Category Archives: Metaphorical Travel Diaries

Gweilometer: Island Line 4-5 and beyond

Originally published at Libertines Pub

Wan Chai: This is one of those places that my gweilometer is more honest about than I am. The mix of pubs and dirty strip clubs make parts of Wan Chai feel like the bad part of an American city. But the pubs are too nice, and grime doesn’t lead to violent crime, so it’s not like home after all. The pubs are gweilo-friendly, a little too gweilo friendly. Same goes for the Chinese Restaurants. My gweilometer is set to prefer a slightly higher level of cultural authenticity: something in-between sweet and sour pork and thousand year old egg. Wan Chai certainly has plenty to offer both ends of that spectrum, but just not quite enough in my authenticity-band. Wan Chai and Sheung Wan are more in-between Central and, say, Mong Kok on this spectrum, but Wan Chai feels like it’s trying too hard in it’s gweilo-friendliness, with scores of Irish pubs and a Chinese restaurant called The American. We North American gweilo like our gweilo-friendliness to feel a little more natural than this. Average gweilometer reading: 84.435

Causweay Bay: This was the first place I landed in HK. My company apparently thought this would be the perfect place to put a fresh off the airplane American gweilo. Note to Chinese people: when arranging accommodations for your gweilo friends and colleagues, do not put them in Causeway Bay unless you’re sure that they’re super materialistic. They’re likely to be completely overwhelmed by the confusing street layout, congestion, pollution, and hyper-consumerism, and they probably won’t understand the status-message you’re sending by choosing some of the most expensive real estate in HK for their hotel. You have to really love shopping to love Causeway Bay, and I hate shopping. I notice some French people using their European gweilometers are getting higher readings than I am. It seems that their gweilometers are calibrated to give high readings in places where fashion is a priority. It’s places like Causeway Bay that allow significant proportions of the populations of Paris and Milan to be employed in the fashion industry, tricking Chinese people into buying clothes they don’t need is big business, almost as big as tricking them into smoking cigarettes and eating fast food. My gweilometer is overheating; it wasn’t built to handle this kind of thing, and it’s nearly impossible to find a bar to cool it down. This is why I can never stay in Causeway Bay for more than a few hours…so let’s get back on the MTR. Average gweilometer reading: 54.312

Beyond Causeway Bay: The gweilo-map doesn’t have many entries East of Causeway Bay. I understand that some gweilo live in North Point, or Quarry Bay, but I think their motivation to live there comes from the fact that those places are affordable, and have an MTR station. Using some of the special features on my North American gweilometer, I’m able to detect a burrito stand of some kind in Fortress Hill, but nothing else of note. Maybe I need a more sensitive gweilometer; they do get better with age.

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Gweilometer: Island Line 1-3

Oringinally published at The Libertines Pub.

A gweilometer is a device that gweilo use to make themselves more comfortable in non-gweilo territory.  Among other things, gweilometers can rate locations on a a 1-100 scale, allowing gweilo to find gweilo-friendly zones when they’re too overwhelmed by neon, foreign characters, and MSG to navigate by sight.  Not all gweilometers are alike: North American gweilometers come with different inputs and feature packages than do European or Australian gweilometers.  Furthermore, gweilometers can be individually calibrated, and my gweilometer is set to my specifications. Other gweilometers may not give identical readings.

This is the first time I’ve used my gweilometer, so I’m gonna start with something familiar.  Let’s hop on the Island Line in Sheung Wan, and head east.

Sheung Wan: According to my gweilometer, Sheung Wan is a pretty desirable place to live.  Like many places on the north side of HK Island, my gweilometer gives higher readings as I walk uphill from the water.  Within walking distance are good restaurants, a few nice neighborhood-type bars, some parks and small green spaces.  The cheap Cantonese restaurants are greasy, tasty and gweilo-friendly (English menu, not too many weird animal parts).  But much of the appeal of Sheung Wan is that it’s close to Central and the Mid-levels, with slightly lower rent.  So let’s move away from the dried seafood smell, and head to Central.  Average gweilometer reading: 88.425

