At our usual Friday night gatherings of friends, a popular topic is mainland Chinese. The conversation often revolves around complaints and frustration. I should point out here that a good number of my friends are overseas Chinese, including Chinese Americans who are in Hong Kong for work. Here are some scraps from the banter:
"Can you believe what happened when I was lining up for the taxi cab earlier today? A mainlander jumped the queue; is lining up such a foreign concept?"
"There are so many of them outside Sogo that crossing the street is like a contact sport; I'm black and blue."
"I almost got run over by a suitcase. Can't they watch where they are going?"
Here, the anti-mainlander chit-chat is kept safely within the confines of family and good friends. On the surface, we deal with the reality with the same resignation and angst as going to the dentist or taking out the rubbish: what can we do but suck it up?
In fact, the whining is a reflection of the internal tug of war between accepting the reality that Hong Kong's success and relative economic stability is due to mainland China and will continue to be so in the coming years. For me and my fellow Chinese Americans, it is about accepting that China is a strong competitor in this global economy, and that the US cannot afford to sit on its laurels and live off its previous glories. Perhaps, rather than complaining, we should focus on reinventing ourselves so we are competitive. But whining is a lot easier.
Back at home in the US, the conversations sometimes share an uncanny similarity to those in Hong Kong. A friend does her rendition of a mainland woman snapping her fingers and screaming her order at a waitress. It was funny until I thought about the reality.
To be sure, the backlash against mainland Chinese appears to be fuelled by something beyond good-natured humour. Is it jealousy or envy at the rather fast and remarkable success of many mainland Chinese?
Some Hongkongers have even labelled mainland Chinese tourists "locusts". The news headlines reflect Hongkongers' current state of mind, including a recent one from The Wall Street Journal: "Hong Kong's Fear of Mainland Chinese Invasion". What is behind the anger? Commentators point to the fact that mainlanders are viewed as taking up pavement space, pregnant women have been gate-crashing hospitals, and those from across the border are fuelling the air and noise pollution - a mix of perception and reality.
Back in the US, I've observed that many of my friends regard the growing number of mainland Chinese as a threat. With the lacklustre economy at the heart of this year's US presidential election, there is an amalgam of fear, anger and a real curiosity about who these Chinese are.
My friends in New York are slack-jawed as they watch the Chinese nouveau riche buying up Manhattan apartments, hanging their Ivy League diplomas in their new pads, and sending their children to boarding school. And they ask me: "Where does the money come from?" "How did they get rich so quickly? I don't get it."
These days, mainland Chinese are the big spenders. They are the ones filling tour buses, snapping pictures and snapping up luxury goods, while more Americans are watching the cents. Money does talk and there's that old saying: "Don't bite the hand that feeds you."
I bring up these bits of everyday conversations and questions from both continents because the reality is that China has becoming a growing power and has advanced in leaps and bounds from what it once was. In my PhD programme, most of my fellow classmates are mainland Chinese. They have excellent English, are well mannered and hungry to learn. In fact, I have a lot to learn from them, starting with working harder, smarter and not wasting time whining. Otherwise I'll be left behind in the dust. That's the reality.
Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator now living in Hong Kong