Saturday, April 23, 2005


Daisy and I have been in competition for the last two weeks after we both developed similarly positioned mouth ulcers. I found out about her ulcer because she started using a herbal paste that turned her whole mouth black and prevented her from speaking properly.

I teased her that my ulcer would get better faster without any treatment. When I came back from the market with a bag full of mangos she predicted the worst for my ulcer. I find this Chinese medicine notion of 'heating' and 'cooling' foods really strange.

On our last comparison she declared a truce. Both of us were healing at a similar rate. Then she started shrieking in delight and jumping up and down. I asked her what the matter was and she told me to wait and then ran laughing to the back of the store.

She came back with a mirror, shouting out, 'you have another ulcer! you have another ulcer!'. Ling, Deco and Jacky crowded around while I looked into the mirror. A second ulcer had developed at the side of my mouth. I thought I had just bitten myself while chewing.

I blamed Hong Kong and told Daisy that I never used to have mouth ulcers in Sydney. 'Ha, ha' she said, 'even tv stars get ulcers'.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


At church we have a spot where visitors have to stand up and introduce themselves. Last week a couple stood up and said that they were from Australia. The pastor then asked which part of Australia and they said New South Wales. From their accents I guessed that it must be somewhere outback. When he asked them which part of New South Wales they said that they were from Sydney. I was shocked, thinking 'that's what I am supposed to sound like!'. I don't think they guessed that the pastor was also from Sydney!

Australian people travelling overseas should know that many people in other countries are more familiar with the names of major cities in Australia than those of the states. If you are from Sydney, Perth, Brisbane or Melbourne then it's much more meaningful to say which city you come from. Speaking of which, I have a friend in Hong Kong from Melbourne who says 'you know' a lot and sounds like Prue and Trude from 'Kath and Kim'. I have to try hard not to laugh every time Kowloon comes out like colon!

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Late night shopping

Just after writing my last post, the topic of stupid violence came up in a work meeting. We were discussing physical abuse against domestic helpers and a colleague from our domestic helper support centre said that it increased sharply when the economy worsened post-1997. Someone else quoted a statistic that 1/3 of people in HK have some kind of mental illness and they blamed this on the hideous hours that most people work.

Eitherway, the craziness goes on. I went out for dinner on Friday night with Daisy, Joseph (her husband), Deco and Ling. The dinner was shouted by Deco who declared that he was very depressed and wanted to spend all of his money. The reason was that his flatmate had applied for a job at his workplace (Daisy's shop is his second job) and he was worried about his work life and personal life colliding.

The dinner was at Ming Sing, a huge seafood restaurant on Nathan Rd. They were going shutting the shop at 11pm which was convenient becuase I already had another booking for dinner. I had been invited to dinner with one of my old work colleagues who cooked a delicoius French meal. The food was incredible - French onion soup with homemade croutons, salad, salmon and potato mash and then mangosteens which I had brought from the outdoor market.

I arrived at Ming Sing just before twelve. Deco was fairly sozzled and the table was covered with dishes. As stuffed as I was, I had to try a little of each of them. The five of us stayed for a couple more hours in the restaurant, gossiping and making jokes. I asked Deco how he chose his English name and it turned out that his parents gave it to him. They liked it so much, infact, that it is the only name they gave him!

From there the conversation went downhill after I related the incident with the mango thrower in the outdoor market. The 'death to all your family' line inspired the group to teach me a collection of Cantonese insults and swear words. Some of them took some figuring out and I realised that insults and bad language can give a lot of insight into the society in which they exist.

Sometime after 2am we were getting ready to leave when Deco stated his intention to cross the border and make a short trip to Shenzen before going to work at 8:30am. Daisy and Joseph discouraged him and as a result, they agreed to accompany him when he suggested an alternative excursion to Ap Liu St Market in Sham Shui Po. I had been planning on going home to bed but I changed my mind after Daisy called me an 'old cake'.

Ling went home to the New Territories but the rest of us got in a taxi and headed to Ap Liu St. At most times, the market sells used electrical products but late at night, hawkers spread sheets on the street to sell pirated and second hand CD's, VCD's and DVD's. I found a couple of second hand CD's I wanted and some Hindi DVD's as well. I had to argue with Deco who wanted to pay for everything that Daisy, Joseph and I had picked out.

