26 May 2010

Learning to Walk

One of the biggest frustrations for new expats to the Hi-Tech Village is the way people walk. Here, like in the West, people generally avoid running into each other on the streets. Now that's actually a complicated task when you think about it, and the way they go about doing so is very different in the two places.

This may sound surprising to those who have lived their whole lives in the Village, but the way Europeans and Americans avoid running into each other is actually by making eye contact, and subtly, non-verbally communicating with each other about which way each person is going. It also helps that in the States we have a clear default side on which to pass: the right. As two people approach each other, they make eye-contact, each one goes to his or her right, and they avoid collision. Seems simple enough, and until I went to China for the first time, I was under the impression that that was how the whole world did it. It's one of those things that you don't realize is a cultural idiosyncrasy until you step outside your own culture.

In the Village, as in China, there is no eye-contact between strangers on the street. (I can't begin to count how many times I have seen Chinese people I know on the street in HK, looked right at them expecting them to see me and say hi, and found that they did not notice me at all. In contrast, when I see Indians, Europeans or Americans on the street, we always notice each other because we are both in the habit of looking at people's faces as we pass them on the street.) Without eye contact, the Western method of walking doesn't work. What Hongkies do, so far as I can tell, is just react as if the other person were a train on tracks: they skip any attempt to communicate with the other person and just get out of the way...this causes confusion for me because I'm often "getting out of their way" right into the spot they're "getting out of my way" to.

A lot of Westerners I've talked to complain about this constantly. They think it's rude and inconsiderate. But I think you have to look at this particular behavior as part of a broader cultural repertoire. It's true that Chinese people often don't see other people as individuals on the street. And that can be annoying when you're not used to it. But I think this cultural trait evolved as an adaptation to living in densely populated urban areas for much longer than Europeans have been living in them (and no European or American city comes close to the population density in HK). When people don't see each other, they also don't fight with each other, and I have been constantly impressed with how rare arguments or fights are on the streets of this Village.

But when I experiment with this Chinese way of the walk, it doesn't quite work. So I'm asking the Libertines community, as a confused gweilo expat: how the hell do people avoid running into each other without looking at each other around here? Somehow people are able to see everyone while seeing no one. It all feels vaguely Taoist, which may be why I can't do it right. Help a gweilo out here. I've been here almost a year now, it's about time I figured out how to walk.

13 comments:

  1. I was taught not to look at others on the street since childhood... As it will be considered an unfriendly act in most cases...

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  2. Perhaps in the Chinese parts of the world (or even in East Asia in general, I don't know) it's considered an unfriendly act. But in many other parts of the world, I assure you it is not considered unfriendly. Where I come from, ignoring people is considered unfriendly. I understand there's a cultural difference there. I'm not saying one is right and the other is wrong. I was taught to pay close attention to other people's personal space since childhood.

    But I'm in HK, and I'm here voluntarily. So I don't expect 7 million people to adapt to me, that's why I'm trying to figure out how it's done here. Now in San Francisco (for example) I think Chinese people need to adapt to the Western way of walking, and my experience is that they have as much trouble not bumping into people in SF as I do in HK. And I'm sure I get on people's nerves here just as Chinese walkers get on people's nerves in the States. Any insight on how to avoid contact without looking at people would be appreciated. I don't want to be rude by looking at people, but I'd like to stop having to dodge people on the street constantly. I know that locals don't have the same difficulty with this that Westerners do, so for the sake of all of us, a little advice is much appreciated.

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  3. try to look down to belly, but be careful not to look upper than that.

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  4. Don't bother to try. Hong Kong people know Kung Fu or are basically Ninja warriors and yes especially the older dudes so they have unbelievable reflex and radar like side visions to avoid any collision on the street. Anyway.

    Wow, I haven't noticed that's how Hong Kong people behave--not even acknowledge somebody you know in the street. It's just rude, period. No amount of cultural relativity can explain this rudeness away. And at the same time I don't think that is unique in Hong Kong, you just don't like that person and you pretend not to see him on the street so as not to bother exchange any BS pleasantries. Hong Kong people can be heartbreakingly pragmatic and cruel just like any city dwellers in any big cities. Personally I think the avoid eye-contact part happens everywhere in crowded cities as well. Unless you want to start a conversation or a fight and seriously nobody wants either. Everybody just goes about his own business and hope to survive another day.

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  5. I think this is the same way in all crowded big cities. I'm pretty sure there aren't a whole lot of eye contact in a busy Tube station in London during the morning rush hour either, for example.

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  6. I think you can just act nature and normal, this doesn't make any conflict if Hongkongers don't look at you, they don't mean anything at all.

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  7. my rule is: when in doubt, stand still. they walk so quickly that they pass you by already without you moving a toe.

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  8. i like to pretend i'm in some sort of video games....10 points if you can make it to the end of the street without bumping into anyone...minus 2 points for bumping into fat gweilo, minus 5 points for bumping into skinny asian cutie..or maybe that should be plus 5....etc etc...

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  9. Anon,
    I don't agree that Londoners and New Yorkers avoid eye-contact in the same way as Hongkies. I've never lived in those cities, but I've visited them on several occasions, and never noticed that. When I first got to HK, I was immediately struck by the fact that people couldn't see me. So much so that I thought it was racism (you know, like they can't see the "ghost man"). Turns out I was (mostly) wrong about the racism aspect of it; Chinese people are just taught to avoid eye-contact, as some commenters have mentioned. I do not think that London mums or New York moms teach their children not to look at people's faces. This is a cultural difference, and it appears to be socialized into children quite early.

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  10. Hmmm... This has not been my experience in HK. I find that a lot of people do make eye contact and take notice.

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  11. Phuong, that maybe because you look different from local girls. that's why people take notice. Just make sure you don't stare too long into their eyes or you'll get followed.

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  12. I think I agree with Phuong. Many HK people do make eye contact. But then again, it depends on what you mean by "eye contact". It seems to me you might mean something close to "staring" or "gazing". I'm not sure how we can make eye contact with everyone who passes us by in a densely populated metropolis as well.

    W

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  13. Bambi,

    People automatically assume that I speak Cantonese, which leads me to believe that they think I look like a local...

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