Writers are supposed to be people-watchers and eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers. As a writer living in Hong Kong, doing this has its problems.
How do I search for those distinctive details that sets one person apart from another when all I see are people's backs hurrying here, hurrying there?
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In this bustling population, I have found one good place to people-watch – on the subway. Once we've boarded, the train does the rushing. We stay put for a while. So there I am, sitting if I'm lucky enough to get a seat, people-watching and trying to sharpen my observational skills.
What do I see?
The man beside me with the dirty fingernails, rough haircut, scruffy clothing and yesterday's odors is most likely a mainland Chinese who is working here. Were he a mainland tourist, although equally rough and out of style, he'd be a bit cleaner.
Sitting near this mystery woman is a Chinese man giving himself a “shave”. Chinese facial hair being somewhat sparse, the method of some years ago was to locate a whisker by feel, pinch it between two coins and jerk it out. The man I'm watching today has a technology upgrade. He's using a small hand mirror and tweezers. Ten more yanks and he's done.
If I'm on the subway when schools let out, the train soon fills with students in uniforms. The younger ones are often accompanied by the family's imported household servants – either Filipinas with their painted toenails or Indonesian Muslims in various colored headscarves.
Most students are Chinese. But I also see Muslim girls with headscarves the color of their uniforms and boys with white cloth topknots holding the never-to-be-cut hair that identify them as Sikhs.
Now that China is building economic ties with Africa, I'm seeing increasing numbers of tall black men and ample-bodied black women. The other week I followed two such women to the train. They were effortlessly balancing massive bundles on their heads and their native costumes were as colorful as a flower garden. Only our local Hindu women in their saris outdo them in brightness.
Once in a great while I'll see saffron-robed Buddhist monks or nuns, with their shaved heads and religious beads, traveling in twos or threes.
I'm a people-watcher but I don't do much eavesdropping. Nowadays few people talk to each other. They're too busy playing with their smart phones. Those who are talking could easily be carrying on a conversation in any number of languages. Very seldom is it English.
Occasionally some blond-haired Western woman boards the train. In the past, with a train filled with black haired passengers, or in my case dark brown turning gray, everyone would stare at her. But not now. Now the bolder members of a younger generation are dyeing some or all of their black hair every color of the rainbow. Blond hair no longer stands out against heads sporting apricot, turquoise, violet, wine red or wheat. Sometimes two or three colors share the same head.
If I wrote contemporary international fiction, I'd be in the perfect spot. But I write historical fiction set during the English Reformation. You don't find nail polish and Sikh topknots in 16th Century England.
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Nevertheless, all is not lost. Some time ago I saw a man whose eyebrows bobbed as he talked. How's that for a tag? Of course I wouldn't give it to the hero. In a love scene those bobbing brows could be quite distracting both to reader and heroine.
Better still, I recently saw Paul. I'd never before seen him outside of my imagination. But there he stood – my wiry, little, copper-haired, Anabaptist Frenchman from a yet-to-be published English Reformation novel – only with Chinese coloring and eyes. It was hard not to stare.
Now I see Paul much more clearly in my imagination, especially his lovely cheek bones, although I do have to keep correcting his hair color.
People-watching, even four centuries later, is worth doing. You never know who you might see.
www.Facebook.com/Author.KarenRees. Her mission website is http://www.hongkongmission.org/.