Monthly Archives: November 2009

Health Care Update

So I visited the doctor for the first time in HK today.  I have a sinus infection.  Normally, I just wait these things out, but this one had been persisting for a while.  So my coworkers encouraged to see a doctor, and they helped me find one.

When I got there, they didn’t ask me if I could prove that some corporation certified to my right to see a doctor.  They just took my name, my temperature, and some basic information.  There was a wait, but we made the appointment literally 5 minutes ahead of time.  I asked how long it would be, she said a 45 minutes, so I left and came back then.  When I got there, I waited another 5 minutes, and I saw the doctor.  He checked me out, listened to what I had to say, asked me some questions, and prescribed me some decongestants.

This is western medicine, “Chinese style.”  Chinese style means lots of different little pills, rather than one pill that has all those ingredients.  Chinese people trust medicine like this more, because it is more similar to traditional Chinese medicine.  So the placebo effects are better this way.  The decongestants seem to be working about as well as what I would get in the US, but don’t make me as drowsy or jittery.  The little pills make it seem gentler…

The doctor didn’t prescribe any antibiotics, which I respect.  I’m not that sick.  But he told me that if it gets worse or persists, that he can give me some.  The whole visit, with the drugs, cost me $160 HK.  That’s about 20 bucks.  Less than a haircut.  The whole deal seemed entirely reasonable.  As an American, I must admit that I was somewhat flabbergasted by the reasonableness of it all.   No political power players politely picking my pocket.  And no perpetual payments.

I wish the Democrats well in their attempt to tame the middle-men, even though what is really needed is to gut them.  But I fear that the prostitutes in the Party are permanently paid-off by the same power players pocketing my payments.

I am officially not afraid to go to the doctor anymore!  Well, I wouldn’t go that far…better google what’s in those pills…

USA vs. HK #2: Health Care

I don’t mean to spoil the suspense, but this is an easy one.  HK has one of the healthiest populations in the world, easily beating the US in basically all measures of health.  HK is #2 in the world in life expectancy, and the US is #46.  HK has the 4th lowest infant mortality rate in the world.  The US has the 41st lowest.  And keep in mind that the diet here is not exactly what I would call healthy (though I’ll grant that it’s probably better than the average American diet.)  And HK air is fairly toxic (more on that soon).  So there are confounding factors on both sides to be sure, I could cite other indicators, but I won’t bore people with anymore numbers unless someone actually disagrees with me here.  We can get into the details in the comments section.

It’s true that rich people in the US have excellent health care, but that’s not the standard I’m using.  If I were a rich person, I might see things differently.  But I’m not, so I don’t.  If rich people want to comment and tell me why I wasn’t good enough to deserve access to basic health care in the US, feel free.  To me, fairness is an important concern when we’re talking about who gets to live and who dies.  As bad as the US is on important measures like infant mortality, it fails the fairness test even more miserably.

For the first time in my adult life, I don’t have to worry about an injury or illness forcing me into bankruptcy.  Health care isn’t free here, but it would cost around 12 US dollars for me to go to the emergency room.

The major objection Americans are likely to have to the health care systems in HK, Europe or anywhere in the developed world is the waiting.  It’s true that people in HK often have to wait to see a doctor if they have a non-emergency illness and want to go to a public hospital.  But doctors are the ones who decide who gets health care first, and they decide based on medical need, not cost or insurance company decree.  Private hospitals here function like private hospitals in the US, no crazy long waiting or anything, and excellent quality of care…except everything is roughly one-tenth the price.

But this has already been way too much discussion for such an easy contest.  The winner is HK.

Keep in mind, I’m writing this on November 19th, 2009.  It’s possible that things could improve in the US.  But I’m highly skeptical that the Democrats will be able to pass a bill that cuts the blood-sucking insurance company middle-men out of the system.  That’s what would need to happen if the US health care system is going to make this contest competitive.  I don’t see that happening any time soon.

