a) Run towards the phone, dropping whatever was in your hands, and hope for a good conversation with a friend
b) Abruptly end the conversation you were having on your cell phone in order to pick up the landline – calls are a serious business here.
c) Bury your face in your hands and sight : “not again…“.
I’m clearly a “c”.
It all started in high school. Suddenly, the phone became more than a black plastic thing. Yet most of time I despised it. Why wasn’t it ringing ? Should I call him ? But he said he would call. Why wasn’t he calling then ? Was the phone broken ? Off the hook ? Power outage in the neighborhood maybe ? He did say he would ring, right ?
By the time I finished high school, he still hadn’t called and I had grown to dislike phones. Stupid useless objects if you want my opinion.
I then got my first job in Hong Kong. My biggest challenge wasn’t being an 18 years old lost in Tsimshatshui: it was to handle my daily duties at Takyi company. I was an office worker, a baby one. I could barely switch on a computer at that time but I had the language skills. So they let me learn.
One morning, Lia, my boss, came to me :
— Now you arrive at 8:00 and take care of the phone for Qingqing.
Qingqing was the receptionist, the only one in the office who was actually from mainland China. The others were from Macao, Hong Kong, Malaysia, or at least big Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai. But Qingqing was from the countryside – god knows what or who brought her to Hong Kong. As a result, she was the office’s poor little girl. The other receptionists, Isabella and Celia, made fun of the way she dressed, the way the talked and the food she ate. She could never get things right – and I could tell she tried hard. Like me. This was probably why I was paired up with Qingqing. In my manager’s mind, I was a total failure. I was too fat (by Chinese standards), too tall (by her standards), my nose and belly-button piercings made her cringe every time she looked at me and I wasn’t wearing enough make-up. My clothes were odd too: Lia had been to Paris twice and she clearly remembered French women wore Chanel dresses and carried Louis Vuitton handbags – not Levis’ jeans and handmade tote bag. All in all, I deserved to come earlier to work to cover for Qingqing.
The next morning, I got up before my two roommates and walked to work. I didn’t really feel like I was an hour early anyway, since Hong Kong looked busy 24/7. I picked up a couple of coconut bread on my way and arrived in front of the intimidating building in Tsimshatsui. I keyed the code in (was it 1-2-3-4 or 4-3-2-1 ? Can’t remember anymore…) and switched on the lights. A minute later, I was on front of my computer and the phone started to ring.
— Good morning, how can I help you ?
— Hello ?
Hung up. Oh well.
I ate my breads. Checked my emails. Went for a smoke in the hallway a couple of time. At 9:00, the phone had rang about twenty times but I had no messages. People kept on hanging up on me.
Bracing myself for my Lia’s lecture. If I didn’t have any message for Qingqing, then it must be because I didn’t show up at 8:00 as agreed but at 8:55.
But she surprised me. Instead of mentioning my laziness (because she clearly remember that when she visited Paris, French were less efficient than Japanese, therefore they were lazy – some kind of genetic problem that I must have had inherited because I was very French indeed – are you following me ?) , she blamed my English:
— What do you say on the phone ?
— Er… “Hi, how can I help you?“
— Dumb ! They don’t want to talk to English girls like you! They want Chinese, speak Chinese!
She actually made a point. Although I wasn’t sure why I was suddenly tagged as English, I should have spoken Chinese. Silly me… I had assumed since we mostly worked in English, I could speak it on the phone.
Lucky me, Qingqing hadn’t arrived yet, so I had a chance to make up for it.
— Dumb, dumb !
Oh yeah, that was my Lia behind me.
— I say Chinese, you speak pǔtōnghuà ! Chinese, I want you to say Hong Kong Chinese !
Right. Cantonese, guǎngdōnghuà. Another battle ahead…
— But I don’t speak Cantonese! I learned Mandarin! It says on my resume: Mandarin!
— Language is will. If you want to speak Cantonese, you speak Cantonese. But of course, you never try to speak Cantonese because your mind doesn’t want to speak Cantonese. Cantonese is more better. A lot.
Lia was from Malaysia. She has been living in Hong Kong for twenty years and although she spoke perfect Cantonese (as far I knew), she still couldn’t read any Chinese characters. I had to read her the menu every time we went to restaurant together. This was our biggest battle: I should speak Cantonese and I didn’t. I wasn’t even trying according to her.
Lia took a piece of paper and scribbled some pinyin (phonetic Cantonese) for me.
— This is what you say.
Good timing. Already, the phone was ringing:
— Isabella 小姐系唔系口？
— er… 等一下啊！
Good news: people talked to me now. And my accent seemed alright. Bad news: outside the introduction, I still wasn’t speaking – or understanding for that matters – Cantonese. Fuck. I only got the name of the receptionist in the sentence that followed. Thanks Isabella for choosing a Western name. I pressed 1 to transfer the call.
The following months were misery. Every time the office had lunch, I was told to stay at my desk to take messages. My Cantonese didn’t improve but I quickly learned to spot names in the long sentences that usually followed my – now perfect – introduction line. Every time the phone rang, I felt like unplugging it and running away. I was still shy and I hated Lia for making me do that. I hated the phone for ringing that often.
When I arrived in Canada, I faced another problem. I spoke both official languages, which was already a good thing. Although it was taking me a lot of energy to understand English clearly over the phone. Without body language, I was often lost in the details. And come to think of it, Quebec accent didn’t work that well either. Words sounded distorted, I couldn’t tell whether the person was joking and numbers… well, numbers don’t usually agree with me, but accented numbers were worse.
Too bad I had secured a contract in a call center.
My phone was ringing almost non-stop, and I couldn’t use the pause button too much otherwise my supervisor was behind me back within seconds. But my head was constantly pounding. As soon as I was seeing the blue “French” button, I prayed that I’d get some big cities people, who usually spoke with less accent. English line? Please, not another guy from fucking middle of nowhere town with a bad connexion!
The misery last a few months. I then worked as a receptionist, a secretary, a salesperson and I finally got a job as a teacher. Best part of it is, I never ever have to answer the phone. I do everything by email and I usually tell phones lovers that I can’t be reached easily because I’m in a classroom 6 hours a day. They don’t always understand me : “why don’t you get a cell phone then?“. I guess I should have them to read this posts.
And you. Yes, you. Please don’t call me. Just write something below.