Major: Business Administration
Hometown: North Conway, NH
Study Abroad Program: Chinese University of Hong Kong - Summer
Thursday, July 5, 2007
Week One in Hong Kong
When I arrived at my destination on the opposite side of the globe, every inch of my body could sense it – literally my body was submerged in a hot and steamy air as I exited the airport of Hong Kong. I guess nothing could have prepared me for the 90% humidity in combination with the mountainous hills that I climb everyday to reach anything and everything on campus. However, as the days progressed I quickly realized that the weather would be one of the smaller adjustments I would have to make in the broad scheme of things.
My first week in Hong Kong has been exciting, overwhelming, frustrating, intriguing, tiring, nerve-racking – I guess, basically, the week has been overloaded with a diverse array of emotions, as well as events. Even though I will be here for another 5 weeks, I have found myself trying to discover the entire district within my first few days (sleep is not a necessity when you have little over a month to discover a whole new country). Perhaps the most interesting and surprising cultural event that I have been to thus far was a protest on Causeway Bay in Hong Kong during their 10th annual Independence Day (celebrating the day when Hong Kong became independent of Britain on July 1st, 1997). Unlike the fourth of July in the United States, Independence Day in Hong Kong is not a day for celebration for all. Many citizens believe that Hong Kong should have become its own country instead of a Special Administrative Region of China ten years ago when it separated from Britain. Therefore the holiday brings about mixed emotions – while some celebrate with fireworks and parties, thousands of others are marching and chanting protests across the city (one report estimated the protests drew a crowd of 500,000 – quite a feat for a city of 7 million).
The riots were not the only thing that I found surprising. My pre-arrival perception of Hong Kong turned out to be quite different from my perspective of the region now that I am here. One perception I had before I arrived was that Hong Kong was going to be a very international place. This prediction has turned out to be half true. In some aspects I am living in a very international environment – with over 200 international students crammed into two buildings, dorm life is mixed with different national perspectives. However, the city seems to be divided into both local and international places. When I venture into some regions I feel that I stand out strictly as a foreigner. In some neighborhoods and markets and even on the subway, I feel somewhat like a spectacle drawing stares from every direction. There are even some canteens on campus where it is discouraged for non-native speakers to go. On the other hand, there are other regions of the city where everyone speaks English and it is very unlikely to see that many locals (one example is the Lai Kwai Fong bar district where all the international men go after work for drinks). I have not yet been to the business district, but I would assume that this area has a similar atmosphere. I guess I will have to venture across the border into mainland China to be in a completely foreign arena…
An International Perspective... Week 2 HK
So, I’ve survived through yet another week in Hong Kong and by some weird miracle I seem to be getting use to the 90% humidity factor. Although, I must admit that I am not quite ready to brave it like many locals who are quite comfortable in Jeans and long sleeves. This week has been marked somewhat by disappointment on my own part. I feel quite isolated from Hong Kong, both mentally and physically. The Chinese University of Hong Kong is located in the New Territories about an hour away from downtown Hong Kong, so it is quite a trek to make it downtown during the school week. I should not complain, however, considering that I am only in school 3 out of 7 days each week. My failure also stems from not being able to integrate much with local Hong Kong students and residents. The dorm that I am staying in houses international students, none of which seem to be from Hong Kong. I think this is a conscious effort by Hong Kong students, considering the I-House dorm is located on a large hill farthest from most classes. Even in my classes a small minority of the students are from Hong Kong.
