Pace

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The Talls have recently returned from a highly satisfactory trip to New Zealand. I won’t bore you with the tedious details, but I will expand upon one cultural comparison that came to mind as we enjoyed our visit.

I can sum up the constrast in one word: pace.

That is, on this trip I thought again and again about how much easier the pace of life is in New Zealand compared with Hong Kong. This contrast makes a trip to New Zealand so refreshing to someone like me, who’s from a small town, but who’s now lived in Hong Kong for many years.

But saying this is just repeating a cliché; everyone knows that mostly-rural places such as New Zealand are slow-paced, and cities like Hong Kong are fast-paced. In day-to-day situations, where do these varieties of pace show up? And what effects do they have on new arrivals in places such as Hong Kong?

First, let’s dispel a common misconception.

It has to do with walking speed out on the street. The conventional wisdom assumes that people from big cities like New York, London and Hong Kong stride smartly down the pavements, driven by the urgencies of their highly varied, wildly exciting lives. Small town folk, by contrast, saunter, stroll, amble and mosey, stopping altogether at points to hitch up their overalls and to insert fresh blades of straw in the gaps between their teeth.

Well, I missed a down-home memo somewhere along the line, because I find my walking speed is about double that of most Hong Kong people. I’ve explained elsewhere how this gets me in trouble in Hong Kong’s steamy summers. It also frustrates me no end in the crowds in Mong Kok, Causeway Bay, and various shopping malls. 

But the pace of life in Hong Kong really is fast in other areas.

One obvious example, especially noticeable on trips to places such as New Zealand and Australia, is the pace in restaurants – both in the service you receive and the way in which you’re expected to behave.

In Hong Kong restaurants, the speed at which you’re served typically starts at fast, and ranges right up to amazing. I can recall the first few times I was taken to huge Chinese seafood restaurants here, with dozens upon dozens of tables, sound levels through the roof, waiters glaring at everybody – but excellent food appearing on the table in an uncannily brief interval after we’d ordered.

This is not the case in antipodean countries (and, frankly, most other countries in general). Service is casual. In NZ, I found myself checking my watch plenty of times as food seemed (according to my spoiled sense of timing) inexplicably late in appearing. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, my ‘Time to Eat Now!’ clock goes off just minutes after I’ve ordered food.

Ordering itself, however, is the exception to this general rule. The odd thing about Hong Kong restaurants is that no matter how busy they are, no matter how stressed your waiter looks, it’s fine to take a good long time placing your order, complete with a long conversation about the evening’s specials, the freshness of the scallops, the suitability of a particular combination of dishes, and so on. But beware: you may be lulled into thinking that your waiter really wants to lavish time and attention on you, since you’re such a discerning and generally worthy diner. You are not. Once your order has been placed, good luck in tracking your waiter down ever again – at least until it’s time to pay the bill!

Even in fast food places, Hong Kong wins the service race hands-down. I submit as exhibits my own local Fairwood in comparison with the world’s dirtiest McDonald’s. For whatever reason, fast food restaurant staff in Hong Kong work hard and quickly, and simply don’t let things get out of hand, even though many fast food places here are utter madhouses.

So a fast pace has some obvious benefits in some areas – but maybe not so much in others.

For example, one of the things I enjoyed in New Zealand, and that I miss about my homeland, is the brief, but friendly and chatty encounters you can regularly have with service staff in supermarkets, gas stations -- just about anywhere. In Hong Kong, there's not only a language barrier for us expats, but so many businesses are often so busy that I feel a bit guilty making a transaction take any longer than necessary.

There's also a deeper sense of 'fast pacing' in Hong Kong that's initially hard to put a finger on, but that manifests itself in many ways. It's a sense that you must be doing something, that you must improve yourself, that you must make more effort to get ahead.

It shows up on weekends, when almost no one in Hong Kong would think of just staying home for a couple of days and not really getting much of anything done. It drives people to keep studying for advanced degrees long past the point at which acquiring another qualification will do their careers much good. It lights a well-stoked fire under parents whose children seem to be lacking sufficient motivation in pursuing their schoolwork and extra-curricular activities. 

This high-octane pacing is a big part of Hong Kong's frenetic charm, but it can also wear you down like a high-pitched background noise if you let it get too deep into your psyche.

