I’m not known for my subtlety.
Let me rephrase that: that I can even spell the word subtle is some kind of miracle, because subtle is the antithesis of me. I am the anti-subtle. I am Satan with a pitchfork and boombox, to subtle’s sublimely thoughtful Jesus Christ cuddling a baby lamb.
Mmmm . . . lamb. Yummy.
I mention this, because my official task is to serve as a general education consultant to my host institution. More accurately, I’m supposed to spend 50% of my working hours helping my home school, and the other 50% working with the other seven Hong Kong universities that are shifting from a three-year British system that does not have general education, to a four-year American system that does.
I’ve learned many things during my first three weeks in Hong Kong. I’ve learned that the Hong Kong people are incredibly insanely kind and generous. I’ve learned that egg plant prepared with preserved fish and ground pork can be delicious. I’ve learned that digital cameras actually cost more here than in the US. I’ve learned to always look to the right when you cross the road.
And I’ve learned that consulting does not come naturally to me.
And that I’m not subtle. Have I mentioned that?
When I was writing my application for this Fulbright last year, I remember including a list of the many roles I saw myself playing: resource man, ideas guy, mediator, hermaphrodite, Bruce Willis wannabe. “Most importantly, though,” I wrote, in my desperate quest to get money so I could spend a year eating dim sum, “most importantly, my job will be to listen.”
Man, that so has not happened.
Partially, this is not my fault. Partially it is. On the “not my fault” side of things is the fact that the director of our program made a point of telling us to get to work immediately. “You only have a year,” he said, “You can’t wait until January, getting a feel for the territory, then start pitching in. They want you to hear your ideas. So tell them your ideas.”
And then he went one step further and pointed at me. “You,” he said, “are at a school that only gets one Fulbrighter. Every other school might have another one next year, or might have had one last year, but for your school, you’re it: four years of work in one year.”
Um . . .
On the “is my fault” side, is the fact that, damn, I’m old. And I’m tired. And I have three kids here with me, and geez Louise, if it gets any hotter I’m going to start walking around in my jockey shorts with popsicles strapped to my chest. It takes energy to be a good listener, and man, I just don’t have any . . .. Which is a pathetic excuse, I know, but you try living in a time zone where all your friends are asleep when you’re awake and you have to wear three shirts a day just to keep from showing up for meetings dripping—and I do mean dripping. Added to this is just the fact that it’s hard—and I mean, headache-inducing, energy-draining, flat out hard—to be in an entirely different place dealing with an entirely different culture. I mean, when you’ve only been there for two weeks, going to the grocery store and picking out toothpaste is hard enough, much less reading the nuances of interpersonal dialogue, the subtle shifts and grimaces that might signal the difference between utter intellectual engagement with a new idea, and you-stupid-white-boy frustration.
Mostly, though, my lack of subtlety is due to my colleagues: at my very first meeting, discussing the overall goals for the general education program, Anita, the chair of the GE program, started the meeting by turning to me and saying, “So, we want to hear what you think about these.”
I adore Anita. She’s stunningly smart, and stunningly dedicated to her work and her family. When she talks to you, she always leans forward and always looks you in the eye. I would hurl myself in front of a herd of stampeding rabbits for Anita. But I had my vision, I knew who I was, I wasn’t about to go trampling all over her and her staff like a typical American bully.
“Actually,” I replied, “I’m curious to hear what everyone else thinks first.”
Anita gestured to herself and her staff. “When you sent us comments about these outcomes two weeks ago, we saw you were talking about it in ways we didn’t even understand. Clearly, we need your help. “
“Now don’t be silly,” I responded, all Zen and lamb-cuddly and serene, the wise and great ear who would listen and was wise and would listen wisely in a serene kind of cuddly way. Thoughtful, too. Like Buddha, only in khakis. “You’re all very smart here. I’m sure you have some interesting ideas. I’d like to hear them.”
“No,” said Anita. “We need your help.”
“You go first,” I responded.
“No,” she said, her teeth gritting slightly. “You.”
“Don’t wanna,” I said.
“Can’t make me.”
“Uh-huh,” she said. Then she reached over and gave me a nipple twist, right through my shirt, right in front of everyone.
“I’m telling!” I cried.
Anyhow, once I’d stopped weeping, we launched into a discussion of the course goals (outcomes, in official academic bureaucrat-ese). It was a lively discussion, ranging from the incredibly specific (do we use the word “analyze” or “assess”) to the very broad (What is the purpose of general education? To not end up delivering pizzas, we eventually decided). I talked a lot, sure, but so did everyone else. We played with wordings a lot, trying to be specific enough to be helpful, and but not so specific as to restrict teachers teaching the courses. Sometimes my wordings won. Sometimes they did not.
