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

Things I’m going to miss….

Skyline

Skyline - my view from the dorm. Never got tired of it, nor did it ever fail to amaze in all its different manifestations.

Tonight is my last night in Hong Kong…. I know I’ll miss this place so much and will hope to come back at some point. A list of the things I’m going to miss in the meantime.

Helpers for Domestic Helpers, my amazing internship…. it was a great work experience and it definitely made the trip for me. And of course my coworkers!!!

Filipinas – I admire Filipinas so much, especially the domestic helpers. They go through so much and they’re still always so friendly and open despite that. So many of my best times in Hong Kong were thanks to Filipinas!!!

Hongkongers!!! – In the beginning I had this image of the average Hongkonger being this horrible, abusive and rude person. I was getting shoved and pushed in my everyday travels through the city and listening to domestic helpers in horrendous situations everyday. As time went on, I’m happy to say my perspective balanced out… Constantly hearing my classmate Edith talk about how wonderful she found Hongkongers to be definitely made my own numerous and positive experiences stick out in my mind – and so many times they would go well above and beyond to help out.

Urban but wild – The ability to live my life day to day in an urban environment and take a subway 10 minutes away to find jungles and temples. Walking to work everyday and viewing birds of prey soaring over the skyscrapers. The mountains that surround the city on all sides, the clouds low enough to obscure the mountaintops. It always awes me when I’m in a locale where the sky is visible for miles. I never realize how little of the sky I see where I’m from, nor can I get over that I never seem to get tired of or amazed at such a simple thing.

The crazy contrasts of the place – the above one included….

TEA STANDS!!!! – What can I say, I’m addicted to drinks…. encountering tea stands all over the city and their ridiculously large drink menu is kind of my definition of a mecca (We’re talking 10 times the size of a Starbucks menu…). Also when the lemon tea is fresh it’s the best stuff you’ll ever get – and it’s all over!!!

Admittedly I didn’t take much to the food… though there were some good things…. such as Passionfruit flavored things….. GOOD scones, and quality croissants from the grocery store….

And of COURSE, the subway system…. and all the other little smart things all over the city that are so great for efficiency….

Deja Vu Conversations

This little kitten at an apothecary stall was adorable.... softest little paws!! I was petting it and photographing the photogenic little creature when I realized there was a crowd of about ten others who had gathered around behind me to photograph...

During my time here in Hong Kong a few of the same observations would occur in different contexts, but it was always funny to hear from different people that they were experiencing the exact same thing, or hear different classmates have virtually the same conversation at different times.

For instance – despite the incredible efficiency of the subway system here, people will cram rather than wait for the next one (2 minutes during rush hour, 4 minutes during off time.). To those of us familiar with the NY subway system, this seemed pretty crazy, and multiple people wondered aloud why they would opt to be uncomfortable when you know another train will be right behind it. Well, I think we figured it out…. This past week, my last week in Hong Kong, I’ve found myself with thoughts of “that wasn’t 2 minutes, that was more like 6″ or “4 minutes?? …that was so much longer”…”the wait has counted down to one minute but it is long past one minute.” The system seemed lightning fast in the beginning, but by the end of 2 months I was fidgeting and constantly watching the minute countdown. Others noted that they started doing the same thing, and the questions about why people would cram stopped!!!

“This Coke tastes like chemicals” – only for others to answer that it’s probably laden with more chemicals in the US given more lax regulations (the comparison they were using was Europe, and perhaps by extension Hong Kong as a former colony?), therefore we’re used to a different taste that tastes natural to us despite not being natural at all…

Found I really missed regular contact with animals during my time in Hong Kong... couldn't resist petting and watching dogs and cats whenever I came across them.

The joking about never asking for directions because Hongkongers only give you a vague notion of where to go… A lot of us had this experience of asking for directions and funny stories to tell – getting answers like “it’s up there” with a wave of the hand or “take that left” with a point, only for you to be confused as to if it’s the first left or the one right after it…. Yes, I did in fact wander in circles around the Post Office in Sheung Wan, completely lost despite the fact I was basically circling around the building it was in after getting vague directions from person after person…. Please note, this isn’t a nonchalance on their part because they don’t care about helping – it just seems to be a cultural thing!

