22 October 2010

Reverse Culture Shock

I recently returned from a visit to my economically distressed homeland. After 1 year in the Hi-Tech Village, some reverse culture shock was inevitable. Some quick observations:

1. Nobody's working, anywhere! Besides all the obscenely obese people, this was the first thing I noticed. On arrival in the airport in Chicago, I was blown away by the fact that there are only 2 people behind the service counters, trying frantically to do the job that would be done by 20 people in HK. Same thing in grocery stores: with all the automated checkout and various other ways to save money by reducing payroll, grocery stores have vastly fewer employees per square meter than they do in HK. Restaurants are perhaps the most noticeable example of this: in the US, there will be one or two servers working their asses off constantly making sure that their 20 tables are happy, refilling water glasses without being asked and just generally paying attention to their customers. In HK, the ratio is reversed: 20 servers are seemingly dedicated to each table, yet they still manage not to notice when a customer sits down and are completely oblivious to the needs of the people it is supposedly their job to attend to. I've heard that the ridiculous number of people employed in the service industry is the result of tax incentives the HK government gives for hiring more workers, yet Obama passed several such incentives as part of the stimulus, and still US businesses would rather work their employees to the bone than hire even one more.

2. People can see me! Yea! I know it sounds strange, but outside of the Chinese world, people pay attention to the existence of others. I had forgotten how much I missed that.

3. Bars and restaurants are comfortable. In the Hi-Tech village, the decor in bars and restaurants is designed to impress customers to the point of making them feel inadequate, not make them comfortable. Upon visiting some of my favorite restaurants in Boulder and Denver, Colorado, the contrast reminded me just how uncomfortable restaurants, and particularly bars, are in this Village. In these neighborhood restaurants, the lighting is non-blinding, the seats are comfy, and the vibe is generally bohemian. I spent my first few months in HK looking for the bohemian side of the city, and eventually gave up and moved to Lamma. There is no bohemian Hong Kong: perhaps that's why Chinese people can't walk past the Bookworm Cafe on Lamma without taking millions of pictures, they've just never seen a restaurant that actually tries to make it's customers comfortable rather than intimidate them with expensive decor (once inside the Bookworm, the totally inattentive service will quickly make them feel at home again).

In HK, space is expensive and people are cheap. In the USA, people are expensive (particularly due to insane health care costs), and space is cheap.

After three weeks in the good old US of A, I'm well rested, and somewhat recovered from the hostile environment I had grown accustomed to. In three weeks, I got soft (in the brain and in the belly). Time to build up my urban calluses again.

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