My father has the uncanny inclination to talk to strangers. One recent time when he visited me here in Hong Kong, we were up at the Häagen-Daaz shop at The Peak and while I was getting our ice cream, he walked over to a group of Caucasians and struck up a conversation with them. He does this all the time, and with his general knowledge of a wide range of subjects and a humble disposition, he can usually carry on a conversation for quite a long time. Some people politely listen while others are actively engaged by the conversation. It's difficult to think that this elderly gentleman with a non-threatening whitish beard, a soft round tummy and a wink in his eye could be anything other than sincere in his conversation so he rarely gets any negative responses to his invitations to chat.
My wife has commented that I sometimes display the same behaviour, suddenly walking up to complete strangers and striking up a conversation. I'm not sure if I generally actively walk up to people but I am aware that I'm not too shy to exchange a few sentences with people in for example a crowded elevator.
There may be a couple of reasons for this chatty behaviour. For one, I am generally treated as a 'familiar friend' by most of the population of Hong Kong, the result of having been seen on local TV off and on for nearly twenty years. Many of the young people have literally grown up watching me on TV. I know that any attempt on my part to talk to the local people will normally be received well.
Secondly, I grew up in a country town. This is probably more relevant than some people at first perceive. In small country towns, most people are friendly toward each other. Gympie, on the outskirts of which I grew up, today still only has a population of around twenty thousand people. The average building estate here in Hong Kong houses far more people than that!
I also remember quite vividly that when my wife and I lived in any of Hong Kong's standard high-rise buildings, we barely knew our neighbours. Now that we're living in one of Hong Kong's villages where the buildings are only three stories high, we suddenly know many more of our neighbours. Perhaps growing up in high-rise buildings unknowingly makes people a little more wary of each other. Or perhaps it's just that life in the city here is so fast paced and high pressured that people simply don't have time or energy to make the effort to talk to others around them. Or perhaps it's simply that you're far more likely to run into your neighbours when there are fewer people to run into, and familiarity builds with frequent meetings.
So it is that we come to an event that occurred tonight. After rehearsing "They’re Playing Our Song (2007)" this afternoon, I drove back to Tsimshatsui to join my wife and her family for dinner at a restaurant to celebrate her father's eightieth birthday. While sitting at the table, my wife and her sisters had their topics to talk about and the older people had their topics. Feeling a little tired and not really wanting to join the girls' conversation, I started looking around the restaurant. Since ceasing my wasteful TV-viewing habit on New Year, I've slept more, exercised more, and done more, and my mind has generally improved significantly. I think clearer and faster than I've done for a long time, and I don't tire as easily. So it is that I decided to peer around the restaurant and as an actor, study the people I could see to see what I might observe and learn.
An elderly woman sat with her friends. She had makeup on and obviously took care to look good, but someone had neglected to help her tidy her thinning hair. At the back of her head, it was lifting and bunched.
An elderly man was cheerfully having dinner with friends. Judging by his mannerisms, it was probably a business dinner. He spoke on good terms with the waiter and it was obvious that he was a regular customer here. Occasionally, he closed his eyes excessively causing them to scrunch up in wrinkly knots, probably an involuntary and unbeknown response that he had attained with age.
Yet another man was having dinner with his family; a wife and a daughter. The man leaned forward as he ate and chewed every bite deliberately and with effort. He appeared to be one of many people in Hong Kong working very hard for his family, and the toil of his labours was clearly visible in the way he ate his food. His daughter was bright and cheerful and there was an obvious bond between them as she squatted on the chair next to him leaning on the table in front of her and chatted to them both. His daughter was possibly the one thing that made his toil worthwhile.
Then, there was a Caucasian. Dressed in a striped shirt; I think it was a t-shirt; the man possibly in his early forties was cheerfully enjoying the food in front of him. I watched him for several minutes. He intrigued me. There was an honesty and a freedom about him. He didn't seem to be as complicated as many people are today and there was a friendly confidence in him. There was also something very odd in the way he moved and bobbed as he ate his food, a movement often seen in Caucasians eating Chinese food. Only later did I come to realise that the strange movement was probably a result of the chopsticks that he was using. Although he held them well and correctly (which many Asians today curiously do not), I suspect that he wasn't adapted to the way his wrist had to twist and turn as he brought the food to his mouth, hence the extra movement of his upper body and head to meet the chopsticks midway. When using a knife and fork, we twist our wrists, but only a little and only on the horizontal axis. Chopsticks require a completely different twist action and I suspect it takes people a while to get used to it.
While watching the man, who I incorrectly believed to be French, he suddenly looked around and saw me watching him. Now my observation of him was completely one of curiosity, of investigation, and because I had no bad intentions of any kind, there was no need for me to hide and I simply smiled back at him. For a second, he thought he recognised me. I shook my head to indicate that he didn't know me and we then both went back to our meals.
A short while later, I decided to take a chance. I found the man's character attractive and I decided to meet him, so I stood up and walked over to his table. Now people do this all the time in pubs and bars, but it doesn't happen very often in restaurants, especially when you know absolutely nothing about the other person.
The man stood up as I approached. We introduced ourselves and sat down. His companion at the table was a local Chinese lady who knew me as a 'familiar friend' and chatting was therefore relatively easier. He was indeed a nice guy, and similar to me in some ways; an Italian now living and working in Sydney, speaking with an international English accent. I'm an Australian, living in Hong Kong who very rarely speaks English but on the occasion that I do, I too speak with an international English accent. It was not a long conversation but it was pleasant. I returned to my table. Soon after, as he was leaving, the man and his companion were kind enough to walk over to my table and bid me farewell.
If I did indeed inherit this 'chatty' behaviour from my father, than I have no choice other than to thank him for it, because on occasion, we do get to meet and know the nicest people.