Speaking of ethnographic homework, one of the reasons I enjoy travelling is discovering the simple differences in cultures, how people live their day-to-day. Maybe you also share a similar appreciation? If you do, I have some snack-sized bites of culture to share from Hong Kong, beyond honey mustard Pringles, blueberry ice-cream Oreos and lychee Mentos.
Escalators before stairs, buses before streetcar trams
From the moment I took my first step on an airport escalator, I felt a jolt of speed under me. Every time I visit Hong Kong, it catches me by surprise. “Wow, ok, I’m in Hong Kong,” I think to myself. After adjusting to the speed, I think back to escalators at home in Toronto and visualize them moving in what feels like slow motion.
During my visit, I witnessed a few bouts of local residents getting their hate on for stairs, verbally or completely shunning them. The New Town Plaza mall has stairs about five times as wide as an escalator…untouched.
When it comes to getting from A to B, speed is king. I learned this time that the public transit pecking order goes: subway, minibus, bus, tram (equivalent to ancient, petite, wooden streetcars). I might be missing some, but that’s the gist. All this time, I’ve regarded subways as No. 1, streetcars as No. 2, then buses. Going to Hong Kong helped me get over a mental block around streetcars vs. buses and realize that streetcars can be a lot slower than buses and a lot less versatile. Let’s just say I’ve come back appreciating buses much more.
I also took many a trip on minibuses – it’s preferred by many because it’s on-demand (you can hail them like a cab) and fast. They are like enlarged minivans and have limited seats, so chances are you won’t have many stopovers along the way. I loved taking them…like taking a community bus, as scary as it could be at times.
When parking, always back in nicely and neatly
Parking lots have grassroots governance going on. In the spirit of collective efficiency, drivers can report each other if someone parks in a way that makes it difficult for others to maneuver a nearby space. In fact, I saw it from start to finish…folks are really righteous and diligent about reporting poor parking skills…the outcome being that a driver can end up getting double-charged for the space they knowingly took and the one they obstructed.
Paying is the easiest thing ever
No wonder it’s such a consumerism culture…maybe? On my way back to Toronto, we made a stopover at MUJI-to-go where I was able to effortlessly make a split payment, clearing my Octopus Card balance and paying the rest in cash. (The Octopus Card is a smartcard that folks use to pay for transit fare among other things. The literal translation is something like “able to work in eight places/channels”).
Inclusive design awareness
On many of the floor surfaces in Hong Kong, you’ll find textured pathways designed to help you find your way. Some stations also play special music to indicate where ticket kiosks are located, primarily for the vision-impaired. I found it useful as a visitor really…inclusive design, when done well, can deliver more value than expected.
During one of the conversations I had with a local about her hatred for stairs, she righteously exclaimed something to the effect of, “how are the old folks supposed to get around with the escalator broken?! This is horrible disgrace for the elderly, ugh.” I was kind of amused, but also really appreciative of the awareness she had around the design of our surroundings and the impact on the elderly, despite being a 30-something-year-old who doesn’t work in a design-related field.
A world of feature phones, iPhones, and Androids
On the whole, relative to North America, I found that there was a smaller ratio of smartphones to feature phones. I also found that Blackberries were a rarity and that Android users were mostly on Galaxy S II’s…so much that when we went electronics shopping, Galaxy S II phone cases were second after iPhone 4 cases (and there was definitely a sea of iPhone 4 cases).
I learned that one of the ways people type on their phones is via brushstrokes assigned to their numeric keypads. Predictive brushstroke entry! It blew my mind a little; it takes advantage of the conventional sequence of brushstrokes.
Service is serious stuff
Aside from the eagerly attentive retail service staff at many stores in Hong Kong, I was surprised to find a “service rating machine” at the immigration desk when visiting ShenZhen for a day trip. It had several buttons on a scale about the length of service time (too long, just right, etc.) complete with happy to angry emoticons.
Do you have any cultural snack bites to share?