Cutting loose your cultural tethers

I went to see ‘The Simpsons Movie’ last month. It was fun: it’s not great, but it’s very good, upholding the general excellence of The Simpsons TV series – which I believe has earned a permanent booking at the base camp of the pinnacle of western civilization. The Simpsons has for years been my touchstone for the culture of my homeland; it’s the tether that connects me to my people.

Or is it?

When I came out the movie, I started thinking. When was the last time I’d actually watched a Simpsons episode on TV, i.e. a current one? I used to keep up with them quite religiously, but then Daughter Tall was born, and TV seemed unimportant, and then whenever the TV was on the screen seemed to be dominated by animated fish, and now – well, it’s been five years since I watched a fresh episode of my favorite TV show ever!

This realization left me feeling mildly disturbed, and got me thinking: just how many pop cultural events from my homeland have passed me by over my years in Hong Kong? Most of the big-name movies I’ve seen, in one form or another, but once I got past that, my connections started looking tenuous at best. That whole Survivor/American Idol/reality TV thing? I’ve never watched a single episode of any of these shows. The Sopranos, or 24? Foreign territory. Could I name a single current top-10 pop music star? Maybe . . . how about that boy band guy who dumped Britney Spears? Justine Timberland or something like that . . . . I went over to and had a look at this week’s top 10 list and found someone named ‘Timbaland’, but he didn’t seem to be the right chap. And the rest of the list meant not a thing to me. (Although I did find #10 amusing; it’s by a group/artist/life form called ‘Plies Featuring T-Pain’, which in my decrepitude I read as ‘Piles’, and then understandably wondered why the Piles weren’t ‘Featuring A-Pain’ – but I digress.)

Some of my lack of USA pop cultural knowledge is surely due my advancing age, but there’s more to it. Being an expat means there’s a limit to the amount of pop culture I can absorb via the day-to-day osmosis we all depend on for picking up so many of our facts and beliefs. No one at the water cooler is talking about Mr Plies, or Mr Piles, or whoever he may be.

Yet things are far better on this front now than they must have been in the past, when trips home were via ocean liner, and surface mail was the main communication channel. I got a peek at this life recently when I was reading Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh. This 1932 novel follows the exploits of an upper-class twit who bullies and blunders his way into the de facto prime ministership of an imaginary African country. Much of the book’s action takes place within that sorry land’s pathetic little expat community, where the biggest thing that ever happens is the arrival of a pouch of letters and packets from the Merry Olde Merry Olde, don’t you know. Each mailbag contains a new record, of whatever song is hottest back in Blighty. These records become the ultimate cultural tethers; the expats listen to each one over and over and and over, until the next one finally arrives . . . .

These days it’s of course much easier for us Hong Kong expats to maintain cultural ties, what with air travel, globalization, telecommunications/Internet, etc., etc. But there are still some lags and gaps in pop culture resources:

  • Hollywood movies used to take six months or more to arrive in Hong Kong after their initial released. Simultaneous global premieres of many big-name films has improved the situation a great deal, as has the availability of DVD copies (i.e. those of dubious provenence) of current films. But lots of smaller films still never make to Hong Kong screens, and it can be hard to find even legitimate copies of non-Hollywood and alternative films.
  • As for TV, there are always several popular US and/or UK series running at any given point on HK's terrestrial channels, and more if you pay for Now TV or cable, of course, but they're usually not up to date. The typical lag is a full season, i.e. generally about a year. Again, DVD copies can help, but you're never going to be right on the cutting edge. For example, I did get blown away by, and totally hooked on, the remade series 'Battlestar Galactica' (really, I can't recommend it highly enough). But part of the fun of following geeky shows such as BSG these days is being able to fully nurture and express that geekiness on online discussion boards, mailing lists, episode guides, and so on. But if you're cut off from current episodes, these extra resources are worse than useless; you must avoid them, because at any given point all the participants will be talking about episodes that you the expat have no access to, and they'll be flinging spoilers about right and left.
  • Sports are another tough area. I love baseball and basketball, and would like to be able to follow them more closely than I do. There are two big problems here. First, television access is poor. Even ESPN, which is carried by Now TV, is a pathetic diluted 'Asian' version of the real thing, and carries just a paltry spattering of big US games. It's also proportionately quite expensive, i.e. at around HK80/month, it's one of Now TV's single most costly channels, whereas in the states it's usually a throw-in feature of even the most basic cable package. Second, evening games in the US occur here in HK first thing in the morning, because of the time difference. Afternoon games start in the middle of the night here. That makes it tough even if you can find a channel that carries a game you want to see. The upside is that it's might fine having an ESPN scoreboard running in a browser window to get you through those first few dull hours of the working day! Not that I would ever give in to this temptation personally, of course.
  • Music is likely the easiest pop culture tether to hang on to when you're an expat. Far from the single records of Waugh's day, it's now easy enough to get your hands on music, whether through local shops, Amazon, or other online sales. The one big exception is that you can't download songs from Apple's iTunes store in Hong Kong. They say the ability to do this is coming here, but then they've been saying it for years . . . . As for the concert scene, well, I'm no authority, but it has always seemed pretty grim to me. Witness the hordes of pathetically eager expats when even dinosaur acts such as Eric Clapton actually appear in the wrinkled flesh here in Hong Kong.

