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

New Year, New Home

DSC_0334I am experiencing upheaval.  There is a full moon on the horizon and there is movement afoot.  They say that there are a few life events that cause extreme stress:  death, illness, divorce and arguably listening to Canto Pop music.  Someone has lobbed a stone into the still waters of my personal oasis and its ripples are spreading out over everything.  I’m not referring to the latest Trump blunder, or Silverman upsetting the conservatives, or the latest comments on the relative hotness of Justin Trudeau.  I’m not even talking about the newly fashioned version of the Pirelli Calendar – all highly relevant and worthy of billions of social media posts I am sure.  I’m speaking of a much smaller and seemingly insignificant act which has no Facebook posts but has had a far greater impact on my life than any other since my children were born.  My darling husband has left his job.

Sometimes the smallest act leads to the biggest revelations;  the repercussions are felt way beyond the initial effort.   When something changes, and things stop functioning the way they always have, you need to sit down and question why and how and what for?  It is an opportunity for a bit of self-examination, to throw it all down on the ground, pick up the important bits and put them back together differently.  You may not be familiar with the Lego Movie (as an aside, I urge you to go watch this flick because there is not one line from Batman that isn’t funny), but in between the sentimental catch phrases and action sequence banter, the gist of the plot revolves around a special group of master-builders who redesign all the carefully construed, over-priced brick models to make super cool stuff of their own.   Imagine, if you will, busting up the giant Lego Death Star that took you the better part of your life to build;   but then, you get to choose the most excellent parts to fashion something new and utterly unexpected.  This is exactly what happened when all of a sudden our family dynamic changed, seemingly overnight.

The reason we came to Hong Kong was my husband’s job.  It was a work opportunity which we pursued, not something that was thrown at us, and we evaluated it carefully before we left (if careful evaluation involves several glasses of Cabernet Merlot and scribbling down a venn diagram on the kid’s drawing easel late on a Tuesday evening).  We had a plan.  Well, we had a sort of vague idea of where we wanted to be and how we wanted to live and it’s probably best not to get bogged down with too many details.  This Hong Kong opportunity has opened up so much for us that we never could have seen it coming – another life lesson I have learned is to never make assumptions about something – or somewhere – you know little or nothing about.  Our two year gamble became a seven year game changer.  And then my other half, after careful deliberation, decided to retire. 

So, if the reason for being in a place not longer exists, what happens next?  The obvious thing to do is pack your bags and go home, but for us home is more than one place.  It is a complicated jumble of emotions and memories, not necessarily a city to live in.   So we need to be much more practical in our approach and selective when choosing those pieces from the Death Star, which if you remember, is strewn all over the floor.  We take out the bits that are important and suddenly a new version comes to fruition before our eyes.  We line our priorities up like the usual suspects:  opportunity for work, education, climate, proximity to family, quality of life, school holidays… we are governed by how much time our children are not at school because long school holidays means enough time to see our families overseas.  And this is where is gets surprising.  Sometimes what looks like a situation born of necessity is actually a conscious choice made for reasons truly best known to to ourselves. 

There is never a perfect answer;  all situations will be different for everyone.  I have found over the years of living abroad that you can ask one hundred people where they think the best place on earth is to live and you will get one hundred different answers, partly to do with the latest internet tweet on Top Ten Cities To Live, but mostly due to a wonderful thing called Perspective.  We all have one.  Just like those Lego master-builders, each and every one of us has a different way to see things.  I am always drawn to books for examples in life and again I see lessons from a picture book by Anthony Browne which we often use in our Library to teach children the important value of Perspective.  Voices In The Park (Dorling Kindersley) tells 4 versions of the same walk in a park and each is so radically different you get the surreal sensation none of them are having the same experience.


Like the 4 characters in the book, we all bring our own baggage and experience to a situation, so who better to decide our own course of action than ourselves?  A friend’s Lego might be wonderful and original, but it comes from a place that is unique to them and reflects their own values and careful considerations.  Another friend might have never smashed up their original in the first place, and that’s OK too. 

And so, for us, after careful scrutiny and reflection we have made a huge decision:  to move down the road.  Yes.  Down. The. Road.  Over to a new neighbourhood, a bit greener with more access to the outdoors for our kids, a bit more removed from our current urban dwelling.  In our new space maybe we can give ourselves a bit of breathing space before jumping into any big decision.  After all, we wouldn’t want to get carried away. It takes some time to build new Lego.

Expat families are used to upheaval, and change is what keeps some people going. Even when we started our family in London, we changed address with monotonous regularity.  I opened my mother’s address book a while ago to find 2 pages of crossed out entries under my name – you would think she might have learned to write it in pencil.  I can remember each and every one one of those places fondly (except maybe the one that had the bolt lock so you could get trapped in the hallway on your way out to work, but that’s another story and we didn’t stay long for obvious reasons).  I am quite used to moving.   Apart from the messy administration, I am not so bothered by the process no matter how much I like to complain about it.  It is at the very least a chance to de-clutter, which I am told is the path to enlightenment.   And given the possibility of a monumentally disruptive transatlantic relocation, I am happy that our little domestic adjustment has lead to the decision to stay routed in this crazy transient city, at least for the time being. 

Maybe age is making us reticent to change, or I don’t want to mess with pre-teens who are  well adjusted and happy.  Perhaps we are just not ready to leave.  Or maybe I just feel the need for more time to fully appreciate Canto Pop.  Whatever our reasons, it comes from our unique perspective which is sometimes just impossible to explain.  I am excited by the prospect of a change of scenery, a little space to breathe and a new view to appreciate all the things around me.  It will help me gain perspective.