Chris at the Hong Kong Dog Rescue with his new friend who did not want to leave the dog park. When it was time to go home, this pup was found hiding behind a park bench. Strategically.
I recently managed to pry Chris’s face from NHL playoff propaganda and collect his scattered musings about life in Hong Kong. We originally set out to pit HK culture up against our East Coast Canadian roots, but as most of our little talks go, it manifested into a sprawling convo. Between tea breaks and iPhone distractions, and a tasty plate of nachos, we managed to record some great material. It’s raw, folks, and it’s general. Vast. I bet you’ll appreciate an organic (I just used that as an adjective) display of our ever-evolving thoughts as Canadians who strive to thrive in HK.
Hollie: Are you ready?
Hollie: OK first we’re going to talk about language…
Chris: But that’s boring!
Hollie: Do you think there is a balance of languages in Hong Kong? Between Cantonese and English. And Mandarin. And then there’s more. But, the main ones.
Chris: No. So, people think the standard of English has gone down since Hong Kong was returned to China. Since the handover in ’97. But the younger generations’ standard of English is still high, because of the influence of western culture, mostly. I think. But then, the more local districts are dominated by Chinese culture. Cantonese culture. Signage, restaurants – everything. But in the more central districts, business districts – English is available and very present. Example – If you go to a fishing village, the chances of speaking to someone in English are pretty slim, but go to Central or Causeway Bay, and it’s full of westerners and English is everywhere.
Hollie: Yes. My school’s district is pretty local. It’s hard to get a taxi to drive me anywhere, so if I’m making a special trip, I get my coworkers to write it out in Chinese. Just in case. And I can say certain Cantonese words when I have to. But when we go to the popular districts to eat and have a night out – it’s like, a different world, really. Almost. Sometimes.Mostly.
Chris: Yeah, but it’s not a duality here, like English and French in Canada. Cantonese is dominant. That’s the local language. There are so many expats living here – there’s a huge western presence. But…it’s Cantonese here. Featuring English. Regularly.
Hollie: How would you describe the attitude toward English – in a Cantonese culture?
Chris: Well, English is revered here. It’s the universal language for business and education. The older generations of Hong Kongers don’t have a great need for English, but, I still don’t find they discriminate against people. As much as they could – you know. They are used to English, even if they don’t speak it. It’s been here for so long.
English is important, but it varies. It’s taught as a semi-important subject in lower banding schools – like yours, but it’s not really as significant as people would think. For everyday people. As a second language. But, in higher banding schools, yeah – English is important in the way that French is important in reputable immersion programmes in Canada. Moreso. Becoming fluent in English is crucial in terms of academic and… economic gain. Not everyone has it on their agenda though – they can’t do it.
Hollie: Like kids in my school.
Chris: Exactly. And well the exams…
Hollie: Exam culture. Yes. Passing the big English exam. All of the exams.
Hollie: What is your stance on Chinglish?
Chris: (Laughing) I commend their effort to speak a second language to a native speaker.
I think Chinglish is accepted for the simplicity of translating Chinese to English in people’s heads. It takes some getting used to, but I think we’ve all accepted it – to make life easier, for Chinese people speaking English. And culturally — Chinglish… it has a function. Um, in the way that it’s a dialect and it reflects socioeconomic backgrounds, or just a place…just like slang does. Yeah, it’s a form of slang.
Hollie: OK. Let’s talk about face. Saving face. Can you define saving face as you’ve seen it in your place of work, in an Asian culture?
Chris: Do we have to?
Hollie: Yes. So, saving face is upholding one’s social value – maintaining the respect of peers and colleagues because of positive behaviour, or overall good conduct. On a daily. Especially in a professional setting – or an important social setting. This is a delicate matter in Asian cultures. You can explain losing face.
Chris: If someone loses face, they become publicly embarrassed — humiliated. People are so worried about this – if it happens to them, it’s a really big deal. They feel they have to work extremely hard to make up for their mistakes. Making sure things look good on the outside, yet not necessarily being good in reality. Like – if someone did something bad at work, they really messed up – and then they were called out on it, publicly. Losing face.