Central: My gweilometer points me in too many directions at once, but the strongest signal comes from the escalator.  Once I get on the escalator, my gweilometer kicks it up a notch (you know how gweilo feel about walking).  The Mid-levels in general give some of the highest readings I’ve seen so far.  Good European and Indian food, and established bars that aren’t trying too hard.  It’s no surprise that my gweilometer is getting giddy; this has got to be one of the most gweilo-friendly places in all of East Asia.  At this point, their are only two inputs my North American gweilometer has that really aren’t getting enough action: hip hop, and Mexican food.  As I move up the escalator, my gweilometer emits a warning buzz around SoHo (I’ve calibrated it to warn me when prices rise above my day-to-day range).  So I dive back down to the MTR, headed for Admiralty.  Average gweilometer reading: 95.733

Admiralty: Arriving at Admiralty, my gweilometer takes a big plunge from it’s reading in Central.  There’s shopping, and offices, and more shopping.  Just as an experiment, I set my gweilometer to “banker” and the reading shoots way up.  When I restore my original settings, it falls again.  Not really a bad place in any particular way, but in the shopping mall that is HK, Admiralty does very little to get my gweilometer going.  I’m tempted by the variety of Chinese restaurants, but my warning buzz goes off again.  Average gweilometer reading: 71.251

Back on the Island Line, as I head toward Wan Chai my gweilometer needle starts to point north again, but that will have to wait for next time.

Escape to Lamma Island

Originally published at Libertines Pub

I moved from Sheung Wan to Lamma Island over the weekend.  I have a love/hate relationship with Sheung Wan, Central, and the north side of HK Island in general.  Sheung Wan has a great energy to it, particularly around 8pm when I get off work.  And it’s nice to be so close to Central and the mid-levels.  But now that I’ve escaped to Lamma, I can finally be honest with myself about the negatives in the Sheung Wan equation.

During the day, the city wears on me. The noise of the car horns and construction drive pound away at my brain all day. Walking in Sheung Wan is a constant hassle, as I have to be vigilant for both speeding cars and stagnant pedestrians. And nobody smiles unless there’s a camera pointed at their face (Filipinas are the only exception to this rule). Five months was long enough for me to figure out that this is just not the kind of environment I can spend all my time in. Nobody likes mosquitoes, but there’s something disconcerting about an place that’s so hostile to life that cockroaches are practically the only insects that can survive there.

I still work in Sheung Wan, but now I get to go on vacation everyday. On Lamma, I hear birds rather than car horns. I smell flowers instead of diesel smoke. People smile, and dance. And this is joyful dancing, not the dancing-as-status-display that you see in Lan Kwai Fong. People actually go out in public without trying desperately to look “trendy.” Maybe this has something to do with the fact that Lamma is completely free of the oppressive advertising that poisons hongkongers minds. There are packs of mixed-breed dogs and mixed-race children happily roaming the streets. It’s my kind of place.

But for all it’s bohemian charms, Lamma is still the SAR. On the surface, it appears to be the only place in HK where people have some respect for the environment. But there are random piles of garbage along the trails: old toilets and worn out couches dropped in the middle of green spaces. People still look at me like I’m an alien just because I don’t want them to give me two pieces of garbage with every purchase. The seafood restaurants, packed with hypocritical hippies, are obviously unsustainable. Those diesel powered Lamma-vehicles are annoying, and make an unreasonable amount of noise. There’s still a ridiculous amount of loud construction everywhere. (Why do roads in HK seem to require 10 times as much maintenance, at 10 times the volume, as roads in the US or Europe?) Then there are the three smokestacks, reminding everyone that this isn’t really a remote fishing village, more like a fake tourist version of one.

The biggest drawback is the fact that the last ferry for Lamma leaves at 12:30. But if it were more connected to the city, it would be more like the city. So that drawback is part of the charm. I’m just happy to be able to take my headphones off. And breathe.

Diaspora

On several occasions, Chinese people have told me that I “look Australian.”  At first, I thought this made no sense, how could I, someone from a nation of immigrants, “look” like someone else from a different nation of immigrants?  Surely nobody could “look Australian” anymore than anybody could “look American,” right?  It turns out that both have distinctive looks, at least to the discerning Chinese eye, and that “Australian” is a much more consistent look than “American.”

I guess it makes sense that I look Australian, since many Ozzies are members of the Irish diaspora, as am I.  I find I get along pretty well with the Ozzies, and that’s largely due to the shared values and culture that the US and Australia share.  But also, they look like me.  And around here, I notice that.  And noticing that gets me thinking about the history of why I look like these people from the other side of the world.  And makes me feel more connected to that history.

