Monday, October 5, 2009


           Hong Kong is a CHC, Confucian Heritage Culture.  I mention this not because I’ve developed a sudden HK appreciation for CUA (completely unnecessary acronyms), but because it helps explain some of those elements of Hong Kong that might confuse us, or—more to the point—annoy the living crap out of us. 

CHC consists of three goals:  Inner Harmony, Social Harmony, and Structural Harmony.

The first of these is so foreign to this me that I’m not even going to address it, other than to say that as far as I can figure, it has to do with laying off the caffeine and not using Facebook to seek out old girlfriends—much less cyberstalking them until your boss takes your computer away, calling you “immature,” “irresponsible” and “an embarrassment to your sex” (which, given the likes of Glenn Back, is taking it a bit far if you ask me). 

Social harmony moves the circle out from the self to ones relations with others. Social harmony involves things like not rolling your eyes and muttering “So much for going up,” when a fat person starts to get on the elevator.  More specifically, social harmony involves matters of face—namely, allowing others to keep theirs.  As my friend William put it recently, it’s not necessarily about what you say, as how you say it.  While social harmony can be useful in that people tend to not call each other rat-faced bastards and seldom say things like “Look, here comes old mushed monkey brains.  I wonder what asinine thing he’s going to say now?” it can be a pain in the butt at other times.  Consider, for instance, that in Chinese culture it’s not appropriate to just tell someone, “No.” 

“Can I have the last cookie?”

“Perhaps it would be best if you left this cookie.”

“Really? Why?  Is it magic?  Will it turn me into a prince?  ‘Cause I would really like to be a prince, you know, with Prince Valiant hair, and a crown, and a pony.  Course, I’m kind of scared of ponies, ever since that one bit me when I was trying to pinch it for no reason.”

The tricky thing about face is that you never know if someone is trying to save yours.  For example, last week me and the rest of the Fulbrighters attended a weekend-long retreat at some place in the woods that I can’t remember the name of but from which, it appears, I’ve been banned for life.  Anyhow, before what will upon the advice of my lawyers forthwith be referred to simply as “the incident,” I heard all this stuff about CHC and thought, “Dang!  So that’s why no one’s returning my calls!”  Anyhow, once I made bail, I returned to campus determined to put into practice everything I’d been told.  In fact, I went straight to my boss and told her what I’d learned. 

“And I think,” I told her, after I’d explained it all—leaving out the stuff about the summonses, of course—“I need to start paying more attention to protocol.  And not, you know, calling people snot-face and stuff.”

“This is very interesting,” she said, “but not necessarily so.  It depends upon what circles you are moving in.”

I felt better after she said this, and headed back to my office.  But then it occurred to me that maybe she just said that to, you know, save my face.  I mean, it makes sense, right?  Tell me what I need to hear to stop feeling like such a jerk? 

And this, in a nutshell, is the problem with social harmony:  you never know what the heck is going on.  Which, if you ask me, is a bit too much like being back in college and drinking too much ouzo before going up to Carrie-Anne Matthews who’ve you’ve had a crush on for two months and asking if you can lick her face and then she gets all huffy and you can’t tell if it’s real huffy or just pretend huffy, because you know, there’s a difference and everything and one is good and one is bad and how’s a 22-year-old with his head swimming from aniseed-laced liquor supposed to tell the difference? 


The third area, structural harmony, really expands to cover a lot of territory.  Basically, though, what it comes down to is respecting the structures. particularly hierarchical, that have been set in place.  In practical terms, this means following the rules, no matter how stupid they are.  My colleague Eugene points out that in HK, civil servants are paid extremely well—and not one of them has ever been fired for following the rules.  

This is important to remember, because at times, Hong Kong seems to run on rules that are so archaic and so just plain peculiar, that you can’t imagine what whoever wrote them was thinking. 

Case in point.  Last Thursday was the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.  In Chinese culture the character for China 60 signifies the completion of one cycle and the beginning of another; as such, the Chinese treat 60-year celebrations the way we would centennials.  In short, last Thursday was a big deal.  We don’t have a TV in our flat, but most of the MTRs are fitted out with screens, and most of the day Thursday these screens were filled with images of thousands upon thousands of People’s Liberation Army troops marching back and forth in front of that big red building on Tiananmen Square, the name of which I’m entirely too lazy to look up—but you know the one:  it’s big and red and would look like an oversized Pizza Hut if it weren’t for the picture of Mao on the front (though in parts of Vermont, this is exactly what most Pizza Huts look like). 

Anyhow, image after image flashed across the screeen:  troops goosestepping in acrobatic precision, tanks hauling missiles before a grand stand, women “soldiers” with red mini-skirts, shapely legs, and white go-go boots (I am NOT making this up!) carrying rifles as various high-party officials tried not to drool too visibly. 

But most of all, the TV stations showed images of Hu Jintao, the current chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, being carried from one end of the square to the other and back in a big black Hongqi limousine.  Hu is standing in the limo’s sun roof, arms at his side, back ramrod straight, visible only from the waist up, looking for all the world like an inflatable “Rock’em Sock’em” punching bag I used to have when I was a kid, that when you hit it in the face would flop backward until it met the floor, then boomerang back to take another beating.