The score so far: USA 1, HK 1.

USA vs. HK #1: Racism

A friend of mine came across a short essay by Andrew Sullivan called The Racism in China, and suggested that it might be an appropriate topic for me to write about.  Since racism has been lurking in the background of many of my posts, I guess I should take the bait and discuss it more directly.  I was going to start off this new USA vs. HK series with something a little easier, like health care or the environment, but I’ve haven’t been stirring up as much controversy as I’d like anyway, so here goes…

Much of what Sullivan says is consistent with my experiences both in mainland China and in HK.  Chinese feelings toward Westerners are definitely complex; there is a mixture of respect and disdain.  I’m considered somewhat barbarous and uncultured (and rightly so).  But I’m also seen as clever and knowledgeable (often undeservedly).  The complexity of the term gweilo is an illustration of this ambivalence.  Gweilo is not a racial slur in the sense that an American would think of one, nor is it a purely positive or even purely neutral term.  Like most things in HK, the meaning of the term gweilo depends on context.

But in general, being a gweilo in HK is hardly something to complain about.  There are advantages with women, and there are the corresponding disadvantages with men (mostly just a few nasty looks on the trains so far).

Sullivan also mentions that Chinese feelings toward non-white and non-Asian minorities (“blacks, browns and reds”) are considerably less complex.  Here, Chinese racism approximates white American racism; racist Chinese people see themselves as racially and culturally superior to dark skinned people.

But Sullivan seems to be drawing a distinction between the uniformly tolerant Americans and the uniformly intolerant Chinese.  Here, he completely misrepresents reality.  There is racism and ethnocentrism in both the US and China.  The difference is a matter of degree.  And particularly in HK, which has attitudes the mainland is likely progressing towards, most educated young people are not racist.  Do they stereotype?  Of course, but I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t.  I don’t see a lot of racial hatred here, and I don’t see (open) expression of racial superiority.  It’s pretty similar to the US in these respects.  In fact, I see much less than I saw in Alabama before I left (the ride from Birmingham to Atlanta on the airport shuttle was quite educational, to say the least).  But I can’t understand conversations between two Chinese people, and my minority status doesn’t make me privy to the kinds of conversations I heard as a white person in a group of white people in Alabama.  So like all my observations here, these are biased by what I can understand.

Still, there are differences that I can detect.  Having worked in the same industry in both the US and HK, things are definitely different here when it comes to race.  In Boulder, if a parent actually requested a white teacher, we would absolutely refuse to accommodate such a request.  And everyone knows that, so even if some Boulder mom really was that racist, she would no better than to ask.  In HK, we get this request fairly often, and though my co-workers think it’s ridiculous, racist, and unreasonable, and they push against it to a certain extent, in the end they generally find the mom her white faced tutor.  My predecessor was Indian, and he experienced several incidents of racism: people assumed he wasn’t qualified to teach classes that required native English ability because he didn’t “look” like he was a native speaker, and some students just made up excuses not to work with him.  But generally it’s the older generation that holds these beliefs.  The cops in HK, like the cops in the US, have their favorite ethnic groups to target: here it’s mostly South Asians they mess with.

But when speaking of the US, Sullivan forgets his own history, and present.  It wasn’t that long ago that the US had all the problems he currently ascribes to China.  And though the US is far from perfect when it comes to race relations, we’ve come a long way.  We aren’t the only ones capable of such progress.  Sullivan assumes that Chinese racism is a fixed characteristic of their culture.  He writes, “It is thus hard to imagine China welcoming millions of hard-working Nigerians and Bangladeshis with open arms. This could change over the next couple of decades as China’s labor shortage grows acute. I wouldn’t bet on it.”  Why not?  It’s been changing in most parts of the world, why not in China?  (As for his prediction that China will have an “acute” labor shortage in the near future…I wouldn’t bet on it.  But I’ll save my discussion of technological unemployment for another day.)  And what planet does this guy live on?  Is he under the impression that Americans are all welcoming hard-working Mexicans with open arms?  Has he seen Fox News?

