  They never complain, they do all their homework, they remember what I tell them, and they do calculations quickly and efficiently.  As a US company in the test-preparation industry, we teach people how to “game” standardized tests: how to avoid doing calculations, how to approach sections holistically, and how to solve problems creatively.  Our techniques and strategies are developed in New York, and they’re largely designed with North American students in mind.  Though my job is to train teachers, I’ve been trying to learn as much as possible from my trainees, many of whom have been working here for years.  What they all tell me is that the HK Chinese are resistant to our techniques; they always want to do math the “hard way.”

I’ve always been a bit lazy myself, and part of that is probably due to the way I was raised.  Like many Americans, as a child I was always praised for being smart, not hardworking.  Perhaps that’s why I’m a bit of an underachiever.  As a teenager, and in even college, I was actually proud of being an underachiever.  I saw myself as better than the nerdy overachievers, who always did things the hard way.  As an adult, I’m not proud to be an underachiever, and I wish my parents had emphasized hard work more.  Chinese people do not raise their kids this way, it’s safe to say.  And that’s a good thing.  Their kids are less likely to end up living paycheck to paycheck at age 31, like I still am.  My Chinese students always seem very modest when it comes to their intelligence, even when they’re quite bright.  But they’re proud of being hardworking.  I think there needs to be a balance between the two.  I don’t have the right balance, but neither do they, at least not if they want to close that innovation gap.  What both the US and China need to maintain their dominant positions in the global economy is a new way of thinking, somewhere in between California and Beijing.  No, not Hawaii, but India.

My Indian students seem to come from somewhere in between the Western expats and the HK Chinese (in this case both geographically and culturally).  And I’m beginning to think that India, not China, is the future.  Generally, these are my favorite students.  They usually have a better work ethic than the Westerners, but aren’t overly attached to doing things the hard way.  They are receptive to looking at the answer choices first, and appreciate it when I help them see that they actually already know the answer, no calculations needed.

Culturally, the Chinese seem resistant to this approach; my teachers are right, sort of.  It’s like they think it’s cheating.  But when I remind them that all the test knows is what answer they picked, and I emphasize that the gweilo are always going to do things the easy way, they come around.  Slowly.  First I have to convince them.  Then I have to make sure they actually follow my advice in the pressure situation that is a standardized test.  The second part is the hard part.  For the Indian students, this seems to come more naturally.  They don’t need to be convinced that the easy way is better, and so they have fewer mental blocks when it comes to applying the techniques.

If India can solve it’s substantial infrastructure problems, watch out.  Because India is a democracy, not an authoritarian regime like China, I think India has an inherent advantage when it comes to innovation, and cultural export.  Currently, China is trying to make a push toward exporting its culture, but because everything has to be approved by censors, its all very banal compared to Korean, Japanese or Indian culture.  In many ways, China has made real innovation illegal.  And even though HK has robust freedoms of speech and expression (for now) the shadow of the Big Beijing still looms large in the back of people’s minds.  We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds, but unless there’s a revolution of some sort, I’m betting on India in the battle of the world’s two most populous nations.


Gas Bladder Issues

Wikipedia defines the gas bladder, or swim bladder, as, “an internal gas-filled organ [that] contributes to the ability of a fish to control its buoyancy, and thus to stay at the current water depth without having to waste energy in swimming.”  I think mine’s out of whack.  When a goldfish has issues with its gas bladder, it’s often found on the bottom of the tank, having to swim hard just to rise up toward the surface.

In Boulder, my gas bladder worked perfectly.  I rode my bike, drove my car,  took the bus or walked around town, found addresses easily, and went up unfamiliar staircases with confidence.   In Boulder, there just aren’t that many levels for a fish to operate on, so my gas bladder didn’t have much work to do.  In Hong Kong, 95% of what goes on is over my head, literally and figuratively.  Just dealing with the added pressure takes some adjustment.  My body has to become denser, more impervious to shock from the outside.  As a bottom feeder, I don’t always have time or energy for the little flourishes that used to be part of my behavioral repertoire.  Take, for instance, being nice.  The population density is just too crushing for expenditures like that, so I skate around it as much as everyone else.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m able to get by just fine here; the bottom feeder niche in this habitat has plenty to offer, actually.  I can communicate with almost anyone I make the effort to communicate with, as almost everyone has passable English ability, and many are totally fluent.  And government signs are all in Chinese and English (since those are the two official languages).  There are plenty of good restaurants that are either on ground level,  or advertise their location in English, so I can find them without too much difficulty from the street.  But there’s an awful lot that goes on above the ground level here, and there’s a lot that’s written in Chinese and spoken in Cantonese.  In fact, everything that doesn’t directly involve me or some other foreigner happens in Cantonese.  Despite the many visible minority groups, HK is 95% Han Chinese, and that’s why 95% of what goes on is over my head.  The language issue, plus the verticality of the city, make for a strangely easy, strangely daunting environment.

Because of my gas bladder issues, when the going gets tough, I find myself getting even lower.  Navigation is much easier underground; it’s cooler, drier, and visually simplified.  Underground, 100% of the signs are in my language, and there are nice clear maps that show me which train goes where, and maps of each station that show me which exit will get me closest to my destination.  Super easy.  It’s only when I try to swim up, toward the surface, that I experience resistance.  When I get to the surface, I’m met with a visual clutter that almost shuts down my mind, compared to the easy swimming I just had underneath.  I shake off the cobwebs, and try to look for something that has meaning for me: a street sign, or an address.  Finding none, I often resort to wandering and asking for help.  But that is happening less frequently these days.

