Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Colonialism in a Nutshell


It’s January, and I’ve just accepted an offer to serve as a consultant to the General Education program at my host institution.  These duties are in addition to my Fulbright work, so it means I have to go to the human resources office and sign a new contract. 

Everything goes perfectly fine:  I’m told of my additional wages, the length of my contract, and of the fact that, should I need to leave before my 30 June end-date, my pay will be pro-rated. 

Then the HR guy asks to clarify something:  “The date of your Fulbright began on 25 August.”

I nod.  That sounds about right. 

He nods.  “So the end date is 25 June?”

Yes.  It’s a 10-month grant.

He smiles kindly.  “Your housing, it is paid for with your grant.  It should expire on the 25th.  But we will not worry about this.”

I hadn’t even realized that I’d been holding my breath, that the pressure had been rising in my chest until he said those last few words and all the air came rushing out.  20 years ago, when I’d returned to England after a year’s absence, I’d been denied a debit card by NatWest, because I’d left the country with an overdraft, this despite that the last thing I did before leaving was make a large deposit wiping out all but a paltry 13 pence:  about a quarter, in US terms.  Might as well have been 13,000 pounds.  This was England, after all, where rules are rules. 

And Hong Kong, of course, learned its math from England.  In my few months in here, I’d learned that rules were rules in HK as well—even when there’s ample evidence that they should be ignored (see “Is BEA the Spawn of the Devil,” if you think I’m exxagerating). 

So to be given such a gift—5 days of occupancy beyond the terms of my original contract!—was a pleasant shock.

But then the HRO man frowned, taken by a sudden thought:  “Will your family be staying with you?”

No, I told him.  Of course not:  I planned on making them sleep in the parking lot for the last week of our stay in Hong Kong.

Okay, I didn’t actually say that, but I thought it—I mean, of course my family was going to be with me, right? 

When I told HRO man as much, his frown deepened.  After that, I have to admit, I’m not entirely sure what he said, but I’m pretty sure it was something along the lines of, “We will have to look into this.”



It’s a week later, an ugly, dark, cold-to-the-bone January week.  It’s mid-afternoon, and an e-mail from Ellen shows up on my office computer:

Could you get in touch with Gilbert Wong and ask if he can have one of the cleaning ladies open the recycling bins on the 6th floor?  Jamie and I were putting in newspapers and when my back was turned he dropped something that made a loud clunk!  I don’t know what it was, but I know it wasn’t paper and I’m worried it was someone’s keys or a camera or something.

I should take care of this right away, of course, but I don’t.  For one, I’ve got a presidential forum I have to present at the next week, and I need to finish my powerpoint.  For two, I get nervous every time I have to call Gilbert:  he’s the head of the Estate Office, the guy in charge, but whenever I call the help-line to have something repaired in the flat, he answers the phone himself.  This freaks me out.  Doesn’t he have a secretary?  An assistant?  Even an answering machine—there’s nothing worse than interrupting a guy who’s got 13 buildings and 120 employees to manage, just because you need a new light bulb. 

So I don’t call.  Instead, I put my head down and get back to work, hoping that either:  a)  Ellen will figure out what Jamie tossed into the bin and discover it doesn’t matter; or b) she’ll just forget about it, allowing both me and Gilbert Wong to go back to our jobs.


Wishful thinking.  This is Ellen, after all, she of the attention-to-details mein.

I get back to the flat at five.  The sun doesn’t set for another hour or so, but already the sky is a dark and heavy gray.  And it’s begun to drizzle. 

“Did you call Gilbert?” she says first thing when I walk in the door. 

“Ummm . . . “ I say. 

She hands me her cell.  “Call him.”

“It was probably nothing,” I say.  “Probably just a bottle or something.  Even if it was a toy, it was probably just some piece of junk.”

“Call him,” she said.

The annoying thing about having been married to someone for 17 years is that they can tell when you’re being lazy.  I took the phone.

Gilbert picks up.  Of course.

“Hi Gilbert,” I say.  “This is Paul Hanstedt.  In 601.  We were wondering if you could tell us who might have the key for the recycling bins.”

“Excuse me? 

“The recycling bins,” I say again. 

He repeats the phrase, in English. 

“On the eighth floor,” I say. 

“Ah yes,” Gilbert says.  “The eighth floor.” 

“We think our son might have dropped something into one of them.  And we were wondering if someone could come by with the key so that we can get it out.”

“Of the recycling bin,” Gilbert says. 

“Yes.”  Glancing at my watch, I realize it’s now almost 5:15, a quarter of an hour from the end of the business day.  “I’m really sorry to bother you about this,” I say. 

“I’ll be right there.”

“No!” I say.  “You don’t have to come!  Isn’t there someone else?”

But he’s already hung up. 

I turn to Ellen. 

“What did he say?”

“He’s coming.”

She turns as pale as I must look.  If there’s a shade of whiter than white that two Scandinavian-Americans can be in the middle of winter, that’s the color of our skin on this particular January evening. 


Five minutes later, there’s a knock on the door.  It’s Gilbert, of course, in a windbreaker and tie, smiling and friendly behind his glasses and graying temples.

