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.