At 3:30am I got in a taxi to go home and I thought about what a weird night it had been. The irony was that I had earlier been glad to get our of a night out in Central with other friends because I didn't want to stay up late. I realised I had developed a new level of respect for Daisy and Joseph who seem to take very good care of all the crazy friends they have.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Crazy stuff

I don't know what's happened in the last week but there's been an explosion in insanity at home. Here are three of the most bizarre incidents:

1. Two nights ago there was a fight between the belt seller and the begging monk. I heard yelling late at night and I went in the bathroom to look out the window. Both of them had assumed karate poses and were flailing their arms around. The belt seller then grabbed the beads around the monk's neck and the two started to hit each other. A large crowd had gathered, including a bunch of tourists who probably expected this kind of wacky thing to happen in Hong Kong. Luckily, someone pulled the monk away before there was any serious damage. When I asked Daisy about it the next day she said that everyone knows that monk is a fake.

2. Last night I was in the market when an old Nepali woman picked up a large mango and threatened to throw it at the stallholder she was bargaining with. The stallholder than began to scream profanities and the Nepali woman responded by yelling 'death to all your family' repeatedly. I wasn't sure if I was more shocked by what she said or by the fact that she spoke such good Cantonese.

3. Jacky who lives in the alley below, has lately taken to believing that he is a large cat. He alternates between being a tiger and what he calls a 'meihgwok pao'. It means 'American big cat' so I can only assume it means puma or cougar or something like that. He moves around with great stealth, calls his house the 'cat home' and does a lot of roaring. He's very good at the roaring and I've lain in bed the last few nights listening to him roaring on the street below, sometimes followed by the scream of a terrorised pedestrian.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

15 seconds

The tv report on asylum seekers finally aired on Sunday night. In church on Sunday morning someone announced that a 'teaser' had been shown during the news the night before, 'showing our church service and featuring some of our usual celebrities'. The guy then looked in my direction and chuckled. I was filled with deathly fear that they must have aired the bit where I was trying to sing without a songbook.

It took me a while to figure out where I was going to watch the report. I decided to go to the Chinese dessert shop, where I consumed one bowl of black sesame paste dumplings and one bowl of sago with mango. At first the staff didn't understand why I was so keen to change the tv channel but it became obvious when I came on the screen, much to the delight of my fellow customers.

Thankfully, the didn't show me singing. Only a little of my interview was shown, other than that there was a shot of me doing some filing at work and a shot of the back of my head in church. Most importantly, the report was very sympathetic to the issue, to the extent that we will be able to use it as a promotional video for our work! I can't wait until we get a copy to show to all the asylum seekers.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Smooth talk

After an office re-arrangement this week, the telephone that clients are allowed to use is sitting on one end of my desk. As a result, I am party to entire conversations, rather than the occasional hilarious snippet that I used to catch.

Over the last few days I have developed a new sense of awe for the the incredible talents of a couple of our clients. Here is a typical display of brilliance:

(talking into telephone)
Baby how are you?... you know, it's so good to hear your voice... yes I feel like that too baby... you know, I had a dream about you last night... yes I did. I dreamt that an angel was calling me from heaven, and it was your voice... you know, you have the sweet voice of an angel... oh, hold on one minute, I have an important business call coming in...

(into mobile phone)
honey, my darling... I can't talk for long now, I am in a business meeting... yes Sunday is fine but I will be going to the mosque in the afternoon, can we meet in the morning?... I can't wait to see you too honey, bye bye...

(back to telephone)
yes baby... sorry, it was important, but not as important as you, my sweet, sweet angel... yes I am waiting to see you... you know, on Sunday I will be at church in the morning but I will die if I don't see you in the afternoon... yes, I will be thinking only on that between now and Sunday... okay, I have to attend to my work, I am waiting to see you my angel... okay, bye bye

I knew better than to be flattered yesterday when the same client told me 'you know Mr Joe, whenever I see you I feel at home'. Having failed to acheive success with that one, he then narrated a dream in which I was the President of Australia.

In contrast, I took great encouragement yesterday from a thankyou email sent by a different client who came to our centre for the first time this week. He is older and illiterate in both English and computer use. I arranged for some of the other French speakers to give him tutorials in basic computer and internet use and by yesterday he was adept enough to send email by himself. My colleague and I were delighted with the emails he sent each of us, even if they were in French!