I love my country.  Now more than ever.  I’m proud that people of different backgrounds can live, love and learn together in the US.  I’m proud that my identity as an American is broader and more inclusive than just my ethnicity or race.  But like the Chinese, not all Americans are so cosmopolitan in their love of country.

HK is in between China’s past and China’s future.  As the planet becomes more globalized, and people move around more and more, egocentricity will continually decline.  I’d say the Chinese are moving in this direction at least as fast as the Europeans.  This idea of “the West” being ahead of “the East” seems particularly misguided, given Europe’s recent troubles with immigrants.  Hopefully, China, HK, the US and the world continue on this track.

So I addressed the issue, and I tried to do so evenhandedly, from limited information.  I encourage comments and debate, particularly from anyone who has seen these issues from a perspective different than my own.

This is also the first in what I intend to make a regular series on my blog: USA vs. HK, so I have to decide on a winner.  The winner in the “who’s less ethnocentric” contest, as Andrew Sullivan framed it, is the USA.  Not a big surprise, but it’s a lot closer than Sullivan implies.  And it’s a matter of degree, and neither society is static or homogenous when it comes this stuff.  But if I have to choose a winner, I choose the USA on this one.  Parts of the US would surely lose to HK, but to be fair, I’m comparing HK to the places I’ve lived in the US (places like Madison, Denver, Boulder, and Minneapolis, not Louisiana and Mississippi).  That will be my comparison throughout this series.  I think it’s a reasonable comparison; after all, HK doesn’t represent mainland China any more than Madison and Denver represent the US.

The main reason for the US victory here is the intolerance of racism by non-racists.  Both countries have laws officially outlawing racial discrimination of any kind.  The difference is that the US (at least my parts of the US) has a cultural norm that reinforces the law against discrimination, and this completely changes the whole equation.  That is one area where I see a qualitative difference.  By being more intolerant, the US wins the battle of tolerance.

The Tao of Walking

In HK, there’s one thing every Westerner complains about.  The seemingly oblivious way Chinese people walk around in public spaces can be very aggravating.  Indeed, it’s been a major source of mini-temper tantrums throughout my  days so far.  This is one area where it’s easy for foreigners to feel like the Chinese are just flawed.  They are simply inconsiderate to strangers; they don’t even acknowledge the existence of others when walking down the street.  But I think there’s more to it than that.  There must be.

Chinese people have been living continuously in cities for perhaps longer than any ethnic group on Earth.  And they’ve been doing it thousands of years longer than Anglo-Saxon Europeans.  HK has one of the densest populations in the world, yet there is virtually no violent crime.  It’s hot as hell and twice as humid in the summer, yet people don’t seem to want to kill each other like in the US.  It’s safe to say the Chinese have a few things figured out when it comes to getting along in dense urban areas.

When Chinese people acknowledge my existence, they are unfailingly polite.  This politeness requires energy, and it requires patience (and dealing with foreigners always requires more patience than dealing with culturally competent adults).  Since energy and patience are things humans possess in limited supply, it just doesn’t make sense to acknowledge everyone’s existence.  The population density is just way too great for than; and in China it has been that way for thousands of years.  One can incur no immediate moral obligations toward people one cannot see.  The Chinese way of walking is the product of thousands of years of cultural evolution, and it’s not to be taken lightly.  It may very well have many positive effects, and it may be the future.

