I Love Sharing Hong Kong With My Husband, But My Most Valuable Experiences Happen When I'm Alone

I'm a "better Hong Konger" when I'm alone. I need to merge my two worlds.
Publish date:
February 8, 2016
living abroad, anxiety, being alone, life experience, Cultural Differences, Hong Kong

Whenever my husband and I go out to a restaurant, shop, or any other local Hong Kong place of business, people see him and assume they should speak English to us.

Sometimes, I admit, this is a relief. When I'm unsure of how I'm supposed to converse about library cards or government fees, I'm happy to let his be the first face a person sees when we walk in the door. Something usually switches over when a local Hong Kong Chinese person sees my husband, and I can take advantage of their assumption that "the white guy and his American Born Chinese girlfriend/wife will probably only speak English".

As much as I'm his Cantonese safety net in situations that demand the local language or engage in cultural customs or exchanges, he's mine when I'm too nervous to put myself out there. I'm fully aware that this isn't the best way to go about feeling more fluent in a language and culture that sometimes unnerves me. I'm making an effort to charge ahead even when it would be easier to shove Mr. Louise's white dude face ahead of me, but sometimes I let my worries get the best of me.

The majority of the time, my husband and I lead very independent lives. While weekends are for Louise and Mr. Louise adventures, I see the weekdays as time for Louise to succeed or fail on her own.

Weekends we slip into a more "tourist" mode: seeing sights locals don't care about, letting relatives guide us through parts of Hong Kong that we would never see otherwise, eating in restaurants that websites tell us "cannot be missed" while in Hong Kong. I'm thankful that I have a partner who is fearless but sensitive, respectful but also has a sense of humor in the face of cultural exploration.

As the person who moved abroad to Japan many years ago, before I even cared to leave the safety of my Los Angeles home, I've taken many cues from Mr. Louise on how to not be an asshole outside of the mainland US.

On weekdays we wake up, feed our cat (sometimes a joint effort when she's not in the mood to take her meds), and ask each other what we're doing at work that day. As two people who work largely via internet connection, we've come to the understanding that we cannot work while the other is present. Despite being an anxious homebody, I've forced myself to become the person who sets out into the city to get her work done on most days.

Frankly I'm the one who has more access to an income that allows me to hunker down in a coffee shop a few days a week, but more than that I see my lone excursions into Hong Kong as vital to my growth as a citizen in my birthplace. I'd like to think that I've put a little bit of healthy pressure on myself.

I've gotten past the daily exercise of mentally planning all the panic-inducing exchanges that might happen, and now most mornings I operate in a state of low-level "YOU CAN DO THIS. TODAY WILL BE A SMALL VICTORY" pumping myself up. Because of who I am, what Hong Kong means to me, it's difficult for me to admit that this city intimidates me.

But I know in my heart that the only way for me to get over my own demons is to go it alone. In the face of adversity, anxiety, good ol' "imposter syndrome," I always feel more "battle-ready" when I'm by myself. That being said, I'm slowly realizing that Hong Kong is not a "battle," but just a test of what I can do.

When I'm alone I find that my Hong Kong Brain takes over, well, as much as it can. Without my husband, or even my other obviously expat friends, I find my manner, my approach to situations changes. There is a certain amount of modified mimicry involved.

I think about how my Hong Kong-born friends and family carry themselves. There is an economy of language and straightforwardness to their interactions. Cantonese is a language where in many everyday conversations, you just say what you need to say, no need to add linguistic flourishes or too much extraneous detail. Mannerisms seem to reflect this as well.

On my own, I'm getting more and more comfortable with this mode of communication. Like tossing all my unneeded junk when I moved first to Japan, then to Hong Kong, I feel like I can shed some of my westerner baggage when the situation calls for it.

When the lady at the convenience store barks at me to use cash instead of my credit card to buy $80 HKD (about $10 USD) worth of snacks, I've recently developed the presence of mind to say, "I have none," which in Cantonese boils down to a short-sounding two-word interaction — sometimes even just the one word will do. I just stand there and wait for the transaction to continue. So it does. She just carries on, and so do I.

This sounds so simple, so uninteresting, but it's little interactions like this that took me a while to get comfortable with. (Some of you may remember how much the convenience store lady near my apartment used to scare me!)

My knee-jerk "American Louise" reaction used to be to apologize, make a futile attempt to search my wallet for cash, then mumble a jumble of words about how "I'm so sorry but I don't have enough cash?" While this is not how ALL westerners are, there is something to the amount of words I've noticed westerners (and even some non-western cultures) feel the need to say when caught in a disagreement.

We are verbose. That isn't necessarily a bad thing all the time, but in Hong Kong, I think many find it tiresome.

With my husband, I automatically slip back into that American Louise need to say all the words. Maybe because that's how we talk to each other (we are both nerdy-wordy types).

But when I'm alone, I more easily use the Hong Kongers in my head as my guides, and I do what I think they would do. At first it felt like I was playing a part, now it feels more organic. There's hope for Hong Kong Louise!

After that first time meeting the convenience store cashier on her terms, after that seemingly tiny interaction, my solo experiences in Hong Kong started to bloom.

I successfully chatted with an associate at a shoe store about how ridiculously narrow the boots I wanted were. We're not best pals now, and I'm sure she picked up on my crappy accent and bizarre word choices, but for the first time I recognized the familiar glimmer of just gabbing with someone, who, in another life, might have been a friend. There was some of my modified mimicry going on, but in the moment, I was mostly Louise. I made her laugh! ("Ai-yah, I'm Chinese but my feet are American," — I have unusually big, wide feet for Hong Kong.)

I spent an entire afternoon in a coffee shop near my home (I live in a predominantly non-English speaking neighborhood) where I didn't utter a word of English. To be honest, I barely even thought about it. The person at the next table even asked me if my jook (rice porridge) was good, and I was able to respond in a way that the elderly lady seemed to appreciate. It was one of my first cozy moments of feeling like I belonged.

On my way out into the world one day, I finally got the courage to "talk" to my neighborhood pugs. Chubby creatures in colorful sweaters, their "mom" carts them around in a stroller. I've often seen them, but was intimated by their serious-looking owner.

Standing at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to turn I said to her, "They're so cute in their sweaters!" Her stern face brightened and she said I could pet them. The pugs snorted as I gave their heads a scratch. We didn't talk much, just pleasantries about how goofy the dogs were and how cold it was, but it was a lovely moment of friendliness between dog-loving strangers.

We smile at each other and the dogs get some extra scratches when I see her now.

All of the above instances I could have accomplished with my husband, but I know I wouldn't have. Being alone, without being able to tacitly point to my English-speaking safety net, I removed the choice to take the easy way out. The way I see it, it's my role as the returning Hong Konger to make steps toward communicating in Hong Kong's way — not the other way around. While speaking English and behaving like an expat is very easy to do nearly everywhere here, it's important to me that I don't always fall back on that option.

So I'm trying to merge my two modes of communication. "English speakers" will always be the way my husband and I present when we're together, but I'm determined to bring some of my "alone life" into my "couple life." More than translating for and helping my husband with local interactions, I want to do away with the on/off switch I seem to have developed when I'm with my husband or other native English speakers.

These may seem like a bunch of unremarkable experiences, but they are building to something bigger, something that I believe will be truly life-altering. I don't want that growth to exist in a vacuum.

Like I said, I'm tossing off some of my westerner baggage — or at least I'm trying. I just need to make, "YOU CAN DO THIS. TODAY WILL BE A SMALL VICTORY" my mantra for every single day of the week.