I'm Afraid of the Convenience Store Lady and Other Realities of Hong Kong Life (So Far)

Some days I feel like a deer that has somehow found its way into the headlights of an oncoming Hong Kong taxi cab.
Publish date:
September 16, 2015
career, travel, language barrier, challenges, Cultural Differences, Hong Kong

I admit that before I moved to Hong Kong, my daydreams about this place looked like an American Express commercial.

I'm no dummy, I know real life is never that well edited, filtered, and devoid of cold sores. But somehow when I allowed myself to really get into the forest of my Hong Kong daydreams, I always saw the sharpest, cleanest, wisely smiley-est version of myself traversing a Hong Kong that was always in flattering twilight.

In my daydreams I'd gaze up and giggle at luminous skyscrapers, the wind picking up my hair a little as a logo appeared at the bottom of the screen (?), and a graphic of my signature would scrawl elegantly across the bottom. My signature would look loopy, arty, and just legible enough to be COOL.

Yes, these daydreams were absurd, I think I even knew that at the time. But when you're so excited that even the THOUGHT of your new home makes your stomach punch your lungs, such musings are a permissible indulgence.

Of course, coming up on my third week in Hong Kong, that daydream, while not entirely wrong (yesterday evening after typing away in a cafe by the pier, I caught myself standing on the dock, grinning out at the harbour, while the wind picked up my skirt and flashed some tourists — I WAS ALIVE!), is just sweaty crumb in the sweaty pie that is my Hong Kong life.

It's humid here. All I do is sweat. Get over it.

Honestly, I welcome reality. As much as I love the slickness of vacation or the ease of being blissfully ignorant of the real world, I get antsy after a while. I feel most at ease when my life is a little busy and unkempt. I like a little dirt on my party dress.

Hong Kong was more than happy to oblige; to kick a little dirt my way. And the lady at my corner convenience store led the kick line.

Two days after I moved into my Hong Kong apartment, I went out looking for coffee. Knowing that there was a tiny convenience store just around the corner from me, I hoped that they might have some cheap, burnt coffee I could buy.

Stepping into the little store, I did a quick sweep but sadly found no hot coffee. I had to settle for the iced coffee I found in the fridge.

Grabbing the nearest thing I could find to plain, black, iced coffee, I went and stood at the counter and waited for the lady working there to stop chatting with a co-worker and ring me up. She glanced at me, I nodded and smiled politely at her (a holdover from Japan), and she went back to talking to her co-worker.


I continued to stand there, trying to look casual, unaffected. After a couple more minutes I smiled and said a timid, "Excuse me."

The woman glanced at me again, muttered, "I'm coming," said a few more things to her co-worker and, sighing, came to ring me up. Because I am who I am, I instantly felt I had done something wrong. Had I inadvertently broken some social code that Hong Kong Chinese convenience store workers and their customers JUST KNOW?

Of course, how am I supposed to know that stuff? I just moved here! But being a compulsive apologizer, my default (especially when I'm a new place) is to assume that I'M THE ASSHOLE.

Anyway, she spied my can of iced coffee, and mumbled the price in Cantonese. Still blowing the dust off of my Cantonese, numbers and prices take me a moment to compute, and with her mumbling I wasn't entirely sure I'd heard correctly. I took a stab and handed her what I thought was the amount due.

She sighed again and said the amount louder, more agitated. I handed her more money, and when she handed me my change she rolled her eyes with the might of a long-suffering convenience store workers everywhere.

I thanked her, she said, "Yeah..." and as I walked away I ran into a rack of potato chips.

I laughed uncomfortably and turned to say sorry to her. She just looked at me, blank and unblinking.

As we turned back to our respective lives — mine decidedly void of a breezy signature at the bottom of the screen, hers cluttered with morons who don't know numbers — I heard her bark at her co-worker, "She doesn't know what she's doing..."

She was right then, and almost three weeks later, she's still a bit right. I'm not quite sure what I'm doing.

I have a reason for being here, I have goals. But in the grit and grime of working toward those goals everyday, I mostly feel like a deer that has somehow found its way into the headlights of an oncoming Hong Kong taxi cab.

I continue to be a little afraid of that convenience store lady. SHE'S ALWAYS THERE. I force myself to keep going back, in the hopes of slowly winning her over like I did the convenience store worker in Japan. But she remains unimpressed.

Dealing with the convenience store lady is sort of how I've come to regard Hong Kong. I'm a little afraid and very intimidated, but I'm determined. And despite the convenience store lady's and Hong Kong's blatant disdain for my often misplaced enthusiasm, I'm pretty darn happy.

This may change, but at this point in my Hong Kong life, everything I do holds a 50/50 chance of blowing up in my face or working out in a way that does not cause me to sweat through my bra.

I call my apartment building manager to tell him that in order to flush my toilet, I have to turn the knob on the attached water pipe like I'm cracking a safe. He understands, is kind, and a plumber is dispatched. Win!

I try to buy a set of pots and pans from the local home goods store, hoping to get the sale price advertised on the front door. I'm barked at in Cantonese so rapid I only catch "...didn't you read the dates? YOU MISSED OUT!"

When I try to ask more questions in my shitty Cantonese, I recognize the eye roll the store associate gives me, and I wonder if she knows the convenience store lady. Not so much of a win, but I re-learned the Cantonese for "Are you kidding me?!", so sort of win?

Feeling cocky, I want my husband to try an egg tart from one of the little bakeries that line the main street in my neighborhood. I know how to order an egg tart in Cantonese! No problem!

I should note that I chose to live in a very Chinese neighborhood in Hong Kong. While other "expat neighborhoods" might have more English than Chinese on the shop fronts and restaurants, in my neighborhood (aside from the tourists), my husband and I are anomalies.

Anyway, I stroll up to the street side bakery counter and boldly say to the lady, "I'd like one of these egg tarts please."

She squints at me a bit and says, "Eh?"

Thinking that the noise of the evening rush drowned me out, I repeat, "I'd like one of these egg tarts please."

"You want what?" she asks again in Cantonese.

With my pulse quickening, and my brain starting to shout, "YOUR CANTONESE SUUUUUUUCKS!" I shorten my phrase to, "I'd like one egg tart please."

She squints at me.

"Egg tart," I say robotically.

She finally nods, says, "Egg tart!", tells me the price, and hands me the bagged tart.

I won't say fail, but that incident did make me scurry home and practice my Cantonese for the next hour. My mom says the lady was just being difficult because of the combination of how I look and how I sound. Yes, I realize this is the linguistic equivalent of saying, "But my mom says I'm cool."

But this is my messy little Hong Kong life so far. I still grab those "American Express moments" here and there, but frankly I'll take the convenience store lady or egg tart lady over a sprawling, well-lit pan of the camera any day.

My signature looks like chicken scratch anyway.