The disabled, homeless population in Hong Kong

Homeless and Disabled

In bad shape

The majority of beggars I’ve seen on the streets are disabled in some way. I am now even seeing a few who perform music on the streets – a man with a bad leg who plays the flute and a woman in a wheelchair who sings karaoke, the machine strapped in front of her. I couldn’t decide which was worse – do they feel as though they’re enough of a spectacle already without needing to put on a song and dance for their dinner, or is doing something for money an empowering display of agency on their part? Do they believe that they’ll get more funds if they do something like perform, or is this a matter of pride, and not wanting something for nothing? (Research shows that only 13% of the more than 30% of elderly impoverished are on social security despite being eligible due to the fact that they don’t want what they perceive as handouts.)

Floutist

I’ve been wondering about this for awhile and I haven’t come up with much information on it, but I finally found a small blurb in an article I’m reading for my paper that sheds a bit of light. I will grudgingly admit that while the LAST THING I want to be doing is writing a research paper in an amazing city with limited resources, it’s still pretty cool to find these bits of information while I’m still here to actively wonder about them all the time.

The welfare sector has been hardest-hit by the budget stringency that followed [Referring to measures taken in response to the Asian financial crisis and the resulting recession]. After 1998, the government stopped preparing regular blueprints for the development of welfare programmes, which identified service needs, set detailed targets and deadlines and gave the public as well as officials the information needed to assess progress. Policy is no longer based on surveying service shortfalls, qualifying the population’s needs and allocation resources to fill the gaps, and the long-term consequences have been tragic for Hong Kong’s most vulnerable groups. Average waiting times for admission to residential facilities, for example, are alarming, Government statistics include:

  • “severely mentally handicapped persons”, almost seven years (2007 data);
  • “severely physically handicapped persons”, almost nine years (2008 data);
  • the elderly: nursing homes, 42 months; care-and-attention homes, 32 months (2008 data).

The full article: Politics and Poverty in Cash Rich Hong Kong by Leo Goodstadt

And the more extensive report is located here.

He's here in this spot everyday, in front of the subway entrance in Mong Kok

Hong Kong: Perception vs. Reality

Tai O Fishing Village on Lantau Island

[About the picture: Tai O Fishing Village is located on Lantau Island, one of the more scenic, undeveloped areas of Hong Kong. It was an amazing trip and I came back with a thousand pictures from that day alone. Unfortunately this was right before I got sick and I just realized today that I never sorted them!! It may take me awhile but I’m planning on making a Lantau Island slideshow…]

Before the trip to Hong Kong we were required to read a number of books and articles. I found myself feeling grateful for the curriculum numerous times, and it was interesting to see how my experience stacked up with the perceptions I had before I got here. Lengthy conversations with friends on their own perceptions versus what they came to experience ensued.

I was under the assumption that every family has a domestic worker. I got the impression from the literature that it was just the thing you do as a family living in Hong Kong. I’m not sure if this is correct, but given that the minimum wage for a domestic worker is $3580 per month (at current conversion rates that’s $461 USD) it seemed like something that even middle class families could easily afford and partake of. Now it is obvious that a specific subset of people employ domestic workers, rather than every Hong Kong family. (ETA: I’ve come across the figure of 10% of families being able to employ a helper.)

I also had this idea that droves of Hongkongers had joined the rat race – that basically, there were few people who weren’t employed in some high powered business related pursuit. This is quite untrue – there are actually plenty of jobs that seem to have been created just for the sake of someone having a job – for instance, I’ll never get over the women on the beach SWEEPING THE SEAWEED!!! I often wish I could get the viewpoints of the people who do what are the more visibly menial jobs.

Unfortunately I couldn't get a good picture of these women due to weather conditions, but I got something at least. Women sweeping bits of seaweed on the beach... I couldn't get over it and probably wouldn't believe it myself without this picture.

