What Do You See?

Wednesday night, October 26th, 2011

At the races…

Now that I’ve subjected you to somewhat mediocre photographs, bear with me. That was a glimpse of your average Wednesday night at the Happy Valley Racecourse in Hong Kong. So, what can you conclude?

Allow me to set the stage for you:

It’s crowded, sticky, hot. This night also happens to coincide with Oktoberfest celebrations, which makes it even more optimal for people watching. It’s difficult to hear people as you wander through the crowds. Conversations in different languages are flowing in one ear and out the other; the ones you can hear most clearly are sound bites that your brain swiftly groups together in phrases and words you are able to discern. You hear laughter, smell cigarettes and body odor, and watch everyone around you get sucked into sporadic moments of excitement when the horses race around the track for mere seconds. The moments in between the races are the most exhilarating, for you are able to observe everyone that is here for whatever reason: enjoying a post-work night out, discussing the previous weekend, what their odds are for race 6, and whether or not they’d like another drink.

Have another look…

“Is this what you imagined?”

I looked around the sea of faces – young people drinking heavily, beer chugging contestants, men opening their elevator eyes to the women weaving through the crowds, drunken women Woo-Hoo!-ing, older men hitting on younger women, younger women acting drunker than they probably were. A lot were in suits, a lot were dressed down. Some people were with their significant others and some people were with others that they had just met (perhaps not-so significant). A steady stream of foreigners was constantly flowing in, just as steadily as the beer was flowing from the tap, to the pint glasses, and finally into the hands of many. “Yup, just about right.”

This was, in effect, what I had expected in the first place. The people that were there were the types of foreigners that gave expats here (and elsewhere) a negative connotation – loud, drunk, obnoxious, seedy. As a group, this is what they were, and this is what they appear to be.

I recognize the fact that foreigners living abroad cannot all be the same; however, when you encounter a large group in a circumstance such as this, assumptions pop into your head out of nowhere. If society is going to promote group gatherings where they sell alcohol, have foreign-themed nights, and give expats a discounted entry fee – then it is all just a set up. People should not be blamed or discriminated against for acting a certain way when they are clearly being targeted.

Moth –> flame. 

As a result, people begin to assume certain things about individuals based on where they’re from. I once heard my British friend get asked:

“So what do you like to do besides drink?”

He seemed a bit taken back when asked this question on the spot, especially by someone he had literally just met. “It’s just irritating,” he later said. “Since I’m from the U.K. people like to assume that all I like to do is drink. I’m not saying that I don’t, but it’s not something that I do all the time either.” 

When questions are framed in this manner, they say a lot about both the person in question AND the person asking the question. It is wrong to be presumptuous, but people wouldn’t be that way if they weren’t given reasons to do so, meaning, they’ve seen foreigners act in particular ways before and use their past experiences as a reference to sum up people who they think are similar.

Why do people act in these ways? Perhaps they wouldn’t have been this way in the first place if people hadn’t assigned them to particular labels. It then becomes a matter of having a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In high school, my psychology teacher had us all read our horoscopes. However, when she passed out the page with all 12 astrological forecasts, we were surprised to see that none of them had been labeled. After reading through some of them, our teacher asked, “Which one do you think is yours?” They were all so general that some people felt they could attribute more than one to their personality. She made the point that when people read their horoscopes, they think, “Yeah, I guess I am like that in some ways.” But in reality, they could be reading someone else’s horoscope thinking the same thing. It’s all a matter of what they are told about themselves and not necessarily how they personally view themselves. When given to you by someone else, the labels, as my friend put it, “make life easier.”

Involuntarily, we make assumptions about the people we meet as our subconscious thoughts swirl in. What people seem to forget is this: people are individuals, even if they are part of a larger group. If you hate it when people over generalize about you because of where you’re from, define your ‘self’ identity apart from your ‘group’ identity. And yet, despite all that you do, people will still judge you, no matter how hard you try and set yourself apart. In that case, it probably means that they love labels and enjoy reading weekly horoscopes. Not that I’m judging.

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