Hong Kong as a “Gwai Mui”

This week, I started my Master’s programme in International Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University. I’ll start this blog off by talking a little bit about my experience in Hong Kong this past year.

I moved to Hong Kong about a year and three months ago, two weeks after my Carnegie Mellon graduation. At first, I basically had a salaried tutoring job lined up and I could have started working immediately after landing, but I ended up not taking the job. Instead, I worked part-time as a freelancing tutor. Due to my irregular schedule and scarcity of students when I first began, I was able to spend more time experiencing Hong Kong as someone actually living here (as opposed to being just a tourist).

As soon as I began mingling with the locals, I noticed that people easily saw that I was a foreigner and spoke English to me right off the bat when I did not wear my glasses; only when I wore my spectacles did people treat me like a local. I have been told multiple times that I actually look less Chinese without them.

Chinese Americans (and all other Asian Americans) look different from their motherland-raised brothers. I am not sure what exactly makes our different upbringings so visually obvious, but it’s not just the way we carry ourselves or dress; there’s something about our faces that look different.

In any case, I’ve been actually treated quite differently when people see me as a foreigner. Some treat me like an anomaly because I speak the language; others have berated me for saying things wrong (even when I tell them I can’t read). I have definitely used my foreigner status to get away with some things, and it makes politely declining flyers and getting out of telemarketing calls much easier.

Living in Hong Kong has also changed the way I see the world. From a monetary standpoint, I try to keep my meals below HK$30 (usually I will be okay with a $40 meal if I have no other options or don’t want to eat the same thing every day). This meant that when I returned to the United States to visit my family for a couple weeks, I thought everything was ridiculously expensive.

I also became much more aware of brand names and imitations in Hong Kong. I am a person who cares little about big brands; I just want something that works and fits my standards while staying economical. People here are often materialistic for the sake of holding a status symbol. In a way, it is a bit like poor culture in the US – you spend whatever little you can save up to get something from a big brand (with a massive, flashy, “blingy” logo, of course) to make themselves look a little “higher class”.

Now, I understand that there are a lot of brands that come with their promise of quality, but honestly, most people buy these things for their image. Many wealthier consumers will still purchase brand names, but they typically do not go for the designs with flashy logos. More on this later.

Hong Kong’s public transportation is stellar, but everybody knows this. Even as a person with no easy access to the subway from home, I have a way to get around town by bus. Coming to school, unfortunately, is not so easy, but at least I don’t need to take a taxi every time.

I actually prefer taking the buses over the subway when time is not an issue because I can see where I am going. Bus windows are excellent. In fact, I actually prefer walking over both options when the weather and air are not awful.

Speaking of which, I must also comment on the weather and the air quality. This place is ridiculous. The summers are so hot and humid that you feel sticky as soon as you walk outside, and the winters are so dry that your lips will crack overnight if you don’t keep them moisturised. The summer heat of 30 degrees Celsius combined with that 80% humidity is absolutely disgusting.

Well, there are a lot more things I’d love to write about in regards to the Hong Kong/San Francisco comparison, but I will leave that for another day.


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