Not that Hu was taking any sort of beating.  He was staring straight ahead, moving not an inch—even his hair seemed made of hard shiny plastic.  Every so office his jaw would work and the words, “Greetings Comrades,” would boom over the loudspeaker.  To which 8,000 soldiers (and 1,000 dancers and models in go-go boots) would respond, “Greetings Leader.”

(Seriously, the next day the South China Morning Post wrote, “Hu appeared solemn in the live television broadcast, without a trace of a smile on his face.  But when the blocks of service and militiawomen, who were wearing red miniskirts, berets and mid-calf boots filed past, his face broke into a grin.”)

I’ll admit that I found Hu’s lack of emotion peculiar.  Horny grins aside, he looked so uncomfortable, so unnatural, so surreal.  These days in the US, leaders do everything they can to seem one of the masses:  loosening their ties, rolling up their sleeves, revving up their chainsaws, and widening their stance in the bathroom stall.  Who on earth would vote for a man who looked like he’d been shellacked?

Oh wait:  did I just say “vote”?

Let me put it another way:  why would standing stock still in what looks to the west like a stunningly artificial attitude gain the respect of the masses? 

Answer:   because it shows inner harmony. 

Now I get it. 


But that’s not where I was going here.  I was discussing structural harmony.  While I’m neither here nor there regarding the founding of the PRC 60 years ago, I am the father of three small children, so when someone told me there were going to be fireworks to celebrate the day, Ellen and I packed up the kids and headed down to Kowloon.

We made it to the harbor in plenty of time and went right down by the water.  Ellen, though, was nervous about the trip back and kept wondering if we shouldn’t position ourselves a half-block back, where there was a raised walkway and easier access to the MTR stations.  Lucy had to go to the bathroom anyhow, so she and I strolled across the massive footbridge over Salisbury Road.  Once on the other side, it took us a good 10 minutes to find the bathrooms.  But the real problem started when we tried to re-cross the footbridge and join Ellen and the two boys. 

Gathered at the entrance to the bridge was a mass of people, grumbling quietly.  It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on:  a half-dozen Hong Kong police had strung plastic tape across the entrance and weren’t letting anyone cross. 

“What’s going on?” Lucy asked. 

“They closed the bridge.”


Good question.  The term “footbridge” is deceptive here:  this was no gigged up rope ladder with slats of wood that’d send you tumbling to your death if you miss-stepped an inch or two to the left.  No, this thing was as wide as a football field, made of concrete, and supported by pillars as thick around as Hilary Clinton’s calves.  It could have easily held two semi-tractor trailer trucks side by side, with room to spare for Rush Limbaugh’s big fat head (just to be non-partisan in my insults). 

“Don’t worry about it,” I said to Lucy, and hefted her onto my hip before elbowing my way through the crowd.  I find, when asking for help from anyone, it helps to have a six-year old blonde girl with blue eyes the size of tea saucers looking woeful beside you. 

Once I made my way to the front, I tapped the nearest policeman on the shoulder.

“The bridge is closed,” he said.  He didn’t even turn. 

I tapped him again.  I mean, what good is a blondie if he’s not looking?  “I’m sorry,” I said, “but my family’s on the other side.”

“It’s closed,” he said, but this time he looked.  He threw a glance at me, then his eyes settled on Lucy.  He smiled.  Here we go, I thought. 

“I understand that,” I said, trying to sound rueful and worried.  “But my wife, you see, she’s on the other side.  With my children.   My other children.  Including my baby,” I threw in, deciding to go all out.

The cop chucked Lucy under the chin, trying to see if he could get her to laugh.  She just gave him a look like ‘What the hell?’ and I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t pinch her where he couldn’t see to bring tears to her eyes.  “They can come this way,” he said, “but no one goes that way.”

I tried not to snort.  “Excuse me?”

His eyes turned to me.  “They can come this way,” he repeated slowly, as though talking to the victim of a tragic accident involving a javelin and a clown hat.  “But no one crosses over.”

“Well that doesn’t make any sense,” I said.  “People weigh the same walking one way as they do the other.”

“But then,” said the cop, “we’ll have to let everyone across.” 

I looked around at the docile crowd.  I couldn’t imagine folks raised on the idea of social harmony getting up in arms because some dumb white guy with his stupid kid was allowed to go back to his family.   “No you won’t,” I said.  “Not unless everyone else has a wife and two kids waiting for them on the other side of the bridge.”

“No,” he said, “Too many people on the bridge and it will be dangerous.”

“I’m not saying you have to let too many people on the bridge.  Just me and my daughter,” who, I wanted to add, has blonde blonde hair and blue eyes the size of tea saucers.  And damn, she was getting heavy.

He shook his head.  “Too dangerous.”

Seriously, if my hands had been free—dang, what did she have for dinner, lead?—I would have grabbed his ears and used them to slap his slack-jawed face raw. 

