My Hair And The Cultural Divide


It is true that my tresses have become a constant source of distress in this frizz-inducing humidity.  There are times, often during moments of profound discomfort on a crowded HK underground train when I see that I am the only caucasian within a 30m cube area, I wonder self-consciously if everyone is gazing at my eyes, my nose, my skin, and yes, the state of my hair.   And in these moments, I consider that perhaps we should all experience being a minority at some point, just to fully gain some perspective.  Of course it is all pure vanity because most of these people are not thinking of me at all.  They have better things to think about:   maybe the conversation they had with their mother the night before;  or the never-ending list of things to do;  or, most probably, if the train is going to get them where they need to be on time.  But in my head, they are all definitely staring at me.  And my hair.

Apart from the way we look, and the chemical bonds in the keratin proteins that make up hair, the most obvious difference is language.  The expat community in Hong Kong is a significant minority but even so, it only constitutes roughly 4% of the population.  One of the legacies of 150 years of British rule is that English is widely spoken and understood. But clearly, English is not everyone’s first language. Far from it, the expats here are comprised of diverse dialects from around the world – French, German, African, Filipino, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Indian, Russian, Australian, Irish… the list goes on (I classified Irish and Australian as languages, I know).  Walking down the street one can hear all of these, sometimes all at the same time.  It is odd now when I go back to English speaking countries and actually comprehend the conversations around me, which I would rather not. I weirdly feel like a voyeur listening in on something I should never overhear.  I prefer not to understand. I still don’t actually understand half of what is spoken to me in heavily accented English – it took me years to realise that the young employees at the storefront of my favourite clothing shop were enthusiastically yelling Hello, welcome to Zara! The truth is that one can navigate the city without ever learning a word of Cantonese.  Which is the source of deep shame for not learning it as proficiently as I should (or at all as it happens); it seems rude and lazy not to try.  It’s a recurring new year’s resolution, and I know it’s not enough, but I do excuse myself by the fact that my children have taught me every Cantonese swear word that they know.

There are much less obvious cultural differences than language however, the subtlety of which can only be appreciated over time.  I find that the measurement of happiness is not quite the same as I was brought up with and I must remind myself that this does not make it wrong, but simply different to my own values.  The mighty lesson we should all remember: different is not always wrong, it is merely different.  The scale of personal fulfilment here is often measured by prosperity.  Indeed a symbol for happiness is practically synonymous with wealth.  The drive to succeed is fuelled by the promise of prosperity which will bring happiness to the entire family.  The fancy car is not always a blazoned attempt to make everyone else feel inadequate (although it might), it is merely an acknowledgement that someone studied hard, achieved good grades, got a good job and then spent most of their salary on a car.  That Gucci bag is not an ostentatious purchase influenced by brand propaganda (although possibly true), it is a statement of fact which says ‘l am smart and successful and proud of my accomplishments’. I am trying to appreciate this cultural difference as I carry around my cheap knock-off handbag I bought in the market, not really knowing what exactly that says about me. 

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A Shanghai Tang bracelet with double happiness symbol representing good fortune in love – and career.

What I have yet to get my head around is the confusing rules of the Chinese Lai See packets.  These are little red envelopes you fill with (brand new, never used) money notes and give to pretty much anyone you come across the days (how many? I am never sure) before, during and after the Chinese Lunar New Year.  How much is enough?  Is it insulting to give too little?  Is there any such thing as too much?  Does the hairdresser get the same as the parking attendant?  It is a minefield of social embarrassment.  Local councils should offer some sort of course we can attend to get the rules straight, as I feel that there are many that we are breaking.  After seven years here, we are still probably offending everyone with our sketchy Lucky Lai See Gift knowledge. 