Chris: So then, saving face can make people miserable. They are constantly doing things just to please someone else who isn’t, in turn, actually pleased – they’re just…general expectations, really. Of the working hierarchy. But…I mean, like to put on a good front too. Everyone does. At work. Overachieving becomes the norm in the name of saving face. And we do it.
Hollie: Everyone does, to a degree.
Chris: Yeah. It’s illogical. And I’m a man of logic.
Hollie: Why else are people so worried at work though?
Chris: Job security. Pleasing their boss.
Hollie: Definitely. I just think it’s something where – it’s not nice to humiliate people either. Hong Kongers don’t joke about that. It’s about dignity and respect, especially in the workplace.
Chris: It is.
Hollie: But, there’s a lot of competition to make up for that. It can get nasty.
Chris: It can.
Hollie: Okay, what do you think the Canadian equivalent of face is? Or, at least a rough comparison? In other words, what is equally as important as saving face for Canadians?
Chris: Being accused of being a thief or a pervert. But wouldn’t people be just as worried about that here? I don’t know where we’re going with this.
Hollie: Let’s move on.
Beliefs and practices
Hollie: From your humble observations, what role does religion play for Hong Kongers?
Chris: I think it plays a bigger role for the older generations, just as it does in Canadian culture. I find it’s losing its significance, dying off. But, it’s more present in Hong Kong than it is at home, generally.
Hollie: In what way is it more present?
Chris: It’s more present in our profession, at least. I can see it. People our age seem to have religious beliefs and practices, but I think religion began to lose its grasp in Canada earlier than it did here. It’s more prevalent here – still. Christianity, I mean.
Hollie: And more extreme. There are a lot of religious groups and protestors, and Christian schools and organizations. Catholicism, especially. But, why do you think organized religion is still hanging on here?
Chris: Because we’re more free thinking – free minded. In Canada. We’re taught by our parents to be open-minded about things. (Laughs). I don’t know. Things weren’t as forced upon us in our generation – in general, I mean. Or in schools…as much as they are here. But I think they are a generation behind, so to speak. With the social movements and things.
Hollie: What religion are you talking about for the older Chinese generations? Because it’s not Christianity, mostly.
Chris: No – it’s Confucianism and Buddhism. A lot of Hong Kongers are atheists though. Most are.
Hollie: Yeah, but what do the Chinese worship, mostly?
Chris: Nature! Haha.
Hollie: No! They worship their ancestors. They honour their ancestors.
Chris: Yes, they do. Which makes a lot more sense. They’re the people who helped you get where you are, aren’t they?!
Hollie: You wanna go on record saying that?
Chris: No. What if (your ancestors) were bad people?
Hollie: True. How does this differ from the general functionality of religion in our Eastern provinces?
Chris: BORING. That’s a boring question. Break!
Hollie: Do you feel affected by the dominance of working hierarchies as a NET?
Chris: Of course. Because you feel the outside pressure from the other teachers and the other staff to emulate what they’re doing – to be accepted.
Hollie: Do you feel you are part of a totem pole?
Chris: Yeah. I feel like I’m looked up to. I don’t feel I’m at the bottom of the totem pole, and I’m not at the top. But I feel like….I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. It depends on a particular staff member’s view of NET teachers in their school and in Hong Kong. Some people feel that NETs are overpaid and underworked. There can be a lot of jealousy.
Hollie: Yes. And, I feel like I’m outside the totem pole, sort of. Not always though. It depends on the situation – or the duty. And there is some jealousy, but it’s like we’re told – or warned about it. We don’t always experience it first hand. That would be disrespectful. Inappropriate. But then – people don’t mind asking you what your salary is – or, if you get a bonus. And you know they resent it.
Chris: But those who accept the fact that we are there for a specific purpose – those people seem to look up to us, and see the good in what we’re doing, just by being there. If we’re doing a good job.
