HAVING SPENT THE LAST COUPLE YEARS LIVING ABROAD IN ASIA, I tend to find myself in a sort of grey area between being a local and a tourist in the places I’ve lived.
In an attempt to seem more like a “calm, cool, and collected local” as opposed to the “excitable tourist” that I know I am at heart, I’ve adopted a few rather bizarre behaviors that make me appear to be a local gal.
At least that’s what I’ve told myself. I’m probably not fooling anybody.
So the next time you’re traveling in Asia, and you see a “local” babbling away in an unintelligible accent or stalking around the streets looking comically pissed off, feel free to come over and say hello. It’ll be a relief to drop the charade for a moment!
1. I commiserate with locals over anything strange or exciting (even when I don’t quite know what’s happening).
This one time some activists started a little flash mob on my subway car in Hong Kong. My Cantonese is good, not great, and more complicated political lingo goes right over my head. All I know is that they were displeased about something, they sang a song, and one of them put on a rubber panda mask.
Most everyone in the subway car ignored them. The older lady next to me nudged me, and smiling, whispered something to me about “how crazy they were” and how she couldn’t wait to “exit the car at the next stop.” She said some other stuff but I wasn’t sure if she was talking about the weather or “those blowhards.” Either way, I laughed with her, agreed, and we shared a chuckle.
I still have no idea what really happened, but getting mistaken for a local and then holding up my end of the deal, even for a brief moment, made me SO HAPPY.
2. I favor looking pissed off over looking lost.
To me, nothing shouts TOURIST more than a person standing in the middle of the sidewalk frantically looking back and forth between a smartphone and the tall, scary buildings around them. Of course, when learning a new city this is the inevitable fate of any transplant.
I accept that I will get lost, but I don’t have to look like it.
My go-to strategy for “looking local” while trying to decipher the joke that is Google Maps is to look angry and do lots of forceful scrolling. In my imagination I’m an important business person who has been sidetracked on the street by an incompetent coworker or intern. I will often add in exasperated sighs or “Are you kidding me?!” exclamations for good measure.
If I feel like people are noticing me too much, I will pretend to talk on my phone “angrily” until I get my bearings.
3. I like to try on other, more “suitable” accents.
I am an American. More than that, I was raised in Texas. While I don’t possess a George W. Bush-level twang, I know there is a slight drawl to my natural speech. When living in a cosmopolitan city like Hong Kong, NOBODY local sounds like me.
In an attempt to sound more like the other English speakers around me, I’ve attempted to mimic British, Australian, even South African (?) accents. The result is unsettling.
The jig is up when I accidentally drop a “y’all” into the conversation when attempting to mimic the Queen’s English.
4. I always walk with purpose…even if I blow past my destination.
This is also in the category of “avoid looking lost or confused at all costs.”
To avoid spinning in circles, head turned skywards, looking for an address that isn’t there or a landmark that is right under my nose, I tend to blast down a street with purpose, like I am late for a very important date. Even if I miss my destination.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve circled back around the block, or walked halfway down the street only to covertly turn back around after I’ve “confidently” missed the place I’m in search of. In retrospect, shop owners probably know me as “that weird girl who walks in circles around the neighborhood…look at her go!”
5. I speak the phrases I’ve “mastered” boldly, and A LOT.
Until I feel comfortable in a new language, I tend to fixate on one or two common phrases I can “master” with (what I think is) a decent local accent, and use them to death.
I was that spooky, silent woman in the cafe in Tokyo that only smiled and nodded and had her nose glued to her computer. But when a cafe worker approached me and asked me, well, basically any question, I’d respond with with the only “perfect” Japanese that I had command of at the time: “yes,” “not necessary,” or “thank you.” You’d be amazed at how many sort-of-functional phrases you can come up with just using “yes,” “not necessary,” and “thank you.”
In my head I sounded like the real deal. To everyone else I was a parrot.
6. I “casually” agree to things in an attempt to hide the fact that I don’t fully speak the language, and then I end up with a family sized pack of instant noodles.
“It’s a really good deal, it’s only two dollars more. You want it?”
“I don’t want it.”
“It’s a really good deal, it’s only two dollars more. IT’S A REALLY GOOD DEAL, why don’t you want it?”
“It’s okay. I don’t need it.”
“IT’S A REALLY GOOD DEAL! ONLY 2 DOLLARS!”
“But I don’t want -”
“IT’S A REALLY GOOD DEAL!!”
“Okay…I want it.”
And that’s how I ended up with a family sized package of instant noodles. Under the pressure of a hard sell, I got frazzled and agreed to the “really good deal.”
I have Celiac. I can’t even eat instant noodles.