A question for HKers from a harmless and (over-)sensitive foreigner

I am, according to Hong Kong taxonomy, a gwailou (鬼佬). This is the term used to describe (white) foreigners, i.e. people who have no discernible Chinese heritage yet who also suffer from a comparative lack of melanin. [I don’t know, but I am curious, as to whether African albinos would be included in this category]. This is usually the first word learnt by the same and so there is already plenty written about it elsewhere to which I won’t add my own ill-judged entry. At least not this time while I am completely sober.

Suffice it to say that not being Chinese is still a relatively big deal even here. Whatever the reason for this — whether the usual human desire to find any and all differences significant, to Hong Kong’s colonial history, to a traditional Chinese shyness or Confucian attitude to strangers, to a reputation for foreigners to be partying animals and stupid buffoons — there is wariness and curiosity shown by most locals to those who are not of Chinese ethnicity. Of course this is a simplistic reflection of the situation and I apologise to all those who are suitably offended by my crudity and for thus displaying my own vulgarity, provincialism and downright mendacity so openly. But I maintain that this is a sufficiently true description of the atmosphere here for my question to make sense.

Here is my question:

Why am I always the last person to be sat next to on the bus?

Careful of the white man! He might eat your seat!

There is a certain order to how buses are seated here. Those travelling by themselves will take a pair of seats for themselves if any are available, so that at some point the bus ends up with two neat lines of people all sitting by the windows, being careful to look outside and not at each other. If there are no spare pairs of seats left, they must then sit next to someone — a live, unpredictable human being — and this requires some careful consideration.

First of all, it is not the done thing for a man to sit next to a woman, and vice versa, if this can be at all avoided.

Next, as far as I can tell, young will not sit next to old, and vice versa, although this doesn’t seem to be as strict, and could even be a product of my fevered and under-stimulated imagination.

And lastly, don’t sit next to a gweilou, unless by some misfortune you are one yourself.

I guess I can understand why ladies, especially young ones, might not want a man to sit next to them. What could be worse than enduring a journey where your new journeymate flirts with you or even just says “hello” because you’re pretty and he’s lonely?

But why are you so clearly unenthusiastic about sitting next to me, whatever sex or age you are? Do I smell bad? (I sniffed my armpits on the bus this morning and with all requisite humility I think I smelt great). Am I fidgeting too much? Was it because I made eye contact, or because I didn’t? (I’ve tried both as an experiment and it doesn’t appear to make a difference). Are you worried that I’ll test your English language skills and find you wanting before bursting into loud laughter over it? (When actually your ability to speak English is almost certainly much higher than mine in speaking Cantonese and you have nothing to be embarrassed about. And anyway, why would I laugh at you?!)

The only conclusion that I can come to is that you’re risk-averse. I understand: I am an unknown quantity. My eyelids are unambiguously double-lidded and I don’t have an epicanthic fold. Other people with similar complexions kill taxi drivers.

So this is a plea to the fine permanent residents of Hong Kong: I promise you that no harm will befall you if you sit next to me on the bus. You don’t even need to move further away if I sit in the row behind you because I won’t shout at you, unlike some of your compatriots. And you never know: if you do strike up a conversation with me, you might learn something new.

[I also apologise if you take this post too seriously].



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