Hong Kong Airmail: “Missent to Bermuda”
As I wrote a few months ago, we routinely overestimate the number of my fellow Americans who have any idea where Hong Kong is.
To some extent, this is a challenge endemic to tiny places like Hong Kong. Among people, a euphemism for short ones is “vertically challenged”. Among places, it would follow to call tiny ones “spatially challenged.”
Australia is a huge place with only slightly more than 3 times the population of Hong Kong, but everyone has a pretty good idea where it is, or at least generally where it’s not (e.g. not located in Africa; think: kangaroos, koalas and Crocodile Dundee). Same thing for Canada (way up north; polar bears; ice hockey), India (way down south; cobras; call centers), and so on.
There is virtue in being small. Short trees are less likely to attract lightning strikes or lose branches in high winds. But as a city, country, or special administration region, it is a valid and desirable goal that as many people as possible have some notion of where you are, and where you are not.
Hong Kong still has a ways to go in educating my fellow Americans, and I daresay many other westerners, about its location. And of course America’s schools need to do a better job of teaching world geography.
The latest “Where is Hong Kong?” example which came to my attention was just a week or so ago when a very entertaining birthday card arrived in the mail at my home in Hong Kong. My sister Mary Beth had air-mailed it from her home near Chicago, with correct airmail postage and a clearly legible and complete mailing address, ending in “Hong Kong S.A.R., China”. Even though she mailed it several weeks in advance of my birthday, it took about one month to reach me.
What really struck home was the message stamped in red ink (stamped rather than hand-written) on the envelope, next to my mailing address, which said: “MISSENT TO BERMUDA.”
什么？！难道是邮政系统有人费心向我解释生日卡延误的原因吗？美国邮政总局（The U.S. Postal Service）芝加哥分局一定是把香港错当成了百慕大，把我的贺卡投向了东边的大西洋，而不是往西投向太平洋。
美国邮政总局在《财富》世界500强（FORTUNE Global 500）中排名第109位【排在中国建设银行（China Construction Bank）之后】，2010年的营业收入为670亿美元，目前他们正在进行大刀阔斧的重组。由于越来越多的个人和机构改用网络通讯，邮政总局的收入逐年锐减。虽然他们已经进行了大幅裁员，但更深入的调整势在必行。太痛苦了！
What?! Yes, someone, somewhere in the post office chain took the thoughtful step of conveying to me the reason why my birthday card was so late. The U.S. Postal Service in Chicago must have mistaken Bermuda for Hong Kong, and sent my card east, across the Atlantic Ocean instead of west, across the Pacific one.
Oh well, all these damn oceans look so much alike! Water, water, water; and then a few islands, like Hong Kong, and Bermuda.
While grateful for the spirit of accountability and full disclosure which prompted this explanation of postal misadventure, I was especially struck by the remarkable fact that “MISSENT TO BERMUDA” was not handwritten by some post office clerk but a pre-made stamp, of the sort which offices use to append routinely used messages like “URGENT”, “CONFIDENTIAL” and so on, to documents.
What does that suggest to you? To me, it says that this situation of “MISSENT TO BERMUDA” must happen frequently. So much so that a stamp was manufactured to deal with it. This is a bit of a shocker. Perhaps the problem is so advanced that in the Bermuda post office they have an abbreviated way of referring to these items as “MTBs.”
For all we know it might be a whole wing of the Bermuda post office, devoted solely to MTBs, and possibly justifying a separate department: Bureau of MTB Re-direction.
I reflected on the question of “Why Bermuda?” rather than Singapore, Taiwan or some other location with some semblance of similarity to Hong Kong either in geography, spelling or some such thing.
Nothing in my postal address has anything vaguely similar to Bermuda in it. I don’t live on Bermuda Shorts Avenue in Hong Kong, for example.
What else is there in common between Bermuda and Hong Kong, I pondered, which might have promoted the mix-up?
Similarities include: both small island states, with thriving financial sectors, low tax regimes, currencies pegged to the US dollar, history of British influence, a few decent beaches, not many species of local mammals (Bermuda has only bats; Hong Kong is more gifted) — that’s about it. Bermuda’s population is only 64,000 people, which is roughly the same size as the lunchtime crowd in some Hong Kong dimsum restaurants.
Then there’s the minor detail of the 13,963 kilometers (8,677 miles) which separate the two places.
My analytical efforts even wandered briefly into thinking about whether there might be a bizarre magnetic phenomenon related to the fabled Bermuda Triangle, which covers a large area of sea adjacent to Bermuda and has allegedly claimed scores of ships and aircraft in mysterious circumstances. But if that were the case, I would not have received my birthday card at all. My card wasn’t even a bit soggy.
The U.S. Postal Service, which ranks 109th on this year’s FORTUNE Global 500 list (just behind China Construction Bank), with 2010 revenues of US$67 billion, is in the midst of a wrenching, challenging reorganization. They face continuing year-on-year sharp declines in revenues because people and organizations are increasingly communicating online, and they don’t send many first class mail items nowadays. USPS has experienced huge staff cuts and is facing the possibility of deeper ones to come. Painful stuff.
So, it comes as no surprise that with reorganization and massive staff cuts, service often slips. I get that. But still, why Bermuda? Perhaps just a coincidence.
The point remains that Hong Kong would be well-advised to avoid complacency in assuming that most people overseas know where it is, at least until they get here, let alone understand what it’s all about.
Maybe we should match Bermuda’s effort and prepare a stamp which says “MISSENT TO HONG KONG.”