“German is a very ‘spank me’ language,” she tells a Melbourne woman struggling pronounce a porcelain manufacturer’s name. “Königliche,” the woman coughs. Standing beside a handwritten chart of tableware terminology, Ms. Ho trills with delight: “You got it! See? You think ‘spank me,’ immediately you got it.”
Ms. Ho speaks with the astonishingly posh, vaguely British accent of a person whose origin is less a place than an international pedigree. A native of Hong Kong whose father worked in oil exploration, Ms. Ho grew up in Papua New Guinea, Taiwan, Britain and the United States, where she was a boarding student at Phillips Exeter Academy. She graduated from Georgetown University in 2008, and was working on Wall Street when the stock market crashed. After a stint at a microfinance NGO in China, she attended Harvard Business School, where she busied herself “partying until dawn,” she said.
On the advice of a well-heeled friend from Indonesia, she then decamped to Switzerland to attend the Institut Villa Pierrefeu. “They call it ‘the finishing school that refuses to be finished,’” Ms. Ho explained, the last in a dying form of pedagogy that asks wealthy women to scrutinize the folds in napkins with an intensity akin to Watson and Crick studying the double helix.
Ms. Ho credits her mother, who died from cancer in 2007, for her interest in etiquette. An entertainment executive who threw magnificent Christmas parties, she regularly brought her only child on business trips. “When we went to Japan,” Ms. Ho recalled, “she’d say: ‘You remember Mr. Sato? Go over and say hi. By the way, remember in Japan, you don’t say “Mr. Sato,” you say “Sato-san.” And he has a little girl your age, so why don’t you go ask him when she’s going to come to Hong Kong and play with you?”
Etiquette, for Ms. Ho, is a dialect of socialization. “Wherever I go, I see myself as in the field,” she said. “I’m observing: ‘What are the codes of conduct here? How are people behaving?’”
When her family moved from Papua New Guinea to England, she was barred from going barefoot. When she transferred from the German Swiss International School in Hong Kong to Exeter and first encountered roundtable discussions, Ms. Ho was so intimidated by her American classmates that she didn’t speak for an entire month — until a teacher said her grades would suffer if she didn’t learn how to interject.