Hollie: How has this impacted you at work?
Chris: How has the hierarchy impacted me?
Hollie: Yeah. Like, in a negative way or a positive way…
Chris: (Thinking really hard – maybe too hard). I feel like… my opinion is valued at my school, so I think it has affected me in a positive way. Yeah.
Hollie: I agree. You’re in a good situation. So, if you could choose, where would you rest on the totem pole? Think big.
Chris: Somewhere hidden in the middle.
Hollie: That’s mediocre.
Chris: Well, no – because if you’re at the top, you’re expected to always be saving face, and I don’t agree with that. And that would never fly…around here. I wouldn’t be good at the top – around here.
Hollie: OK. So you like where you’re at right now.
Family values and work ethic
Hollie: Me too. OK family values. What could Hong Kong families take from the books of Canadian families?
Chris: The value of spending time with your children.
Hollie: Why do you say that?
Chris: Because a lot of Hong Kongers don’t spend time enough with their children. Or any time. They’re working late hours. Their nannies (domestic helpers) are the ones holding (the child’s) hand walking through the mall on a Sunday.
Chris: And, Canadians could emphasize the importance of socializing, and being involved in activities. Um, because I think being well-rounded is more important to Canadians than it is for Hong Kongers. Working hard and excelling in academics is so important – here.
With families, in Canada, kids (in good homes) are treated differently, concerning discipline. How some parents can treat their kids here. It’s extreme. They pressure them. They yell, are physical with them…using fear as a tactic.
Hollie: True, and we’ve seen this – but what about Hong Kong kids who are spoiled monsters?
Chris: Yeah. Oh yeah – kids are babied here. I don’t think all Hong Kong kids are spoiled, at all. Of course I don’t. But many of them – they have little to no responsibilities at home. They’re in strollers when they’re six. They don’t have to do anything to pitch in. They don’t have a lawn to mow or a bed to make – they don’t have any chores. They grow up being spoon-fed everything. They don’t work for what they get. Well, besides at school. They expect to be handed things. This is a cultural thing – a societal thing. Kids live in an apartment building, and there are no daycares, and they’re raised by a nanny – local kids are, a lot of the time. And their parents work really late. You know, they have no choice. It’s the way it is, right?
And yeah, the focus in on academics and their extra curricular stuff. Whatever their parents are paying for them to do. Piano, violin, art – sports…and then tutorial classes. This is the focus, and the parents are so strict about it. Or, they coddle their kids, making sure they are babied… so they can excel. And be confident. But then it’s like – it can just spoil them to death.
Hollie: Helicopter parents.
Hollie: So what is lost on Hong Kongers, because of that?
Chris: Being multi. Having a broader outlook on things. Being well-rounded.
Hollie: What could Hong Kong people teach their Canadian counterparts (assuming all sides are equal in good).
Chris: Work ethic. I don’t know, maybe that’s not true.
Hollie: I think it is…a type of work ethic, maybe.
Chris: But when I think of …Canadians have good work ethic.
Hollie: Yes…but I know what you mean.
Chris: I don’t know if I even like saying that.
Hollie: Well, what do you like about the way Hong Kong people work? How is it admirable?
Chris: They’re disciplined. They’re disciplined in a way that is ….I don’t know. What do you think?
Hollie: I think it creates a respectable environment. And an orderly one. There’s less emphasis on “what about me” or “what’s in it for me” at work – during a regular day. Like, my coworkers drop whatever they’re doing to help me a lot of the time, and expect nothing in return. They work really hard. And it makes me want to work hard too, and I reap the benefits of it at the end of the day. Sometimes. I don’t always feel this way about it – because I think there is a lack of efficiency there too. More work is created when there doesn’t have to be. You know, for the sake of the process, or the rules, and that bugs me. What do you think?
