During my year in Hong Kong, I experienced my moment of deepest humiliation at a Watson’s Pharmacy. I sensed it coming as soon as I realized that I’d never find the hemorrhoid cream on my own. Every aisle looked the same, and all the boxes of medicine were printed in Chinese. To make matters worse, I lived out in the New Territories, a spread of hills and suburbs north of Kowloon—an area where the shopkeepers rarely speak English.
To live happily in a foreign country, you have to be able to think of yourself as a likable idiot. The hemorrhoids episode happened several months into my stay, so humiliation of the culturally illiterate kind was not new to me. Already I had launched a prawn over a formal banquet with my chopsticks. On another occasion, I learned that when the buffet line is forming, the oldest person in the room, not the greediest, always dishes up first. I’d learned the hard way that when the boss is speaking, everyone else shuts up. I had survived so many cultural adjustments, telling myself along the way that humiliation is the price you pay for the fun adventure of being a foreigner.
Watson’s Pharmacy is in the quintessentially Hong Kong New Town Plaza shopping mall. From the atrium, you can scan seven levels of glass-faced shops and restaurants linked by steel escalators. Only the major airports of Asia are more cathedral-like than the malls of Hong Kong. But you can’t pause to admire the setting because the concourse is as crowded as a stockyard. You enter the stream and keep moving, steering your way toward an escalator. Millions of people travel from all over Asia to shop in Hong Kong each year. But such people, I imagine, remember to pack their hemorrhoidal ointment.
Like every store in the mall, Watson’s is full of shoppers. And in every aisle you’ll see at least one floor clerk, usually a young woman who smiles and stares in silence as you pass. In one aisle after another, I was on my knees surveying the shelves for a word or image to guide me, but mine was not an ailment that lends itself to advertising imagery. I’d have to seek assistance.
But I did have a strategy. I’d look for an older woman, if I could find one. And there she was, three aisles away, the one uniformed lady who most resembled my mother, someone who would have no sense of humor when it comes to certain kinds of suffering. I calmly asked where I might find the hemorrhoid cream, but then I had to repeat myself several times to no effect. And this is when the nightmare began to unfurl. Of course, like all elderly Chinese in Hong Kong, she’d seek the help of someone younger with a fresher schoolbook knowledge of English.
She conferred with her co-worker, a woman in her 30s. But the second woman hesitated to leap the language chasm and set off to fetch one of the recent high school grads working cosmetics on the other side of the store. Although I had been repeating my mantra, “likable idiot, likable idiot,” religiously, I felt the urge to rush from the store and never return.
But the older woman hadn’t given up. She couldn’t understand my English, but she could speak a little. Inspired by a thought, she turned to me and asked, “What is it used for?”
Now she had me stumped. If it had been a topic for charades, I’m not sure I would have known how to demonstrate it. I know she was thinking, headache, stomachache … but, unfortunately, there’s no universal sign language for hemorrhoidal itch. So, what I did was make a sour face and sort of point to the area in question—and thank God, she understood and didn’t laugh, located my hard-earned remedy before the younger clerk’s threatened arrival, and probably even considered me, when all was said and done, just another likable idiot, an American in Hong Kong.
Joseph Chaney’85 spent the 2009-10 school year in Hong Kong on a Fulbright Fellowship. He teaches English at Indiana University-South Bend, where he also directs the Master of Liberal Studies Program and co-directs a summer-term overseas studies program. His essay originally aired on WVPE Elkhart-South Bend, an NPR affiliate.