Running errands at the bank in Little Hong Kong (Hong Kong Chye) after dropping Rockstar off at school, I look up texting on my iPhone suddenly, realizing the queue I've been standing in hasn’t moved in what seems like a long time. I look at my watch. 10 minutes have passed.
The 3-person queue I joined is now 6 people long.
A tall young bank officer with spikey pop star hair (strangely incongruous with the full suit he has on) walks out from an inner office and up to the row of tellers. He opens up an additional teller window and a ripple of appreciation passes through the crowd.
The Singh in front of me (turbans are substantially rarer in Hong Kong bank queues than say, in Malaysia) turns to me.
“Busy day, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it wasn’t that busy last time I came to this branch. I was done in 10 minutes, including waiting time.”
He asks me what I do for a living, how many children I have, then:
“Where you from?”
(How come he knows I’m not local?) “I’m Malaysian….. I don’t look local?”
“Your English. You speak beautifully.” (Really meh? Watered down Manglish accent beautiful meh?)
“And you’re very friendly.” (Really meh? Hongkies not friendly meh?)
A local mum with a sleeping toddler in a carrier just called after me in Cantonese when I dropped Rockstar’s pack of insect repellent stick-ons on my way into the bank.
(More like they’re afraid you’re going to try and sell them something if you suddenly strike up a conversation on the street/ in a bank queue. If you manage to stop someone powerwalking their way thru Causeway Bay or Central for directions, they’ll probably answer you quite nicely. The hardest bit is getting them to stop before they run you over as they charge through the crowd.
Come to think of it the crowded bank is silent – no one is chatting in the queues at all.)
It’s Mr Singh’s turn in the queue.
His transaction takes 5 minutes, and he waves as he leaves.
My first transaction in HKD is done within 2 minutes. But the second one is in Renminbi, and takes about 15 minutes - partly because the teller seems new, and has to revise the form he fills in (and ask me to sign on the amendment) 4 times.
The teller next to him quickly clears her own queue and calls to the lengthening queue behind me to move over to her window.
Still, “Can you serve me and others in this queue? This queue is not moving!” The scathing voice of the man directly behind me cuts through the crowd of maybe 30 people in various queues. He’s addressing the teller in another queue.
The man behind him immediately chimes in pointedly, “Can’t some people move aside if they have forms to fill? Don’t people know how to fill their own forms?”. He’s referring to me.
I can’t even write my name easily in Chinese, I couldn’t fill the Chinese address and bank name onto the form for the China transaction even if I wanted to. The teller copied directly off the email I had ready for him on my iPhone (which actually took him very little time, but then he mis-filled 4 times and had to come back and have me sign on the amendments).
I briefly consider explaining I can’t write Chinese, then realize these men could easily hear my conversation with Mr Singh (the only conversation going on among all the people queue-ing) and my sheepish reply to the teller that I couldn’t read the Chinese on the email I proffer to him on my iPhone.
They don’t care. They just want to vent because they hate to wait.
There are two of them, loud, belligerent in Cantonese, and my powers of debate are uh, rather less in Canton. They don’t even look like they’re doing banking on their lunch hour, they look like semi-retired uncles – who would welcome a loud fight.
So I steadfastly face forward in the queue, watching them from the reflection in the teller’s window, and say nothing. Then I realize no one else has said anything either – not the tellers, not the other people in the queue.
One of the men marches up to a teller in another queue and asks again if they can do something about the wait. I can’t catch the teller’s sheepish reply but he flounces back in line.
As I get the receipt for my transaction and leave (dreading what I expect to be a Walk of Shame past all the other queues on my way out) I’m surprised to feel nothing. No scathing looks, no intimidation, just a mildly…. apologetic? - air as the Malaysian girl leaves. Total transaction time including my earlier 15 minute wait = just under 35 minutes.
E, Kings and my local friend who picks me up from the roadside when I’m done, says engaging the two men would probably result in an abrasive exchange. He simply never responds. (Which is when I remember no one responded to them in the bank.)
E asks me if the two men could have been from China. I’m doubtful, because they don’t sound like Mainlanders (whose Cantonese, far as I can tell, carries a heavy accent). Why does he ask?
“Mainlanders might not care whose fault it is, they just want to vent because of the wait, and they’d do it very aggressively.” And if they were Hongkies? “Then their exasperation was probably directed at the tellers - it’s the bank’s job to get the queues moving.”
“But I couldn’t fill the form in Chinese.” Periodically Kings and I get self-conscious about our illiteracy in Chinese, having resided in Northasia for almost 7 years. I periodically signed up for classes but used to get caught up in work.
I picked up enough “yours” “mine” “cut loss” Chinese for work.
Now I’d rather Rockstar.
There's KFC, there's Mc Donald's, then there's also Cafe de Coral which is like instant noodles and dim sun in fast food form...
Interestingly mainlanders and Taiwanese who express curiosity over where I’m from seem to be a lot less judgmental over my lack of command of the language when I explain I'm Malaysian – I think it’s because they ultimately don’t consider me Chinese, at least not in the way they consider American-born Chinese Chinese.
I got “How can you not know the language better?” sniffs when they mistook me for an ABC, but when I clarify I’m Malaysian it’s “Oh right, come to think of it, you do look Southeast Asian.” Hongkies have said that to me too. (I’m a Peranakan who still wears her Nyonya Kebaya blouses with cropped cargos and heels, on occasion.)
The funniest one I've gotten is from a Taiwanese, "Are you sure you're pure Chinese? As in, no one in your family fooled around? Because those aren't pure Chinese features!"
(I found that hilarious because this was the conclusion reached after much thought and a study of my facial features during a business lunch. Anyway.
“Banks don’t only serve locals,” E flatly declares as we wind through Little Hong Kong before he drops me off. “Someone who expects you to fill the form in Chinese has a problem and I’m sure others in the bank felt the same way.”
There always seems to be something in Hong Kong under construction...
It’s true, I felt no hostility from the 30-something other people in the bank as I left. And I do find Hongkies in general to be quite un-racist (though local colleagues and bosses have occasionally grumbled good-naturedly about the mild inconvenience of having to switch to English at meetings).
Cabbies have declared, “I don’t care where you’re from, as long as you pay your fare. And if you use taxis, I hope you live here.”
Only problem is, given the outspoken-ness of the general population (both local and foreign), you get more bullies. Both local and foreign. Which everyone else just grows thick skin and ignores.
Almost 7 years here, Kings and I are still growing ours.