Archive for the ‘Hong Kong’ Category

Halftime (pt. 1)

    The term is winding down and that means that some of my friends who are also on exchange here will be leaving very soon.  It’s too bad because we spend a lot of time together, and it makes me wonder what will happen the next semester to fill that gap.  Then again, there hadn’t been many gaps this semester at all, which is both surprising and frightening.  I guess that means I’ve been busy on the one hand; and on the other hand, maybe I’ve been a little lazy.

My friend Jason was talking about how he’s begun to have a sense of identity in just a semester’s time and I wish I could say the same.  I might have adapted to life here but I don’t feel like I’ve become a part of things here any more than I blend in.  I came here to immerse myself but actually it’s pretty tough to do because of what I immerse myself in.  For one, there are elements of Hong Kong that are too Western for my liking.  I am not a tourist out for a good time, after all.  But in some ways it’s the best I can manage.  Sure, strolling down the heart of Hong Kong is pretty amazing, but after all, it’s just a big city that looks nice because people expect it to.

Maybe because Jason comes from Shanghai and is part of Chinese culture that he feels differently than I do.  But he’s one of the many people who are able to speak so much about his own culture as if it really belongs to him, as if he really belongs to it.  I really don’t know how to explain myself to others because even I’m not sure what American culture is like, though I suspect some of my friends may have conceptions of what it might be.  Even if such a thing existed, I wouldn’t be able to speak of it because I don’t feel that it belongs to me, maybe simply that I belong to it, that there are many different groups of people that belong to it, and so the typical American doesn’t exist.

One thing is for sure: I’ve gained an awareness of my own ignorance and how much I live in a bubble.  But it’s definitely not all I’ve gained.

Holiday shopping

I think that the holiday season begins around the Thanksgiving holiday. In fact, back home there is a massive day of shopping and sales that happens right after Thanksgiving, which draws people to queue up the night before for the chance to get first dibs on the holiday gifts, for themselves or otherwise. There are also big sales here as this advertisement shows.

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The cute cartoon of a throng of people is not exaggerating as this is the line outside the store just before opening. See how the hall extends all the way into the distance. Yes, there are people waiting all the way back there as well.

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Happy holiday shopping!

“I’m Livin’ In”

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During one of my weekly chats with Elvis, my language exchange partner, he mentioned that there are three things that each student of CUHK “must do” before graduation:

  1. Date the opposite sex
  2. Join a student society
  3. Experience life in a student hostel

At the moment, I am definitely missing out on the first two, but one out of three isn’t bad: life in the hostel is awesome. Life in my student hostel, the Adam Schall Residence, has been a bunch of fun and very pleasant at the same time. I feel especially lucky because the time I arrived on campus is about the time the renovations to this residence was being completed. On the first day I was moving my luggage into my permanent room, there was still work being done in and around the hostel and there would be for weeks to come. So in more ways than one, the place is full of life and always improving.

Every day, the hostel is tended by a regular team of workers who are all very kind and helpful, especially one lady who tends to my hall who I only know as wah je (華姐). Besides the regular housekeeping and handiwork (which from what I hear from my friend in another college is quite the VIP treatment), she is also generous. I thought it was strange that she handed me a sweet potato one day and a baglet of chicken wings. Initially, I thought there was something special going on that day but in fact it was her own. This isn’t even special treatment to the American either: another day she wouldn’t let my roommate head out the door without a jacket so she lent him her own. She doesn’t speak English but it’s fun to try to talk to her, even if it’s just ‘hello’.

Besides the staffers who mill about, there is also the resident student association living among us. To me, they appear to be a family of students who take up the job of working with the staff, organizing and running activities throughout the year, and basically take care of the hostel and the residents. My guess is there is a new group of a dozen or so students who takes the job each year since I was welcomed by one group when I first moved in, but in recent days, the events have been overseen by a new group. A lot of these events consist of free giveaways: whether it be free snacks or free mouthwash, they like to show that they take care of you.

The spacious pantry on the second floor is really the best of the hostels in United College, I think.  There’s a lot of room for hanging out and chatting here and also downstairs in the commons.

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Our student association, which call themselves daai tong ga (大湯家), like to put out food for everyone to enjoy and it really stirs up a crowd. Here, the pantry is packed.

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But really, not everyone gets to enjoy it as I find that everything is gone by the time I wade to the front of the crowd. I really only wanted one piece, but judging from all the cooking pots I see during these events, I guess the custom is to just take as much as they want.

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Here’s my friend Andy demonstrating some old fashioned Chinese calligraphy (書法). He let me try it, and I managed to write a few characters with my right hand.

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I wasn’t expecting a guy like Rex here as one of my roommates. He enjoys classic rock and playing the electric guitar. Sometimes it’s just noisy, but he’s got skill one can appreciate.

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I think when you’re in a place like a student hostel, you can’t help but absorb what is around you because there is so much going on and so many different people that you can simply hang out with. Also, between the custodians, the student association, and my friends, I feel very well taken care of. When I am at home, I really don’t feel like I am on my own. But now that I am here on my own in Adam Schall, I still don’t really feel like I am on my own. I like the fact that I am among friends I can rely on, that it feels like home here, and that I don’t have to be on my own in the strictest sense of the phrase. Life in the hostel is pretty swell.

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!

Lantau Excursion (2)

Tai O is a small town on the western part of Lantau Island. The place was literally piled together right on top of the water by fishermen.

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My impression of Tai O is that it remains a fisherman’s village. Walking through the streets, I saw many stalls selling dried goods as above or live seafood, serving freshly cooked food including tofu dessert, and other toys and trinkets. There were also a few boats going out to give visitors of Tai O a scenic tour the surroundings.

I remember the guide mentioning that the young and the elderly make up a majority who live there while the youths are off to the city seeking a living. I don’t know if this is strictly the case, but it is unexpected to find such a place as Tai O in the vicinity of the metropolitan area not too far across the water on Hong Kong Island. With the exception of the Hong Kong Airport, Lantau Island is not so developed in general. As crowded as Hong Kong is famous for, I enjoy the natural scenery very much, and I appreciate that I live at a very green CUHK rather than in the middle of the city.

Lantau Excursion

Last week I participated in a trip to Lantau Island. Here are some pictures from the Po Lin Monastery and the famous Tian Tan Buddha (or simply “Big Buddha”).

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Actually, our guide told us that the cable cars leading to this place were closed, so although there are many people, it could have been much more crowded.

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Respecting Buddhist rites, we were served a vegetarian meal at lunchtime.

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