Brooke Shaffer

Major: Journalism and Mass Communication and German

Hometown: Shelby, North Carolina

Study Abroad Program: Chinese University of Hong Kong

The last place I ever thought I would find myself was standing on a stage in Hong Kong, wearing a giant, furry, Pepto-Bismol-pink lion costume. But during my semester at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, that’s exactly where I ended up.

Hong Kong usually brings to mind images of skyscrapers and high-power bankers in Gucci suits. It’s developed a reputation as the Mecca of all things modern, and rightly so. But my experience as a Phillips Ambassador gave me the chance to dig beneath Hong Kong’s upper layer, where everything is shiny, new and of course, tall. The program challenged me to explore every possible aspect of Hong Kong society and encouraged me to burst out of the “exchange student bubble.” Only then I was able to really immerse myself in the local culture and see a new side of the city—the Hong Kong where it’s rare to find a shopkeeper who speaks English, where chicken feet are the snack of choice and traditional Chinese values thrive. I was surprised by how large of a role tradition still plays in Hong Kong. I certainly never expected to stumble across students blasting drum beats on their iPods to provide the rhythm for a good ol’ fashioned Chinese lion dance in the middle of one of Hong Kong’s busiest parks.

I wanted to take part in as many cultural activities as I could during my semester abroad, so I joined a beginners’ lion dancing group at the University. To be honest, it’s much harder and sweatier than it looks. The head is enormous and very difficult to maneuver, especially when the moves get fancy and I need to wiggle the ears or close the eyes (controlled by strings inside the head). Even though I loved lion dancing, my success was questionable– our lion dance master nicknamed me the “drunk lion” because I was always just prancing around instead of being fierce and ferocious.

Before each show, the lion master painted the pupils onto my lion head’s eyes to give it spirit for the performance. Rituals like that are very important in lion dancing. Everything must be performed according to tradition, from greeting the audience with a bow to the way the lion head is removed at the end. Of course tradition is the reason why the dances are performed in the first place.

Legend has it, the lion was the cockiest animal in the Heavens, so one day the gods cut off his horn and sent him down to Earth as punishment. The humans took pity on the lion, found his horn and returned it to him. To show his gratitude, the lion returns every year during the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) to bring good look to the people. In street fairs, shopkeepers hang red packets or pieces of paper over the entrance of their shops. If the dancing lion tears down the red packet and gobbles it up, then the new year will bring extra prosperity and happiness to that shopkeeper.

Of course, traditions aren’t limited to annual celebrations or special performances. They manifest themselves in daily life, including the classroom. While I was in Hong Kong I took marketing and public relations courses—from PR in a Globalized World to Intercultural Communication. Sitting in classroom filled with students from both mainland China and Hong Kong, I realized what a huge effect culture has on communication. We covered familiar ads and campaigns in my classes, but the perspective from which students approached them was completely new to me. For example, in one PR class we took a look at the Nobel Prize ceremony for Liu Xiaobo, where a violinist played a traditional Chinese tune. I saw it as honoring his Chinese heritage; my classmates saw it as a cultural attack.

For any communication professional in today’s globalized world, the ability to think about ads, campaigns and messages from a variety of perspectives is invaluable. That’s why I chose to study abroad. Of course, a large part of understanding culture is understanding tradition. That’s why I chose to put on giant pink lion head for the very first time. Putting on those fur-trimmed tennis shoes with detachable claws helped me step into a different culture. Thanks to the Phillips Ambassadors program, I was able to make one of the most important steps in my life.