Throughout, I’ll admit, I kept feeling myself wanting to hold back, to clam it up. When I was in grad school, I sat next to a guy who scribbled NASGDW at the top of his notebook every day. Finally, half-way through the semester, I leaned over and asked him what it was. He looked at me and smiled a little. Then he spelled it out, word by word: Not Another Single God Damn Word. I understood. Like me, he was one of those people for whom not speaking was actually physically painful—and I really do mean this; when I have an idea bouncing around in my head, when there’s something in there that I want to share—I almost instantly know exactly how to say it, what words to use, what tone of voice. And to not say it hurts. The words sit on my tongue, weighted, bulbous, wanting to get out. My stomach starts to ache, like I’m constipated, maybe, or about to throw up. It’s not that I think my words are better than anyone else’s, because I don’t. It’s just that I want to—need to—get them out of me.
So, 10 days into my year in Hong Kong, three days after my wife had returned from her father’s funeral, in the very first hour of my very first meeting, I just said what I thought.
And it pissed someone off.
It wasn’t evident at first. I’d been keeping my eye on a person to my right, worried that she seemed to be growing wary of my encouragement, slightly weary of my suggestions. Then the person to my left—with whom I’d openly disagreed, and he with me, but with whom I seemed to have a good rapport—turned to me and said: “First of all.” And then he said it again, “First of all,” and then he corrected my pronunciation of the school we were at. And I don’t mean the Cantonese name. I mean, the English name.
It was an honest mistake, I’d been making, but it was a mistake, and in some ways it was a pretty stupid one. So he was right. But man, did my face burn. We’re talking, you could’ve roasted chestnuts off my cheeks. You could’ve melted glaciers. Pamela Anderson and her various augmented body parts would have turned to slushy goo were I merely to glance her way.
After that opener, which generally hushed the room, he went on to list two or three other points of mine with which he’d disagreed. They were solid points, but I had an answer for every one. I didn’t give those answers, of course. I just kept my head down, fingering the spiral of my notebook. It was such an obvious move on his part—so deliberately intended to undermine my credibility in every way—that it was almost shocking. I haven’t learned yet just how much the idea of saving face is valued in Hong Kong culture, but at that particular moment, I utterly understood the concept: my face was not mine. It was red, and hot, and shameful, and everyone in the room could see it. Even worse, of course, having a bald head doesn’t even allow me to duck my face down, as even my dome turns crimson when I blush. One more reason for buying that blue wig with the peacock feathers.
The conversation went on. Soon there was a break and I stepped out into the hall to get a drink of water, forgetting there are no water fountains in HK (I’m not sure if this, like the double chopsticks at the table, is post SARS or just common sense). Heading down the stairs, I heard a shout and turned to see William, the guy who’d made me cry.
“I’ll join you for a drink,” he said. I waited until he caught up, and then we walked down the stairs and into a late afternoon blast of heat.
“It’s funny you should mention Cambridge,” he said as we strolled through the open-air concourse under the buildings. “Because I attended there for a while.”
“I know,” I said.
He looked at me startled. “How did you know?”
“I could hear it in your voice. You sound like you’ve been to Cambridge.”
He stared at me. “No!”
I nodded, too tired to explain the truth, which was that hints of upper-crust Britain occasionally dotted his speech, and I could tell it wasn’t Oxford so figured it must be Cambridge.
We got a couple bottles of Perrier and headed back to our building, chatting about minor stuff that I can’t remember. Just as we reached the door, he said, “Sorry I gave you a hard time in there.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“I like to play devil’s advocate.”
“That’s good,” I said. “It makes for a better discussion.”
He nodded and we headed back up the stairs and into the air conditioning.
It’s entirely possible, I suppose, that his apology was another cultural move that I don’t understand—that, having offended me so publicly, he’d violated some socio-behavioral norm and felt the need to compensate, even if he was being insincere. The problem, I’m finding, is that I can’t tell what is real Hong Kong culture, and what is me thinking something is cultural. Are my colleagues being sincere when they are frank with me, or are they only acting that way because I’m an American and they know they can? When I say something I think is meaningful, are they silent and nodding in assent because they really do agree, or are they just refusing to shame me to my face by voicing disagreement? It doesn’t help that I need to figure all of this out on the run, that within a week of arriving I’d had to learn where to buy food and how to use the cooker and be gentle with my wife as she mourned the passing of the first of our parents, that I’d put two kids in an entirely new school (one as a kindergartner), that I didn’t have a car and don’t know the language, that I’m away from people who know me and who, if they don’t like me at least tolerate me and assume that my social gaffs are well intentioned if not well executed.
So was he being sincere?
I don’t know. But I’ve been here only three weeks, and I’m going to be here another 37. So I’m going to go with yes.
It’s the only thing I can do.