Life in Hong Kong is filled with stares. I get them as I hop on the subway, stop for water at 7-11, and even when I order my morning coffee. By my completely unscientific calculations, out of the 7 million people living in Hong Kong, 5 of them are blonde. And at 5’ 5” I tower above the average Hong Kong woman (who stands at 5 feet tall), and that’s when I’m not in heels. When we see something unusual we stare, and Hong Kongers are no different. These daily stares though, do not compare to the eyes that fall upon me every Tuesday afternoon. At 3:45 PM every Tuesday, I step into room 3A at the Tai Hang Tung Salvation Army Primary School. And at 3:45 PM every Tuesday, I’m met with the awe filled stares of 8 adorable and tiny Chinese children, all of whom are eager to perfect their English.
Hong Kong has two official languages: English and Cantonese, a dialect of Chinese. The government nearly requires students to be bilingual, and strongly encourages that citizens learn Mandarin as well. Mandarin is the official language of China. While Cantonese is the primary language for those native to Hong Kong, English and Mandarin are absolutely necessary for those in the business world. Hong Kong is a major international business and financial center. Businessmen and women must be able to communicate with their clients and counterparts in the West and in Mainland China. Considering that in the US, only 10% of teenagers are bilingual, it is astounding that nearly all of Hong Kong’s Chinese residents can speak at least two languages by the time they’re done with college, and many can speak three.
The children at Tai Hang Tung are fluent in Cantonese, and are already proficient in English by age 8. I sit with boys and girls every Tuesday and go through their English notebooks, helping them to learn the more confusing aspects of the English language—most Americans still don’t have their commas and semi colons mastered. I usually work with a girl named Kitty; she always rocks a Winnie the Pooh barrett in her hair and when she’s on her tippy-toes she comes up to about my knee. But she’s bilingual. And I’m not.
After 5 semesters at Cornell, I’d like to believe that I’m prepared for any and all academic challenges. After 2 hours a day, 4 days a week for 10 weeks, I’ve spent 80 hours in Chinese class and nearly 80 more hours studying the language, and yet I barely have a grasp on basic vocabulary. For those of us that took French or Spanish throughout our middle- and high-school years, learning Chinese is incomparable. And it is just as difficult for a native Chinese speaker to learn English. Instead of characters, they have to learn an alphabet, new phonetic sounds, a completely different sentence structure and complex grammar. So at the age of 21, I still haven’t been able to master all of this. Imagine learning it when you were 8? But as my friend Kitty says, “It’s fun!”
Friendly Red Shirts
We often take for granted the privileges enjoyed as citizens of a Republic. Whether you supported health care legislation or not, you have the opportunity to voice your opinion this fall in the form of a vote. And as citizens, we always have the power of initiative, recall and referendum.
Prior to my spring break in Thailand, I predicted the highlights of vacation would be the debauchery of The Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan, or maybe at Khao Sok National Park, elephant trekking through the oldest rainforest in the world. But dancing on the beach and being one with nature were suddenly insignificant upon my arrival in Bangkok; I quickly became a witness to history in the making. My first morning in Bangkok was spent walking around the city, trying to cram in as many sights as possible; as my friends and I hopped off the subway to see the Erawan Shrine, located in the heart of the city, we were immediately caught in a sea of bright red. The Red Shirts, as they’re called, have made international news; they are anti-government protestors mostly from the rural inlands of Thailand and generally poor farmers. The protestors, whose official title is the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Abhist Vejjajiva; they also want the Prime Minister to dissolve parliament and hold new elections. The conflict in Bangkok is just the latest development in a four-year struggle between the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts, another political party comprised of the wealthy urban elite—all of whom live in Bangkok, Thailand’s biggest city. In 2006, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was removed from power by a military coup. The Red Shirts were supporters of Shinawatra, while the Yellow Shirts were not. I had first learned of the conflict when I read an article about the Red Shirts pouring their own blood over the gates of Government House, the Prime Minister’s office, as a form of nonviolent yet alarming protest.
After stepping off the subway into the demonstrations, I was immediately terrified. While the protests had been mostly peaceful prior to my visit to Bangkok, the situation was volatile. My worries though, were quickly assuaged. Not only were the Red Shirts peaceful, they were incredibly friendly. Each time I snapped a photo, men, women and children clothed in red from head to toe, would wave their flags, smile and cheer; I never once felt threatened. At night time, the Red Shirts would drive around the city in pick up trucks, blaring a recording of one of their leaders—Jatuporn Prompan—and honking the horn. They did no harm and were only trying to draw attention to their cause. I do not know enough about Thai politics to make an informed judgment on the conflict in Bangkok; I am however a constant supporter of democracy, and if the Red Shirts are merely fighting for fair elections, I find no fault in that. While the closing of roads, shopping malls, museums and hotels may have made my time in Bangkok a bit inconvenient, I wouldn’t change a thing. I stood side by side with men and women who are passionately fighting for what they believe in.
I won’t deny it. On my ‘long’ walks to Martha Van Rensselaer Hall, up the hill from Collegetown to Cornell’s campus carrying an oppressively heavy backpack and sweating through my layers, I’ve often wished that I could just teleport there. Or convince a friend to give me a ride. In Hong Kong, my prayers have been answered. The Central Mid-Level escalators—the official title—is the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world, according to Guinness World Records. It runs through Central Hong Kong, the main business and financial center of the region; Central is also characterized by steep hilly terrain, which when combined with the humidity of Hong Kong makes walking around the area slightly less than miserable. For any suit-wearing businessman, making it to work without a glaze of sweat on your forehead is harder than landing the job itself. And ladies, attempting to walk downhill in heels? You can kiss your ankles goodbye. The escalator, which runs 800 meters long with a vertical climb of 440 feet, is a godsend to all of those navigating the streets of Central Hong Kong. During the morning commute, the escalator runs downward since the residential areas are at the top of the hill, and the business centers, at the bottom; in the evening commuters can take the escalator up. It’s actually comprised of several shorter escalators so that pedestrians can easily hop on and off depending on their destination; there is an accompanying staircase next to the escalators for those traveling in reverse commute.
Central’s magic carpet ride is not only convenient for the working world and the lazy, but also offers some of the best site seeing in Hong Kong. The escalator runs through Soho, an area filled with trendy restaurants, high-end boutiques and is swarming with expats from various Western countries. If you’re ever in the area, hop off when you see Coast; there’s never a shortage of—ehem—eye candy. Oh and the food is good too. Just a block over from the main road though, are plenty of traditional Chinese herbal shops and fish markets; the stark contrast of modest Chinese customs flush with flashy Western tastes illustrates much of Hong Kong’s history and culture. But the escalator provides another important view of Hong Kong that many never think of—the scene above the streets. With very limited space in such a densely populated areas, there is much to see in Hong Kong above ground level. Restaurants and stores are commonly a few stories above ground and a ride on the escalator allows you to see all that Central has to offer from top to bottom. The escalators were built to reduce foot traffic on the packed streets of Hong Kong, but perhaps, cough, they would be useful on a hilly college campus. President Skorton, are you reading this?!