Why I Avoid the Other American in My Building or How I'm Behaving Like a Big Baby

Every time I see him the petulant child in me silently screams, "It's so not fair!"
Publish date:
January 11, 2016
living abroad, language, learning experience, Chinese American, adulting, Hong Kong

I saw him for the first time about a month ago. Tall, blond, around my age, and with a kind of "crunchy", "weary traveler" vibe.

I was waiting for the elevator when he came around the corner. I took note of him because it isn't very often that I see white people who aren't my husband in my building. Having lived in the building for over three months, I thought my husband and I were the only westerners living there.

Figuring he was visiting someone, I smiled politely in acknowledgement as he stood beside me in the cramped lobby, and continued waiting for the slow, creaky elevator to come down from the 19th floor. Then he spoke to the security guard — in perfect Cantonese.



He chatted all friendly-like with the security guard on duty (not my dear Mr. Yue — if it had been Mr. Yue I would have thrown down like the 8-year-old I am and fought him for Mr. Yue's favor) — laughing, making jokes that made sense, using tones and colloquialisms correctly. He caught me staring at him, and I just kept staring, trying to figure out if he was a well disguised Borg.

Pausing in his conversation with the security guard he said "hello" to me in Cantonese, probably assuming that the reason I was staring at him was because he was a white dude speaking Cantonese, and that I was a local Hong Kong woman who was surprised by this.

"Uh, HELLO...there," I said too loudly, demonstrating the poise and grace of a vacuum.

He cocked his head. "Oh. You're...American? Canadian?"

"Yeah, I'm American. Are you?"

"Yeah, I am!" he said all coltish and likable. "I'm from California. Do you live here?"

"I do, I live —"

Before I could finish the security guard cut in and said in Cantonese, "This lady is Hong Kong born but doesn't speak Cantonese very well," he laughed, "You should teach her!"


They chuckled. I made mouth-sounds that passed for chuckling and mumbled something in Cantonese about how I was trying to improve, but I get nervous.

"I know, I know you are. You're doing very good," the security guard said, and winked at me. You wink at toddlers who tell you they are "going to school" when really they are going to daycare.

Mercifully the elevator doors FINALLY opened and I got in. So did Mr. Cantonese USA. Yay! We could talk some more!

On the ride up he told me he had lived in Hong Kong for two years, and had studied Cantonese for a while before moving here. "You're just learning?" he asked innocently as the doors opened on my floor.

"Well, I grew up with Cantonese, and I understand nearly everything, but —" the elevator doors tried to close on me, I held them open so I could keep babbling. "— sometimes it's hard for me to find the words in my head, but I understand nearly everything —" the doors tried to close on me again. STOP TALKING LOUISE, WHY ARE YOU STILL TALKING? "— but I get all sweaty and tongue tied sometimes, so...anyway, good meeting you!"

"Great to meet you! See you around!" He said as the elevator doors closed.

Mehhhhhhh-aaaaaah-uuuuggggghhh is the sound I emitted as I shuffled to my front door.

And I've been avoiding Mr. Cantonese USA ever since. When I see him in the lobby, I say "hi" then pretend that my mail is REALLY interesting or I get a phone call (on my cell phone that didn't ring) that forces me to step outside.

I've seen him at the grocery store next to our building a few times, and have either hidden in the back so I could scrutinize all the family sized bags of rice, or — you guessed it — taken a "phone call" that only allows me to mouth a "hello" and wave at him. He probably thinks I'm REALLY IMPORTANT (or just an asshole).

I dread having to talk to him again. Every time I see him the petulant child in me silently screams, "It's so not fair!" Even though it has nothing to do with fair.

Let me explain.

I have nothing against Mr. Cantonese USA. I'll admit I'm so jealous I could spit, but that's my problem. Mr. Cantonese USA probably worked hard to learn the language, has lived here longer than me, and obviously doesn't have some kooky "I-should-speak-Cantonese-better-because-I-grew-up-with-it-but-I-never-made-it-a-priority-and-now-I-regret-it-so-whose-fault-is-that?" chip on his shoulder.

He just reminds me of my inadequacies. The inadequacies that I'm self-conscious about. The Cantonese language inadequacies that I should be able to overcome faster, but have not.

He reminds me that instead of buckling down and you know, STUDYING the language, I've been leaning heavily on my instincts. I "work on" my vocabulary and grammar by listening to people on the street, in the subway, at restaurants, torturing Mr. Yue. And while I have a good ear, and truly can understand almost everything around me, that can only get me so far.

I know that if I really want to be able to confidently speak Cantonese without wondering if I accidentally told the hostess at a restaurant that I have "fish meat" instead of a "reservation", I need to actually take the time to study the language.

He reminds me of my ultimate egotistical shortcoming: I thought I shouldn't need to WORK to improve my crappy Cantonese, I thought that because of my background I could just ABSORB it.

That's not how language works, Louise.

Mr. Cantonese USA is basically a tall, smiley reminder of how lazy I've been (why does he have to be so nice?). Unless he just assimilated the language (BorgBorgBorg), he obviously worked hard to master Cantonese, a language that couldn't be more different than English.

On the other hand, I've spent my entire life living with fluent speakers, resting on my laurels of "understanding almost everything", and putting off any real effort. And now here I am in Hong Kong and I have the audacity to be frustrated that I can't just walk out the door and be fluent in Cantonese.

In short, I'm being a big baby.

And while coming to terms with my own shortcomings and ego have been humbling, I'm relieved as well. It feels good to admit that I JUST NEED TO WORK HARDER. I've paid myself the kindness of being allowed to not know all the Cantonese, on the condition that I put in the work of learning as much as I can.

So I've committed to language courses, and I've enlisted family members to speak to me in Cantonese. Plus I've made a rule for myself that, unless all is lost or I'm called upon to describe the plot of The Apple, I have to speak exclusively in Cantonese when I'm bumbling around town. I tried to adhere to this rule when I first got here, but the abundance of English speakers fed my laziness and allowed me to bend my own rule.

It's been over a week since I've seen Mr. Cantonese USA. I'm sure I'll run into him soon. As part of "Operation Act Like a Grown-Up" I know I have to acknowledge him, even talk to him.

And as much as he, or really the idea of him, intimidates me, I'm glad I met him. If he can speak Cantonese so well, why can't I? It's practically in my bones, I just need to put in the effort. So whether I'm inspired by him, or just really freaking jealous of his perfect Cantonese, the American in my building has given me something to work toward. I'm grateful that our paths crossed.

Of course, if I find out he speaks Japanese, all bets are off.