So, after more than 17 years away from my homeland, in pop culture terms I'm now left clutching a Homer Simpson coffee mug, occasionally contemplating certain Cylon babes, and checking some sports scoreboards/watching online highlights. It's a pretty thin soup, but I guess it keeps me from wasting too much time.

I'm curious about the rest of you: what 'cultural tethers' keep you in touch with your homelands? Which ones do you wish you could maintain, but find you can't get your hands on?



[quote]and it can be hard to find even legitimate copies of non-Hollywood and alternative films.[/quote] gives plenty of subtitle-free goodies. Even found some of the English dubbed Drunken Punch by Jackie Chan.

The thing I miss most from Motherland is ice hockey. It's not on TV, it's on ESPN but you need to pay for, and it's short. Sometimes it's on newspaper but really tiny tiny piece. The web on this sucks. Viewing it on a 2.5" rectangle just doesn't cut it. And besides viewing the action, the commentators are crucial, they bring the atmosphere to the game. I feel totally cut off on this, and whenever I visit home during the season, you'd be sure I stick to channel 06 with a bag of Miss Vicky's.

TV shows I don't really miss, but the current series I am watching are 24, prison break, and heroes. I can't stand Lost, it just sucks. What's funny though is that my cousin in Canada doesn't watch them on TV either because of the schedule, he downloads them and watch it whenever he wants. There're other shows that I miss but not important anymore as I don't watch tv often. Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil, for some crack-ups. TLC kneecap surgeries while having a plate of spaghetti, etc. Since I don't have cable I don't get any of those. I do get Letterman on the world channel, and occasional canadian shows on pearl.

Movies, the Chinese subs really bugs the hell out of me because I can read them.

I don't really keep a tether on Music as I still listen to lotsa Cantopop while I was there, there're some pops too but I mostly enjoy jazz. And occasionally tune into at work or at home.

Pop culture has never been

Pop culture has never been hugely important to me. I listened to the radio a fair amount when I was 8 years old until I was about 17 - and then I went away to college and got busy & when I did listen to the radio I sought out things like Blues stations or really enjoyed how stations like WERS (or maybe it was WBUR) - both of them college stations in my home town had this really great Senegalese and other afro-pop hours on Friday evenings...

 My thing is prose & my cultural tethers are The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, and The Economist. Finally I decided to subscribe to them here & now I get them via airmail.

What do I miss - the New York Times Sunday Book Review in paper format on the dining table at 8am on a Sunday morning (or the Times & The Globe scattered across the living room while I drink coffee and share the news sections with friends).  

So, being cut away from a lot of pop culture in my home-land is kind of a relief. And then, when I go back home to visit, it's like there's this weird time warp thing & they are *still* playing Aerosmith & J. Geils Band in the convenience stores of Massachusetts. 

TV is not my thing very much. But, my parents keep me up-to-date w/ a lot of what's on and good when I visit. I was intriduced to ER w/ my mom and step-dad back in the early & mid 90s. Then I watched Sopranos w/ my mom & dad. This year I saw a couple of episodes of Big Love w/ my dad and he also introduced me to "South Park". Enh, OK, I guess. I thought McDulll was funnier  (at least the 1st one) which shows that I've been away a while.

I belong to a list-serv of women who all were due w/ babies in the same year and month about 10 years ago. From them I learn about strange phenomena like "High School Musical" and "The Nancy Drew Movie". Now that SK-daughter is in secondary school, I'm learning the name of pop singers like Shakira. So, kids do keep us young. 


