In the Hong Kong district of Sham Shui Po, Kowloon side, the market stalls play host to many a social gathering. Groups of older men, stylish in aviators, crisp white, or pastel, short-sleeved shirts and tailored trousers, stand in a cloud of imperial leather, discussing, well...I rarely know. But sometimes there's a clue in the shape of racing forms being passed around, or a grandchild being proudly held aloft - a champion at a sporting event.
It's while wandering around this area, which I chose to make my Hong Kong home, that 'Gweilo', literally meaning ghost, and the Cantonese term for white foreigners,feels particularly on the nose. It's here you feel most like an outsider. Apparently the name, once racist, is now considered to be affectionate; either way, it's an accurate way to pinpoint the axiomatic distance that exists, culturally and linguistically, between you and your 'hosts'. It's a reminder of how difficult it is to penetrate this culture, any culture.
At the beginning, the mutual curiosity is one of the most interesting parts of daily life, but as your interest inevitably ebbs, the fascination you inspire in others becomes a pain. This is particularly true when being followed around a toiletries section by an especially unsubtle shop assistant.
Photo by Evie Burrows-Taylor
Having assumed that Hong Kong's long relationship with Britain and other European nations would translate into a casual familiarity with visitors from these countries, the sight of heads turning, and jaws dropping as Westerners walk by still surprises me. As incredulous whispers crowd their way into the already saturated air, and some see fit to stop in their tracks to witness the 'unusual' event, I wonder how reactions would differ if a ghostly apparition was to stroll by. And it's not confined to Hong Kong's older generation; often peers are the most amused by my existence.
Westerner's reactions vary from jocular to indignant, some preferring to take it on the chin, accepting their fate as a photo opportunity, while others are less equanimous - depending on the trajectory of their day up to that point. The most surprising thing of all is that minutes after your own presence has caused astonishment to ripple through the crowd, you're likely to walk past someone just as pasty and European looking.
This isn't to say that all the interest is bad. For every person who laughs and points, there's someone who wants to find out where you're from, give you something - so far I've received biscuits and compliments - and send you on your way, leaving you to bask in the warm glow of meeting a friendly stranger.
I've noticed my increasing frustration with the more negative side of this phenomenon lies in direct correlation to the intensifying heat, and a few weeks ago this dangerous combination led to the most potent homesickness I've felt since arriving in Hong Kong. Usually reserved for the time I spend contacting friends and family in the UK, in just a few days it became an irrational longing for the bosom of Mother England.
I craved a time when I could go to the post office undisturbed and remembered London through the rose-coloured glasses, commonly worn by the culturally estranged. I reminisced about roaring pub fires in winter, sunny days in the park and affordable cheese, conveniently ignoring the wine stained lips on the night bus home, the sparse opportunities to sun myself in the park, and the fact that I'm probably better off lessening my dairy consumption. But most importantly, ignoring that I'll be back there all too soon, and find myself similarly romanticising Hong Kong.
I remember the moment, before embarking on a year abroad in Paris, when fellow Erasmus students and I were presented with a list of the ten stages of culture shock - the curious psychological process which, beginning with unbounded optimism over the adventure of being a modern day Columbus in a new country, descends rapidly to desperate homesickness, and several steps later with your return home, where you feel unsettled, detached, and misunderstood by your own people.
The list was intended to encourage us to dismiss fantasy and face life's realities. There was nothing to do in France but ignore it. Perhaps, I'm progressing through the stages again. And it's certainly true that when I returned to the UK after living in Paris I missed the (very) mild interest people took in my being foreign - it's possible the same could happen again.