There is a fine line between culture shock and cultural chauvinism that I have every intention of straddling: I only ask that the reader give one the benefit of the doubt. After all, no one’s interested in smooth or effortless transition. Seen from afar, (cultural) friction begets fascination. From up close, however, suspicion and bewilderment launch a lethargic insurgency. Combined with travel fatigue, the enormity of the outside world – that callous and monolithic beast – sets one asunder. You burrow into your room, light a cigarette and watch the news go by. The markets this, the markets that. But who will deter the scions of steel from grinding stone outside my window? The clock is well past three.
The East is thrusting itself down a star-glazed tunnel and all I can do is watch. Slumber looms, if only half-earnestly so.
The first morning I awake, I step out of my front door and am met with the guileless indifference of a human tsunami. Alas, one has little choice but hopelessly paddle forth. Despite advice to the contrary, you’ll spare yourself much grief by focusing on the ground fifteen feet ahead. Find your forty-five degree angle, locate a fleeting shimmer of pavement, and pounce from crack to curb, dodging young and old alike as they careen at you from every direction. Eye contact is only for those swollen with the arrogance and cultural ineptitude born of continually casting oneself apart from the ‘locals.’ (“When they come gunning for you on the sidewalk,” says one expat banker, “Look them straight in the eye, plant your shoulder and charge. Reciprocal force is the only language they understand.”)
Or so it would seem. Within a matter of days the hue of things begins to change. Not that the Hindenburg of sodden overhead grey would dream of receding – that seems here to stay (at least for the season). But the acerbity of human interaction caves to a new master. The malaise of sensory overdose starts to fade, revealing suppler sentiments. Belligerence gives way to buoyancy, confusion to curiosity. A watering hole emerges on the Gujarati plain.
What on Friday morning was a mindless horde of magpies is by Sunday afternoon an intricate web of beavers weaving fashionably to and fro. The outline of their faces begins to emerge, dispelling the cruel monotony of ignorance in which they were first perceived. And yes, my friend, they’re much flyer than you’ve imagined. Squarely bespectacled and draped in swooping blacks and greys, the quirkily coiffed locals expose the expats for the paunchy aesthetic bores they are. Superficial, perhaps a many, though never blindly so: no two cats rock the same maddening kicks. Bowler hats, suits, Varsity sweaters, puffy-Seinfeld blouses and sear-sucker lined khakis abound. They’re an aesthetic breed apart. Of course, what lurks behind the meticulousness of their façade is far more difficult to disclose – but that remains the case with any tactfully displayed human specimen. Bereft of primitive human insignia – that of need, trespass or desire – the signs are always harder to decipher. But amply there they are, and not without their own touch of bravado.
That’s not to say they haven’t their share of downright foolish fare. As in any respectable consumer-society with a hint of OCD, they most certainly do. To mention but a few: Auntie Anne’s, that doyen of American delicacies, secured a booth in one of the most upscale shopping malls in Hong Kong, a nine-story affair that boasts car dealerships and three-star restaurants, among others. Whilst in the basement, alongside the gourmet grocery store (which stocks Colman’s English Mustard, among other international goodies), it still caters to the young and (fashionably) ambitious multitudes. Hence reads the advertisement for their freshly made sausage rolls, handcrafted “For Epicureans on the Go.”
As you mount the endless escalators, the joyous birth pangs of discovery scarcely abate. For starters, you will be sweetly surprised to see that Lane Bryant caters to (categorically) slender Asian women, in striking contrast to its American counterpart. The same pleasantly bland Bebel Gilberto ditty rings forth from every shop, cosmetics to jeans and sushi-bar alike. Samba aside, for all the Chinese antipathy toward the Japanese, the latter exert a formidable cultural sway over all things gastronomically, commercially and cinematographically minded in Hong Kong. A subject I shall invariably touch upon in later submissions.
As we near the upper and decreasingly frequented echelons of Babel, the pleasant surprises show no sign of abating. On one floor is a flashy new French boulangerie, replete with leather armchairs and ‘atmospheric’ music to boot. It sits between a luxury watch retailer on one side and a wine merchant on the other. Neither have any patrons. The eighth floor hosts a sprawling new Starbucks, which boasts considerably more patrons than its French counterpart a level below. Most surprising, however, is a vast bookstore, Page One (motto: “Every book starts with Page One), which emerges as an oasis in a desert of monotonous glitz. I peruse the aisles out of curiosity and stumble upon the first four English language sections: General Psychology; Self-Enlightenment; Self-Enrichment and Metaphysics. The latter boasted titles such as The Power of Now; Reading People; What Everybody is Saying and Feng Shui for Dummies. That said, their history and politics sections were quite good, if rather expensive ($30 and upwards per title).
Indeed, the delights of Asian consumerism have literally no bound. While more than several of the previously mentioned titles are invariably imported from the US, the marketing illuminati appear to be homegrown to a large degree. Or they’re Brits having far too much fun. Take, for example, the major watch retailer who’s plastered billboards in every metro stop across town reading, “Time is Love”; or the swanky ‘lifestyles’ store called Homeless (http://www.ilovesoho.hk/shops/homeless-flagship); or the Japanese sketchbook called “Jotter Pad”; or the “Pick Your Nose Party Cups” that come replete with a Gallic nose and rouged lips painted on the side to give the momentary impression you’re a seven-foot white woman as your drink your spiked cool-aid. The list could go on and on and on.
Conclude, however, we must, though not without a final word. As in all great capitalist enclaves, the real innovation begins with the t-shirt and slowly makes its way to the hoodie. As the great Kenneth Wilkinson once said, the rest is just details. Hence my joy as I ambled about the streets of Wan Chai and saw the following t-shirts draping the breast of man and woman alike:
WHAT IS THIS?
Hello, I’m Mr. Right Now
Or (my personal favorite, across the bill of a young man’s trucker’s cap)
Yes, the latter was in cursive script.