Friday, 8 April 2011

Square pegs, round holes

Okay, I must navel gaze. I have fought it, but now I say to myself why not? It is a cute navel. No one else need look at it. You have buttons too besides navels and they're on your mouse to click the x.

This week, I'm decided. I do not desire the professional expat life. Even though the signs could point me there. I would be a rubbish expat. I'd never settle here; not call it home. I don't fit, even though a place to occupy is here, in Hong Kong's historic layers. Personally, this expat life, it feels like lifting one foot out of one country and not planting a foot in the other.

Not even on this idyllic outlying island. Yes, the musicians, bohemians and graphic designers all come here attracted by the no roads, laid back main street, easy pace, beach, and low rate of crime (apart from the murder).

Given that lot, I would have thought the latent gritty hippie tendencies would fit okay. And I like the dragon stories, woolly mountains and the artistry with a brush. I like the greengrocer too, and appropriately hate his plastic bags. I like the way the boat chugs me over the water, and I like how the laundry lady smiles to see me, even though she must have stared into my gusset of old cotton trousers two hundred times before. That is all so very right.

But I still don't fit. This morning, looking over the island, I watched some workmen cut down a tree. I don't know why they picked on it. It didn't look offensive, dead, or dangerous. I guess, being on a corner, it was in the way. The island is developing. Several plots are roped aside for diggers. These miniature construction vehicles need to turn corners. Maybe it was that. Maybe that's why the tree had to go. I don't know.

I thought of running down there, to the man hacking the trunk with a handsaw while he instructed his colleague in yelling Cantonese. Angrily, I would point to a fistful of tree preserving papers, as if I had more authority than he. I'd wrestle a stay of execution and get to work with letters. But of course I couldn't do that, because I don't have any say, no authority, and the papers would betray me, by being empty, or scribbled over with Tiger's drawings. And this is Hong Kong, colony of China, throne of the property king. There was nothing I could do, so I did nothing, and watched the tree drop dead.

Sometimes, tired of the sight of the fallen trees, the island bars, the greengrocer's face, those rotten cotton trousers, I eye up the attraction of that other expat life. Hong Kong Island. Especially when someone I like leans to me, raises their eyebrows and laughs, 'Shall we go shopping?'.

Hmm. I could give myself to that other version of expat life. Hong Kong Island. They offer a different experience. I could forget about the damn tree. I could join the city dwellers responsible to a goal: seek mutually supportive, wealthy people. I'd enter the hierarchy and find out whether my suspicions are true: that the Hong Kong glance at each other appreciatively to remind themselves how they're a cut above the mainland, while the global expats do the same, but think themselves a cut above Hong Kong.

It seems such a tiny step from temptation to possession. The display lights twinkle and the music is very sweet. But to lay my hands there I'd need to embed myself further into an expat life. I'd need to apply pressure on the husband for the salary, seek a modern clean apartment in a smarter area of town, and ensure my access always to the mall.

But I know I couldn't do that. Maybe I haven't been here long enough. Some fellow expats have been here for years. They circle round in the Western bars, meet up for roof parties and smoky barbecues and marry the locals. To join them properly, feel committed and responsible, able to take a social part, then perhaps I'd need to give myself up to the long term. Maybe resign myself wearily to teaching and ensure I paid the tax on time. Then I could count myself an expat proper, grumble about the Chinese way, and when someone mentions England, say with a shrug of the shoulders, 'What can you do?' because now for sure it's a lost cause.

So I need to go back to England, and take some time there. Where else can I go, with this need to have a responsibility to a place, to yell about things that matter, but the post office queue, the garage, the local shop, the bank, where everyone will understand me about the bloody tree, and what I mean, because this is the place where I can say out loud, I don't agree. I'll write letters, threaten chains, and jab my finger far too much.

But maybe, when I get there, they won't want this either. And when they won't, everyone will sigh and tut and there will be unexpressed outrages and irritations and crushing humiliations and social judgements and there will be more people to fight, then everyone will think, I wish she would just shut up.

When that happens, maybe next week, the last thing I want to think, is the first thing that will come into my mind. The thought that by degrees turns an expat an exile. Sod you. I have an escape route, and it's called Hong Kong.


sharon said...

Living in a different land, even this one where the common rules and language are ostensibly the same (although the nuances and usages differ at times) does take some getting used to. I have few regrets, here I have the peace, space and light that I craved, I've left behind those who would judge my choices, measure my achievements and question my reasons. I also left my extended family, many good friends, easy access to museums, galleries and Arts in general. Without the internet, to which I was a late convert, it would be harder to balance my contentment with the new status quo but, go back? No, not me. I never was one for looking backwards with regret.

Helen of SJ said...

I get what you're saying, even though I came from America, and my voice doesn't matter there either. Grass does look greener on the other side, doesn't it? Either way, I do hope you'll find a "hole" you do fit in, and if that is England, well, all the best, but I'll sure miss your brilliant HK blogs.

Deb said...

So...the plan? Summer in England, but back to HK in the fall? And what about Dig - will he stay in HK, keeping the island fires burning and eating all the I Scream?

Rachel M. said...

I totally get you on this. Travel has it's idyllic moments but at the end of the day I just want to be home with my plants, cats, beach and family. Hoping the dog runs off while I'm gone - was that mean? Probably But he deserves a better home where one parent does not glare at every move he makes. Oh wait, I probably even miss that stupid mutt!

Grit said...

thank you for your comments and emails folks, i'll be back to this topic soon, i guess.

Kelly said...

The world of the expat is a strange one. Hong Kong was not my place, but Canada definitely is. I could never live in the U.S. again, and I have come, over the years, to accept that. And I no longer feel like an expat. I feel Canadian. With a strong American connection/umbilical cord that will never be completely severed.

Grit said...

i am a bit scared of visiting canada, kelly, in case everyone likes it too much. i think it is on dig's favourite place list (along with northumberland, of course).