I’m Hong Kong born and bred so any time my
hometown special administrative region makes the news my ears prick up. Recently my facebook feed tells me that a HK colloquialism has been officially added to the dictionary: Ga Yau, which is directly translated, add oil. ‘…it is a versatile phrase Chinese speakers use to express encouragement, incitement or support, somewhere along the lines of “keep it up” or “good luck”.’ You can read all about it in the link above, I won’t repeat it all here. What I wanted to do was to share my personal take on it. Disclaimer: my Cantonese is far from perfect. I hereby incite the spirit of creative license.
The earliest memory I have of hearing Ga yao was during my childhood in the 80s, back when there were only two English speaking TV channels, neither of which kicked into action until the afternoon. My big brother used to watch a football cartoon – I never knew what it was called… jook kao something… I believe it was a Japanese cartoon overdubbed in Cantonese. The characters were very serious about the game, sliding across the screen with open mouths, freeze framed mid-action, and the crowds were always chanting ‘ga yao ga yao!’
The expression didn’t really register with me again until about 20 years later, when I was at a church event and a charismatic speaker was preaching and offering encouragement to an auditorium full of mainland Chinese pastors.
It was a while back and I can’t in good conscience quote or even paraphrase anything he actually said, but I remember that he drew a line of connection between ga yao and several biblical references to oil.
Oil features heavily in the bible. Leaders and people in need of healing were anointed with oil (see Exodus 29:7 and Mark 6:13 for just two examples), the ten virgins used oil in their lamps (Matt 25), it was used in bread making (1 Kings 17) and a guy called Aaron had a beard dripping with oil – which was a good thing. I can’t tell you why. Ask your friendly neighbourhood theologian.
And I haven’t even mentioned the trend in recent years in Evangelical circles towards essential oils. (I’m not knocking it, they smell great. Some other time I’ll tell you about my Oil of Oregano incident from a few years back.)
After the preacher mentioned it I noticed ga yao cropping up more frequently.
‘Work’s so busy,’ one friend would lament to another.
‘Ga yao,’ would come an affirming and sincere encouragement.
It’s a good thing to say. But recently I have been trying to interpret it differently because until recently I have always received with the words a vision of a petrol pump filling my empty tank. It means fan-the-flame, reignite your passion, tank up on some sort of motivational fuel that will spur you on toward your finish line. It evoked thoughts of fossil fuels and scarcity and oil spills and suffering sea birds and volunteers scrubbing ineffectively with toothbrushes and dish soap. But oil as fuel was necessary then because my tank was constantly empty. This is a given for most busy people living in a busy city. I take full responsibility for the stupid-busyness I allowed myself to get caught up in when I was living in HK. I do suspect though that places, cities and cultures, have a beat to them. The rhythm of some places lends itself well to the headless-chicken dance. I love HK with all my heart but I do not love some of it’s culture. When I’m there I like to cram as many activities into my minutes as I possibly can – like the cityscape with it’s buildings crammed between and on top of one another – there’s somehow always a way to fit more in. HK people put a lot of pressure on themselves and each other – two examples:- the first one to leave the office is the loser; HK has a shockingly high rate of child suicide linked to school achievement pressure.
I want to believe that it is possible to live in a fast paced city without getting in a tizzy, but if I’m honest I’ll admit that I personally haven’t found a way. I don’t like myself when I’m busy. I will not permit myself to be a martyr to my own choices. I’ve decided busyness is a self-important brand of stupidity. You can quote me on that. We live in England now, but I was reminded of this when we were back for a visit this August. There is always something interesting going on, and amazingly inspiring people to be around, and I am crap at saying no. There is always a cost and I choose to deal with the fall out later. I ignore Rational Me, because some other part of me thinks I’m going to change the world by dousing flammables and going up in a blaze of glory. I do want to live in HK again, but for the sake of my mental health I cannot do so until I’ve mastered the art of moderation, and found a job that allows for that.
We have been in the UK for over five years now. It took me three years to decompress from a lifetime of HK-level busyness and a tricky second child. I revelled in being anonymous for my first few years here, having no one to see and nowhere really to go. In Hong Kong my phone battery hardly makes it through the day. Here I can forget to plug it in for 48 hours and I’m still ok. (Don’t worry, I’ve got friends now and am not being a hermit any more, I’m just not looking at my phone compulsively all day long).
Although I feel increasingly at home in England, I am still struck by the different pace of life here. People here seem somewhat less ambitious, and I don’t mean this as a criticism at all. I’m in awe. It is not unusual for people to be able to leave the office at 4:30pm, job sharing exists, children are generally not over-scheduled with extra-curricular activities, lots of shops close on Sundays, people can stand in a queue without smoke coming out of their ears, and getting a seat in a food court is a given. It seems to me a more viable way to live.
Another thing that is markedly different here is the fact that we’ve had to come to terms with home maintenance. This was a big deal for us two HK kids. Tom and I both grew up with Helpers and we have both needed to learn how to keep house, clean house, keep the kitchen stocked, feed the children three-five times a day, do laundry all. the. time. (I know this sounds eye-rollingly pathetic to most non-HKers, I acknowledge that and I am sorry). Not only that though, we have also discovered that if the silicon around the sink goes mouldy, it’s one of our jobs to re-do it. It’s hard to find a handyman who wants to come and do these little jobs for a reasonable rate. It’s easier to DIY, and DIY doesn’t come easy to either of us, but it is a necessary part of this slower life we are currently living, so DIY we must.
What does all this HK/UK compare/contrast have to do with Ga yao? It was the day I was weather treating our outdoor garden furniture that the thought struck me: sometimes adding oil doesn’t mean injecting high-octane fuel into a rocket engine, sometimes adding oil means nourishing dry and brittle wood so that it will make it through another winter.
So, that’s where I’m at these days – a slower life, but no less in need of Ga-ing yao than I was before, only nowadays the yao that springs to mind is linseed oil, because painting makes me happy. It’s coconut oil because fresh/healthy/local food is affordable here and I have enjoyed dabbling in all the special diets. I’m not proud of the Bulletproof coffee season. But coconut oil has been nice. I’ve rubbed it in my hair, on my face, cleaned my teeth with it. I think of decking oil for the deck Tom and I YouTubed and cobbled together the first term we put the kids in school and had the daytime to ourselves and thought it didn’t look that hard (we were wrong, it was really hard and next time we will pay someone else to do it). It is only through this kind of adding oil that I have been able to accomplish anything that I actually value these days.
So please forgive me if I’m not impressed if the answer to ‘How are you?’ is ‘Busy.’ I accept that busyness and running on empty is a necessary evil for certain short bursts of life. I have been there many times. Hang on, I’m starting to sound preachy here so I should point out that I still can succumb to the temptation of lighting both ends of the candle. I will always have it in me to rev up into stupid busy mode with the best of them – flipping the bird as I streak past my rational self. In fact, that is probably why I’m writing this right now. I might just have managed to bring stupid-busy to England. I’m working two jobs on top of the business still running in HK and my homemaking is decidedly more fraught than it used to be. My rational self is desperately clawing for the steering wheel, longing to redirect me out of this zone, to set a pace of life that is sustainable and sensible and therefore more enjoyable. Because we all know there is less fall out this way. I guess this here is my attempt to call myself out on my current foray back into warp speed. So, from hyperspace I will now step on the brakes and say to myself, add oil, hoping from the bottom of my heart that I am talking about omegas and paint mediums.