When you are walking around Hong Kong with European style and white skin, carrying things (like groceries or a child), it becomes obvious you are an expat – a person living in a country for a period of time with the intention of moving home. There is a difference between an expat and an immigrant – basically an expat is temporary (but not just visiting), an immigrant is permanent.
You see other expats, and they are just as easy to pick out as you are, regardless of skin color – “western” people just carry themselves and behave differently than the local people do. I have lived in a lot of places in my life – from growing up in the Midwest where everyone says hello, to New York before 9/11 when everyone basically had “screw off” written on their foreheads, to California where everyone seemed extra nice, to Sweden where everyone ignores one another not with malice but with collective ambivalence and maybe a little deep-rooted “jantelagen” at work keeping people from looking at one another. In all these places, the way you greet people on the street is socially embedded and therefore it makes it something to appreciate as part of the culture.
The way expats treat one another while in Hong Kong’s urban environments is special. I would have thought there would be a little nod of acknowledgment, a way of saying subtly “hey, I know you are also making sense of this crazy place – keep on going.” But instead, universally, expats here look through one another. Without exception, I have noticed that expats see one another, then they look straight through, as if the person no longer exists after the fraction of a second where they maybe made eye contact. Important to note that there is no value judgement attached to the ignoring, it is just happening (in other words, it’s not like the people are showing dislike for one another). I have noticed this in every part of Hong Kong, and even caught myself doing it today, to my dismay.
Why is this? I guess maybe the “westerners” who are here want to feel like they are the only special ones, like they alone are conquering this foreign land. I could see how that would basically help protect a person, and help them justify being away from “home”, and/or could help make a person feel special because they are “following the road less traveled.” By acknowledging others (outside of the bars and other socially structured meeting places), they are forced to come to terms with the fact that they are not the first foreign people here – we are all therefore “special”, and because of that, we are just like each other – not from here, here for work, planning to go back home, and so on.
I don’t necessarily have a concern or real reason for sharing about this besides that I find it absolutely fascinating. As a person who wants to meet other people here, I would like to do that through regular interaction instead of only social media or my wife’s friends. So to me, it is interesting that the mutual ignoring happens – because if we (expats) all acknowledged one another, we would be able to create a close-knit community within our neighborhoods, and could build solid friendships. It all starts with a smile amidst a sea of anonymity.