You Don’t Know Anything, and That’s the Point

How dramatic is this drop cap feature? If I were to ever write a book, my introduction would certainly start with one. Not as an indicator of any grandeur to come, but as an illusory cloaking device, distracting from my incompetent intro-writing skills. Sort of the way I’m using it right now!

It was rare that Shaela and I returned to campus early enough to catch the sun setting over Tolo Harbour and our campus. Allow me to momentarily distract you with it.

Everyone has different methods for preparing for life abroad; or, in other words, everyone psyches themselves out to varying degrees in anticipation for travel. Like everything, it depends on the person, it depends on the experience, and it is always subject to change.

Besides the brief history from our pre-departure reading, how much did I know about Hong Kong — its people, its culture, its politics, etc. — before my arrival? Or about the work I was going to be doing with Mission for Migrant Workers?

Little to nothing.

Here’s the wonderful thing, though: you get to approach your experience abroad with the guarantee that this will change. It’s inevitable! From the moment I walked into the airport in Hong Kong, the learning began, and it hasn’t stopped!

I know these are frequent sources of unease for people, but I genuinely believe both inexperience and lack of knowledge are two of the most useful tools for learning. I haven’t come here to flaunt any of what I already know about their way of life. You can also demonstrate your commitment and respect through an unwavering eagerness to listen, learn, explore, and ask questions.

After all, a new dish sponge (:us) with a fresh glob of soap (:local knowledge acquired by seeing/conversing/doing) is more effective at cleaning (:making the most out of our experience as visitors) than one (:still us) which attempts to get the job done by summoning the small soapy bubble lingering in the depths of its pores (:applying preconcieved notions / trying to cram as much information beforehand, out of context). …that very well may be the worst thing I have ever written. Whatever! We’re running with it.

But you get what I mean. There’s seriously nothing more exciting to me than the opportunity to abandon textbook learning. Your textbooks and your teachers become your surroundings as well as, most importantly, the locals on whom you learn to rely. The little pieces of advice or tidbits of information picked up here are, by virtue of proximity, immediately contextualized. Everything learned here, deliberate or accidental, is pivotal to my experience. (especially if it’s taking the time to ask the nearest person for directions…)

I could’ve read 100+ articles on the anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, but I would be nowhere near as knowledgable as I’ve become by being here, talking to people, and seeing them take to the streets firsthand. Give me essay upon essay on factors of migration to Hong Kong and would I comprehend the immense severity of the migrant domestic workers’ situations back home and what many of them must endure here? (Aside from the fact that I probably wouldn’t read those essays very thoroughly if at all,) No, I wouldn’t! Not as much as much as I’ve learned by listening to their stories each day. That’s precisely why I do this.

Before I left from May Term, Professor Munro asked me what my worries surrounding these two months were. Ashamedly admitting my own naïveté, I accepted my answer was genuinely: I had none.

Don’t get me wrong, this answer doesn’t assume perfection or no need for preparation. In no way was I expecting these two months to be without difficulty, challenges, or frustration (topics include, but are not limited to: budgeting, food, lack of cooking utensils, exhaustion, handling free time, etc.). On the contrary, I was and still am delighted for those moments because I know they’re always accompanied by valuable lessons, an improved self, or absolute beauty (see below). They’re the only kinds of tests I enjoy. Plus, I’ve found myself in enough unexpected situations to know that apprehension helps no one, so, why burden myself with it prematurely? One way or another, things will be okay.

Even when the three of us thought we knew something, we were proven so wrong. Take the colossus that is the Chinese University of Hong Kong, for example. After some [entirely negligible] exploring, we thought our dining options were limited to a few canteens and a small grocery store. We looked no further and were wrong to do so. Turns out, according to some friends and the literal campus website none of us ever thought to reference, there are over 30 dining options scattered across the mountain. Our eagerness to be familiar with our surroundings actually acted against us. Sometimes I feel myself applying the same hubris to some of the areas we’ve visited in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is nearly double the size of Chicago; in reality I’ve only experienced some of the streets here (and now a mountain!), yet I feel myself settling sometimes.

