When I don't work from home, I like to hunker down at a coffee shop to (pretend to) work.
OK, I do get a lot of work done in cafes, but they also provide me with a plethora of things to distract me. Some people work best in silence with just the task at hand. I work best with low music, ambient chatter, and the opportunity to people watch at regular intervals. Honestly, I become distracted without distraction.
As wifi-friendly cafes aren't exactly in abundance in Hong Kong, I have a rotation of five different shops that meet my needs. Quite simply my needs are:
2. They don't mind me lingering for a few hours provided I keep buying coffee or snacks. I HATE overstaying my welcome.
3. Music, and other humans working there,too.
Other humans might seem like a no brainer in a coffee shop, but I once went to a cute, little 5th floor cafe where I was the ONLY ONE THERE for three hours. Just me, the barista, and the shop owner.
They stared at me, I stared at them, the shop owner offered me a cookie to break the strangeness. They were so sweet, but it was a bit spooky. And silent.
Why didn't I leave? Because I didn't want to be rude, and I'd also paid for three hours of all-I-could-drink coffee before I realized that I was in the Coffee Shop Hong Kong Forgot.
One of my favorite coffee shops is a two-story place with a little balcony that overlooks the busy street. There's always a great mix of expats and locals tapping away at their computers or having casual coffee meetings.
I rarely speak to anyone, but I've come to recognize a few regulars — folks I've dubbed "Steampunk Sam," "Architect Andy," and "Not My Aunt Molly" — and we are a considerate, respectful bunch.
A few days ago I was at my favorite spot on the second floor, in the corner, by the window. "Steampunk Sam" was across the room typing on his giant-screened laptop. We'd nodded hello to each other when I walked in. The rest of the room was dotted with individuals working, and a group of three men in suits chuckling in Cantonese at a table near me.
I would like to reiterate that, aside from ordering my coffee and soup on the first floor, I hadn't said a word for the hour I'd been there.
After awhile, the group of three men were joined by a man and a woman, also in suits. They greeted the newcomers in Cantonese and made room for them at their table. But they were missing a chair.
One of the suited men who'd been there since I arrived, looked around the floor for free chairs. I knew he'd zero in on me even before he did.
People always ask me for chairs. I either look approachable or lonely.
As he approached, I took a second to think about a way to respond to him in Cantonese that would sound friendly and "appropriate" in the cafe setting.
Because I was never taught "proper" Cantonese — I just picked it up by listening to my family banter back and forth in sometimes off-color or shorthand speech — my Cantonese can be jarringly colloquial, I've been told.
Having settled on just a quick "Yes, sure" or "Of course, go ahead" response, I prepared myself to speak (a habit I've gotten into living abroad).
When the man got to my table — his suit was dark blue, slim fitted, he looked around my age, and had smiling eyes — he grinned and said:
"Hey, do you mind if I borrow this chair?"
"Oh! Of course, sure," I said, and stood up to get my sweatshirt off the back of the chair. "Let me just grab that."
"Thanks so much," he said, and started to take the chair. In an uncharacteristically bold-for-Louise move, I blurted out, "Oh hey, um...just curious...how did you know to speak English to me?"
He smiled and gave a little chuckle. "Oh I don't know, you just kinda look American. Are you American?"
"Yeah, I am."
"A lot of ABCs don't speak Cantonese. You speak Cantonese?"
"I do." (When will that not feel like a lie?)
"Oh sorry—" he looked a little sheepish.
"Oh! No, no! My Cantonese is shitty!" As soon as I said "shitty" I realized I was speaking at AMERICAN LEVEL LOUDNESS.
He thanked me again with a little wave and went back to his friends where I imagined he talked about the loud "ABC" (American Born Chinese) who yelled "SHITTY" at him.
When I sat back down, I looked around at my stuff. Nothing I had on me seemed to advertise AMERICA. Standard issue Macbook Air, plain old sweatshirt, Samsung phone that everyone in Hong Kong seems to have.
Contrary to popular belief, I don't lumber around the city in my star-spangled backpack that dispenses Coca-Cola. That's only for Flag Day.
What about me screamed American?
I've been told before by relatives that "ABCs" and Chinese people who grew up in western cultures are often easy to pick out. (By the way, I'm not actually a true ABC as I was born in Hong Kong, but the moniker does seem to fit.) When pressed as to what makes us so easy to identify, my relatives just say, "There's a look."
What's this "look"?
My relatives sort of hedge on describing "the look," but from what I gather ABCs tend to be more demonstrative with what they are thinking or feeling. This isn't to say that Chinese people don't show emotion, they are just more reserved.
I know that I tend to make faces at my computer when I'm working. I'm generally not afraid to actually "LOL" at something I read or write, and I can't tell you how many times I've cried at my computer. I wonder if the man had noticed me mugging at the screen?
ABCs also tend to be louder in both manner and voice.
The "look" is also about body language, how a person moves.
"I feel like ABCs take up more space," my Hong Konger aunt says. Arms gesticulating or waving when walking, more movement in the hips — my aunt specifically noted that when American Born Chinese women sit, they don't "'pull themselves in' the way Chinese women do."
I try to be aware of how I take up space in shared places like the subway, but if I have a whole table to myself in a coffee shop, I'll use all the space at my disposal for my coffee cup, phone, computer, notebook, etc.
I'm also not above hunching over my computer to make a little "cave of focus." I have noticed that I use my space differently than some of my fellow cafe "co-workers."
While I don't always get singled out as an ABC, it does happen about 1/4 of the time. I'll walk up to a food counter in an admittedly expat-heavy part of town and while the person at the counter spoke Cantonese to the Chinese people in front of me, she'll switch to English when she sees me.
"Do you walk up smiling at her?" my mom asks.
"I don't know, maybe? It's sort of my default in a food situation."
"Americans smile a lot more than local Chinese people. You don't always have to smile, Louise." Thanks, Mom.
So let me get this straight:
In Japan everyone thought I was Japanese, and it freaked them out when I spoke English.
In Hong Kong most people assume I'm a local gal, and are confused when my Cantonese is accented, poor, but weirdly colloquial.
Yet some Hong Kong folks have the ABC-eye and can single me out as "one of those things that's not like the other, but also like all the other ABCs".
Louise Hung: Confusing Asia since 2014.
Have you ever been singled out as an American without even opening your mouth? In a place where you "looked like everyone else"? Can you "spot the American"?