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

An evening at home

It's amazing how little it takes to restore sanity. I took a trip to the New Territories last night to go for dinner at Bee's house. His mum is an excellent cook and I couldn't believe how relaxed I felt after getting away from Kowloon for just a couple of hours. That and spending time in a real home. When I arrived back in Saigon St I whinged to Daisy that as much as I love my room, it really is just a place for sleeping. Daisy promised to invite me for dinner with her and Joseph if I didn't mind all the dogs and cats at their house.

I spent about an hour hanging around Daisy's shop before I went upstairs to go to bed. The usual gang were all there; Jacky, shy Ling, the new shop assistant with hardly any teeth, Jess (the other new super efficient shop assistant), Daisy and also Ali (the young Nepali girl who lives above the shop) who was strutting around in silver high heels. She had matched them with a tracksuit-material skirt and was announcing to all that her mum had bought them in Singapore and they had cost $1000.

The focus of everyone's attention was the removable wooden platform that Jacky had built in order to extend Daisy's shop 50cm further into the adjacent alleyway. Jacky had been busy with a saw for the last two days, drinking a lot less than usual and constructing a range of storage and display items for the nearby shops. Some of them were better than others and don't think he made them at anyone's request. Still, it was touching to see how much everyone praised and thanked Jacky for his hard work.

I joked with Jacky that I wanted him to build illegal dwelling for me on the flat roof of my building. Daisy said I should ask instead for him to construct a second story on the shelter he has made himself in the alleyway. At that point, Jess noticed the package of sweets from Taiwan that Bee's mum had given me. I gave one to everyone and even forced Ling to take a mango pudding. I realised that it's nice to have people to share stuff with.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

hamro setho saathi

Lately I've noticed a contrast between French speakers and Nepali speakers regarding their confidence in my ability to understand them when they speak their own languages.

At work some of our Congolese and Togolese clients have decided that it's more efficient for them to try and speak to me in French than in English. This says much more about their English ability than my French abibility. I can often get the general gist but my listening skills are usually overestimated. An running joke in our centre is that it's dangerous to say anything confidentional in French if Mr Joe is within hearing range. I often wonder if this is because I am white like the average French person.

The opposite is true with Nepalese people's confidence in my ability to understand Nepali. Even after learning that I understand some Nepali, people will go on speaking in front of me and then get shocked when I let on that I am following their conversation. I have also found that my comprehensions skills in any language increase several fold when people are talking about me, as happened today when I went for lunch at the local Nepali restaurant:

From the counter: One set meal and one lassi
From the kitchen: Eat here or take away?
From the counter: Eat here
From the kitchen: Who is it for?
From the counter: Our white friend (hamro setho sathi)

It wasn't a very insulting reference but it was quite funny and the rest of the customers burst out laughing. Maybe it was the alliteration. When I started laughing too the counter guy looked shocked and asked what I was laughing at. 'setho sathi' I told him and he immediately demanded to know what I thought it meant. 'setho is safed, right?' I asked, since he already knew that I speak Hindi.

If there was a lesson to be learnt from this it didn't sink in. When I went to the counter to pay, the guy yelled in Nepali to the kitchen again, 'how much do we usually charge this guy, thirty?'. 'Thirty', I answered, shocked to see the same look of surprise on his face. 'You know 'tis'(thirty)?' he asked. 'A little more than that' I said, repeating his previous question about the price, 'you should be more careful'.

'No, no need to be careful because nothing wrong', he joked. 'Yes, not yet', I smiled, 'that's why you should be careful'.

Anyway, I like surprising people in this way. It reminds me of an experience I once had on a train in India. I was travelling in a compartment with five others and they did almost nothing except talk about me for the whole journey. They commented on my looks, speculated about what kind of person I was and aired their views on Westerners in general.

One lady even gave a running commentary on everything that I did, 'look, he's getting a book out of his bag. Now he's eating some namkeen, look at that piece he dropped on his leg!'. It was like being a zoo animal! When we stopped at a station close to my destination I ordered a cup of chai through the window from a chaiwala on the platform. The order ensued in a short conversation and the result in our compartment was deathly silence for the rest of the journey.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Current affairs

The asylum seeker issue is hotting up in Hong Kong. We have recieved several media requests in the last few days and I only imagine things will get more worked up after the tv broadcast next week.

Because the recent requests have all been refused, our staff have been instructed to look out for reporters trying to sneak in to our centre! Recently, I joked with a friend that I've done tv and newspapers, next step is my film debut, perhaps in a Michael Moore style documentary. I certainly feel on the cutting edge!