Today, in name of “science”, I did something which is officially considered a no-go in Hong Kong: I bought a sandwich at a station, entered the MTR (Mass Transit Rail, the train system that connects almost every corner of the region with the others) and ate my sandwich while riding on the MTR (or, more specifically: while standing on the MTR). I ate in the MTR. According to the “Visitors’ Etiquette” published by Xinhua (a mainland state news agency) a few weeks ago, I was wrong to do this – very wrong.
But on the other hand: I’m not a mainlander. And thus, nobody reminded me that “eating or drinking is not allowed in trains and public areas of the MTR” (except from the recorded voice that can be heard every few minutes while riding on the trains).
In late April, a mainland woman, who had come to visit Hong Kong with her husband and little son of a few years old, put down a diaper on the ground for her son to pee on. The little boy desperately needed to urinate, and in front of the only public toilet they could find in the Mong Kok area there was a long queue. Thus the woman decided to have her son urinate in public, on a diaper, in the middle of the street. This incident was just another example of the many instances that construct the – at times pretty sentimental – ongoing debate in Hong Kong: visitors from the mainlanders are too many and they don’t obey to any “rules of conduct”. Public discussions and fights between “civilized” Hongkongers and “unsophisticated” and “bad-mannered” mainlanders are talk of the day. Hence the need for Xinhua to publish a list of dos and don’ts for mainlanders to follow when travelling to Hong Kong, in the hope that the pure, clean, silent, well-mannered Hong Kong society can be maintained and won’t be destroyed by the many mainland tourists coming to the region for sightseeing or (mainly) shopping (NB: in 2013, over 40 million mainlanders visited Hong Kong).’
This ongoing debate reminds me of the theory of the “Narcissism of Minor Differences” (NMD), first coined by Freud in 1917, and elaborated on and expanded by the Dutch anthropologist Anton Blok in the late 1990s (who completed his doctoral at the Dutch university I used to study). According to the theory, minor cultural differences are more important than larger ones. These minor cultural differences become focal points, and as such enlarged. They come to dominate relationships between two cultural neighbors that are almost identical, save from a few aspects.
This theory is perfectly applicable to the case of Hong Kong and the mainland. Hong Kong is part of China. Hong Kong people are Chinese, both according to their passports as to their ethnic background – in fact, almost 95% of Hongkongers are from Chinese descent, their family having migrated to Hong Kong during the late 19th to early 21st century. Except for a period of about 50 years, during which the borders between Hong Kong and the mainland were tightly closed and exchange of people, goods and ideas was nearly impossible, Hong Kong and the mainland – especially the Pearl River Delta area – have always been closely related. Still, differences are stressed and hold on to. Reasons Hong Kong people state for the differences are dissimilarities in educational upbringing, the destruction of values during the Cultural Revolution, and the rapid economic growth in China which has led to the rise of an “everyone for himself”-attitude. Because of these differences, Hong Kong people see most mainlanders as rude, uneducated and unsophisticated – although most, at the same time, admit that “it’s not their fault” but a result of economic and historical developments.
Interestingly, during a visit to the mainland a few weeks ago, I found out that the perceptions of mainlanders on Hongkongers are not much more positive. They are seen as arrogant and selfish, big-headedly thinking the people of Hong Kong are better than the mainlanders and that Hong Kong is and always be one of China’s most important regions.
(Naturally, this NMD also exists within the region of Hong Kong; after all, a region with over 7 million people cannot be universal in every aspect. In response to the Xinhua publication, one Hongkonger wrote a comment on the Facebook page of the South China Morning Post, stating that Hongkongers should start abiding by these rules of conduct as well, starting with people from the New Territories; I suspect the commentator himself came from Hong Kong Island).
The debate about the amount and behavior of mainlanders in Hong Kong continues, and will not stop in the near future. Protestors, demanding the Hong Kong government to allow lesser mainlanders to come to Hong Kong, will continue (although the many tourists of other nationalities are still welcomed, since they don’t seem to upset daily life in Hong Kong as much). Some Hongkongers will continue to refuse to speak Mandarin, even when mainland tourists ask for directions (although they don’t seem to have problems with answering me in English). When mainlanders eat on the MTR or do something else in public which is considered a no-go, Hongkongers will continue to make pictures and videoclips of it and upload it on the internet as “just another example of the bad behavior of mainlanders” (although, when I eat in the MTR, nobody seems to mind).
Naturally, I understand why we are not allowed to eat on the MTR. It is quite nice to be able to just sit down (if there is a seat available) without first having to check if you are not accidentally going to sit in some rubbish or food leftovers (experiences in Sydney trains spring to mind). In the same way I agree with the other “rules of conduct” stated by Xinhua, which in my point of view are not just rules that have to be abated by in Hong Kong, but in every part of the world. However, what fascinates me is how easy it is for me – as a non-mainlander – to not abide by these rules and to not get any comments as a result of that. I guess the cultural differences between me and Hongkongers are too large to be narcissistic about.