Although I am not getting a strictly Hong Kong perspective, one of the best parts about being on this trip is getting an international perspective. Being in a dorm with over 200 international students, I am able to interact with people from all corners of the globe. My roommate is from Canada and my other suitemates come from places ranging from China, Canada, Singapore, and the United States. My classes are the same way. I believe that in my Asian Business class we have at least 15 different countries represented! This week I had a group presentation in this class. My group consisted of students from the U.S., Mexico, Denmark, and Canada- it was truly an international presentation, both literally and figuratively. One thing that I have learned from this experience, is that it is imperative not to stereotype or judge people because of the country they come from. I am saying this because as an American, because it has happened to my friends and I several times. Some stereotypes are quite common ones that we’ve all heard before, but others I am still unsure of where they originate, like “Americans don’t share,” or "All Americans have guns." I guess in some aspects we are all guilty of it…
As an outsider looking in, I have noticed many interesting cultural differences between Hong Kong and the States. One distinct difference deals with the perception of beauty. Within the first couple of days I questioned why many local women used umbrellas in the sunshine. I originally had thought that this was one of their ways to keep cool. However, upon further inquiry I discovered that women use umbrellas, because they regard paler skin as more beautiful and as a sign of being from a higher class. The main facial products sold here whiten the face, which is completely different from the growing trend in the U.S. to use bronzing lotions. Several other intriguing cultural differences stem directly from the fact that the city is extremely densely populated. I have never quite experienced anything like a rush hour in Hong Kong, especially since I grew up in the boonies of New Hampshire. And, my experience was even more boggling since it is not considered that rude to bump into people as you walk by them. One other shocker that I discovered strolling the crowds of Hong Kong was a method the city uses to try and control illness. Many people with any type of cold or respiratory infection wear a doctor’s mask and no one thinks anything of it. I feel guilty now for staring at the first person I saw wearing one, because I thought they were a doctor who just came from the hospital and had somehow forgotten to take off their mask! The city is full of surprises and I still have many more to discover, but for now, I am off to explore Shanghai…
Shanghai Vs. Hong Kong.... Week 3
Shanghai was only a two and a half hour flight away from Hong Kong yet I felt like I was in a different country. The first distinct difference that I noticed was the quality of my surrounding environment. A thick blanket of smog covered the whole city. When my group arrived at the Bund (a famous walkway that tourist visit to see the contrasting old British-influenced architecture on one side of the river versus the more modern architecture on the other) we could barely see the skyline. I thought that the smog was possibly just fog and would clear up at some point during our stay, but it did not. Additionally, both the air and the water had a funny smell to them. One of my Professors at CUHK told me that the water smelled because of all the chemicals the city needed to put in it since it was taken from the industrial/polluted Chanjiang River. This was a stark contrast to Hong Kong, which I would describe as a clean, modern, and efficient city surrounded by a green and tropical environment.
Another surprising encounter that I observed in Shanghai was the difference in poverty levels compared to Hong Kong. In Shanghai, like many cities in the US, there were numerous beggars on the streets. Most beggars had a disability of some type and many were sleeping at subway stops, under bridges, or in the streets. Unlike the US, however, a good percentage of the beggars were young children. I guess Shanghai is not unique in this regard compared to many other cities around the globe. What I find most surprising is that I have not yet come across a single beggar in Hong Kong.
Perhaps the largest difference between the two cities from my point of view was the degree of foreignness that I felt as a westerner. First of all, there are a lot fewer people in Shanghai who speak English. In Hong Kong, when I find myself lost in the city, I usually can bump into someone who can give me directions in fluent English. However, if it weren’t for my Chinese friend, who speaks Mandarin I would probably still be lost somewhere in Shanghai. I also felt like I stood out, because of the constant stares I received walking down the street. There were two points during the three day trip, when our group was approached by different Chinese parents who shoved there children into pictures with us. One family made sure that they got a shot of each family member with one member of our group. At other points, children would just point at me or our group and whisper to their parents. The illegal sales venders on the streets of Shanghai also seemed to take keen notice of our foreignness. My Chinese friend said that every time we were walking down the crowded streets single file the vender would approach the member of the group in front of him, skip over him, and then approach the Caucasian behind him.
China: A Native Perspective... Week 4
Four weeks into the program and I have yet to see the dark and corrupt side of China that Kristof and Wudunn highlight in their book. I understand this is most likely because I am studying in Hong Kong, and this city is worlds apart from China; however, I thought that amidst my travels I would have some exposure to the “real” China. Although, I may not witness the things mentioned in China Wakes with my own eyes, I discovered that one of my close Chinese friends had many comments to make and stories to tell about her home country. Born and raised in the small province of Guangxi, my friend seems to have a love-hate relationship with her country. Her dislike for her country stems from a recent history of Chinese corruption and chaos. Both of her parents descended from wealthy families; one grandfather was a landlord and the other a businessman. However, both families lost a significant amount of wealth during the Cultural Revolution, not only due to an economic regression, but also caused by the corruption that let loose during this period. The grandfather that was a landlord was harassed by the tenants and local authorities until he was forced to flee town with his family, which also meant leaving behind his apartment building (I got the impression that landlords received much contempt in this communist society). The other family also faced hardships due to family professions, considering her grandmother was a professor and students were encouraged to stand up and revolt against their teachers during this period.
