Hello from Hong Kong!
Plenty to learn about the differences here: learning a few Cantonese phrases, learning how to cope with the brutal humidity, learning the customs and etiquette. Examples of the latter include what Seinfeld fans would call “close talking” or asking for a check at a restaurant by making a writing gesture in the air.
One of my favorite customs is this: when giving and receiving items, each party uses both hands. This is especially true of giving and receiving gifts, but it also characterizes mundane transactions such as swapping business cards. It’s not totally unique to Hong Kong, appearing also throughout China and across East Asia—for instance in Korea, I’ve heard. Not everybody does it, and certainly not everyone does it all the time, but it stands out when it takes place.
I haven’t seen an explanation for this custom—not in the way that we mythologize the custom of shaking hands as proof that we come in peace, that we’re not harboring a weapon. Perhaps a reader can enlighten me about the origins of the two-hand transaction. But whatever the origins, the custom has this effect: it demands that you give someone your full attention, full respect, even if only for a moment.
I encourage you to try it sometime. The next time you’re ordering a coffee, for instance, you might offer your card to the barista with both hands and receive your coffee with both hands. You might find that there’s an extraordinary amount of things your off hand wants to do—reach for your keys, move your wallet about, scroll through messages on your phone. And bringing that off hand into the transaction, while probably unnecessary in the most pragmatic way and likely to earn you a sideways look, will require you to focus your attention in ways that may be a little uncomfortable at first.
Because Hong Kong is settled on such mountainous terrain, you’ll see a lot of sidewalks like this one, open to a street on one side and with a retaining wall on the other. It has the look of an urban terrace, often because that’s precisely what it is. Trees grow along these walls, spreading their roots down in search of water, creating a very Hong Kong tableau of city hustle and persistent nature. (Remind me to tell you some time about the wild boars.)
Until next time.
Wesley Beal is an associate professor of English at Lyon College. This fall he is serving as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar at the University of Hong Kong, where he teaches two courses in American literature and continues a study of the campus novel genre. Please reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have Hong Kong- or Fulbright-related questions for him to investigate. He’ll do his best to oblige in subsequent blog posts.
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