Rude health

Mr Tall's piece on rudeness has received several comments in recent weeks. Then last week I saw Crash, a film that uses tensions between different races as its main theme. Finally on Sunday a friend gave me the book, 'Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life'. It got me thinking - it's a common reaction for us expats to think 'people are so rude here', but then what do we do next? Do we let it make the rest of our time in Hong Kong miserable?

Here are a few things I've found helped keep it in perspective:

Look in the mirror

I've had a harder time getting worked up about other people's rudeness once I realised how much of the time I am rude myself without even knowing it. I mentioned the 'don't reach across the food dish' example before, but here are a couple more:

After another family meal, I did what I thought was the polite thing and helped tidy the table (big family = big dinner = big mess). Now the men of the family were already in the process of moving away to sit down and watch TV, as normally the ladies will do the cleaning up. But when they saw me they made an embarrassed about-turn and got up again to help. It was considered I'd been thoughtless to put them in that situation.

Then one day near to when MrsB and I got married, her nieces and nephews were asking what they'd call me after the marriage. "Oh, just keep calling me by my name" I said. Uh-oh. MrsB's big sister jumps in to say that would be rude and there is no way they'd be doing that. So I am called by the correct Chinese title instead, which loosely translated gives the meaning "husband of sister number 9 of my father" or "husband of sister number 9 of my mother" as appropriate.

These are just a few of the ones I know about, I am 100% sure there are plenty more, but that the family have let pass unnoticed. When you see 'good manners' from the outside, you realise many of the things we consider rude are just arbitrary rules, made up at some point in history. Is it really fair to get worked up if someone from another culture doesn't follow them?

Make local friends

It's hard to keep grumbling about the sterotypical 'they' once you know people as individuals. Everyone will have their own way to do this, but a couple of things that worked for me are:

Learn Cantonese. Even a simple 'Jo san' (Good morning) gets a smile. Add an 'M goi' (thankyou), and they'll be inviting you home for dinner. Those are the only words my 70+ year-old mum knows, but she uses them in shops and cafes when she is over to visit, and gets plenty of smiles in return.

Have kids. Ok, probably not something you're going to try just to see if you experience a happier time in Hong Kong! Still, having a three-year old and a 6-month old brings lots of opportunities to talk to people, even if it's just someone asking how old they are. Also if you become a regular at your local park's playground, it's reassuring that the kids are being taught the same lessons you'd hear back home - 'it's good to share', 'wait your turn', etc.

Join in morning exercise in the park. If you live near a park and are an early riser, find a group doing an exercise you like the look of, and just follow along. People seem generally more relaxed and friendly at that time of day, and it won't be long before someone strikes up a conversation with you.

Look at the big picture

Rudeness is just one form of antisocial behaviour - one that Hong Kong happens to be rather good at, but just one after all. Would you rather be rudely ignored, or rudely beaten up? Have people spitting near you, or at you? Have a neighbour's late night mah-jong game break the silence, or a vandal break your building's lift? The low crime rate and safe environment are worth keeping in mind when summing up what it's like to live here.

Know yourself

Moving overseas is not always easy, and for some people rudeness is the final straw. Combined with the heat, smaller living space, separation from friends and family, etc, it brings the realisation that the negatives outweigh the benefits, and life in Hong Kong is not for them.

I think most people don't let the pressure build to that point. We just get together with a few friends, have a rant about just how rude people are, and get it out of our system. Add in your own version of the coping techniques listed above, and on balance we're happy to live here.

But what if all you can see are negatives? And you find yourself continually blaming 'them'? Then maybe it's time to take a step back and ponder if it is Hong Kong that needs to make some changes, or you.



Is HK more rude than other big cities?

You guys have put together a very helpful and interesting website. I am an American and returning to HK after several years in New York, SF and London. This topic of whether HK is a more rude city than other large cities is an irresistable topic. Having lived in NY the past 8 years, as well as, London and San Francisco I believe I have some insight.

For my two cents, I have to say that HK people are not massively rude or inconsiderate, but relatively speaking I believe people in HK are less considerate than people in New York, London or San Francisco. This has to do I believe with certain dynamics in HK that don't exist elsewhere and with certain "western" sensibilities about manners.

