Leaving the ferry late the other night, nursing a can of almost-drunk Kirin in my paw and heading for home, I was surprised to witness a youth sprinting ahead of me instead of veering towards our incongruous McDonald’s or one of the island’s nocturnal food stands (cheesy fish balls anyone?) What he did next almost shocked me. He spun round on his heels and gave me the finger, repeatedly and determinedly, before disappearing into the shadows.
Why was I only almost shocked? This is Hong Kong. Getting abuse on the street is as rare as thousand-year-old hen’s teeth. I guess the reason I wasn’t entirely surprised by the abuse is because I have a long and varied history of being sworn at in public that crosses continents and defies (so far as I’m aware) personal motivation on behalf of the cursers, which suggests that at certain times or in particular circumstances I am representative of something far more provocative than I perceive myself to be.
Take the case of the elderly football fan who approached me in Krakow as we relieved ourselves behind a stand during a tense Wisła Kraków match. Keep in mind that at the local derby between Wisła and KS Cracovia it’s not unknown for rival fans to battle with swords and axes. But what threat did he see in me? Perhaps the shadow of a British hooligan he’d grappled with in the ‘80s at this ground or another? On this occasion he shuffled up to me so gingerly that I offered my hand as much to support him as allow him the honour of greeting a guest new to his land. While his English mustn’t have been exercised very often, he spoke clearly and carefully to make sure I wouldn’t miss a word.
I smiled. He smiled. We zipped up our flies.
On the same European trip there was the punk in Berlin. Taking photos in the deserted streets around the neighbourhood I found myself in, I was feeling good about the city – not to mention life and all the opportunities it provides. All until, crouching down to snap some or other piece of street architecture, my lens focused on a huge pair of black bovver boots protruding from the cobbles. At the summit of this immovable object was a Mohican; at the midriff a middle finger that was telling me exactly where to go more succinctly and effectively than most Tourist Information Centres I’ve visited.
I smiled. Moved on my way. Quickly.
Next there was Washington DC. Walking not far off U-Street, near Busboys and Poets (the kind of aspirational, all-purpose, all-welcome venue you find in areas undergoing gentrification), an old African-American guy confronted me on the street: ‘Kiss my black ass you gay f*ck’, he said – delivering a mixed message that I’d no intention of picking apart for his benefit or mine. Perhaps if I’d been close enough to him to smell the booze on his breath I might have nudged him closer towards the gutter, but as he was pretty much there already I just kept walking.
Of all these vaguely threatening but still incredibly minor incidents (when compared to the abuse others face on streets around the world on a daily basis) the one in DC was probably the most understandable – once you got past the racism and homophobia. The city was changing while remaining largely segregated. And a social group that appeared to be benefitting infinitely more than older, poorly educated black men was privileged white dudes my age. However, as with the Polish football fan and German punk, I couldn’t imagine any extended dialogue designed to placate him ending with anything other than a bottle of strong, sticky spirits being smashed over my head.
Safe to say I didn’t feel as uncomfortable during this latest incident in Hong Kong. I taught English on this island a few years ago. It’s not out of the question that I forced the finger-waggling kid to read a poem aloud in class. Something to do with the sea no doubt. I’ll let this one go, as I’ve let the other incidents go. Every now and then you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. What can you do? You just have to hold your hands up, accept the finger, and move on.