That the “real” Hong Kong was one of skyscrapers, business and financial services, and malls. The knocking down of old buildings for the sake of putting in new. Now I find myself questioning if the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island, the businesses housed in them and the numerous malls are a representation of the “real” Hong Kong at all. While it is the desired image that is projected, it seems like such a narrow part of the place. Who are the people that rarely set foot in these areas? I feel like I’ve been fixating on this theme and these questions a lot, but I can’t really do any justice to them given the short time I’ve been here. It’s deeply frustrating to me as I feel like I’m lacking a nuanced knowledge and can only paint broad strokes.

I worried that I would be coming to a city that was familiar to me in the sense that it would be very Western and feel shallow, disappointing and devoid of culture. I thought the skyscrapers and the malls would squeeze the life out of what Hong Kong had been. I think it will take me longer to think about the implications of my thoughts of equating Hong Kong to the West because it had been colonized, but it seems like a pretty arrogant thing to think, that a region could have nothing to offer because of that. I’ve read a lot of critiques by scholars concerning the treatment of Hong Kong – that it is only defined through its colonization by the British or its Chinese ancestry, never seen as an autonomous entity. This is interesting and it seems I’ve done it myself. I couldn’t have been more wrong – I find Hong Kong to be this amazingly unique, otherworldy place.

I also figured that when I got here I would see the contrast between their manners and the rude American stigma given it’s a prevalent stereotype. Instead, I felt shocked and indignant at what seemed like a completely different set of social mores that made Hongkongers come off as rude. I have been cut in line A LOT. Also, ideas concerning personal space are very different here. People don’t apologize when they bump into you and I’ve been shoved by people trying to get past me to go somewhere plenty of times with no acknowledgment. I’m sad to say I’ve even adapted some of the behavior, inserting myself into the smallest spaces in crowds despite knowing I’m going to be crunched up against a bunch of people. I’ve been reasoning that if I don’t, someone else will!!

As much as it shocks and frustrates me sometimes, I’m sure it’s quite different from the perspective of someone who has grown up in Hong Kong – the city has always had space issues and the amount of people here makes dealing with massive, closely packed crowds an every day thing. To them, bumping into people is just a part of everyday life, and there isn’t a constant effort to maintain that bit of personal space. Amazingly enough, the people who DO apologize more often than not or say things like “excuse me” are people in their teens and twenties – it is so interesting to me, because often young people are considered to be the rudest subsection of a society!!

Photo Essay: Yuen Po Street Bird Garden (AKA – That bird is meowing at me.)

The Yuen Po Street Bird Garden is part market, part garden. People bring their caged songbirds to display and get some fresh air and may also purchase new ones. In addition there are also other birds – parrots, macaws and African Greys (babies this time!). There are also bird food vendors – as in, people who deal in live crickets and grasshoppers – fascinating!! I could have sat watching the birds all day – some of them definitely seem to have personalities, and they are so curious and intelligent. Below is a slideshow, with captions.

Thoughts on Hong Kong’s consumer culture

Graveyard in Macau - No relation to the post. I just thought it pretty dramatic.

I’ve been thinking a lot about consumer culture here in Hong Kong. It’s a lot of speculation on my part, and nothing I can substantiate right now – two months can lead one to make a lot of specious assumptions with no real knowledge. Part of this is asking questions I couldn’t even begin to answer.

Being in any sort of shopping area brings me extreme discomfort. As much as I love the atmosphere of the markets, it is here especially that one tends to be pounced on by the vendor of the stall immediately. I’m not sure if the same is true for everyone or if because I’m┬áCaucasian, they figure I’m a tourist and therefore going to be susceptible to spending more money.

There are times when I’ve been in more traditional areas where vendors are selling authentic Chinese goods and they have been kind enough to educate me more on the symbolism and the purpose of the items. While it is wonderful of them to do so, it makes me feel uncomfortable to walk away without purchasing anything, as it seems there is still an implicit relationship of buyer and seller. They have given their time to educate me about their goods, and I in turn purchase something.

