Friday, August 21, 2009

Hong Kong Chronicles: Things That Make My Brain Explode

I was frizzled a few weeks ago. Not frazzled. I still had nerves left. But, they were beginning to fray and start the slippery slope to frazzling. Like being a cat and having your master/mistress pet your fur backward.
  • Frazzled: def. (adv) when your world is off kilter and your last nerves are getting rubbed raw but you know the reason why (ex: you have to finish getting your house ready for sale, finish a mega-project, and move across the world.)
  • To-do-twitching: def. (v) the twitching you do because you think you have a mountainous to-do-list, but it’s already done.
  • Frizzled: def. (adv) when your world is off kilter, but for no apparent reason. (And, no, it’s not just PMS.)
The day started with getting to the Laundromat too early. I had some sheets that needed to be washed and I didn’t realize they don’t open until 8. And I needed to get the 8:05 ferry. As I was mentally preparing for the Olympic WWW Bicycle Riding event, someone mercifully was there a few minutes early and able to take my laundry. WWW disaster averted. Frizzling started. Frizzling averted.
Then, I stopped to get money for my acupuncture treatment. The machine ate my card. With no explanation. I tried calling the customer service center, but I have The Worst Phone in the World. I’ll leave it at that. If I try to explain it, my head really will explode. Double Frizzle.

So, at lunch, I head off to the bank…frizzled, stressed, anxious, worried about why my card was mysteriously eaten. Turned out it was the result of a good deed on Saturday. I had left my wallet behind at Hong Kong University. No one stole it and a security guard came by, picked it up, and called the “lost card” services. How honest is that??? I had to fill out a form to update my access information to include my HK identity card instead of my passport. (This is another thing that can make my head explode…we have to fill out forms for them to update the information online. Has anyone heard of updating online information online?) Frizzle. Unfrizzle. Frizzle.
Since my replacement bank card will take at least 4 business days, I decided to get some cash, just in case. I get in line. I’m waiting for my turn.

I’m waiting and a Western man goes to the business line to conduct a transaction. No big deal. I notice the people who stand out. That’s because I’m one of the ones that stand out. I’m working on zoning out and trying to consciously unfrizzle. Some things pinged my stream of consciousness, others floated by.

The first thing that pinged my consciousness was that this westerner’s teller was Bureaucratic.

There are some nuances that I need to explain here. There are Bureaucrats in every culture… people who follow the letter of the law, no matter what. Watching bureaucracy acted out in a different culture makes for an…shall we say…”interesting” anthropological adventure. Overcoming bureaucracy isn’t the most fun thing to do, but we absorb socially acceptable ways of managing bureaucracy in the culture in which we grow up. This is where befriending locals is invaluable…they can translate, or better yet, just speak for you, to smooth the bureaucratic pathways.

The other nuance is regarding volume. Chinese is a tonal language. Tones that are used to convey expression and feelings in western languages are used to convey meaning in the Chinese language. Add to that Cantonese is a 9-tone harsh-sounding language. (I'm finally beginning to hear the melody in the language as I can distinguish words from time to time...but my initial impressions of the language were that it sounded very harsh.) The Chinese language accommodates expression and feeling by using volume.

Back to the Westerner: my consciousness stream is starting to hone in on his transaction. From what I gather, this was a business transaction he’s conducted this particular way for years. The Bureaucrat was following some rules. As I began paying attention, I was hearing this really grating noise but was not fully aware of what it was or where it was coming from except that it was a shrill, Cantonese voice starting out at approximately 70 decibels. For some reason I had the first impression it was the Bureaucratic teller speaking to the man in Cantonese.

No. The shrieking Cantonese was coming from a tiny, little, frustrated Shrew standing in the lane next to the western man, conducting a business transaction of her own in escalating decibels of Cantonese.

He was trying to understand the rules of the Bureaucrat, who was speaking heavily accented English at negative 20 decibels through a thick, bullet-proof glass. The western man had to keep asking her to repeat and he was raising his volume to have her repeat. Every time The Soft-Spoken Bureaucrat would answer him, The Shrill Shrew would open up with another fusillade of agitated Cantonese to her own teller, drowning out any hope of this poor man trying to understand the Soft-Spoken Bureaucrat.

Several people were looking around to see what the disturbance was. The equivalent of a gapers block was starting to form. People were rubbernecking to see what the commotion was. I would look at the gawkers. Then they’d glance at me because I’d see them looking at The Westerner and they’d smile and chat with each other, obviously talking about him. They didn’t even notice The Shrew. She was completely tuned out of their stream of consciousness.

As a foreigner straddling the fence of cultures, I could see both sides. The teller and the westerner were handling matters according to the way they were accustomed to handling confusing/frustrating matters. Both were even trying to accommodate the other culture to the extent they knew it.

Western interpretation: he was just trying to be heard over The Shrew. His tone was even-handed and not impatient. I have witnessed atrocious, arrogant behavior from westerners. He was even-tempered and very polite in the circumstances.

Eastern interpretation: trying to be heard over The Shrew was interpreted as frustration, the Westerner and Shrew were both escalating volume to be heard, which was interpreted as frustration on both parts.

For those of you who have moved into new cultures (and this can happen even in the same country!) you probably can understand, this is what the yo-yo of adapting to a new culture is like. After all of my personal frizzles and unfrizzles, I was feeling a bit vulnerable and raw. After witnessing the above transaction, I absorbed the frizzles of everyone...the Soft-Spoken Bureaucrat, the Shrew, and the Westerner, and any of the other patrons who were disturbed. This leads to a state of:

This is when a cat would swat her mistress' hand and run off to lick her fur back into place.
This is when a dog would run off yipping and hide in her crate.
This is when a boy human would hit something or drive something fast.
This is when a girl human would shop, eat chocolate, or cry. Or all three.


  1. chocolate virtual hug being sent your way! :)

  2. Chocolate hugs!!!! mmmmmmmm....thank you so much!

  3. ...oh begeezers...i'm heading to the fridge for some tame my frizzies...

  4. wow - so what did you do to bring yourself down? were you able to? this was very interesting... i have an aunt who is a civilian for the army, she now lives in south korea & was in germany... loved the definitions in the beginning!

  5. This time I did cry...I have days where I seem to absorb everyones emotions, especially the frustrated ones. (I prefer the chocolate option, but I just learned this is one of my migraine triggers...I'm going to have to find a chocolate replacement.)

  6. I think in this case of deep fried frazz crying chocalate and shopping are deserved...I have those days often too where you just take on everyones energy, positive and negative. With a recent energy treatment I was told that I am like a sponge and that I take everything in but also that I am keeping everything in so the healer told me that since absorbing everyones emotions and energies is part of my 'magic' I must try to quickly learn to decipher what belongs to me and what doesn't and than let it what isn't mine go...good advice, now just gotta figure out how to do that, ha ha...but until than shopping, chocalate and a little cry is never a bad thing:D! Hope you have a better day well, be well.

  7. Mandy - I know what you mean. I do sometimes absorb what other people are feeling. I do try to use that to the good most of the time. But, in negative situations, and still adapting to a new culture...I find myself more vulnerable because I don't understand everything yet. I had a nice little cry...which was quite cathartic and felt much better that afternoon. And then writing about it was even more cathartic!

  8. Oh, the nuances of society and culture!

    I tend to pick up emotions from people and crowds, too. When people are agitated, I immediately feel nervous, too. I can only imagine how it felt to be standing there, understanding both sides but just wanting to go home!