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By Katrin Büchenbacher |
I took a short break in Hong Kong recently, and, while I loved exploring the city, there was one thing that gave me culture shock: local expat life.
I had booked an Airbnb on Discovery Bay, Lantau Island, which, in retrospect, was a mistake.
"Disco Bay" is a small satellite town for the very affluent, or at least those who are on the way to becoming it.
Over 90 percent of the people I saw there were Europeans or Americans, which meant the locals were in the minority. After Beijing, where non-Chinese get swallowed up by 21 million natives, I was surprised to find myself in an environment where suddenly everyone looked like me again.
The first people I met on the street were Germans, so I could ask in my native tongue if there were any restaurants open at that time of night, a first for me in Asia. When I arrived at the "Plaza," I was surprised to find all kinds of food - French, Italian, Indian - but no Cantonese restaurant. My first meal in Hong Kong, therefore, turned out to be samosa instead of barbecue pork bao.
When we returned home, we passed two pubs where drunken English people were watching a football game. Was I really in Hong Kong?
The next day, the first thing I did was to leave on a ferry. On the walk to the pier, I passed a few housing complexes. I didn't see any cars, but every household seemed to have their own golf cart. Two little boys were taking a walk with their Filipina nanny, while tall, skinny young moms and dads were running up and down the hills, wearing luridly expensive sports outfits. A bunch of teenagers walked into Subway to order a sandwich. They didn't bother to say hello in Cantonese but ordered straight away in English.
"When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is how I live as an expat in China and show respect to a country that welcomes me.
Beijing does not leave me much choice anyway. To navigate life in Beijing, it is just easier to learn the language and adapt. I chose to live in China to immerse myself in the local culture.
This does not seem to be the case for Hong Kong expats. If they do not want to learn Cantonese or Putonghua, and continue to live the same lifestyle they had back home, why move abroad in the first place?
In Kowloon, finally in a dim sum restaurant, I was determined to prove to the staff that I was not one of "them." I would speak Chinese.
Even with Cantonese being their mother tongue, they would be able to understand me and appreciate the effort, but the waitress just stared at me in confusion and rushed off to grab one of her colleagues. She almost seemed offended.
"This is an international business town," her colleague explained to me. "You can use English here," she said, looking down at me with her eyebrows raised.
I thought of the Beijing taxi driver, who almost jumped out of his seat when seeing me, saying that he thought I was Chinese when he had talked to me on the phone earlier, complimenting me on my language skills. And I just wanted to go home.