Love the time warp

Hi SKmama,

I was laughing about the references to Aerosmith and J. Giles. When I was back in the US this summer, I kept noticing that all the music everywhere was from the 80s. I guess we have now officially made it into the category of "oldies" LOL.

I read Time (which is, of course, the Asia edition) and the New York times online. I try to keep up with books, though I am less than impressed with most modern fiction. I don't watch movies (the last movie I saw in a theatre was the third LOTR, which should tell you A LOT). Didn't really keep up with music before, so that's not a loss here. Except that I do listen to some contemporary Christian music (though there is not much worth listening to) and I have to check online to see if the few singers I like have put out anything new.

I would love to be able to follow baseball here, but since I've lived outside my home region for the last 13 years (some of that in the US but far removed from "my" team/s), I have really given up on following sports.

The only time it really bothers me is when I think of my kids growing up without common pop references and then going "back" to the US--they will certainly be odd fish.


My blood runs cold . . . .

Although my Angel is most decidedly not a centerfold, just hearing the J Geils Band mentioned is enough to give me unsavory chills. Those soft, fuzzy sweaters, indeed!

SKMama, loved that McDull-over-South Park comment. You have definitely been away a long, long time!

Mom2twoboys, you are too right about how kids raised here will likely be perceived as 'foreign' if/when they go to the USA (or other ancestral expat homeland).

Cut loose

I enjoy the fact I'm not expected to know what's going on. Sounds like I'm ready for the bath chair, to be pushed around, drooling quietly. It's not that bad, but I was never a great follower of the UK team sports, or of TV for that matter, which killed a lot of conversations. So I don't miss them.

I do miss British beers though! It's good when the cooler weather arrives and a few real ales pop up in Hong Kong bars. Other than that I think the tethers have just about all been severed.

It makes it a bit odd going back for holidays - finding everything so familiar, but all a bit distant too.

It looks like our girls will spend their childhoods here, so for them the UK will be just a holiday destination. Well, let's see. I wonder if if when they're older they'll feel any urge to live in the UK?


cutting loose cultural tethers

Not that I am particularly ashamed of my advancing years and disturbing lack of memory these days but reading this reminded me of a little episode with my god-daughter who is all of 10 whole years. 

Over a pleasant dinner,the conversation went as follows:

Said god-daughter enquires of aged aunt if she's heard of "The Jonas Brothers'.  [who, it transpires, are actually brothers]

'Of course' replies aged Aunt - 'I watched a couple of their videos on YouTube.' [Note how hip and happening I am!]

'Which one do you like?

'Well - seeing as their ages range from 10 - 18, I don't really 'dig' them if you know what I mean' says an embarrassed aged aunt

Muffled guffaws from god-daughter's mom at this point.

'Well - which song do you like?' chirps the little one

 'Ahem - they have one called 'Kids of the Future'....aren't you eating your fries?'


'Eh? well the fries came with your meal......oh - why that song. Its a cover of 'Kids of America' which was #1 back in 1985 when I was in college"

 "Ahahahha - oh aunty - you're funny!!!!" 

Aged Aunt stuffs face with remaining dessert and tries to live down the shame whilst making a mental note to update Ipod.

Unfortunately MR B - this is something you're definitely going to have to deal with as the Little Misses Bs grow older. 

BTW - you know you've been here too long when you eschew local tv and start 'chasing' episodes of the lated Korean drama on dvd.....sad but true.


Is one not allowed to watch

Is one not allowed to watch instant access on Netflix or watch via PC movies and tv eps through iTunes or in HK? Its a bit expensive but for one show a year its fine. Was hoping to do that myself to keep up with Heroes and Burn Notice. Oh and I highly recommend Burn Notice. Its from the USA network. Action, wit, great characters and only 13 eps a season.


7 months till I get the hell out of the US. Thank god

Amazon video on demand

Hi there,

Amazon would detect your location based on your TCP/IP address and if it determined you are not in the States you will be prompted the service is not available.

Basically this is true to most TV networks offering their series or clips online, except movie trailers.

As for iTunes, the iTunes shop is not available in Hong Kong.

Hope this helps.


catching up on TV

I have found the following site great for exactly that. I left the UK after the first season of "Lost" and got hooked. Since then all subsequent series have been watched via TV-Links.