“Hello, Professor,” he says.  This only makes it worse.  In a place where “professor” is a contested term, reserved only for those with 20 books and a speed-dial to Oprah, Gilbert always addresses me this way.  Meanwhile, I feel fairly safe in assuming that he wasn’t one of the lucky few of his graduating class from high school that was able to get a university degree (another system inherited from England).  Consequently, and I suppose ironically, he’s been doomed to spend his life tending to the needs of spoiled academics who don’t know how to fix a leaky toilet or change the lightbulb in their kitchen vent.  This despite the fact that, not having made the 18% cut, it’s still entirely possible that he graduated higher in his class than I did in mine. 

“Hi, Gilbert.”  I step into the cold and wet passageway and lead him up the stairs to the eighth floor, then down the hall.   The whole way, Gilbert strolls beside me, stroking his chin thoughtfully, saying to himself, over and over again, “Recycling bins, recycling bins.”  I don’t understand what’s going on, of course, until we round the corner by the elevators and he looks up, sees the bins, and exclaims:  “Ah!  Recycling bins!”

Fair enough.  I don’t, after all, speak Cantonese, and if I did, my assumption would be that I’d be a good forty years into fluency before someone told me guangdongwa for “recycling.”

“Yes,” I say, spreading my hands broadly.  “Recycling bins.”

Gilbert steps forward.  The bins lids are locked with a complicated bolting system that requires a funky key similar to an allen wrench.  After testing each lid with a small jiggle, Gilbert shakes his head. 

“I do not have the key for these.”

“No problem,” I say.  “Seriously, it’s probably nothing—just a cheap toy, or a toilet paper roll or something.  Let’s just forget about it.”

But he’s already got his iPhone out, is punching in a number. 

“Really,” I say.  “It’s almost five-thirty.  We should—“

But now he’s talking in rapid Cantonese—Cantonese is always rapid—gesturing at the bins, pausing, listening, speaking again, gesturing again.  There’s another pause, during which I’m certain I can hear the person on the other end of the line cursing silently to himself. 

“Honestly,” I begin, but Gilbert has hung up.

“He be here shortly.”  I can only hope whoever “he” is, he is not big and mean and preparing to go home to a young, beautiful wife baking salmon soufflé in nothing but a negligee, making him all the angrier about having to dig a rubber octopus out of a glorified garbage can for a bald fat gweilo.

It’s worse, actually.  “He” is a youngish man in his late twenties with neatly trimmed hair and a custom-made suit.  He glances at me once or twice as Gilbert explains the situation.  I apologize profusely.  Once Gilbert has finished, the fashion model pulls out a string of keys, selects one, and opens the paper bin, where Ellen says she and Jamie were working when something went clunk in the night. 

At this point, I admit, I’m rude:  I push GQ and Gilbert out of the way, refusing to let anyone else perform this part of the job.  Bending in, I see that the bin is 9/10ths empty.  At the bottom lay one or two typewritten pages, several cereal boxes, and a stack of the South China Morning Post.  I don’t see anything that shouldn’t be in there, clunk-wise or other.

Standing on my tiptoes, I try to lengthen my reach so that I can move the cereal boxes, perhaps discover a waylaid diamond engagement ring or Rolex watch that would make this fiasco worthwhile hidden beneath everything.  My fingers, though, stop a good six inches short of the f the pile. 

“Here,” says Gilbert, and he and the handsome young man edge me to one side. 

“No,” I say.  But yet again, it’s too late:  the two of them are lowering the bin to its side.  Here again, I try to get in the way, try to be the one to get his hands dirty, but in the end it’s all three of us down on our knees, on the wet pavement, pulling scraps of paper from the bottom of the barrel.

Nothing evidences itself in our initial go through.  So we begin to sift, lifting each newspaper, each cereal box, each discarded fax and bundle of wet tissue, giving it all a shake to see it anything falls out.

Nothing does. 

“I’m sorry,” I say. 

“No problem,” says Gilbert.  GQ says nothing.  It’s now 5:40, ten minutes past quitting time, on a cold and soggy January afternoon cum evening.  Paper is strewn across the damp concrete.  Our fingers are wet, our nails chipped from scraping the hard ground as we lift and sift. 

“I’m sorry,” I say again.  I could say it twenty more times, and I don’t think it would make me feel any better.  “Why don’t you let me put this stuff back in?  You two can go.  I’ll just shut the lid when I’m done.”

“It’s okay,” Gilbert says. 

“No,” I say.  “Seriously.”  I start to get back on my knees, hoping to position myself so that I can block them as I shift the now soggy piles of mulch back into the bin. 

“No,” Gilbert says by way of reply, and he and GQ somehow spread their elbows, bracing their back toward me so I can’t enter. 

“Let me,” I say.   My forehead is hot.

“No,” says Gilbert. “No.  It’s okay,” he says. 

“Please,” I say.  And:  “I’m sorry.”

But it’s no use.  They keep shoveling, lifting the piles back into the barrel, the wet, soggy masses of newsprint and notebook paper and unpaid bills and snotty tissue rags.  I stand, watching, feeling my face burn, my insides turn with shame as these two men, one older than me, one more nicely dressed than me—both of them wiser and kinder—clean up my mess.       

1 comment:

ChrisD said...

You monster!

Seriously, though I feel you as a fellow American abroad. Sometimes I cringe at the unexpected repercussions of my actions as filtered through the post-colonial lens.