In my experience, people who consider HK to be an unbearably rude place usually don't have experience living among the masses in large urban environments. Due to its small size and concentrated business areas, HK forces the average expat to interact with all segments of the population. NY, London, Paris, SF are so big that it is possible to not interact with significant portion of the residents. People who live in gov't housing estates in NY typically don't work on Wall St, shop in my neighborhood, or eat in my favorite restaurants. NY doesn't force you to mix and mingle -- it is totally voluntary -- and I do not live among the masses. HK by contrast does force you to mingle -- as everyone visits Times Square or Pacific Place. The only equivalent place in NY to me is Yankee Stadium on a game night, after this experience tell me if HK is more rude a place than NY...

As a westerner who has spent a lot of time in HK, some things do strike as more rude from the serious to the mundane,
* obsession with money -- and the belief that people who have money have it through hard work and brilliance, and those who do not are lazy. This is the same subtle bias (sometimes racism) that leads to abuse of helpers and the like
* HK is the hardest place in the world to get directions, sometimes experienced as, group of chinese will be chatting away in english/chinese so you ask them directions and suddenly no one speaks english
* there is no concept of personal space -- especially on public transportation
* there is little regard for holding doors
* women and children and elderly do not go first or get your seat
* bizarre tendency of HKers to want to beat you to doorways, escalators, elevators...on many occasions I have walked into people who raced to beat me to an escalator and then stop instantly once on.

HK is a great place to live and work and I am excited to be coming back. While HK has its quirks and certainly room for improvement, it is important to remember that we expats are only visiting and it is unfair to judge as we have our biases as well.

Living among the masses

Thanks for writing, and you've nailed an important point. It's a lot more difficult to live here and not be pushed into contact with all sorts of different people. In the UK we'd be more likely to work with similar people, drive to and from work isolated in our private cars, and live in areas that again have similar people to us.

This scrum of different people can cause friction & irritation, but I think it also helps makes Hong Kong a safer place. Another of the TED videos talks about a program that has revitalised the South Bronx, and how street crime has dropped as more people are out & about and mixing on the streets:

I compare that with my hometown (a small and seemingly quiet town in Wales - nothing like the Bronx) where neighbours in their 60s told me they are afraid to walk through the town centre in the evenings. It's a vicious circle: most people jump in a car to make even short journeys around town. Then only the teenagers are out on the streets, and they seem frightening to the older residents, who either stay home or drive...


PS Some related info:
- Mr Tall looks at the relationship between town planning and quality of life in Hong Kong.
- The current issue of HK Magazine discusses the lack of any apparent master plan behind Hong Kong's future development

I think every one of us here

I think every one of us here are or have been guilty of being rude or racist if caught at the right moment. Some expats (not just in HK, but Dubai and other non-Western cities) never try to mingle and adapt to the local way of life. They compare everything to what they were used to "back home." I have heard numerous instances when expats used racial slurs or acted rude toward the locals. You don't see too many locals complain about it - it's always the expats (guests) complain about the host (locals).

If you continue to read into or over-interpret every stare, every utterance and use it as a proof of how rude or racist some locals are, this is what you will get. It's like a self-fulfilling proficiency. If you think only the negatives, negatives will be the only thing you see. Try to be more positive and you will be a happier person. Besides, it's never okay to judge local people with your own cultural yardstick. It's ethno-centrism and it's wrong. Keep in mind that centuries old Chinese customs and social norm aren't going to change because of your arrival. The truth is, expats sometimes behave in a way that is often considered bizarre and rude by the locals, but how many times do you actually hear the locals complain about them? And HK is their home, not yours.

You will end up getting an ulcer for being so stressed out all the time. Please stop this over-thinking and over-analyzing. If you encounter a rude local, chances are, he/she is also rude to other locals. If you really can't deal with the locals (because you haven't tried or whatever), it's a sign that you're not adapting to changing social environment and situations - then maybe HK isn't a place for you.

If I have to document every single racist encounter with Caucasian Americans while living in the States, I would have died of emotional distress! Regardless of what you've experienced in HK, I don't think a white person honestly *know* what it feels like to be discriminated against because of skin color. I just don't let that bother me. Life's too short to worry about what some insecured people think about me. I read a fantastic book lately, it's about judging yourself as you would to others (so you can be a better person), it says, "Wasn't I condemning this other man for what were actually my own secret sins that existed in a different form, but which I didn't want to look at? Didn't I occassionally make other people wrong who didn't agree with me? Didn't I sometimes feel angry?"

Before you lash out to the locals, maybe there's some internal psychological issue that you have to deal with or adjust first.

Just my two cents.