I met him on my third day in Hong Kong.
Coming out of the elevator, he sat at a tiny little desk next to an open closet door that I suspect holds a television and maybe some surveillance cameras. Maybe in his early 60, with thin, slicked-back greying hair, his button down shirt had bright green palm trees all over it. He smiled broadly at me.
"Hello!" I said to him cheerily, preparing myself for the task to come.
"Hello!" he answered in Cantonese, bright, open, welcoming. He proceeded to ask me in Cantonese how I was doing, and I responded that I was well. He expected the exchange to be over from there, that I'd move on, and he'd never have to talk to me again. But I just stood there smiling, blinking and sweating.
In that one awkward pause, I shoved both of us into a friendship neither of us were really all that excited about at the time.
His name is Mr. Yue, and on that first morning with him, I had to explain to him that I'd be moving a couch and chest of drawers into my new apartment. Not knowing the rules of the building, my cousin (who gave me the couch and chest of drawers) told me that I had to warn the security guard about the furniture coming in — in case it held up the elevator. Made sense to me.
But with only my crappy Cantonese to do the talking, would it make sense to Mr. Yue?
My building is a small, old, slightly rundown building in a traditionally local Chinese part of Hong Kong. The building is clean and comfortable, and by no means fancy. Much like Mr. Yue.
While many of the security guards I've met at the "glass and marble" high rises in Hong Kong speak both English and Cantonese so as to accommodate locals and expats alike, I doubt Mr. Yue has ever had the need to cultivate English in this neighborhood, let alone in this building.
More than that, I doubt he's ever had to deal with an anxious American such as myself who, despite loads of effort, still cannot control THE VOLUME OF HER VOICE when she's nervous.
As I write up this first exchange, I can't help but think, "Poor Mr. Yue." I think this all the time.
But there I was, on Mr. Yue's turf. All I had to do was tell him that I would be coming back in about an hour with three large pieces of furniture, and that I'd need to use the elevator. Would that be OK with him?
It's sounds so easy right?
I knew the words, could hear them in my head, could hear the tones. But as I stood in front of Mr. Yue, his smile sliding into concern as I stood there gathering my Cantonese powers for 1…2…3….4….5 seconds, my own smile starting to look like I just wanted to show the nice man all my pretty teeth, I felt my confidence waver.
"JUST TALK HUNG! SAY ANYTHING! ANYTHING!!!" My brain shrieked at me.
"Uhhh…I live here." Good job, Lou. Next, why don't you explain to him that you have arms.
He smiled, still unsure what was happening. "Yes. You moved in!"
"Yes. I'm Louise, this is my husband Mr. Louise [not his real name]. We are…bringing…a couch. Here."
Looking from my husband to me, he nodded and said, "A couch. OK." There was no mistaking his subtext: "And why are you telling me this?"
"And…and…" Oh shit. I forgot how to say chest of drawers and elevator and…"We'll be back with…stuff…"
Mr. Yue shrugged and smiled again. "OK. How do you want me to help you?" He asked me carefully in Cantonese.
"I don't need you to help me. I'm sorry! We'll just back back with furniture in one hour…and we'll need to…to…go up…" I pointed to the elevator.
"You'll need to use the elevator? For your couch and stuff? OK…no problem!" And he saluted me. He does this from time to time, I'm still not sure why.
"Yes! Thank you! ELEVATOR!" I was so happy to be reminded of the word "elevator" I think I shouted it at him. "I'm sorry! Thank you so much! We'll be back! Bye!" I grabbed my husband and ran out the front door of our building.
Everything else went off without a hitch. We got the furniture from my cousin, a guy who worked for her drove it back to our apartment in his van, Mr. Yue met us at the door and helped usher our "furniture and stuff" into the building.
Poor Mr. Yue.
Determined to not to be "that scary lady" in the building, I decided to visit Mr. Yue again the next morning with some goodies, good will and some intelligible language.
When Mr. Yue saw me again that morning, I could almost see him rear back a little waiting to see what the toothy, loud American had in store for him that day. When I handed him the box of cookies I'd gotten for him, he looked at me curiously.
The mantra, "DON'T BE SCARY, BE COOL" ran on repeat in my head as I spoke to Mr. Yue in a carefully controlled normal volume level.
"Thank you for helping me yesterday morning. My Cantonese is not so good and I just moved here. Thank you so much for being nice to me. I hope you like cookies?"
A big smile spread across his tan, surprisingly smooth for his years, face. He bowed his head at me, and saluted again. "Thank you!" he said loudly in English. Then in Cantonese, "Your Cantonese isn't so bad!"
It was a lie, but I appreciated the sentiment so much I almost cried.
Since then, Mr. Yue has been a bright spot in my Hong Kong life. When I leave in the morning, he's unwavering with a smile or well wish for the day. When I come back in the evening, if he's there (sometimes I miss him), I look forward to our little chats.
"How are you? How was your day? Where do you like to eat lunch? Have you tried the Vietnamese place across the street?" I ask.
Always willing to answer my questions, he responds enthusiastically, quick with a chuckle. While our topics of conversation revolve around the weather, food, how well we're doing that day, the annoying elevator, or the cute dogs that occasionally come through the lobby, my interactions with Mr. Yue are dear to me.
From a language standpoint, he's the perfect practice buddy. While he's always patient, if I mispronounce something or say the wrong word, he flat out can't understand me — and can't explain to me in English what my mistake is. So I have to figure it out.
Once, when talking to him, I asked him if he lived close by.
"What? What?" he said, his eyes saying, "You know not what you say."
It wasn't until later that I realized that I'd asked him something closer to, "Are there pigs close by here?"
There are not.
But Mr. Yue is more than a language buddy. When I spend the day roaming about the city getting barked at by Chinese and English speakers alike for being in someone's way, going too slow, or not knowing the right words for things, seeing Mr. Yue that night or the next morning is a reminder that not everyone in Hong Kong hates me.
Somehow this older gentleman, a man I have nothing in common with and barely a shared language, has decided to be kind to me. It's this generosity of spirit that lingers with me far beyond our small talk.
And while I'm still figuring out my Hong Kong home, I owe a large part of starting to feel settled here to Mr. Yue. Despite my barnyard animal questions and ongoing battle with the VOLUME of MY voice, I'd like to think that Mr. Yue and I have built some sort of bizarre, Mr. Wilson-and-Denise-the-Menace-like friendship. I hope deep down he's at least entertained by me.
Plus, Mr. Yue has given me a goal. Before I leave Hong Kong, I am determined to be able to tell Mr. Yue, in just the right words, exactly how important he's been to me. And more than anything, I hope he understands.