The game is to guess where people come from based on their accents and more than half the time, I get it right. I love accents.
The only person who correctly guessed my accent was from the US. The first time someone called out my accent, I was surprised because it had always been the other way around; I spoke standard English and everyone else had accents — British, German, French, or Australian, were the popular ones, so to speak.
Technically, everyone in Hong Kong should be able to speak English, as a former British colony. But locals are surprised at the fact that I speak more than one language.
And then I am surprised that all the Germans speak ten languages (while the British only speak one).
There is research linking musicianship with linguistics, so perhaps musicians are slightly better poised to distinguish accents. Music is a skill where you don’t see immediate side benefits per se, but you will get ripple effects for years and years.
That makes me wonder: how many of us have picked up an easy language (and write with both hands) because we are musicians?
You will make fast friends with travellers from Germany, Australia, Finland, and all over the world, because right off the bat you have something huge in common: you are both foreigners.
You will meet people who are nice, but also those who take advantage of you, sometimes unintentionally. Not everyone will be as nice as you. At the end of the day, if you don’t look out for yourself, you will be hurt and sad more often than you should.
Don’t see a movie with a stranger who invites himself to your building, and don’t let him put his arm around you. Leave, anytime you feel uncomfortable. Who cares about manners? When you are in an unfamiliar environment, ignore invites to anyone’s bedroom. No one will look out for you as well as you do yourself.
When you find besties, stick with them. I have met some amazing people around the world, some people whom I can depend on to chat at 2am when I can’t fall asleep. There are unwritten laws to learn about, social customs not yet observed. You are the average of the 5 people around you.
The longer you spend wandering around the world, the more you will look forward to familiar things, like how the next time you discover someone with your accent, they will be the most interesting event for the next five minutes.
There is a lot of research that shows we gravitate towards people who are similar to us. So, when placed in an unfamiliar environment, the people you choose to be close with is a strong indicator of your personality or who you want to become.
I have spent Saturdays working on laptops with the sensible Steph, who is a food blogger from Vancouver. Or dancing the night away in a studio instead of, say, visiting Beijing and Tokyo. I often tell myself that I am tired.
Never have I been more aware of gender roles than living in Asia. I often felt very female and sometimes grotesquely so, as if I was balancing on a precarious scale charting my value against everyone else’s. Catcalls and lewd stares as I walked down the street while dressed in long pants during sweltering heat, or where the crowds became so personal I avoided touching one human being only to bump arms with another.
On the other hand, as a foreigner sometimes I got away with more than I should have.
You will learn about yourself. No matter what the cliché is, this is true. You will find your boundaries challenged and pushed, and it will be up to you to uphold them. Then you will find out what values are most important to you, and how you deal with adverse situations.
Despite marijuana being legal in Vancouver, I have never smoked anything in my life and do not ever intend to do so. I learned that I have zero desire to change this. Some people out there would kill to have a healthy body to dance and travel with; why on earth would I poison mine? Anyways, I have better things to do.
I learned that I am stronger than I gave myself credit for. I ask for help when I need it and I am not going to be pushed around. I think I offend people (they never come back and tell me they’re offended) but I’m okay with the fact that some people can’t take my dry humour — I used to not be.
A friend told me, before I left for the trip, that he thought I’d found 90% of who I was, and Asia was just going to confirm that for me. I said I wasn’t sure about that.
But now I think he might be right. I feel a lot older, like seeing the world has aged my optimism.
I watch my belongings a bit more closely, now (in Vancouver, you might leave your bag at the beach and come back for it an hour later — this was reality for my entire life). I am not so open to everyone, now, because it is exhausting to discover they are not who they painstakingly present themselves to be.
About 20 people came to my going away dinner in Hong Kong. I had two separate parties to accommodate everyone. A friend said I was popular, or famous, or whatever second-language adjective he used.
I’m not. I am just thankful and amazed that each person I meet is so unique, and that out of everyone out there in the world, we got to meet each other. I think that goes for all my friendships.
Most of us have found 80-90% of ourselves, I think. We always want 5% of empty space in ourselves —room to grow, to frolick, to make mistakes. If you are 100% sure of yourself then you have just become the most hated, arrogant person in the room. Then the only people who will want to be your friends will be the other jerks in the room, but you never want that, because nice people have all the fun.
Photos: 1. Hong Kong; 2. & 3. Malaysia with the lovely Em; 4. Halloween in Hong Kong
All photos taken by Grace Lam.