My family tree has potato famine written all over it.  This genocidal act by the British empire scattered the Irish people all over the world, and sent my ancestors to Pennsylvania.  Others, the famine sent to Australia, Canada, and even HK.  I think we still carry the legacy of this violence in our genes.  Perhaps that helps explain why we’re known for our petulant personalities, and why I don’t deal well with bankers.  Put it down to genetic PTSD.  Survivors of genocide are not necessarily reluctant to perpetrate it on others, and potato famine survivors and their descendants certainly went on to participate in genocidal acts against Native Americans (and perhaps something similar is happening with the descendants of holocaust survivors in Israel).  Recent research in epigenetics indicates that it may be possible for certain genes to become activated by traumatic histories like these, with unknown consequences for the potential for world peace.

In the US, many white people feel like they lack ethnicity, and I was one of those white people.  I felt like a generic white American with no culture of my own, beyond that supplied to me by my TV.  But now that I’ve regained my ethnicity, I understand the desire to be around people like myself.  It’s not that I don’t get along with Chinese people, but I spend all day with them.   Sometimes it’s nice to be with people who understand me not through something they learned about my culture from a book or the media, but because their culture is my culture.  It’s nice not to have to explain everything.  It’s nice not to need everything explained to me.  I now understand why the minority kids often self-segregated themselves at lunch time.

High Fidelity

High fidelity, or hi-fi, reproduction is a term used by home stereo listeners and home audio enthusiasts to refer to high-quality reproduction of sound or images that are very faithful to the original performance.

Reproduction, or replication, is a definitional characteristic of life.  DNA, cells, organisms, and cultures are constantly replicating themselves into the next generation.  Hi fi and lo fi replication have different advantages and disadvantages depending on the context.  With DNA and cellular reproduction, hi fi is usually preferred.  I’m no cellular biologist, but I think lo fi replication at this level is often called cancer.

At the level of organisms, particularly those with long life span, lo fi begins to assert its advantages.  Compared to asexual reproduction, sexual reproduction is lo fi.  Because sexual reproduction creates organisms that are not exact copies of their parents, it allows for faster evolution.  As the world’s largest ethnic group by a wide margin, the Han Chinese are the best replicators of our species.  In Darwinian terms, the Han are most successful primates on the planet, making up roughly 20% of the global human population.  They are the master replicators, and it’s not just their genes that they excel at reproducing.

Culture is also spread through replication, and the basic unit of cultural replication is the family.  And at this level as well, the Han are the master replicators.  Confucian cultures stress the importance of family, and of loyalty and obedience to one’s parents.  Chinese people often live with their parents until they get married, and there seems to be a good deal of (overt) harmony between parents and children here.

In the US, things are different.  Much of the popular culture encourages children to rebel against their parents, and living with one’s parents beyond the age of 18 is frowned upon.  Because US culture has changed so much from generation to generation, there is often stress between the generations, much more than there is in HK.

But this inter-generational harmony has it’s price.  Compared to American culture, Chinese culture evolves slowly.  When Chinese culture does change, it is usually dictated from above (this is consistent with the Confucian ethic of obedience to authority).  One of the positive legacies of Chairman Mao is the status of women in modern Chinese society.  In China before Mao, women were subservient to men.  But Mao thought women should be equal, and one of the lasting impacts of the Cultural Revolution is a high degree of economic equality between Chinese men and Chinese women, at least compared to most places on Earth.  This contrasts sharply with Japan and Korea, where the old Confucian ideals of female subordination to males still has a big effect on the culture.  In HK, the British also emphasized a good deal of gender equality, so when HK’s rulers switched from London to Beijing, the status of women remained unchanged.

Fidelity also means loyalty.  In Chinese, like in European languages, the term is connected to the loyalty of subjects to authority.  Chinese culture can change, but this tends not to happen unless authorities dictate that change.  American culture, with it’s emphasis on rebellion against authority, individualism, and adaptability to different environments, evolves in a way that’s much more organic, more bottom-up.  Top-down cultural change depends on individual rationality, which is highly fallible.  Bottom-up cultural change responds more to environmental pressures that large numbers of people are feeling, and is more inherently adapted to new environmental conditions.  Many minds converging is more organic.