“So I can’t go over there?” I said.

He nodded.

“But they can come over here?”

Another nod. 

“Even though there’s three of them and only two of us?”

Again, a nod.

“Do the laws of physics not apply in this country?”

He frowned, gave me a look. 

“Listen,” I said.  “Just let me through.  My wife is over there with two of our kids.  It’s hot.  It’s late.  I want to see the fireworks.  Please let me through.”

He just shook his head.  He’d been given his orders and he was going to stick with them, no matter how stupid they were.  Because no one in Hong Kong gets fired for following orders.

Knowing I was just seconds from committing a homicide in front of 300,000 witnesses, I turned and made my way back through the crowd.  Lucy and I trotted down the raised walkway, past the bathrooms (she had to go again), and down a flight of stairs to where there was an MTR entrance that led under the road.  All I had to do, I figured, was go down one side, cross under, and up the other, then make my way along the opposite sidewalk back into the arms of my sweaty wife and two tired and grumpy sons. 

But no.  The police had closed that MTR entrance, as well as the one across the street.  Indeed, two hours later when the fireworks were over, we’d return down these very stairs to discover that, instead of letting a crowd of some hundreds of thousands make their way into the subway using three separate entrances and thereby relieving some of the congestion, the police would allow access to the trains through a single entrance only.  The crowds would be as thick and packed as any I’d ever seen in my life, so much so that Ellen and I would wrap our fists into the cloth of the kids’ shirts, afraid that if we lost them they’d get crushed. 

At this point, though, all I knew was that Lucy and I couldn’t get back to the rest of the family.  In fact, once we get back up the stairs I realized that no one could cross the street.  Looking over the edge of the walkway, I saw a steady stream of people being herded down the left side of Salisbury road away from the harbor and the fireworks display.  The right side of the road also appeared to be blocked to traffic—no cars roared past—but it was entirely empty.  What was happening was more than I could decipher, but it appeared that the some higher up had decided that the best way to control the crowd was to make sure that there was no crowd, that everyone who wanted to view the fireworks actually spent their evening having coffee in a Starbucks somewhere near the Chinese border.  There was, of course, a certain wisdom to this, but it was one too twisted and—well, insane—for me to really admire it. 

In the end, Lucy and I are forced to make our way back along the walkway to where the crowd is gathered at the footbridge.  Reluctantly, I call Ellen and inform her that we can’t come back, that, alas, we are pyrotechnic Diaspora, forced to wander in the HK wilderness for years to come, eating nothing but fish balls and those little custard cups they seem to serve everywhere, including at KFC. 

We consider our options for a few minutes and hang up.  Then Lucy and I wait in the humid night, the dull glow of a streetlamp shining down on us as we cling to one another, human flotsam in the backwash of life.  Eventually we see the elevator on the other side of the footbridge rise.  The doors open.  There’s a pause, then someone steps out.  Someone in a striped shirt, someone four-foot tall, someone whose surly self-pitying posture I recognize even from here, a hundred yards away.  It’s Will.  Tears come to my eyes.  Then there’s another pause and Ellen pushes the stroller bearing our youngest son onto the unforgiving concrete walkway of the footbridge. 

“Look,” I whisper to Lucy.  “It’s your mother.”

We cling to each other in an even more clingy way, barely willing to believe that what we’ve hoped for for so long is actually about to happen. 

Slowly, the three figures make their way past the policeman on the other side, men whose lives are as barren and heartless as the double mocha lattes they swirl in the Styrofoam cups in their hands.  Then Ellen and the boys are into the no man’s land stretching across Salisbury Road, with its half-empty lanes, concrete pylons, and misplaced associations with Peter Gabriel.  Lucy and I watch, breath held, though we don’t know that it’s held, and won’t know it until minutes later when we let it out and realize that we’ve been holding it.  But that’s in a few minutes, not now.  Right now, we’re clinging to each other, and holding our breath, and not knowing it, and sweating like the dickens under those damn streetlights, and watching the three people we love most, especially when Ellen’s cooked a supper that doesn’t suck and the two boys are playing quietly or doing their homework instead of running around screaming like idiots—we’re standing there waiting for these three people to cross this concrete waste land and step into our arms. 

And then they arrive, just like that, almost as if they’ve been walking while I’ve been thinking deep and philosophical thoughts.   The guard lifts the plastic tape, tousles Will’s head and lets Ellen through.  She lifts the stroller up the few stairs that divide us, and then our eyes meet.  Relief floods my heart, like ice cream that’s been sitting in the trunk of the car for too long.  She gazes at me carefully, searching my face, wondering, I’m sure, if time has ravaged my heart as well as my visage.  “Don’t worry,” I want to tell her, “it’s just too much spray-on tan,” but the words catch in my throat.  She draws nearer and I reach out a hand, eager to feel her touch.  She takes a breath, about to speak honeyed words, and as she does so, she hands me a diaper bag.

“Better get Jamie to a bathroom quick,” she says.  “I think he needs to poo.”


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