Chris: Yeah, I agree. Doing things to look good, or to make it seem as though you are working hard. Or to make it appear that you’re extremely organized or on task – or spending a lot of time on one thing, so it’s ‘hard work’.
Etiquette and taboos
Hollie: Yes. Let’s move on? Manners.
Chris: What manners?
Hollie: Exactly. Who is more polite – Hong Kongers or Canadians?
Chris: God. Canadians.
Chris: Canadians seek ways to be polite. Hong Kongers are only polite when they have to be. Generally. There’s a lot of rudeness here. We look for opportunities to be friendly with people – in Canada. To say hello, to wave – to nod. We open doors for people. Um…and burping, farting and snorting is frowned upon in Canada in social settings. And shoving and butting in line. And not moving out of the way.
Hollie: Or noticing that someone might be trying to get by. And here?
Chris: All of it. More…widely accepted.
Hollie: Name something that is considered polite in Hong Kong, yet irrelevant or not necessary on the East Coast.
Chris: Doing this: (puts hand in front of mouth and pretends to pick at teeth). Really concerned about blocking their mouths when using a toothpick.
Hollie: I know, but I’m glad they do it.
Chris: People aren’t as nosy here – not as much as they are at home. There’s more of a need to know what’s going on with people personally. People don’t even really look at you in public here. It’s like you don’t exist, even if you’re screaming.
Hollie: Do you think that’s an urban thing, or a cultural thing?
Chris: I think it’s a cultural thing. An urban cultural thing.
Hollie: I think people don’t want to get involved. Their scared of crazies. And of losing face. I am too. I get it now. Just look away. Although I love the drama. I love catching a good scene!
Chris: I know.
Hollie: Okay, name something that is considered taboo in western culture, but completely fine in Hong Kong.
Chris: Talking about salary and money. We don’t ask someone how much money they make or how much things cost. Obviously. That’s a no. But it’s the first thing people ask here.
Hollie: The very first thing – no qualms.
Chris: “Oh, I”m going to Bali this weekend.”
“Oh, so expensive! How much!?”
“I’m going to this restaurant tonight – for dinner.”
And they say “Oh, what is the price? It’s too expensive!”
Or it’s just “How much money do you make?”
Hollie: Yeah. I’m used to it now. Today my coworker asked me how much our plane tickets home were and I told her. I don’t care anymore. So, what is it like not to have a car – not to be driving around in a car that you operate? That’s a big change.
Chris: Public transportation is great here. Everyone uses it. You don’t hear ‘the peasant wagon’ or ‘the loser cruiser’, although a lot of people drive their own cars in Hong Kong, of course. They use all forms of transport. Their system is revered. It’s super clean, fast and efficient. You can get a bus, minibus, the train, a taxi or an old trolly. You can drive your car. And what do you need a car for when you can have McDonald’s delivered to your apartment 24/7?
Hollie: Oh god stop talking about McDonald’s. (He mentioned McDonald’s about 8 times and I had to edit it out. I don’t even know why. He’s obsessed with McDonald’s delivery – just the fact that it’s available, all the time.) What is like to live in a place with so many people?
Chris: Uh, it’s overwhelming at times. It’s hot. Sweaty. Smelly. Um…uncomfortable.
Hollie: All the time?
Chris: After extended periods of time. When you’ve had too much of it. Overdoses of it.
Hollie: What do you miss about Canada’s spaces, then?
Chris: That in itself. The openness. Not being pushed, not being breathed on. Not having someone’s breath in your face. Not listening to 18 phone conversations and 91 video games being played at the same time.
Hollie: Anything else you miss about Canadian space?
Chris: The smell of fresh air. And it’s true – but we can’t say anything about ocean smell. We have that here. We are surrounded by ocean, so we are lucky to have that. But it’s masked by the stench of pollution coming from China. I miss having four different distinct seasons. I miss the four distinct seasons because it’s like, changing’ it up. It offers variety in activities we do, things we wear.
Hollie: OK good. Tea break. Game of Thrones break. Thank you byeeee!
- End Part I -