Archive for October, 2007|Monthly archive page

Campus Life

Studying abroad in Hong Kong is a brand new experience for me simply because it is on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, halfway across the world in a different neighborhood. But besides this, I realized not long ago this month that I am experiencing life on campus for the first time.

One thing that I noticed right away is that people like to gather in a circle, stomp a beat, and shout out who they are. Sometimes it is a matter of pride like this group of students associated with business. Other times, they are publicizing some activities they organized and would like everyone to know about. I also notice that a lot of the people involved in the activities are first year students – as my roommate says, they are the most eager to get involved.

I should mention that at CUHK, students are organized into four colleges, each having their own little town center in their own spot on campus complete with a set of dormitories, a food canteen, gym, library, etc. Also, within each college, the students are divided up into dormitories, another opportunity for exercise some group pride. But it doesn’t stop there: my dorm divided all the new students – typically the first years but also included me – into groups for the sake of organizing games and, again, creating a group that includes you.

Whether the college division has something to do with related fields of study, I’m still not sure, but it does make an opportunity for some rivalry. One form of this rivalry comes in the form of putting on a week of events within the college for students to come and enjoy. People buy food, play games, and enjoy performances organized by a few devout students of that particular college. It reminds me of the days of high school to see friends cheering each other on to get on stage to sing or take part in some stunt that involves getting soaked or covered in food. Watching all of this makes me feel like I’m not a twenty year old college student but just a kid again.

This is my table on the night of the Thousand Person Banquet (千人宴) for United College.  Behind me you would see a side view of the stage where they put on performances and stunts to entertain the thousand people gathered there that night.  It was a big party and everyone was invited: the table to the left of us seated many professors, and the custodians of my hostel also had their own table.

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Here’s the look at the crowd in front of some food shops at a party called Shawlane, a much hyped event in Shaw College.  Many people came, I think, to see the local celebrities come and perform, but I spent all my money and left early.  My friend tells me I shouldn’t buy some of the “rubbish” I buy, but everything is new to me and I’ve got to try it all!

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Here are some goods from the United College’s Open Bazaar. Besides the cooked food, people also sell little souvenirs and play games for prizes.  I was really surprised to see actual businesses come in and set up shop at this event.  I’ve also heard haggling going on at some of the shops.  I guess some people really enjoy shopping.  Let me know if you see something you like!

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CUHK has half the number of undergraduates enrolled that SJSU has, but the culture is definitely different and something special.  It’s true that it’s a whole new world out there: if you hop on the train at the university station, you’re basically thirty minutes away from mainland China if you head northbound or thirty minutes away from the heart of Hong Kong. The university station is also a hub for many bus lines travelling around in the New Territories as well, so there’s a lot of culture to find and a lot of places to explore. But at the same time, the campus is alive with its own culture and in fact you don’t have to go very far to see something uniquely Hong Kong.

Umbrellas for Democracy

I went with my friend this past Sunday to see the demonstration for democracy at Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island. From the dorms at the university, it is about an hour trip: take the shuttle bus down to the university train station, take the train to Kowloon Tong to transfer to the subway, which connects to the main island. Several thousand people gathered with yellow and blue colored umbrellas to form 2012, which as far as I know is the year that they hope to be able to vote for their own leader. This was actually the fun part though I didn’t follow the public demonstration/march that came right afterwards. I got to keep a yellow umbrella as a souvenir.

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This isn’t the first demonstration for universal suffrage. I remember seeing photos of a march earlier this year; that also drew a big crowd and it also used Victoria Park as the staging point. All I know is that the number of people who turned out for the umbrellas was over five thousand.

Article about Sunday’s demonstration (Boston Globe)

Video compilation of Sunday’s demonstration (Youtube)

Photos of a previous march in March 2007 (Hong Kong Digital Vision)

language exchange

During our last meeting, my language exchange partner asked me how I was doing in terms of meeting the local Hong Kong people. It was a simple question, but immediately I felt pinned by the fact that other than him and my two roommates, I’ve had little luck with making a serious connection with people here. I knew as well that it had everything to do with me.

I feel that I have a conflict of interest. On the one hand, I know that I am perfectly able to communicate and connect with many of the students here through the English channel. I’m here hopefully to meet people who will teach me a thing or two about Hong Kong. Doing this comes at the expense of working up the Cantonese, which is also a reason why I’m here. I’m stubborn so I’ll stick it out with Cantonese just to see where it goes (usually, not very far), but because I’m not so confident in my ability, the opportunities to break into conversation appear less frequently, and it hurts me socially.

There must be a way to reconcile these two opposing forces. I’d prefer not to speak English, but it’s my only option in many situations. When I do need to dive into English, I want to let people know of my intent to learn Chinese. I figure starting out in Cantonese is the best way to tackle this. Honestly, it feels like using English is the same as conceding defeat. But more importantly, it gives away the fact that I am not from around here.

Ideally, I want to remain hidden under my skin in other people’s eyes for as long as possible. My friend from Shanghai tells me about the gap that even he feels being recognized as a mainland Chinese. Like me, he is able to communicate and connect through the Putonghua channel – and because of this I feel he is better off than I am in getting around and getting by in Hong Kong. But he expressed his distaste for this mode of communication because while it could be opened to get the point across, it is hardly a means of establishing a genuine connection. His impression is that Hong Kong people have a degree of pride in their identity that is reflected by shoddy spoken Mandarin.

I feel that this is even a bit of an insult to him: presumably, the occasionally poorly spoken Mandarin is the mark of one who doesn’t feel a strong need to utilize the language, especially when all the comforts in the world are made readily available by one’s ability in the local dialect of Cantonese. I’ve met another friend from Hubei who expressed her frustrations as well. There are regional dialects all over the mainland but the common mode of communication exists in Mandarin. Hong Kong people may speak Cantonese, but they are also Chinese and should be proficient in Mandarin as well!

Cultural and social differences aside, I think that it is surprising that CUHK coheres as it does with the language barriers. When I first arrived, I fully expected to meet exchange students from the mainland, but when the school term began, I was surprised to find that there are students from the mainland whose primary school of instruction is CUHK. According to my roommate, one out of every five students in regular attendance is from the mainland.

Surely the barriers perceived by my friends are a real challenge, but it clearly isn’t an impossible challenge. Several weeks ago, I had lunch with my friends in the student hostel, and preparing the meal was a collaboration between two groups across two floors, the Mandarin speaking students from mainland China who I tagged along with and another group of Japanese students. One of the Japanese students was fluent in Mandarin, and because of this, the problem was solved. Of course, there is also English, which came in handy for sorting and sharing the cookware, but the native languages took precedence.

So, it isn’t an impossible situation as we all get to eat together at the end, but I never encounter this situation in my daily life in the United States. Maybe I have been missing the point, and I should be taking every opportunity to connect as possible, regardless of language. It’s better to get something – anything at all – going!