Most cultures are adapted to very specific environments.  Han culture, like American culture, has features that allow it to exist over a large, geographically diverse area.  In terms of geography, the US and China are remarkably similar.  Yet one culture has adapted to this geography over thousands of years and the other has adapted to it over hundreds of years.  This difference in time span requires different cultural traits.  If I can generalize to an absurd level of abstraction: American culture succeeds through adaptability while Chinese culture succeeds through complexity.

For the sake of comparison, the Americans first: during a span of roughly 400 years, the United States evolved from a few European settlements along the East Coast into a coherent, continental nation state with a fairly homogeneous culture.  At first, this was done by importing European culture into North America, but as settlers moved west, and the environment began to differ sharply from that of Europe, American culture began to diverge just as sharply: it readily adopted traits from non-European cultures, and it invented new cultural traits.  An emphasis on individualism and self-sufficiency began to replace the more communal and static European values.

Chinese culture is even more communal and static than European culture.  Even though Chinese culture changes less quickly than American culture, it has several features that allow it to exist in disparate environments.  For example, Chinese cuisine is incredibly diverse.  Chinese people eat basically any plant or animal that can provide sustenance.  And they eat any edible part of those plants and animals.  And “edible” is defined quite broadly, by my standards.  Chinese cuisine is incredibly diverse compared to European cuisine.  All European cultures eat some kind of bread, and some kind of cheese.  Chinese cuisine has no such commonalities.  And, no, it’s not true that all Chinese people traditionally eat rice.  Before food became mass produced, it had to come primarily from the local environment.  The land near Beijing is not suitable to rice growing, which is why Beijing has only recently started to eat rice as a staple.

Another example of a Chinese cultural trait that has helped Chinese culture exist over such a wide geographical area is the Chinese system of writing, and that system is incredibly complex compared to phonetic writing systems.  The simplicity of phonetic writing systems made them much easier to learn, but that simplicity had a price, particularly before mass communication technology allowed for the standardization of spoken language.  Before the advent of radio and television, spoken language was very regional.  So regional that different dialects quickly evolved into different languages, making communication difficult from region to region.  The Chinese writing system nicely solves this problem.  Because the characters represent concepts, the same character means the same thing to Cantonese speakers and Mandarin speakers, even though the languages are mutually unintelligible when spoken.   Phonetic writing systems, despite all their advantages, do not solve this problem of mutual unintelligibly.  Perhaps this helps explain why China has been politically unified for a much larger percentage of it’s history than Europe or India, both of which use phonetic writing systems…but I digress.

Both cultural and genetic evolution occur through imperfect replication.  When traditions, language and beliefs are transferred unchanged from one generation to the next, culture evolves slowly.  Throughout most of human history, there hasn’t been much need for culture to change rapidly.  Cultures adapt themselves to specific environments, and when those environments are static, it makes sense for cultural transmission to be high fidelity.

Authoritarian governments are in many ways more adaptable than democratic governments.  When Mao recognized that Chinese culture needed to respect women more, he dictated it from above, and it happened.  This process began earlier in the West, but at this point, China and the West seem to be at about the same stage in this process.  But authoritarian governments adapt only as intelligently as their rulers do, and Mao made many mistakes which put China at a disadvantage.

Art is all about lo fi.  What an artist does is take an existing art form, and create a new work of art that is in many ways similar to other works of art within that genre.  But if it’s a hi fi copy, it’s labeled derivative and uninteresting.  When art is too original, it’s either brilliant, or, more likely, it’s considered garbage because nobody can understand it.

Technological innovation functions similarly.  But here, there’s still an advantage to hi fi, as long as you can do it more efficiently than the next guy.  As I’ve mentioned before, the Chinese have trouble with innovation, and this is because they’re too hi fi.  What has historically been one of their greatest strengths may soon become a weakness, because culture, technology and indeed the planet are changing faster than ever before.

The Chinese excel at hi fi, and that’s why they’re so good at taking technology developed elsewhere and using their advantages in cheap labor and good infrastructure to make that same product cheaper and more efficiently than the inventor.  This has so far been a huge advantage in the modern global economy.  But if the future is about innovation and adaptation then the future is lo-fi, not hi-fi.

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.

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…