Trips out of Hong Kong to slower-paced places do serve to remind us expats that life can indeed be lived on different terms elsewhere. And although on most days I go right ahead and mainline Hong Kong's lifestyle amphetamine, it's also good to go cold turkey once in a while. 

Comments

Pace

Your notes about walking pace remind me of a line from one of the James Herriott books. He's describing one of the farmers, who'd usually spend a large part of his day striding across the Yorkshire dales.

Something happened that he had to make a very rare visit to a city. When he came back, Herriot asked what it was like. The farmer's damning summary of city life was that he was always taking 'big steps and little uns".

creatures...

I enjoyed watching the TV production of 'All Creatures Great and Small' put out by the BBC when I was younger.  But I'd much rather take 'big steps and little uns' in HK than take broad steps in the countryside into a cow pat!

By the way, do water buffalos roam free on Lantau Island?  I saw a couple of calves (?) peacefully grazing there by the roadside last year.

 

re: creatures...

Yes. You'll also have a chance to step into a buffalo-pat if you go hiking in the North-east New Territories.

If they are wandering the countryside, they are 'wild', and any damage they cause is just one of those things. BUT... bump into one in a car, and an owner will appear like a genie from a bottle, looking for compensation.

All Creatures Great and Small

transport...

Why drive an ordinary car to take in the countryside when you can ride one of these babies?  Low-tech, for sure, but very green.  Just needing water and non-petroleum based fuel, the only by-products are biodegradable and even fragrant!  And completely compatible with Mother Earth!!!  If you need another vehicle, just put one each of the two models together and you'll get a new one.  Currently, you won't get a choice of which model you'll get but that may be possible in future productions.  ;)

Clueless walking

People often talk about Hong Kong being this fast-paced, busy place, which gives the impression of people purposely and efficiently racing off from one place to another, so you'd better not get in their way. But in reality it's not really like that exactly. I think what overwhelms visitors isn't the pace so much as the chaotic nature of Hong Kong's sidewalks.

Quite simply, people don't know how to walk here, I'm sorry they just don't. I was in New York City recently and there's an efficient hustle and bustle. So what's the difference? In New York, people stick to the right when they're walking, so that the busy sidewalks more or less behave like street traffic, not completely but by and large. But here in Hong Kong I find that some people walk on the left, some on the right and plenty right down the middle of the sidewalk. Why? I suspect there are three contributing reasons.

The first is that most locals in Hong Kong don't drive - maybe not ever and certainly not regularly. As a result, they don't have that sense that drivers develop of always being aware of what's around you and of understanding how traffic moves efficiently. Yet everyone still rides in vehicles here and ought to understand the basic idea of traffic flow, shouldn't they?

This brings me to my second hypothesis, which is that with so many Chinese here spending time overseas, with some in countries that drive on the left and others on the right, that there's no natural consensus - within individuals' minds or much of the population here - on which side of the sidewalk to walk on. Add throw into the mix a very large expatriate population, again split in terms of countries of origin that drive on the left and right, that there's no clarity here one which rules of the road to mimic. As a respectful foreigner, I try to walk on the left to match the rules of the road here, but I find that to be only moderately observed.

Lastly, my third hypothesis is that it all comes down to space. With so little space here in Hong Kong, I suspect that people here are raised to ignore everyone else and just stake your claim on the space around you and to hell with everyone else. This isn't meant to be an insult, as it's probably a sensible piece of self-preservation. For instance no one holds doors here - is it because they are rude? Maybe not, as the reality here is that there is such a constant flow of people that often if you were to stop and hold a door - like proper doorman-style - you'd be there forever.

Likewise, I think there's a use-it-or-lose-it approach to sidewalks - that if you don't take the space you need, others will. Or maybe it's just that with so many people around, it becomes almost futile to try and always be aware of who's around you, are you blocking them, etc. So as a survival mechanism here, whether consciously or subconsciously, I think people are brought up not to worry about the people around them.

I like this last explanation, though I think the first two observations also play a contributing role in explaining Hong Kong's dysfunctional sidewalk traffic flow.

 

 

"I suspect that people here

"I suspect that people here are raised to ignore everyone else and just stake your claim on the space around you and to hell with everyone else"

 

Now you've got it. It's all about bad attitude.