Her more direct dislike for China is a result of her own “communist” experiences. Although she went to a fairly liberal high school, she explained to me that in all of her Chinese history classes the teachers purposely never mentioned the Tiananmen Square incident, in fear of being reported and possibly loosing their job. Additionally, she explained her constant irritation with internet limitations. Apparently, the government blocks most sights that have any criticism regarding communism, Tiananmen Square, or anything else that may portray the government in a bad light. All of this lead her to go to all means to study in the United States, despite even her own parent’s wishes. She said that she was ready “to speak her mind” and not worry about what others may think. What surprised me even more than her stories was her response to my question of where she sees herself living in the future. Although she has many complaints with her country, she by all means has an enormous, if inexplicable, adoration for it.
My friend’s stories came to a complete shock to me even though I had read similar stuff in China Wakes. I guess it seemed more distant and untouchable reading the information in a book, compared to sitting down with a girl my own age, a good friend, who has so many of her own stories to tell. I still don’t really understand many aspects of Chinese culture too well, and I doubt if I ever will, but nevertheless I enjoy reflecting on what I’ve learned— a process that in turn seems to help me understand my own country as well as myself a little better.
Friday, August 10, 2007
Hong Kong... A second home? (the last week)
My last week in Hong Kong was actually not spent in Hong Kong. Instead CUHK arranged for a tour of Beijing. Accompanied by two tour guides, fifty students, and three CUHK staff I explored numerous cultural relics including The Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven, and The Great Wall. I found Beijing incredibly intriguing due to its rich history. For me, The Great Wall was by far the most striking relic. Stretching over 6000 kilometers across China, the wall is nestled amongst large and foreboding mountains. The day we climbed a section of The Great Wall there was a layer of fog that covered the mountains. Although this did not provide for the best view of the wall, it added to the mystic of this overwhelming structure.
Despite exploring all of the cultural treasures in Beijing my friends and I were surprised to discover how underdeveloped we found the city. The recent hype about China’s incredible economic development made us believe that we would find a modern city similar to Hong Kong, especially knowing that the Olympic Games would be hosted in Beijing the following summer. However, what we found was quite different. Our tour group drove through all parts of the city including the poor areas outside and inside the city limits. One area called the Hutongs consisted of rows of shacks and run-down single story housing units lined up in rows to form “hutongs” or small alley ways. We also discovered that many of these areas were demolished for the upcoming Games, causing many to become homeless.
This trip, along with my trips to Thailand and Shanghai, made me realize how strong my attachment to Hong Kong is becoming. All three places seemed very polluted with a thick layer of smog, or in the case of Pataya, Thailand the beaches were covered with tons of debris. Additionally, the poverty was much more ramped in these areas. Every time I left Hong Kong, I was also struck with the challenge of communication. There were many times of utter frustration in my lack of ability to get my message across, even times when I attempted to speak the local language and was received with blank stares. Although, I must admit that being an English speaker I do feel very privileged and perhaps even guilty, because no matter what corner of the globe I find myself I can eventually find someone who will be able to speak in my language. All of these challenges highlighted my growing adoration of Hong Kong. The city is clean and efficient with some of the most interesting architecture, and not to mention a subway system that compares to no other in the world. Even though the city is fairly large, it is surrounded by pristine wildlife that provides for an awe-inspiring backdrop against the city skyline (Looking out my balcony window the landscape encompassed sprawling green mountains and a vast ocean in the horizon). I found that I became increasingly homesick for Hong Kong each time I traveled outside the city. It almost became a sort of home away from home for me, which makes me a bit nervous that I may miss it even more when I return to the other side of the world. I am very thankful for this experience and am certain that I will return one day in the near future (perhaps to work?)…