As a level 2 gweilo, I thought I had it all figured out, including the walking thing.  But what a gweilo learns as he begins to progress beyond level 2 is that he doesn’t have anything figured out.  At level 2, my walking strategy was basically to go with my instincts, and exaggerate them.  So I walked like a Westerner, except with a little extra swagger.  I put on my head phones, bumped some hip hop, and walked to the rhythm of the music, not the rhythm of the city.  I looked directly at people, and essentially intimidated them into getting out of my way.  This is the way of the bully.  I’ll do it my way, and force 7 million people to adjust to me.  To a point, it works.  A swagger gets noticed more than a hesitant walk, and people did stay out of my way to a certain extent.  But it only works with people who are going the opposite way; people in front of me who are going the same way don’t see me and therefore aren’t bullied into getting out of my way.  And it upset the whole flow of the sidewalk, which often created traffic jams that I would get stuck in.  If I’m really going to exist in this city, I need to adapt.  My gas bladder issues are recurring. Back to beginner’s mind.

On my last two days off, I devoted some time to practice walking.  I went to all the most pedestrian packed areas, and the ones with the most Chinese, the fewest foreigners.  I went to Causeway Bay, to Mong Kok, and to Sham Shui Po.  I observed.  And I practiced.  I’m still practicing.

What I’m practicing is walking without ever looking directly at people.  I look up, I look down, or to the side, but I don’t make eye contact with strangers.  In the process, I’ve discovered why the way of the bully only gets you so far.  When I looked directly at Chinese people on the street, there were two likely outcomes: they would either just totally get out of my way, or (more likely) they would just look further away from me.  By forcing people to actively, not passively, avert their gaze, I made it really difficult for them to see me, even peripherally.  And there were collisions.  And traffic jams.  So I’m working on being like water.  Going with the flow.  By never focusing on any individual, I get a better sense of the crowd.  I see the empty space more, the path of least resistance.  The way of water is at least as effective as the way of the bully when it comes to getting down the street quickly.  And it’s much easier on my emotional state.

Though the way of water is not aggressive, it’s not passive either.  When I first got here, before I discovered the way of the bully, I was very hesitant in my walking.  Constantly trying to avoid people, I looked at people and tried to anticipate which way they would go so I could avoid them.  Hesitant is the worst way to walk in HK.   When I tried to be polite by my standards, I just got in the way.  The failure of this supposedly deferential walking style leads many foreigners to adopt the way of the bully.  It’s really funny, nowhere in the world will you see white people walk with more swagger than in HK.  It’s like everybody’s bumping Biggie.  The hyper-aggressive and the hyper-passive both involve too much attentiveness to individuals.  The way of water is ego-less and self-centered.  As long as I’m going with the flow, nobody sees me and I see nobody.  When I see no individuals, I incur no moral obligations.  As a result, I just go to the empty space.  I don’t think about whether others are going for the same space or not.  I can’t see them and they can’t see me.  And it just works.  I’m more synchonized with the city (sometimes), and with a little more practice I may be ready to start moving toward level 3.  But for now, the terrible twos continue.

Soul in the City, part 2

Since it seems to have become the custom in my my sequels, let me start by correcting a potential misinterpretation of my last post.  Chinese people go soul too, just as much as anyone else.  But they just don’t show it to me as much as other people do here, like the Filipinas, the Indians, the Europeans, or the Africans.  Everybody got soul, but culturally, some people show it more than others, that’s all.  And if Chinese people think I’m making fun of them for being a little reserved in public, keep in mind that I’m a somewhat shy white guy from Wisconsin.  I’ve been on the other end of that stereotype.

But even as a white guy from Wisconsin, HK is a bit of a shock in terms of the lack of emotionality I see on the street.  And it’s taking some getting used to.   That’s why the Filipinas are such a reprieve, they remind me of home.

I’ll admit it, I was that white kid who was fascinated with black culture.  I always secretly wanted to be a minority, but Irish was about the best I could muster, and that totally doesn’t cut it in the US.  In HK, I finally got my wish.  I am definitely a minority, though I’m definitely not oppressed at all.  In fact, if there is one group of people I’m almost completely invisible to, it’s the police.  This comes in handy; my invisibility makes it really easy for me to jump police barricades undetected.  Oppressed or not, as a minority, I find other minorities easier to understand, as general rule.  For one thing, they’re a lot more likely to speak English to each other, but it’s more than that, minority culture seems more transparent here.  As a result, my understanding of minorities here is deeper than my understanding of the Chinese.