You would think that of all places someone in Hong Kong would just come out and tell me what the deal is.  After all, I find that one of the great characteristics of the people here is what I refer to as the ‘direct approach’.  Gentle hints are completely superfluous and nuances are unnecessary.  I find it is mostly sales assistants who dispense with all pleasantries and cut to the heart of the matter notwithstanding anybody’s self respect.  The sales person at the jeans emporium who helpfully suggests that I am so fat I need the boot cut variety to offset my enormous hips; the beautician that suggests the puffy, black circles under my pin-eyes would benefit greatly from the extra-strength serum for tired, wrinkly skin;  or, the skin-care expert who is horrified that I might suppose I don’t need the correction mask because she tells me she could see my enormous pores clearly from across the shop.  It’s an interesting sales technique, and my gratitude goes out to these people for pointing out my inadequacies in front of so many other shoppers, so that they might too hear of the benefits of these products.  Even some of my acquaintances have taken on local tendencies.  It was a while ago now that seated at a luncheon someone remarked how excellent the services of a professional hair straightener could be on my unruly locks.  The true sign of complete cultural immersion was that I was not at all offended by this comment, I was too busy scribbling down the name of the miracle worker who could fix my hair.

To be honest the direct approach is helpful.  It illuminates any misinterpretation of the truth and gets rid of that silly notion of privacy.  I mean what could be more helpful that a general discussion at the office amongst colleagues on what your salary is in relation to what you spent on your fiancé’s engagement ring?  Or how much money you spend relative to your peers on housing and school fees?  It’s also helpful to get the secretary and the boss involved to provide some comparison figures. Given this willingness to discuss facts in an open and frank manner, I really am surprised that no one has offered us any advice on the Lai See packets relative to our net worth.  Perhaps I should just ask.

And yet, with respect to opinion, it is very difficult to comprehend exactly what some of our local friends actually think.  Answers are often obscured by puzzling inconsistencies, or expressions do not clearly convey thoughts.  There is often a filter obscuring any insight into beliefs, a reticence to state opinion. I find when it comes to opinion, Westerners are extremely direct and we can, often awkwardly, give everything away with just one look.   If faced with something startling – say, a man on the street spitting into the pavement, or someone yelling down the phone in the middle of a restaurant or a woman with a monkey on her shoulder – a person from the West might express their surprise, or concern, or (horror of horrors) actually say something – while the person from around these parts will probably sit still, keeping their thoughts to themselves and their mouth shut.

And then sometimes, it is painfully obvious I am just being lied to.  While Devil and Polka Dot (those are actual name tags I have seen on sales assistants) in the fashion and beauty industry are busy giving me the brutal truth, trailing after me in the store never more than six inches away, Mercedes and Vitamin (again, actual names) in consumer goods seem to just nod a lot and tell me exactly what I want to hear.  Yes, we have that sofa in seven different colours (but none are available) and of course, we offer a kazillion megabits of internet connection (but not for you), sure we deliver pizza (but not to your area), and indeed we sell those soccer boots (but not in stock and never in the size you want). And yes, Missy, this way to the honey flavoured greek yogurt:  this is where we display it when we have it in stock, but the boat has not come in.  All of this bad news is delivered with a smile as if it would be ludicrous to think they couldn’t provide me with exactly what I was asking for.  I am usually too dumbfounded by the conversation to argue. 

I recently came across a book entitled East Meets West by Yang Liu (, a fabulous little package written by Chinese-born Liu who moved to Germany at the age of 13.  Liu has become somewhat of a social media darling with her insightful and simple infographics.  In this book she explains from her perspective the subtle differences between Eastern and Western cultures as she experienced growing up Chinese in Europe, highlighting some of the more amusing incongruities.

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East Meets West, by Yang Liu (Taschen, 2007)
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Yang Liu explains the differences in expressing opinion

Highly illustrated and visual quick-reads are my kind of thing so this book is clearly the perfect manual for me to achieve a better understanding, if not complete enlightenment.  What can take a lifetime to explain, Liu manages to express in several clever line drawings, revealing also that what we interpret with our eyes is sometimes less confusing that what we misinterpret with language.

Within the dichotomy of our cultures there is something here gluing all of the fragments together.  There is a loose camaraderie, an understanding of what the deal is, which I suppose is our common ground – and that is Hong Kong.  We experience the same climate, the traffic, the infrastructure, the geography and all the city has to offer.  We all want the best for our children, we all want to achieve happiness, but most importantly we all exist in this cultural melting pot that is a city-state within, and separate from, China.  That in itself is a common definition of what we are, despite the differences in language, values, social nuances and what the humidity does to our hair.

Moroccan hair oil – excellent for taming unruly tresses

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