There are people outside of Hong Kong who think that Hong Kong is a part of China like it is actually a part of China. For instance, I have a friend who posted a picture of the awe-inspiring skyline of Hong Kong Island, and above it the status read: “I am in China!” I also have friends asking me on Messenger, “How’s life in China?” Sure, geo-politically, Hong Kong is indeed part of China. Culturally, however, many Hong Kongers proudly identify themselves as non-Chinese. Ever since the takeover, the Hong Kongers have been desperately trying to maintain their identity by fighting to keep Cantonese in the public arena. Many Hong Kongers are resentful of the Mainland Chinese speaking Mandarin and trying to impose on them. In previous posts, Wes and I had discussions about how Big Beijing try to assimilate an area by reducing the local language to a mere dialect. Today, I experienced a Hong Konger’s passive aggressive attempt to maintain his cultural and linguistic identify in a rather perverse, but in some ways, charming, manner.
It was pouring rain after Thomas and I had lunch at this crazy spicy noodle place in Sham Shui Po. Since I didn’t have an umbrella, I decided to buy one at the Circle K at the end of the block. I walked into the little cramped store, and there was a young man working at the counter.
In Mandarin, I asked, “Do you sell umbrellas?” I learned very quickly when I first started to work in Sham Shui Po that people’s English ability is limited in this neighbourhood. In fact, many looked relieved when I switched from English to Mandrain. As a result, I automatically speak Mandrain when I conduct my daily business during the work hours.
The young man working at the counter looked to be in his early 20’s. He looked at me as I was speaking to him, and he nodded his head ever so lightly.
“How much is it?”
He mumbled something in Cantonese under his breath. I shook my head and gave him a quizzical look. He looked up and without looking at me, repeated what he had said previously in an annoyed, louder tone, as if my presence was bothering him. I’ve had this experience with other Hong Kongers; they seem to believe that by speaking louder, this imperial language speaking fool would instantly understand what was said.
At that moment, Thomas came up closer to me. He is a tall, good looking white guy.
“How much is it?” I said, in English this time.
The clerk noted Thomas’ presence. “The big one is $49 and the small one is $42.” He spoke back to me in English, his tone audibly calmer and more pleasant.
“May I see them?”
He turned around and bent down to reach the cupboard to fetch the umbrellas. He then put them down on the counter for me to inspect.
“I will take this one.” I said as I pointed to the small umbrella.
As I was groping around my bag for my wallet, the clerk carefully cut off the tag on the umbrella for me. Then I gave him some money and he gave me the change.
“Thanks” I said as I picked up the umbrella from the counter, and walked out the store with Thomas behind me.
I opened my brand new Circle K umbrella as I stepped out into the rain.
“Did that just happen?” Thomas asked.
I laughed. “Yup, it sure did.”
My lazy unwillingness to learn Cantonese had made me appear to be a Mainlander speaking the imperialistic language imposing on the local population. Next time, I better greet the store clerk with, “M’goi.” Then I can speak whichever language I want without coming across as an imperialistic fool.