There seems to be a point when the vendor in your average market stall will know they’ve lost the potential sale – the friendliness they greeted you with disappears and their faces are closed to you, sullen and cold. If I haven’t fled from their initial pounce, I will at this point – wondering about their practical situations – how much money they make and if it’s enough to survive – if they hate this job with an utter passion (I would) – 10-8, and how tiring it must be to endlessly try to peddle their wares to people – dealing with obnoxious tourists who will laugh at their prices, only accepting the rock bottom concession that is made by the vendor as they walk away.

Man Selling Shrink Wrap Machine

Man Selling Shrink Wrap Machine - I can't help but think that all the ladies were watching because he was good looking. I mean, really? A shrink wrap machine demonstration??

I can’t get over what feels like the shiny newness of the sales industry (I don’t mean the markets themselves). Hong Kong was primarily a manufacturing economy and in the past two decades has become a service economy. In the markets it is not uncommon to see someone with a hands-free microphone selling some gadget, charismatically giving demonstrations. What amazes me is that often I don’t know why the item would warrant such a sales act or why people would even buy it despite the act – a shrink wrap machine, a cleaning mitt, and sometimes even just little chachkas. All the same, the salesperson extols the value of the product like gospel.

Man selling I don't know what - I couldn't figure it out before I got a "Missy, missy - no no!!!" because I was taking pictures. Chachkas??

The atmosphere in your retail stores is much different than the market, but still makes me think “new”. You are greeted by every single person you encounter and I have yet to come across an unfriendly salesperson. I know some stores back in the US require you to greet each shopper you encounter, but it is nowhere near the scale of Hong Kong.

I’ve been wondering about class and the idea of being a retail salesperson – in a culture where consumerism and business are prized above all else, are these people proud of their jobs in a way that retail workers in the United States aren’t? Is a retail job in a shiny new mall more highly regarded than what is probably a much better paying manufacturing job? Or is this perhaps a holdover from colonial Hong Kong where a subset of people are expected to serve without complaint? I’m also really curious about how I’m treated and how it might be different in comparison to someone who is perceived as a native Hongkonger.

Despite the image that Hong Kong tries to put forth – a glittering, wealthy metropolis – how much of the population is truly able to partake in the life it represents?

The things the man was selling... nightlights?? Chachkas!!

Mong Kok Night Market: Photo Essay

Nike Night Market Stall

A Nike ad peaking out behind a night market stall - liked the concept, not sure about my execution.

This is going to be more photo than essay, but after nearly nine solid days of being stuck in the dorm room I couldn’t take it anymore. Needed to get back out there with my camera, was missing Hong Kong and the ability to explore its streets. It was a scary couple of days there where they wanted to put me in the hospital due to crazy painful tonsillitis that just wasn’t getting better… I’m sure I’ll be writing more in depth about the experience and it will be filed under the “Lost in Translation” category…. Given my condition has improved greatly and I’m going back to work tomorrow (yay!!!), I decided to take a short trip to explore the Mong Kok night markets again. It was so wonderful to be back out.

Some of the highlights of the night -

Share Tea! - Iced Vanilla Milk Tea, Lemon Black Tea and Mango Cream

  • FINALLY finding the Share Tea stand in Mong Kok!! My haul comprised of a beautiful, freshly made 24(?) ounces each of lemon flavored black tea, vanilla milk tea and mango with cream for a hefty total of about $5 USD. (Starbucks…. what’s Starbucks?!?)
  • Watching an old couple while waiting for my tea – the old man shuffling down the street, the woman yelling after him in Cantonese amidst the Mong Kok craziness of tons of people and neon lights. He turns back and looks at her, says something, and continues on as he smokes his cigarette. Despite the difference in language, you could just imagine by the set of his shoulders and the way he looked back that his words were “yeeeeah, whaaatever”. He continued on as she shook her fist and followed…. It was an amusing scene to say the least, and one I wouldn’t have witnessed if they hadn’t bumped into me in the process…..

Pictures aren’t the GREATEST, but hope it gives you an idea of what the night markets are like….