I’ve never been told I cannot do something as many times in my life as I have in my years in Hong Kong. If I had to say what the most commonly used word in the Hong Kong dialect is, the term ‘cannot’ sticks out like a sore thumb. Defined as a contraction of the words can and not, the term is used by locals to imply that one simply CANNOT do such a thing - although there is never any good explanation why NOT.
Example of use: Paying for a meal
Person 1: I’ll pay with my EPS card
Restaurant Staff: Cannot (shakes head and hands vigorously and gives you a face like you're stupid to think you could).
Person 1: Buy why?
Restaurant Staff: "Cannot!” (shakes head again but does not proceed to give any explanation why)
Person 1: “I don’t understand why I can’t pay for my meal on EPS”
Restaurant Staff: "Visa or Cash only"
Person 1: *2 minutes of confused look on face* “But it is technically cash on my card…”.
(Person 1 proceeds to reluctantly pay on visa and then walk away frustrated and confused why it has to be so complicated all the time).
This is one of a million scenarios you can be in here in Hong Kong where someone will just simply tell you you cannot do something. Quite frankly, the most frustrating part about the whole ‘cannot’ exchange is that there is never any good explanation or logical reasoning as to why it’s not possible. Everything in Hong Kong is done to a particular standard or done in a certain way and when people try to change that or go against those ‘set rules’, locals struggle to see reason or enlightenment from that. They are stuck in their ways, they can’t manage to think outside the box and problem solve for themselves in situations that seem so obviously solvable to anybody else. Systems are so rigid here and no one is willing to put their head out to make a change or challenge the system. I think the root of the silence comes down to the individualistic nature of people here to look after oneself first and foremost. Also, I think it’s partly just laziness.
A prime example is people sitting in government positions who essentially want to just sit in their jobs, reaping the benefits of private health insurance and government wages until they die. They aren’t willing to go that extra step to help someone with what we, as expats, would deem a pretty simple and straightforward thing to do because a). they don’t want to jeopardise their position, b). they can’t think how to do it otherwise and c) trying to do it takes effort they are not willing to give two f’s about. Examples include answering a question you have about a certain visa form. Unless the question you have is directly related to something in their department, they won’t help you or even refer you to their colleague in the correct department because they afraid they will get in trouble for doing so and honestly just want to go to lunch. They simply “cannot”.
The biggest example of a big fat CANNOT is the banks - don’t get me started on my frustration with the rigid and prehistoric systems the banks here have. Try opening a bank account here and you’ll be bashing your head against a wall for days trying to get the documents they “require” to set up an account. Only most of the documents they ask you for you can’t provide as a new resident and you end up in this chicken or the egg loophole scenario until someone cracks.
As someone with the mindset to problem solve, I find it so difficult to fathom this cultural idea where people don’t want to/ cannot think outside a box. Everything and everyone here is boxed in and labelled and trying to change that or challenge that seems to make you an odd one out. Look at the recent legislative council proceedings for a prime example of challenging the systems. People rarely make a comment on it because they are afraid if they too have an opinion or answer different to someone else that will be mocked, ridiculed or cause confrontation. That’s the thing, they don’t want to confront problems so they avoid them and cannot do anything as a result.
If I have learnt anything from the two years I’ve spent being knocked back in all sorts of scenarios for thinking outside the box, it’s that 1) culturally, the locals are very different in their approach to problem solving than western people are and 2) In order to overcome their ridiculous rules sometimes you just have to push and prod harder to get to the endpoint you want. Don’t take cannot for an answer if you don’t want to. You and I both know it can be done, you just need to help them overcome their fear and laziness.