Enter The Dragon City

I took to martial arts when I was a lower secondary (middle) school student!

I remember learning that the point of martial arts was not to fight but to develop your mind and body and, if need be, defend yourself, if provoked. There was a certain element and level of spirituality involved in its practice. The idea, I learned, was to conquer oneself — ones body and mind — and overcome somatic and mental/psychological limitations, more than conquering others, as it were!

Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, who we used to call Chang Lung for reasons I still can’t remember, were my heroes then! Their characters as martial artists in their movies, to my young mind, always appeared as people of high moral character, among other things, and whatever they accomplished was through just and fair means.

Had video cassette players (VCRs) not made their way into the country at the time that they did however, that may well might not have been the case! Kathmandu in those days had only five movie theaters screening pretty much only Bollywood movies. But thanks to “video halls” — basically a room in a private home with a VCR and a TV monitor — I must have watched all the Hong Kong productions with those actors by the time I had completed secondary school.

In the early days of video halls, Sujeet, my fellow martial art student and good buddy from Pokhara, and I, at times, would go all the way to Baudha to watch their movies! (In those days Baudha was outside the perimeter of Kathmandu city!)

In addition to taking lessons in martial arts, we would learn to play the nunchaku (nunchucks)! We even went as far as to copy some of the workout (exercise) routines we would see in their movies!

So naturally, when I accepted the job offer from the UWC in Hong Kong in 1995, I was quite curious to see what the city and people, where all those movies came from, were all about!

On the one hand, I was curious whether the characters of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies were to be found in the city! Some of my expectations had been informed by their and other martial arts movies I had grown up with!

By the time I moved to Hong Kong, I had already spent seven years abroad living in three other countries — Italy, the USA and the United Kingdom — and had traveled to a few more countries.

Plus, because of the particular traits I had — my stature, skin color, facial features and the American accent — I had already realized how, in some contexts, the way people treated me and/or reacted to me revealed considerably more about them — their attitudes and mentality — than about me!

On the other hand, I was also curious to see how the Cantonese were in that regard. The people of a place, more than anything else, make or break the place for me.

In Hong Kong, I did meet some people — I repeat, some people, not all — both very well educated and less educated and worldly than me,  who, without any hesitation, treated and thought of me as someone inferior and not worthy of respect. That happened even when they knew me personally — knew pretty much everything about my educational qualifications and experience etc.

They would, for instance, talk to each other making disparaging remarks about me, albeit in Cantonese. Of course, I don’t speak or understand Cantonese, but, like any adult, I can tell if a group of people around me are doing just that from their body language, their facial expressions and the way their eyes move. You don’t need to be a body language expert to “see” that regardless of the language they are speaking!

That they felt completely comfortable doing that said a lot about their attitude and mentality! (Elsewhere, in a blog post I made a while ago I made reference to this.)

How others who didn’t know me treated me, shopkeepers for instance, depended on one thing: whether I had opened my mouth!

Window shopping, or genuinely looking for something to buy, walking up to a display window at a store is how the whole thing would start.

Invariably, one of the three or four shopkeepers would walk over to where I would be standing and, with the rag he had brought along, he would feign cleaning the pane right in front of me! The intention being to annoy me and drive me away because, to them, the shorts and t-shirt sporting, brown-skinned, black-haired Asian-looking man, could be no other than an Asian from a poor country not worth their courtesy, time and effort.

But it didn’t take much long into my stay in the city to realize that, instead of being annoyed and leaving, all I needed to do was open my mouth!

So, pointing at something, I would say something like, “Could I have a look at that?” loudly enough, in my very clearly American accent, for everyone in the shop to hear.

A 180-degree turn in the behavior of the “cleaner” would accompany that simple line. He’d be all polite, and respond with a, “Which one sir?”

One of the other shopkeepers, coming over and ushering me to a stool that the third one was pulling out, would say, “Take a seat sir.”

And the invariable questions at some point would be, “What is your name sir?” and  “Where are you from sir?” meaning which US State!

I would sometimes be John from Iowa or James from California or whatever name and State that popped up in my head then!

Of course, I realized that the (mis)treatment I received in Hong Kong — not limited just to those detailed here — was often not personal and so, often, I didn’t take it as such. I would be lying, however, if I said none of that had any effect on me!

(Over time, after some more travels around the world, the following is what I would learn.

Changing how people in general treat you or act towards you based on what you are born into (class, caste etc.) or with (skin color etc.), or based on your (perceived) personality, or changing what they think of you or how they react to how and what you do, or don’t do, things etc. especially if they are contrary to what you expect — is a real challenge!

What you do have total control over, and therefore can change, if need be, however, is how you react to them!

I couldn’t effect any change in such people and, what’s more, that it was pointless to try. So, I refused to be annoyed or angry or frustrated with their treatment of me, or with their attitude towards me, because, if I were, it affected me–I suffered–which had no effect on them!)

I must also add however that, while I didn’t appreciate that particular way of the Dragon city, I did see a bit of the Hong Kong of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies I loved! Overall, it did not disappoint!

Anyway, here I am readying to enter the Dragon city after 18 years since, curious to see if the attitudes and mentality of the Cantonese people have changed with the political and social changes accompanying the 1998 handover to China.

The main reason for the two-week trip is to attend the Asia Pacific Regional Meeting of the UWC national committees. The meeting takes place from the 28th to the 30th at Li Po Chun United World College.

The other reason is to visit some dear friends and give talks at international schools about life, dreams and humanity.

Would you be interested in me coming to speak at your school? Let me know!

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  1. Selwyn Price

    I hope you won’t be too disappointed, but I don’t think things have changed too much.

    As a gweilo, with all the white privilege that connotes, I still feel and experience much of what you describe here. Wearing shorts and t-shirt I wonder why they don’t try to sell me a 698 square foot apartment in the high-rise over the road from us for $HK 10,000,000, but maybe they know me better than I know myself – perhaps they know that my response will be “that’s built on a swamp and sooner or later it will fall over”.


    We’ll show you another side of HK, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the beaches, the hills and the wilderness. Nothing to rival Nepal of course – except the beaches are better!

    1. Dorje

      I remember the beaches all right! As a matter of fact, THE beach that I used to take students to regularly, was so isolated that only fishermen lived there! I remember taking students on weekend camping trips there a number of time.

      We camped out on the beach and the sun rise was something to behold! I should have photos somewhere of the huge reddish/golden sun (thanks to the pollution!) which greeted us getting our of our tents! I also remember photos of me getting the students to make human pyramids on the beach!

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