A Retrospective

1,000 Buddhas Temple in Hong Kong - This place was just breathtaking. And thank you to Mike for photoshopping out a distracting point of light!! One of these days I'll need to learn to do that myself...

It’s been a month and a half since I returned home from Hong Kong. The place has taken on this strange sense of unreality to me in my mind, as if perhaps it never happened. At the same time, I think things have slowly been percolating under the surface. I had the privilege of talking about my experience last week and it called to mind all the amazing things I observed and learned over the course of the trip.

I had a pretty horrible return home, in truth. Things did not turn out at all as I thought they would and while I don’t want to speak too soon, I believe I’m well on my way to recovery. Regardless, it’s just another challenge that I’m proving to myself I’m strong and resilient enough to get past – it sounds strange, but things really couldn’t have turned out better. I’m fortunate, and I know I’m going to see that in the future. I find myself treasuring little moments at random and it feels good.

I’m slowly reorienting myself to focus on things to come and I can feel the excitement building. Thanks to my summer experience, I’m planning on applying to law school. My daydreams currently focus on moving to California to attend Berkeley, my first choice, but I’ll be applying to NYU and Columbia as well. I’m actually really looking forward to beginning the application process, the likes of which I used to utterly dread. I feel like the work I’ve put into my life in the past two years has truly brought about fundamental changes and the future looks bright. It was a real privilege to spend the summer in Hong Kong and the experience helped show this to me.

I’ve started to slowly sort through the pictures I brought back with me, and it’s such a blessing to have them. There’s a small part of melancholy at recalling the undercurrent of excitement at returning home… but so many other things as well. It’s such an amazing chronicle of the things that happened to me during my trip, what I was feeling and thinking.

Lastly, this semester will be great but tough I’m sure. I’ll have to have three “deliverables” by the end – a group consultant project on reducing child marriage, a human rights and poverty case study and a research paper. I think I’ve settled on the case study topic, which will use the massacre of the migrants in Mexico last month to look at the broader issues of trade policies such as NAFTA and CAFTA and the dangers that the migrants face in their efforts to get to the US border and subsequent treatment once they are here.

As for the research paper, my head is swimming with so many topics and I’m seriously frustrated about the idea of having to pick just one!! I originally wanted to focus on aspects of US development agencies to study whether their projects truly help or if “development” is simply another political weapon. I’m skeptical that I’d have enough serious resources to go on this. In addition, the development world tends to get few things right in general, so who’s to say it’s not typical failure rather than outright malevolence? So I’m pondering other topics instead -

The impact of the Catholic Church on the birth rate in the Philippines (birth control policy) and its resulting impact on migration for economic reasons.

A look at economic sanctions, particularly in Iraq – and whether it affects people disproportionately – causing poor people to suffer for lack of resources with little consequences to elites.

The question of structural violence in development and what must be done to raise awareness about it, especially in first world countries. (I got the idea from reading Peter Uvin’s discussion on structural violence in Rwanda as a result of development aid and the part it played in starting the Rwandan genocide.)

What are the limitations and impacts of legal advocacy as a tool in cases where human rights and economics intersect?

As usual, my brain is working overtime and I can’t settle on any one thing…. And I need to, FAST!!

The hostage crisis in the Philippines and Institutional Oppression

Workers on the march at the Pro Democracy rally on July 1

Hearing of the resulting backlash against Filipinas in Hong Kong following the hostage crisis made me feel hollow inside. It illustrates so many examples of the problems with the way we think today and the way we frame issues. I was speaking with my mom about the incident and she kept saying that “it only takes one person to ruin it for everyone” in reference to the gunman. This way of looking at it frustrates me so much because it completely divorces the incident from the roots of the problem and the systems of institutional oppression that are at work in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.

The backlash towards Filipinas is not about one gunman. It’s about the racism and discriminatory opinions that Hong Kong people harbor towards them, emerging in full view for all to see. It is about the fact that “othering” Filipinas – regarding them as less than human – allows their employers to take advantage of them, often meting out abuse in a variety of forms and have no compunction about it. It is the use of unequal power dynamics to define a whole group based on the actions of one person, and feeling as though you have license to make those people suffer because of it. It made me sick inside to hear that a Hong Kong politician announced publicly that she fired her Filipina domestic helper due to the incident and was encouraging others to do the same.

While I have read a lot about it, my experience in Hong Kong illustrated to me first hand the concept of institutional oppression – the combination of culture, law and the manner in which society’s institutions uphold discriminatory practices against groups of people. So often we have no understanding of what institutional discrimination actually is. We make a big deal about blatant sexist, racist or homophobic incidents, patting ourselves on the back at a job well done for being so aware and progressive. Discrimination is regarded as existing within a vacuum – a series of events like blips on a radar screen rather than a continuum that permeates our daily lives and the way our society continues to be structured.

The rage in Hong Kong towards the Philippine people calls to mind an event closer to home right now – that of the Park 51 project near the World Trade Center site. In the same vein, people are using their power and privilege to assign a diverse group a series of negative characteristics. It deeply frustrates me that people can sit here with what seems like this need to make a group of people pay due to an event that was carried out by self-identified Muslims. If one continues to insist that Muslims were responsible for the terrorist attacks, then one must also insist that Christians assisted with and aided in carrying out the Rwandan genocide. Groups with the privilege and power to do so choose and shape their own identities, ie “true Christians” would never do that. By the same token, they do the same for groups with considerably less power. I’ll end with a quote from Sankaran Krishna regarding Orientalism and how defining the “other” is so essential to the shaping of one’s image:

A set of rules that ostensibly describes Iraqis is also inescapably an act of self-fashioning and the reproduction of the idea of the United States as a bastion of democracy, equality, trust, freedom, rationality and pragmatism.

June 1

July 1 - Indonesian Muslim Domestic Helpers

July 1