Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 January, 2009, 12:00am

This week: Happy New Year

Once again another new year is upon us, one that, as always, represents many different things for many people. For some it is a new beginning, with the previous year's events audited and filed away as things of the past. This provides them with the opportunity to start with a clean slate, to give life another go, starting out with optimism that they may score better in the next 12 months than in those just passed.

For others it could be the beginning of a bitter year with nothing to look forward to. Given the current financial turmoil, there is a level of tension bothering many of us, especially in terms of job and wage uncertainties, which inevitably erode consumer confidence.

As a Hong Kong-born Australian, the New Year has special meaning for me, not just because it is a rare chance to dust off winter clothing and dress up as if we live in Siberia. It holds special symbolism because it marks 11 years since I returned from Australia to the land of my birth.

It has been a long struggle for me to redefine my place in the world. With the outward appearance of a local and the laid-back attitude of an Australian - like a half-breed that doesn't seem to fit in anywhere - I have had a tough 11 years of integration.

There is a large expat community here and you can get by without speaking much Cantonese because most people speak a certain level of English. But I have always felt I would miss out on what being a Hongkonger is all about if I didn't try my best to understand the city and fit in. I would miss all the subtle and not so subtle nuances of the rich culture that stirs just beneath the western veneer.

Not trying to fit in or to understand the local way of thinking is like going to Paris and spending all your time in a shopping centre and eating Chinese food. I don't think anyone can see that kind of behaviour as exploring another culture. But it amazes me the number of people who do the equivalent while living in Hong Kong, some for many years.

Funnily enough, I thought the same way about many of my Asian friends in Australia when I was living there; they would go about their lives in the same way they would in their respective home countries and avoid all that was on offer in Australia. A real waste.

The locals never make it easy for you either. They seem to dote on you like you are a senior citizen or something delicate, like you would have a heart attack if you were introduced to anything new. Westerners are a cliche to locals and are often offered cliched things, like sweet and sour pork at a Chinese restaurant.

This sort of thing isn't just a local trait, it's a global phenomenon. One of the most highly rated restaurants in Melbourne is a Chinese eatery and, lo and behold, on the menu are those old cliches sweet and sour pork and chicken corn soup.

Neither is, for me, particularly traditional nor representative of Chinese cuisine, but they are certainly over-represented in Chinese restaurants around the world.

At first I thought the free market economy was responsible for perpetuating these cliches. It is, of course, a fact that cliches are easier to market than something novel and harder to package. But I realise now that the market isn't the only factor; the individual is most at fault. For example, it takes a lot of work to understand the elements of a menu from another culture. I certainly have not got the vocabulary to understand all that is on offer in a French restaurant, and neither would the typical westerner at a Chinese restaurant with a Chinese menu.

It takes a lot of individual effort to understand another culture. You have to start with the basic things in everyday life, such as the language, food, shopping, festivals and such, gradually building up knowledge about and a feeling for the culture.

One of my rewards for 11 years learning about Hong Kong's culture is a better appreciation of the New Year, in particular the Lunar New Year. Before, it was just another day off to spend with my family; now it has more symbolic meaning because I have integrated many traditional cultural beliefs that can be puzzling to those who do not celebrate the occasion.

I spent the afternoon of New Year's Day at the flower market near Mong Kok, stocking up on Narcissus tarzetta, or Chinese daffodils. These flowers are not only beautiful and fragrant, but in Chinese tradition they also symbolise prosperity. Later in the month I will buy a small peach blossom sapling, reputed to bring luck in the coming year. I am not superstitious, but these cultural symbols do spruce up the house and bring joy in this festive month.