This precarious attitude causes me stress at work sometimes, too, if I’m not careful. In the first week, Shaela and I poured ourselves into all material we could get our hands on in an effort to feel even slightly qualified to help out with consultation – as is expected of us. We read through the Employment Contract, the “Know Your Rights” book (published annually by the Mission to update migrant workers on any developments in policies that affect their rights), a Mission binder compiled with materials useful to new volunteers. I familiarized myself with their rights (and the irregularities of policies which actually work against them) because I wanted to make myself useful as soon as possible. And our coworkers do not hesitate to put us to work.

But obviously the knowledge is only enhanced on a case-by-case basis. The staff here has been doing this work for years. I cannot expect my knowledge from objective booklets to always be relevant for each client’s subjective situations. I feel bad for badgering the staff with questions on how exactly to help the clients…but I shouldn’t feel bad. The truth of the matter is, I’m here to help them but in doing so, I also need help. I’m here to rely on their knowledge; honestly, sometimes their expectations of us exceed our capabilities and I need to be okay with approaching them for assistance (PRO TIP: when working with a client, don’t just ask your supervisor what to do next, have them read over anything you’ve currently written. you’ll learn a lot about the intricate do’s and dont’s this way). It’s better than not saying anything, obviously.

Students were asking passersby to write a message of support in memorial for the victims in preparation for their vigil that night. 3 have taken their life thus far, disaffected by the government and the bill amendment.

Speaking of not saying anything, the persisting protests against the extradition bill, and against Lam’s refusal to fully withdraw it, is quite literally the definition of not settling. You’ll recall that we were witness to the first large demonstration concerning this issue almost a month ago. I did my research on it because it was relevant to my immediate surroundings. The incredible thing is, its remained publically and loudly relevant since. This march was not a one-and-done, and that’s been among the best things to witness. They’ve taken to the streets several times since then, including this past Monday, during their “Establishment Day.” It, unfortunately, turned violent. I was discussing the demonstrations with another local intern here, around my age. She made a point to say that “most of the participants are teens. Why? Because this is our future on the line. We cannot rest.” In fact, one of the schools she attended, of which Carrie Lam is an alum, went so far as to denounce any affiliation with the Chief Executive. Monday’s march included Hong Kong civil society, NGO groups, you name it, all on display along the route. It’s inspiring to see the creativity and engagement of the young people, but it comes at dreadful conditions. As many continue to fight, I continue to learn about them and their courage. But I also begin to even minimally understand just how much of a toll this is taking on the youth. Perhaps the United States public can take notes on active presence.

This view didn’t even require any effort.
CUHK Campus, New Asia College

On a more upbeat note, Hong Kong isn’t just a city, it’s an adventurers playground! I’ve been told if you spend enough time in Hong Kong you’ll realize that opportunities for hiking to incredible peaks are just everywhere, you just need to look a little closer to see them. There are also little sanctuaries of green hidden within the city limits. For every incredible view I am graced with, I know there are hundreds more waiting to be uncovered.

I shouldn’t rush to “know” Hong Kong. Instead, I should continuously embrace reality: what I don’t know far outweighs the opposite, and I aim to orient my time here around this fact.

(disclaimer: this is simply my own opinion crafted from my own experiences, and I am in no way suggesting it to be the only appropriate attitude. I understand the counterarguments that arise, it just works for me.)


1 thought on “You Don’t Know Anything, and That’s the Point”

  1. Love the blog. First, I recall the year I spent on the Chinese University of Hong Kong campus many years ago as a graduate student, taking the (I think at the time the 77 bus) into Mong Kok, where I was doing dissertation research (I was studying Mandarin during the mornings). But most importantly, I am so glad you have been able to witness one of the most important mass demonstrations on behalf of democracy in the history of the world. I hope you continue to talk with Hong Kong residents and make the comparisons with youth activism in the states which are so compelling. I also admire your work with the Migrant Center. When I was in Hong Kong, I taught at a Vietnamese refugee camp and the feeling of witnessing the challenges atypical residents confront in a society that is defined by its precariousness is one that I experienced as well. So keep the blog going. It’s terrific so far.

    Liked by 1 person

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