Saturday, June 20, 2009

Should have just had the salad

I had a steak tonight at the hotel's canteen (it has very stark lighting and you order at a counter and carry your food to the table on a tray so it's not glamorous enough to be a restaurant - my fella would refuse to eat there). I ordered a steak (to make up for all the Subway sandwiches I've been eating) and had a bizarre conversation that went like this:

Woman: How you want it? Well done? Medium or Rare?
Me: Well done.
Woman: Well done?
Me: Yes.
Woman: Well done?
Me: Yes well done.
Woman: Well done?
Me: Yes.
Woman: Well done?
Me: Well done. Yes.
Woman: well done?

She then turned to a man who was also serving and asked him to ask me if I wanted it well done. He did.

She then checked with me again, just to see if I wanted it well done. When the meal finally arrived, 20 minutes later, the man who brought it to me said "Well done! Well done! Hahahaha!" I laughed too, but it came out a bit hysterical and some of the westerners sitting nearby looked round at me.

I think I need to go home.
Basic Lubin

I have been in Hong Kong for over a week, and feel a bit like Alan Partridge in the episode "Basic Alan", where he's bored out of his mind in a Travel-Lodge that's equidistant between Norwich and London. My life has been reduced to a repetitive series of routines. At least I get to go home tomorrow.

The people who work at Subway, where I eat most nights, could have been in Alan Partridge (if he ever went to Hong Kong). They seem fascinated by my lovelife and comment on it in a way which would be unheard of in frosty Britain.

Subway Woman: Oh you have wedding ring on. You marry?
Me: Yes
Subway Woman: To Chinese girl?
Me: No
Subway Woman: To Phillipino girl?
Me: No
Subway Woman: English?
Me: Yes

I wanted to say "Actually love I'm married to a 6 foot tall man" but didn't have the nerve or energy.

The next day, there was a teenage girl in front of me, who let me go first as she couldn't make her mind up. The people behind the counter charged her for my meal, and then informed us that they thought we were "together". "We were just saying, that she seemed a bit young for you..." the Subway Woman told me as she took my change. That's the problem with being in a country where you don't have the first language. They could be saying anything about you. And as I've suspected, sometimes they are.

I walked to the cinema to see if there was anything playing (there wasn't). On the way I passed endless fashion billboards showing perfect depictions of young, haughty, blonde, pale-skinned Caucasians, looking down on the Chinese people below, as if saying "Even if you wear these clothes, you'll never look like us, suckers!" I hate fashion at the best of times, because even the models themselves don't look like the pictures on the billboards once they've been airbrushed and had their proportions altered. But it seems an especially cruel trick to play on a whole ethnic group - so that you don't have the slightest chance of resembling a corporate idea of "beauty" and "glamour".

The "West is Best" message comes out in all sorts of odd ways. I looked at a few local gay websites while I was here and kept seeing adverts like this: "GAM seeks GWM only". Here G=Gay, M=Man, A=Asian and W=White. I also saw a few from westerners who specified "Sorry, but I don't like Chinese guys". Now I've never in my life seen an advert from an Asian guy who said he didn't like white guys, and I don't remember seeing any from white guys who don't want white guys either. And I keep bumping into white-Asian pairs of people (both gay and straight) while I'm here - where in almost all cases, the Asian person is younger and better looking than the white person. I think there's a lot of things wrong with the UK, but to be marginalised in the advertising and romantic domains in your own country... well that's pretty fucked up.

Monday, June 15, 2009

I have my own swine flu mask

Another Hong Kong trip (my 6th). It's giving my poor hands a chance to recover from two weeks of decorating work that they're completely unused to. The blisters and cuts are finally being erased away, while the general pain is starting to subside.

I'm here on my own and feeling more like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation than ever: I'm an insomniac, isolated giant. I've made no pretence at trying to come off British time, and simply stay awake all night, watching DVDs, like a sulky teenager. Some of my colleagues who came out here, have gone on about how great the night-life is - but that's not really my thing.

Introverts have a lot of internal resources to keep them going, so I'm 90% dealing with having no-one to talk to. I'm nearly finished the Zadie Smith book on Beauty, which appears to have shamelessly ripped off the plot of Howard's End (I think I may go out and buy that book afterwards). I take Zadie everywhere - she's especially useful in restaurants. None of the characters are especially likeable, but the writer is pretty observant - and there are some points of connection in the book that I can make regarding academia and social class. I've also been wearing headphones while outside. It helps cut down on the number of times hawkers try to sell you "copy watch", "fake Rolex" or "hand made suit sir". I like seeing how much westerners get angered by the continual pestering, and realising that six years ago, that was me. The trick is to give off no response at all, don't even acknowledge their presence and they usually stop immediately.

My life while here, has shrunk to a small number of streets, coffee shops and restaurants. I've done all of the touristy things on other trips, and it's less fun to sight see anyway when you're alone, so it's easier to stick to a routine. I had been wondering whether my hotel would be placed under lockdown due to Swine Flu. So far, apart from a few more people than usual wearing masks (and they love their masks in Hong Kong - I was given one at the airport but haven't put it on yet), there's not been much to report. Some schools have been closed, but everyone seems to be going about their lives as usual. June is the worst time of year to come to Hong Kong - it's notoriously humid outside, while indoors there is a distinction between "rich" places, that have air conditioniong (usually on too high so it's like being in a fridge) and "poor" places - often corridors or stairwells that don't get used much - which seem to have no oxygen and induce instant sweating. British weather isn't that bad really - rather like the British themselves - it's not very glamorous or extreme - but it very rarely becomes intolerable.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

On repetition

I've spent the last few days stripping wallpaper, taking up carpets and flooring, and removing wardrobes and doors from the new house. Most of the jobs have been incredibly repetitive - scrape a bit of wall, take out a screw, then do it again X 1000. I sometimes wonder how people who work in the building profession cope, but then they would probably look at my job, which often involves repetition of a different sort (except it's on a laptop) and think the same thing. My job might be mentally tiring at times, but at least it's not physically tiring. My hands ache and are covered in tiny cuts. I've stopped noticing when my fingers bleed but just continue - the bleeding stops after a few minutes so I just pour Dettol on them at the end of the day. I forgot to wear my face mask yesterday and noticed that when I sneezed, I produced black stuff...

We have removed most of the traces of the previous owners now and have a blank slate with which to improve on. Every hour results in new discoveries. In the main bedroom, a piece of flooring had been "mended" with a flattened baked bean can. The area around the toilet in the bathroom had been boxed in with some cheap looking plywood which had a sticker on the back, proclaiming it to be a "telly cabinet". We have found old coins - some dating back 80 years. There are also bits and pieces of other people's lives - a photo of a child found under a stinking carpet in the attic. A man's blue polo shirt (size XL), still in its packaging at the back of an inbuilt wardrobe. A bit of 1930s newspaper stuck to the bottom of the floor - hidden away for years. An old Stork margarine lid - probably from the 1950s. After I'd taken up the horrible wee-stained parquay flooring in the hall, I found a hatch. Lifting it up, there were stairs going into a previously un-mentioned cellar. Sadly there were no dead bodies or hidden treasure. Just some sacks of bricks. At least it wasn't damp.

The dog wee smell is sometimes overpowering - a couple of times I have had to run out of a room and retch. I have developed a hatred of little dogs over the last few days, which I suspect will now remain with me for my entire life. They have come to represent a cluster of traits that annoy - yappy, easily excited, silly and incontinent.