Saturday, July 30, 2011

East Meets West

Before I begin this blog post, I’ll give a brief summary of this week. Overall, it was quite good, despite a lingering cold. Three new English teachers began at the Suffolk campus, making me the most experienced teacher here—believe it or not. I like and get along with them all, which is great considering we’ll be spending ridiculous amounts of time together at the school. Of course, they’re 26, 28 and 30, which doesn’t threaten my status as the “baby” of the campus. I know one day it’ll be a huge compliment to be told I look very young, but right now, it’s kind of annoying. I hear something from either a parent or coworker nearly every day. Anyway, I’m starting to get used to the swing of things around here and have been getting excellent feedback from parents through the center director. I’m still getting used to such limited free time, but soon I shall.

The title of this post is the phrase you’ll hear in just about any guidebook, article or TV show about Hong Kong. But the cliché is true. I haven’t travelled much but I’m fairly certain this place is quite unique in the way that Eastern and Western cultures mingle.

First of all, Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, when it was peacefully turned over to China. Because of that, a higher proportion of folks speak decent English here than anywhere in the country. All the signs, store fronts and mall directories are in Chinese characters and English, which makes it very easy for someone like myself to live without inconvenience. That’s not to say I haven’t been confused regularly, but it would be ten times worse if there weren’t English signs everywhere. Furthermore, Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) which means they don't have to abide by many Chinese policies. So...they have government protests, free press, Facebook, no visa requirements and blogging. Hooray!

Even though it’s very westerner friendly here, I don’t see a ton of white people on a daily basis. At least compared to thousands of Chinese people cramming the MTR and walking on the street. Still, if I go to a restaurant, store or just about any place of business, they will speak to me in English without being requested to. Can you imagine if a Latino person was addressed in Spanish when he walked into a Texas bank? A good chunk of Texas used to be part of Mexico, remember? The whole thing quite an interesting phenomenon to me.

When I say westerners, I am of course referring to white people (I've seen some middle-easterners and black people as well, but only a handful). The most common nationality of us whiteys is British, followed by an equal amount of Canadians and Americans, then Aussies, Kiwis and other Europeans. I’ve met teachers from all of the above countries but New Zealand, and Sandy, the only other guy at my campus, is from Portland! Also, I’m actually getting to befriend some British folks for the first time in my life. It doesn’t matter what they say—I want to listen because it’s a real life British accent. This makes me think I need to go to the UK sometime.

Westerners here are also given a sort of freedom that the Chinese don’t have. This has to do with western Hong Kongers typically being fairly affluent business people. And by freedom, I mean they aren’t as likely to get in trouble with the law over minor squabbles or being able to bring outside food into a particular coffee shop that doesn’t allow it ☺ We are also given preferential treatment in many restaurants, probably because a big tip is more likely.

The easygoing western/Chinese relationship is also interesting to me. All that I associate with colonization is unjust. It brings to mind the revolutions for independence in places like the U.S., India and Haiti. In all cases, there’s an oppressor and an oppressed. But here, the white man is hardly treated like an oppressor. I should read up more on the 150 years of British rule here, but this couldn’t be more different from Passage to India. This probably has to do with Britiain's much more hands-off policy here. There’s no suspicion or distrust, or at least that meets the eye. Then again, I did walk through the Wan Chai red-light district when going to my school's high-rise office and saw a bunch of white men reveling in their objectification of the scantily clad Chinese women at their sides. This is hardly the image I want people to associate with my race and gender, but I believe there are enough respectable westerners here to cancel out the bad apples.

As I mentioned earlier, nearly everyone here speaks some English. But of course, the language of the city is Cantonese—a very difficult language to speak and/or understand. As a westerner, trying to speak Cantonese is a nice gesture but not at all needed. I’m trying to learn as much as I can and when I use it, people are generally quite pleased. I ask the multitude of bi/trilingual Chinese women at my work to teach me some new things every day. Of course, because the language is tonal, writing it down (in phonetic English) is not always the key to success but I keep working on it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to converse in Cantonese like I could in a Romance language after a year or two, but I enjoy trying to figure it out all the same.

1 comment:

  1. Nice commentary on the history and current status of Hong Kong... We must discuss teaching, education, etc. upon your return!

    To education and pluralism,