I’m working on that last part.  I’ve recently gotten to know a few Chinese people on a more personal level, and their depth of character shows up a lot more in one-on-one converstations.  Not a big surprise, I know….but this culture is thick.  It’s dense and complex, it’s unspoken and unwritten.  But these are things that I really can’t speak of until the gweilo reaches level 3.   And I’m not there yet.  In fact, I recently realized I’m not quite as adept at walking as I thought.  More on that soon.


Soul in the City

Compared to the US, the correlation between income and happiness is negative and steep in HK.


Just one of many Filipina gatherings in Central on Sunday.

At the top of the happiness hierarchy are the Filipina housekeepers.  Sunday is the housekeeper’s day off, and every Sunday they come to Central en masse, put cardboard down on the walkways, and eat, talk and be merry.  Big, beautiful smiles and hearty laughs all around.  I have Sunday off too; so every Sunday that I’ve been here so far, I’ve gone to Central to spend some time with the Filipinas, even if only for a half-hour on my way somewhere else.  When Filipinos bump into me on the street, it’s completely different from when a Chinese person does so.  When a Chinese person bumps into me, they just keep moving.  No big deal, my gas bladder adjusted to that a long time ago.  But when Filipinos, and particularly Filipinas, bump into me, they always turn around, say sorry and give me a big, genuine smile.  I love them.  (It helps that they seem to love me too, I pretty much never get hit on in bars, except by Filipinas.)  The Filipinas in Central bring me back to life every week.  I don’t know what I’d do without them.  Filipinas got soul.


A rare a status-free scene in Causeway Bay

At the bottom are the bankers.  These miserable assholes wear thick, black business suits in the hot, humid summer, and drive manual-transmission Ferraris down some of the busiest, most pedestrian packed streets I’ve ever seen.  They spend 80-90 hours per week working feverishly to transfer as much wealth as possible up the economic ladder.  And somehow they seem to feel unfulfilled.  Go figure.

In between are people like me.  We wear a “business casual” wardrobe.  In HK, this means wearing long pants and long sleeves even when it’s way too hot to be comfortable in such clothes.  It’s certainly true that the correlation between misery and income is strongest in the summer.  But even as the weather gets more bearable, there just aren’t many smiles amongst the middle class.  My multi-cultural office actually has a really great, amiable atmosphere.  But I think we’re actually the exception, not the rule.


Middle-class malaise

The construction workers and other manual laborers get to wear whatever they want, and this usually means wearing shorts and no shirt, and making the bankers and I feel insecure about our body fat.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the money to buy a Ferrari to compensate, so I’m trying to work out more.  Not really because of the construction workers, but because I do feel fat in HK (and I didn’t really feel that way at all in Boulder, which is one of the thinnest cities in the US).

Even though I believe this negative correlation does exist, there are certainly outliers, obviously.  I’m just saying that if you were to actually graph people’s happiness vs. income on x and y coordinates; it’s definitely not what standard economic theory would predict.  The homeless people seem pretty miserable; though it’s no worse than US cities, and everyone has access to health care here that’s so cheap it’s practically free, so that mitigates their misery a bit.  And there are people here who make good livings doing engaging, creative work.  This is not a linear data set, to be sure (in either the positive or the negative direction).  But I think that the extreme unhappiness and extreme wealth of the bankers pulls the slope downward.

Outside of my office, I rarely see Chinese people smile unless there’s a camera pointed at them.  I rarely see anger either.  Compared to Westerners, the Chinese have strong social taboos against showing emotion in public; this is seen as something that children do.  I’m sure that part of my experience is that I just don’t know many Chinese people (besides my co-workers) well enough to see them really smile.  And since the taboo against public displays of emotion doesn’t apply to minorities as much, I see them smile more.