Visual clutter

This kind of thing only exacerbates my gas bladder issues

As a teacher, I try to be as Socratic as possible in my job.  But that’s when I know all the answers.  Now I have to be Socratic in life, and that’s a bit different.  It’s like being a child again, except that having an adult brain makes that kind of learning difficult.  So I’m starting with baby steps: I can now cross the street like a pro (only took me 2 weeks!), and I can, mostly, find addresses without being given extensive directions.  That’s about it really, and those two accomplishments took considerable trial and error.  What I need to cure my gas bladder infection, is what the Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind,” and that is what the real Socratic method is all about.   I know one thing: I know that I know nothing.  This is the real Socratic method, the painful Socratic method, but it’s the one that you must resort to when you don’t know any of the answers anymore.


I guess I’ll start by trying to learn Cantonese?  That’s gonna put one hell of a strain on my gas bladder.


Gweilo, part 2

Let me begin by clarifying my last post. I was not trying to construct an argument that established a causal relationship between Chinese racism and Chinese behavior.   I was reacting to my new environment, and I observed two things: they refer to me as “ghost man,” and they often act as if they can’t see me.   Also, other “ghosts” appeared to be able to see me much better than non-ghosts. These things I thought were amusing, and made for a nice metaphor which I could use to describe my experiences in my first few days in HK. That was the extent of my intent with “Gweilo.” “Why” is a strong word, and I will be more careful with it in the future. Lesson learned.

My invisibility here has been a bit surprising. I had been to mainland China before my immigration, and experienced what most white people experience in poorer parts of the world; people really noticed me, and went out of their way to get my attention. “Hello, English! You come here. We have special English menu for you!” In HK, it’s not like that at all.  I could stand on a busy street corner all day,  and the only people who would see me would be other ghosts.


Copy watch? Rolex?

Another contrast with mainland China is that in HK, I feel small sometimes.  I’m about 5’10”.  In Beijing, I felt big, both in body and in bank account.  In HK I’m not big, and I’m poor.  People just aren’t small here; that is one Asian stereotype that definitely does not apply to the HK Chinese.  And the gweilo here are giants.  Americans are shorter than Western Europeans, and most of the gweilo here seem to be European, or English.  I was prepared for a lot of the emotions this city can elicit, but I was not expecting to feel short.

In Beijing, my name was “Hello! English!” In HK, my name is gweilo (except in Tsim Sha Tsui, where they refer to me as “Copy watch?  Rolex?”).  I prefer gweilo to “the European,” which is what people who don’t know me refer to me as (when they’re trying to be P.C.).   At least gweilo isn’t factually inaccurate.  I’m coming to terms with my status as a gweilo.   As I said before, the term is surprisingly apt.


I’m a ghost.  A white ghost, to be specific.  Like most ghosts, I didn’t choose this existence.  It just happened; as soon as I stepped off the plane in Hong Kong airport, I became a ghost.  Not that I mind really.  And it’s not that I didn’t know that my behavior carried some risk of turning me into a ghost…I had heard the term “gweilo” before, mostly on the internet…so when I stepped on that plane in San Francisco, I sorta knew I might become a ghost when I reached the other side of the Pacific.  The nice thing is, I can become human again, if I want to.  It’s just that it costs around $600, and involves about 12 hours of exposure to H1N1, and various other influenzas.

“Gweilo” (鬼佬) in Cantonese, means “ghost man” or “ghost dude,” literally.  Less literally, the word means “white ghost,” “foreigner,” “westerner,” “white man” or “non-Chinese man.”   There’s no way around it, I’m a gweilo.  The term really is surprisingly apt.  Like other ghosts, most people cannot see me.  This is why Chinese people are constantly stopping in front of me while I’m walking down the sidewalk as if I’m not there, walking directly at me and expecting me to get out of the way, closing elevator doors in my face, and not apologizing when they bump into me.  My invisibility, I presume, is also why they never make eye contact with me on the street.  I was at Starbucks the other day, standing right in front of the counter.  There was a Chinese woman waiting behind me in line.  The guy at the counter looked directly at her, and took her order.  Once she was done, he acknowledged my existence.  My face was directly in front of his face throughout this process, though our eyes only met once the Chinese woman had been served.

Ghosts come in lots of different colors, not just white.  For example, Nigerians (or other black people) are referred to as “hakgwei” or “black ghost.”  Just like real ghosts, ghosts in Hong Kong can see each other, even when most “people” can’t see us.  So when I walk down the street in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Indian hustlers can see me.  In fact, they see me coming a mile away, “Hello!  Buy a copy watch?”  “Hey buddy, I tailor suit for you, just come into my shop, have a look.”  Chinese people can’t see me, but I’m constantly making eye contact with other ghosts from all over the world.  Excessive eye contact.  And when I accidentally run into a Nigerian, Indian, or European on the street, we say “excuse me” or “sorry” or something like that.  Because we are both ghosts, we can see each other.  Not surprisingly, dogs can see me too, and they pay a lot of attention to me.  I think ghosts must smell different.

At work, it’s a different story.  There I have a title, and a multinational corporation that vouches for my existence.  As a result, people can see me.

I’m not really complaining about all this, just observing.  As a white man who grew up in the United States, I have no business complaining about racism.  I’ve benefited from it my whole life.  Not intentionally, and often I’ve just benefited from the effects of past racism, but I’ve definitely been the beneficiary, not the victim.  Words like “honky” or “cracker” have always seemed more amusing than offensive to me.  But racism feels different when you’re not the dominant ethnic group, and I’m getting a chance to experience that here.  It could be worse, black ghosts are treated with even less respect than white ghosts.  The moral order in Hong Kong: (Chinese) people, white ghosts, all other ghosts, animals, plants (in that order).  I’m not sure what the relative distances between  the points on that scale are….but I’m starting to figure it out.