"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Travel
January 13, 2011

Assumptions

There is nothing more droll and jejune than being caught up in someone else’s cultural assumptions and prejudices. You struggle to decide between laughing it off or pointing out the naivety of the situation, but either way, it is an arid and annoying experience. Here in Hong Kong it is a common thing for people […]

There is nothing more droll and jejune than being caught up in someone else’s cultural assumptions and prejudices. You struggle to decide between laughing it off or pointing out the naivety of the situation, but either way, it is an arid and annoying experience.

Here in Hong Kong it is a common thing for people to make assumptions about you, just because you are a Westerner; perhaps the worst assumption being that all Westerners are the same. Take food: I’ve often heard the claim that Westerners don’t eel, for example. Where does that come from? Leaving aside the important role of Eel in the colonial diet of the US, or the famous Eel dishes of London – just think of the role that Eel plays in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese cuisine, to name just a few.

Then there’s the assumption that Westerners never venture off Hong Kong Island, spending all their time in a small number of entertainment precincts. Granted, some people do fit that description; rarely taking a ferry or MTR, spending every spare night in Lan Kwai Fong, Soho or Wan Chai. But, importantly for me, those folks are not the kind I would socialise with in any city, not just Hong Kong.

My experience (along with the experience of a lot of ex-pats I know) is quite different. When I’m browsing music or photo gear, it is always on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. My favourite shopping malls are off the Island (Harbour City and Festival Walk). Same goes for my favourite Indian restaurant, favourite theatre, favourite park and for a while, my favourite cafe.

I was pondering this earlier in the week on my way to some meetings in Kwai Fong, near the container port. It was one of those trips where I was the only western face on the train and the area I was visiting seemed equally devoid of westerners – at least on street level.

As I’ve mentioned before, it is alarming to meet Westerners who’ve been here a while, yet have no Chinese friends. Quite frankly, that’s not an “ex-pat” thing, because everyone I knew in Delhi, who spent a few years there, developed “local” friends.

I don’t claim to understand Hong Kong all that well. Living here for four and half years has given me plenty of experiences and I try, on occasion to write about them. But, this was never meant to be a “Hong Kong” blog. I started this blog before I moved here and it will continue after I leave. All the cities I’ve lived in before Hong Kong – Sydney, London, Delhi – had their appealing and undesirable aspects. A thoughtful blog will be honest about that and highlight the whole spectrum of what we experience, good and bad, pleasing and disappointing.

So, in the meantime I’ll do my best to steer clear of the assumption-makers and enjoy everything the breadth of this city has to offer – including the upcoming Hong Kong Arts Festival!

Responses
Spike 12 years ago

It’s probably inescapable but this sort of post does put you dangerously close to Hemlock’s “I’m so much better than everyone else” territory. My thought is that it’s only the short-timers, the expats who are here for just a year or two, who make little attempt to integrate themselves into local culture. But there are so many of them that we all get tarred with the same brush.

I do know what you mean about the food thing. My example is that the only fried rice I ever order is the one with chicken and salty fish, and almost every time I order it the waiter tries to steer me to something else, telling me that foreigners don’t like the salty fish and I tell him it’s fine if he leaves out the chicken and puts in double the fish.

At any rate, I’m curious to know which is your favorite Indian restaurant!

    Fernando Gros 12 years ago

    Spike, I’m not going to win any awards for humility with this post, for sure. But, I’m going to continue to stick my neck out and say that the greatest arrogance rests in those who attach labels in superficial and unexamined ways.

    And, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know better than me by saying that the way people move varies a lot, depending on background, experience and situation. For us, the original plan was a two to three year move. So, I was doing things in ’07 based on the assumption I’d be gone before the end of ’09. But, then I had to make changes and in ’09, my focus become different and more localised. Of course, if I had known in ’06 that I’d still be here in ’11, then I would have started out on a different foot. Such is life.

    Then again, for others the lines are far more blurred. Does anyone use the term gweilocal? Perhaps they should.

    As for food, well the funny thing is that a lot of things, like fish heads, pig cheeks, eels, etc is closer to the kind of food I grew up with than the simplified British/American cuisine some folks assume I want. So, yeah, hold the chicken and give me the salty fish as well.

    Anyway, Gaylord, is my favourite Indian in Hong Kong. I’ve yet to find a place that really brings back memories of Delhi, but at least the food these guys serves (and same goes for Woodland) is closer to the mark than the British takeout style Indian some other places serve.

Chris B 12 years ago

I’m vegetarian and get told “what you eat no meat?” er yeah I just told you I’m vegetarian hahaahahahhahahaha

I like a couple of the Indian places in Chung King and I like Bombay Dreams in Wyndham St. hahahahaha

Sanjay Ponnapa 12 years ago

I feel that language is the greatest barrier here in HK. One that often prohibits us from breaking cultural boundaries. There is much to be said for those that make the difficult effort to learn Cantonese. I am guilty of not having made enough of an effort but do notice the ease on the faces of locals when I manage to slur the occasional word.

On the Indian food front, I was raised in a traditional Indian home in New Zealand by a mother who was focused on health and food. She had the reputation of being the best cook in the local Indian community. One well known secret was her use of an appropriate olive oil instead of ghee, though a little dabble of ghee was always welcome on rice as a table treat. I have eaten at many well known Indian restaurants outside of India and generally find them to be of a low standard, full of oil and every dish often cooked with the same base.
Indian food can usually only be prepared well in the home. Preparation time is lengthy, it must be made from scratch. No pre made sauces and ideally a garam masala which has been ground just prior to cooking.
Six months ago i was surprised to find a restaurant in Hong Kong called Guru (13 Elgin St). Each dish is distinct, tasty and healthy. Only olive oil is used. It is the only Indian restaurant I have ever eaten in which I would recommend. In fact I eat there at least once a week. Please do try it.

    Fernando Gros 12 years ago

    Sanjay – thanks for the comment. I will try that restaurant in the coming weeks!

    I know what you mean about Indian restaurants. All too often the food I eat, be it in Hong Kong, London or wherever, bears only the faintest resemblance to what I used to eat living in Delhi. Typically the Biriyani, Tandoor and Dhal dishes were lighter, fresher and zingier that anything similar outside the country. That said, I don’t want to rhapsodise too much, as I often saw people using prepackaged Masala in their homes and chain restaurants and shopping mall food courts are dumbing down cuisine in the Metros. Still, I was pleased when visiting book stores and reading magazines back in September, that a lot of effort is going into developing healthy recipes.

    In an interesting way Indian food internationally seems to me to share a lot of the same challenges that another favourite cuisine of mine faces – Mexican. Many people think they know Mexican food, but really what they know is a version of Mexican, popularised in the US. On top of that, there are whole trends of contemporary Mexican (and other Latin American) cuisine that are pretty much unknown in much of Asia and Europe.

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