It shouldn’t be surprising that as a level 2 gweilo, I’m also expected to show emotion from time to time.  Which is good, because I’ve been emotional lately.  I don’t know why, but I get choked up a lot in this city (and not just because of the pollution).  For example, when I was standing on a street corner recently, a bus went by belching black smoke.  A man with a baby carriage quickly tried to turn around and get his baby away from the smoke.  But he didn’t make it, and the smoke completely enveloped the baby carriage.  The gesture was so beautiful, and the pollution so ugly, I was emotionally overloaded.  I’ve always been a pretty emotional, Scotch-Irish type of guy, but it’s different in HK.  It’s like I have permanent PMS.

Considering that it’s easily a top 5 World City, Hong Kong is deeply insecure, and it may be this insecurity that causes some of the status-obsession, and its consequent misery.  HK has NYC envy.  There’s a Times Square, but no Times.  There’s also a SoHo (South of Hollywood Road instead of South of Houston Street).  HK Times Square is pretty lame by the way, but SoHo is a very cool neighborhood, very popular with the gweilo.  In addition to NYC envy, HK has Shanghaiphobia.  HK is worried that Shanghai will usurp its role as the economic and cultural capital of Greater China.  Unlike NYC envy, there’s actually good reason for Shanghaiphobia, since Shanghai is also a deep water port, it’s at the mouth of the Yangtze river, it’s closer to Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul, and it has roughly three times HK’s population.

Because of the English language, HK has an inherent advantage relative to Shanghai, particularly when it comes to trade with India and English-speaking parts of Africa (notably Nigeria and Kenya).


English bridges the cultural gap in the multicultural Chungking Mansions

An ABF(Australian Born Filipino) recently said to me that these days, the Indian firms are just paying local Chinese to translate language and culture for them in Shanghai.  People are cheaper in China.  But for trade that’s done mainly between small groups of friends and family members (like the mobile phone trade in India and Africa), HK retains a huge advantage because of the English language.  The following is not a reference, but a link.

All this insecurity, both global and personal, may be driving the rampant consumerism in HK.  Much more than the US, people wear their status on their sleeve.  When bankers go to the bar, even on Sunday, they dress like bankers.  What’s the point of being a banker if nobody knows you’re a banker?  Where I come from, mostly Madison, Wisconsin and Denver/Boulder, Colorado, this kind of thing is frowned upon.  Because so many highly successful people walk around in shorts and a t-shirt, status isn’t as easily observable. It’s a big change for me.  I find myself compelled to buy expensive clothes that I would have laughed at back in the States.  It’s not a healthy thing to spend lots of time and mental energy on, but it’s happening to me.

Besides the twin pillars of cheap people and excellent infrastructure, China’s growing hegemony in Asia is fueled by its consumerism.  Asian countries like Japan and South Korea are increasingly dependent on China, not just as a source for cheap goods, but as market for their own products.  And if HK wants to play this game, it needs to consume at a Chinese level.  And China is really catching up to HK in this area, quickly.  One problem for HK is that their citizens tend to prefer well made products over cheaper ones that have to be replaced quickly.  This is a problem in a hyper-capitalist society.  The solution is to encourage status obsession.

But the real reason HK won’t completely lose out to Shanghai is it’s diversity.  And it’s relevant that this diversity is what keeps a foreigner like me sane.  When the status-obsessed hyper-materialism of this place starts to weigh me down, it’s always the diversity that lifts me back up.  Sometimes it lifts my spirits, as with my beloved Filipinas, but sometimes it literally lifts my body as well: it has generally been minorities of various kinds who have taken me up into the world above the street.  It’s this diversity that gives the city it’s vibrancy, and it’s cultural edge, and it’s because of this diversity that HK will always be more attractive to foreigners than Shanghai could ever be.