Their group crowded onto the East Rail Line at Kowloon Tong, dragging overloaded shopping trolleys, backpacks and plastic carrier bags. That was the first hint that they were from the Mainland. The second was the overzealous love of patterns evident in the middle-age women’s outfits: if these blue striped trousers are lovely and this red floral shirt is lovely, then they are twice as lovely together! And finally, their non-existent sense of personal space — one nearly sat on my daughter — was the clincher.
For a few stops, I simply sat, watched them, and studied the parts of their shopping haul that I could see: Darlie brand toothpaste (yes, the brand that was historically called “Darkie”), Tempo tissues, Lux soap, twelve cans of Coca-Cola, a case of infant formula, and a bunch of maddeningly opaque bags that I couldn’t peer into.
They were speaking in Cantonese, but after steeling my courage, I addressed them in Mandarin, the lingua franca of the Mainland. My assumptions proved right and I happily stretched my Chinese muscles and carried out my first real Mandarin conversation in ages.
I wanted to know all about their shopping and they must have thought that my obsessive interest in listing the contents of their shopping bags in childish Chinese was very weird: “牙膏! 宝宝奶粉! 可口可乐! 还是 鼻子纸!” In return, they wanted to know all about why I speak (some) Mandarin and the age of my daughter with the “白白的皮肤！眼睛很蓝色！像小娃娃！” (“Fair, fair skin and very blue eyes! Like a baby doll!”).
In the end, I told them that I also used to travel to Hong Kong to buy infant formula and medicines when I lived in Zhuhai, and I wished them a safe journey back across the border.