The Wall

As I sit in my little apartment listening to the HK cabbies wail away on their horns, I’m realizing I’ve hit a wall.  I was warned about this.  It’s part of the adjustment process.  Most expats go through this, I’m told.  At first, the new place is so different, so exotic, so unending interesting that you don’t have time to get bogged down by the annoyances come with any culture and place.  But they’re really starting to build up in me.  I’m not a tourist anymore.  I live here.  Now that I’m a little more invested in the place, it bothers me more when people disrespect it.

The cabbies outside are frustrated.  There’s a delivery truck in the road, and it’s way too big to get around the corner.  So they’re just holding down their horns until it moves.  It’s like they are literally trying to blast it out of the road with sound.  Needless to say, it doesn’t work.   In order to get around this corner, the truck is gonna lurch back and forth, blocking the intersection for twenty minutes or so, and all the honking in the world isn’t gonna make the driver change his mind, nor will it speed him up.  But the cabbies won’t go around, and they won’t stop pounding on their horns.  Through their horns, they’re transmitting their anger into my brain.  And thousands of other brains in the immediate vicinity.

The cabbies are symbolic of my two biggest frustrations in HK.  The first is noise pollution.  The second is the complete disregard for the feelings of strangers.  They’re related.

The auditory environment here is really difficult to deal with.  Besides the constant blare of car horns, there’s construction everywhere.  All the time.  I love music, but I’d rather not wear headphones all of the time that I’m outside.  But that’s what I find myself doing.  At night, I play white noise in my bedroom to drown out the car horns.  During the day, my desk is right next to the window, and they’re doing construction on my building.  They’re doing construction on all the buildings.  All the time.   It feels like they’re drilling directly into my skull.

It’s like every aspect of the environment has been designed to maximize short-term profit, and all other concerns are irrelevant.  When I first moved into my apartment, it had just been remodeled. Whatever products they used were really toxic, and the air in the common areas made me feel sick.  I bet those products were cheap though.  The only time people here seem to think about the impact of the physical environment on human happiness is when it directly relates to profit.  Like, if we make the environment in this bar nicer, it will attract more wealthy customers.  But that’s it.  If you’re not someone who might give me money, then I don’t give a shit about you.  That’s free-market fundamentalism.  If I left the US to get away from that mentality, I moved to the wrong place.

Despite my appreciation for the potential benefits of the Chinese way of walking, it still annoys the hell out of me sometimes.  I have yet to master the the Tao of walking.  Sometimes, in the big crowds, I get in the groove, and it’s fun.  In the morning, when I’m  trying to get somewhere, it’s not fun.  When I’m walking down a narrow sidewalk, and some guy wanders out in front of me, looking up at nothing and milling about as if he’s the only human in the city, it’s annoying.  When he still can’t see me, even though my face is 5 inches from his, it’s aggravating.  When I say “excuse me” right in his ear, and looks around bewildered, and slowly gets out of my way, completely shocked that someone might be trying to use this busy sidewalk for transportation….let’s just say it remains a good thing that I don’t have access to firearms.

This inability to recognize the existence of other people has caused some Europeans I’ve met here to speculate that Asian people have some physical problem with their peripheral vision.  I don’t buy it.  I’ve met too many Asian-Americans who have normal peripheral vision.  This is a cultural difference.  When I was in a toy store last week, I got to watch this cultural difference develop.  In the US or Europe, when a child is standing in the middle of an aisle or hallway, and he’s in someone’s way, his parents will bend over and physically focus his attention on the passing stranger.  They will put their arms on his shoulders, turn him in the direction of the human he’s ignoring, and move him out of the way.  In this way, he learns to be conscious of the existence of others in his immediate environment.  Even when there’s no possibility that they will give him something, he’s still expected to be considerate of their need to get past.  In HK, and in China, children are not corrected in this way.  I made the mistake of walking to the back of this toy store, just cause I was curious what kind of toys they have here.  Once in the back, I had a ridiculously hard time getting out.  Kids just wouldn’t get out of my way, and when I looked to their mother for help, she were just as oblivious to my presence.  When the mom did notice me, she didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with the fact that her children were wandering back and forth, waving their arms, and just generally taking up so much physical space that it was impossible for me to past.  In the US, a mother would put her hands on her child’s arms, and gently force the kid to take up less space.  But here, because I have only the right to the physical space my body is currently physically occupying, this isn’t seen as a problem that a parent should correct.

To avoid the otherwise inevitable #2 segment to this post, let me clarify from the beginning this time.  I remember where I came from, and the grass ain’t greener.  I have no desire to go back to sitting in traffic jams.  When I lived in the US, there were lots of things that annoyed me about the culture of my own culture.  Lots.  But right now, I’m not experiencing American culture, so I’m not venting about it.  I’ll do more of that in my ongoing USA vs. HK segment.  Right now, I need to get over this wall.  I’ve been a level 2 gweilo for too long at this point.  Level 3 is on the other side, I can see it, but this wall is in my way.  Like the cabbies, I’m naively hoping that venting my frustration with the obstruction will eventually force it out of my way.

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4 responses to “The Wall

  1. So somewhat random thing, though the picture of this perpetually busy/crowded place brings it partly to mind, is the treatment of time. The US seems to be a culture of always having to do something and I know that many cultures have much looser treatment of time. Hong Kong would not strike me as such a place.

    I for one kind of like taking mass transit even though it might take me 3-4x as long sometimes because it is a good way to learn patience. It hooks into a natural flow of time rather than an individual hyperspeed.

    • Bondo, in spite of the fast pace, HK definitely has a looser interpretation of time than the US. The US is what anthropologists refer to as a monochronic time culture (as in 12:15 means 12:15). HK is a mildly polychronic time culture. Italy and Mexico are slightly more polychronic than HK, but HK is still on that end of the spectrum. In a polychronic time culture, 12:15 means, 12:10 to 12:30, or so. When people are “late” by US standards, it is often explained that they are on “Hong Kong time.” I was surprised to learn this, as I too would have expected HK to be more on the German, American and Japanese end of the spectrum, but it’s not.

      Mass transit is great here, and it doesn’t really test my patience much. At least not the MTR (the subway system), trains come so often that nobody really worries about whether they’re “on time” or not.

  2. dude, the firearm comment had me rolling, dude.

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

    When I first began my Asian adventures in Taiwan in 1999, I was so overwhelmed with the lights, the noise, the honking, the cabbies who drive every which way, that my brain was often on overload. As the years have gone on I have gotten desensitized to it even though at the most I have only lived 6 months a year in Asia. Taiwan is more like HK than either of them are like mainland China so be thankful and I trust you will get on the other side of the wall soon. For me it took alot of letting go and allowing others to help me. NOT very american habits. But I have learned not to fight the river but to flow with it and mostly, I dont find myself angry much when I am over there now. I also have found earplugs a great accessory to have to sleep at night.

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