A Different World

I find it fascinating and amazing that there are and have been so many different cultures and civilizations on this planet. Each one came up with its own rules and standards about how to live, how to die, and how to treat each other. There are lots of things about our own culture that we take for granted, that we don’t really think about until we encounter something different. Take light switches and power outlets, for example. In America, we use the traditional 3-prong plug in a triangular arrangement, with 2 flat prongs parallel on the long side comprising the triangle’s base, and a round grounding prong at the apex. Here in Hong Kong, the outlet of choice is similar, but arranged in a larger triangle with 2 prongs (parallel on the short side) comprising the base, and at the apex another prong perpendicular to the others used for grounding. In America, the standard light switch is the toggle switch that sticks out of the wall plate by about half an inch, while in Hong Kong, the standard switch is a flat finger switch that barely protrudes from the plate. And, let’s not forget the voltage difference, 220 V at 50 hertz versus 110 V at 60. These are one of the many items in daily life that we encounter constantly, yet we rarely think about how they are a part of our culture, our civilization. When I travel, I get a chance to enjoy noticing these little differences.

Power Outlets
Intercultural Power

What about how we treat people? If you grew up in a society where people said “please” and “thank you” all the time, you might think that a society that grew up not doing those things is rude. You might feel resentment for being treated rudely, and you might retaliate. There have been a lot of stories in the news about tensions between Hong Kongers and Mainlanders because of these types of issues. We encountered it the other night when some Mainlanders were blocking a passageway. I smiled sheepishly and gave them a look like “please move out of the way” but they just sort of stood there. I knew that to them it wasn’t considered inconsiderate to be in someone’s way, so I went around. It’s the same thing in San Francisco Chinatown, when there’s a mad rush to get on the 30 Stockton, line be damned. I know I’ve heard many complaints about those “rude Chinese ladies”.

Perhaps this is why humans have fought so many wars against one another. We can’t see past the bridges of our own noses. Or, perhaps it’s just force of habit, and maybe, just maybe if we took some time to think about and examine our own behavior, we’d be more understanding of one another. Here’s my own example of force of habit: I grew up playing basketball where the ball gets taken out at the top of the key pretty much all the time. If someone gets fouled, we take it out up top. If the ball goes out of bounds, we take it out up top. In Hong Kong, the ball is taken out wherever the ball went out, or on the baseline if there was a foul, even when playing half court. It took some time for me to adjust, and a few times I threw the ball to the top of the key when I should have given it to the guy waiting on the baseline. From his perspective, I might have been acting like an ass, even if that wasn’t my intention. I was programmed to do that because I had been doing it playing ball in the Bay Area my whole life, and unlike with my laptop, there is no adapter to change the program on the fly.

More basketball: what we would call “ticky tack” fouls get called here all the time, and people generally don’t argue those calls. I found myself getting frustrated when what back home would have been considered a clean strip was called a foul. In my mind I tried to tell myself that this is how the game is played here, but my body language and attitude indicated that I was frustrated, and afterwards I regretted my behavior because I was applying my own standards to someone else’s home turf. The lesson here is to try to remember that your way is not always the best way, and that people all over the world do things differently. Heck, I’m willing to bet that the ball take-out rules are different between states, or even in different regions in the same state, let alone entire nations.

If we do decide to move here permanently, part of the fun will be learning and being aware of these basic differences.

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