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.



5 responses to “Level 2 Gweilo (The Terrible Twos)

  1. Well done. In my opinion, taking buses in a foreign country is a very good indication of real immersion.

  2. Thanks Joe. I agree about taking buses. I’ve always been reluctant to do so in foreign countries because it’s so difficult to tell where they’re gonna go. I still have that problem here from time to time, to be honest. But the signs are pretty good here, and as long as I recognize one of the locations the bus is stopping at, I get on and it works out just fine. Now as far as real immersion goes, that’s still a work in progress.

  3. Good to hear you are moving along so fast. Living as a foreigner, I always felt I would gain a lot of knowledge or speech then plane off and do or say the same things for a couple of weeks, then realize the repetition, then look to progress more.
    Just back from my honeymoon at my old home away from home. As a tourist Frenchys really treat you like dirt. There where a couple of times I felt like jumping up and tossing a couple people around. Then I thought (actually my wife told me), “mike, you are a foreigner here. Don’t make a scene.” When I look back on it I should of just tossed the table onto them and not actually physically tossed them.

    • I wouldn’t say I’m moving very fast at all. In reality, I’m 31 years old. In the metaphor, I’m two. Considering that I live in a city where my native language is one of the two official languages, I’d say level 2 isn’t particularly fast. I’ve been here a month and a half now. The very beginning of “adulthood” is 16 levels away.

      As for the French…they may feel superior in France…but they’re in pretty sad shape around here. Let me just say this; in a month and a half in HK, I’ve met approximately 5-6 people who couldn’t communicate with me in English, and two of them were French. It’s sad to hear that the French are still treating Americans like crap; I sorta thought Obama might help with that. Oh well, I’m still willing to go to France, but I’m ain’t wearin’ no Canadian flags while I’m there. We subsidize their health care by paying for their defense against the Russians, and they have the nerve to feel superior to US because our health care system sucks and we spend too much money on the military. I’m not a patriot…I’m just sayin’.

  4. a teacher who has been in asia for ten years

    I”d say you are doing very well to get to level 2 in six weeks. it is also a floating status. up a level down again. occasionally up to even a level 6 accidentially with amazement, then crash back to level 1 again. try it mostly with your right brain and then process it in dream time. then try to make sense of it on your blog with the left brain that puts things into blogs and we will all be amazed. your progress is very interesting to follow.

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