Exploring Community and Culture Through Exchange

Classes are over, and I’m already beginning to prep for final exams. It still feels like I’m just getting my bearings in Hong Kong, but the year is already half-way over!

Anyway, I really wanted to take this opportunity to explain how influential the humanities course has been. Community and Cultural Identity (HUMA 3630) was, by far, my favorite class this semester, and possibly one of the most interesting courses I’ve taken throughout my university experience. The objective of the course is to provide students (mostly locals in the School of Humanities and Social Science) with the analytical skills to study how we create and differentiate groups, communities, and cultures. However, in reality, this class forces students to consider how they identify themselves and interact with others.


Lectures/Tutorials: Twice a week, for two hours, we would have traditional lectures on social theories, historical context, and different methods of analyzing social groups. For the most part, these were my least favorite part of the class… but I generally dislike long lectures. However, the professor went out of his way to make sure we were paying attention and participating. Everyone was expected to answer at least one question per lecture, and provide some comments or questions during discussions. Our professor also included specific, local examples to show how these theories can be applied to local concepts. We talked a lot about Hong Kong history, specifically examining South Asian minorities, distinct groups of Chinese immigrants like the Hakka, modern trans-national families, and, of course, the student protests.

Our professor even participated in an on-campus forum about the protests.

Additionally, it was really interesting to get a Chinese perspective on Western history, philosophy, and sociological theories. You know how in high school, we covered Chinese history in about one week, rushing through a couple of dynasties, the Opium wars, and the Communist revolution? In this class we covered all of Western civilization in two days. The important bits are apparently the Greeks, the Romans, the Middle Ages, and Modernity. It’s a weird portrait, and it really forced me to put my knowledge of Chinese history into perspective. This also placed me under a lot of pressure throughout the class. As a Genetics major, I can say with confidence that I’m no expert on Greco-Roman history, America’s 20th century anti-Chinese immigration policies, or current movements of Chinese businessmen abroad, but I was frequently called out to explain historical backgrounds or current Western perspectives. It is really difficult to sum up several centuries of Western racism in three sentences, but I tried.


Field Trips: Throughout the semester, there were three planned field trips for the class. We all needed to attend at least one, but we were welcome to all. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend one of these trips, nonetheless I learned a lot. Each field trip focused on a different minority group around Hong Kong; the Hakka, Pakistanis & Indians, and a unique rural village in the New Territories. By studying each group’s cultural event, conducting on-site interviews, and doing a little independent research, we were to piece together an idea of how these groups maintain their identity within the larger Hong Kong community.


Way back when, before Hong Kong was taken as a British colony, but after most of the Chinese residents had already settled, a group of Hakka Chinese migrated to Hong Kong island. Together they established a small fishing and farming community and managed relatively well. According to legend, one year, before the Mid-Autumn festival, there was a huge typhoon. Along with the waves of water, a giant python appeared in the village, eating livestock and threatening the villagers. The brave villagers managed to kill the python, but soon afterwards, a mysterious plague began killing many of the Hakka. A priest declared that the python had been the son of the Dragon King of the Ocean, and he had sent the plague as punishment. The only way to save the village was to perform an elaborate fire dragon dance. A huge straw dragon, studded with thousands of sticks of burning incense was carried by the Hakka men all throughout the village for three days, until the plague was gone. The ritual is repeated every year by the Hakka community.


Now, the old Hakka village has been replaced with high rises, as central Hong Kong has been built up over the years. The area has become gentrified with western restaurants and luxury apartment building. Nearly all of the Hakka people have been forced out of the area, and are now scattered throughout the New Territories. However, with the support of the Hong Kong government, the Jockey Club charities, and, most importantly, the strong communal ties that continue to bond these people, the ritual continues as an important cultural tourism event. Government officials are invited to the lighting of the dragon while expats and mainland tourists eagerly flock to watch the spectacle. Despite this, the Hakka community still maintains ownership over the ritual. A religious ceremony takes place at the local temple, where only Hakka community leaders are invited to participate. The majority of the volunteer  organizers, musicians, and dragon-runners are Hakka. And the ceremony continues to be a source of strength and pride for the Hakka community.

Community Service: The third component of the class was, to me at least, the most interesting. Everyone was required to complete at least 15 hours of service with an organization that works with South Asian minorities in Hong Kong. I was selected to work with Caritas Ngau Tau Kok on a number of different projects within their Ethnic Minorities (EM) outreach program. South Asian minorities, particularly Pakistani, Nepalese, and certain ethnic groups from India, face discrimination, lower socio-economic status, and little or no access to Chinese-language education, disconnecting them from the majority Hong Kong society. Caritas works with these minority groups to address a few key problems; Chinese language lessons, after-school tutoring for children, public housing assistance, and connection to the Chinese community.


Our first project focused on the dearth of large, affordable housing for large immigrant families. In shifts, we visited an apartment compound with a large number of Pakistani immigrants. The compound was being systematically bought out by a developer, and Caritas estimates that all of the tenants will be forced to leave sometime next year. We administered questionnaires to the residents to get a better idea of their awareness of the issue and identify their needs. Pakistani families are generally larger than local Chinese families (averaging four to five children per household, as opposed to one or two) and have significantly lower income levels, due to the lack of job opportunities for minorities and that the wife traditionally stays at home. It is, therefore, very difficult for these families to find adequate housing. Many of the families we interviewed had been waiting for public housing for five to seven years, and didn’t know where they would go if they were forced out of their current apartments.


Our second project was to host a town-hall style meeting for both the Chinese and EM residents to attend. There, the two graduate students led a discussion about the current situation, future options for the residents, and they attempted to answer the residents’ questions. From the beginning, the group self-segregated, EM women in the back, Chinese families to the left, and EM men to the right. The gap between the two groups only continued to widen throughout the meeting, as the graduate students slowly translated conversations for each group to understand. It was interesting to watch how these two groups interacted. While they all shared the same concerns, there was no sense that the two sides were at all connected by this issue.


The third project was to attend weekly tutoring sessions for Pakistani high schoolers at the Caritas community center. They mostly focus on Chinese and math tutoring, as these are two key areas where EM students traditionally fall behind, but on the day I attended, I worked with a couple of female students to draft an English essay about teen pregnancy. The students were basically like all students everywhere; fun to talk with, curious about me and the United States, and willing to do almost anything to distract themselves from their homework. I had a lot of fun. While I’m obviously useless as a Chinese tutor, I have been invited back to continue helping students with their writing and math homework.


Our final project was a community and cultural fair for local Chinese residents to learn more about South Asian culture and to interact with EM people. Visitors stopped by different stations to learn about different foods from around the region, receive a name in Urdu, practice their cricket skills, and get a henna tattoo! The children had a lot of fun running around playing the games, and it was nice to see the locals and minorities interacting more than they usually did. Of course, it wasn’t a complete success, there were a fair number of people racing to get through each of the stations to to get their final prize, but overall in some small way I think we contributed a little bit the the greater understanding between these two groups of people. At the very least, I gained many new friends and memories from the experience.