Hong Kong is a strange place. I’ve never lived anywhere so obsessed with the categorization of people. What you are defines who you are. Are you white, Indonesian, Chinese, a native Hongkonger? A banker, a lawyer, an engineer, a teacher? Rich, poor, middle class?
Coming into Hong Kong, I didn’t expect to be white. Not that I was expecting my skin to change color on the plane ride over, but I didn’t know it would matter. I didn’t know that I’d be stared at in the Mass Transit Railway and in the lecture hall, while walking down the street and while eating at a restaurant. I didn’t realize that “gweilo” would be murmured when I raised my hand in class, or that people would excitedly try to relate to my culture through the Big Bang Theory (I always managed to disappoint locals when they found out that I didn’t watch it and therefore had no opinions on how funny Sheldon was).
And, moreover, I didn’t expect the privileges that came along with it. I didn’t expect professors to grade me more easily, for girls to consider me more attractive, for bouncers to let me into crowded clubs. A Swedish friend of mine, a 6’3” ginger whose looks were a continual source of fascination for locals, told me a story of when he got on the first class section of the MTR without a first class ticket. The MTR police attempted to take his Octopus card away and fine him. He took the card back. “No,” he said, and they acquiesced, letting him off with a weak warning not to do it again.
Then, a few months in, I experienced the dark side of Hongkongnese categorization. I told a local friend offhandedly that I was Jewish. That, I learned quickly, was a mistake, as soon it seemed every local friend had heard. I discovered that stereotypes about Jews in Hong Kong are even more pervasive than stereotypes about whites, perhaps because of Jews’ comparative rarity. Immediately my friends began to excitedly make comments about “my people”: the financial and the academic success, the penny-pinching, and every other tidbit that had come across their radar. They made casual jokes about Israel, circumcision, even the Holocaust, proud of their knowledge of Jewish esoterica. A local friend of mine told me, jokingly, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” the inscription infamously written above the gates at Auschwitz. He had been to Europe, and he had learned German. He was confused when I didn’t laugh with him.
The strange thing was that none of it was done maliciously. Not a single one of them would have ever threatened me, or treated me poorly because I was Jewish. These same friends making Jewish jokes took me with them to local restaurants and bars, drank with me and commiserated with me over difficult exams.
They just weren’t able to interact with people and ignore their stereotypes. It was as if I was a simultaneous person to them. I was white, Jewish, and myself, two stereotypes coexisting with an actual person.
Before I could feel too sorry for myself, though, I was reminded that I was hardly experiencing the worst of Hong Kong stereotyping. I was having dinner with an Indian friend (“North Indian, not South,”) who had grown up in government housing, and we talked about his life as a poor Indian kid growing up in Hong Kong. He told me about his friends toking their way straight out of high school, and about run-ins with Pakistanis over cricket. I told him how amazed I was that Indians in Hong Kong were generally lower class; that in America Indians were regarded as a model minority. He nodded.
“Indians,” he said, “are the black people of Hong Kong.”
What he meant by this was that Indians were often the thugs and criminals of Hong Kong. When white kids wanted drugs in Hong Kong, they knew where to get them: Chungking Mansions, where Indian men pushed weed and hashish in earshot of the Hong Kong police. He compared it to his stereotypes of blacks in America. He had never been to America, but had seen enough American movies and TV shows to know that black people were criminals.
I saw it differently, however. Indians were the black people of Hong Kong, but in the sense that they were trapped by the same stereotypes, expected to fulfill the same expectations. Indians in Hong Kong were supposed to fail out of high school, supposed to push drugs outside of government housing, supposed to get in fights at bars over cricket matches. They were supposed to commit crimes against each other while society watched, shaking its head sadly at the universal thuggery of the young Indian male.
Because broader society in Hong Kong can’t imagine a young Indian male outside of the street, even when they see one in college they expect him to fail out. They don’t understand the difficulty of growing up poor and Indian, they don’t understand why they can’t just all speak English or Cantonese, why they have to speak Tamil and Hindi to each other.
But then, of course, all of us in Hong Kong couldn’t have imagined each other existing outside of our stereotypes. We stood on the MTR, tourists, study abroad students, immigrant workers, and locals alike, and watched each other out of the corner of our eyes, pausing only to murmur in our native language to those who stood with us.
We watched the Indian man to see if he was selling drugs, the Filipino girl to see if she was with a boyfriend, the mainland family to see if they were trying to smuggle powdered milk, the white businessman to catch him leering at a local girl.
And I stood, fresh from afternoon class on a hot April day, leaning against the door, watching their faces. As their eyes flicked to me, I wondered what they were thinking. And I wonder what I was thinking.