Lessons on America

Have you recovered from the Fourth of July?  I have not. There is a large bruise on my left knee from...celebrating too hard.  I hope you're doing better than I am.  I've been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be American and what I learned in 5 months abroad.

My spring semester in Hong Kong was both over- and under-stimulating. If I'm honest, I studied abroad because I felt strongly that I needed to - not for any other real reason. I picked Hong Kong because I'd always wanted to come to this city. I did not have much of a plan.  When I got there, I realized I had absolutely no idea why I was there other than to take some classes (pass/fail) and eat a lot of dumplings and dim sum.

big buddha peaking out at us.

big buddha peaking out at us.

Dumplings and dim sum do not add up to a) a full life, or b) really all that much time.  I did do *some* studying, but mostly I read and walked and wrote.  I feel a little like I've been on vacation for 4 months.  Feeling like you're lacking creativity or inspiration?  I really, really recommend going alone to a strange city for 4 months.

Hong Kong is a fascinating city in so many ways - culturally, politically, geographically, culinarily.  I had a semester full of personal growth, but also full of realizations about how I see the world versus how it really is.  Hong Kongers are fighting for a lot of things that I take for granted as an American, and being in that political climate helped me realize how grateful I am for so many elements of my life as an American.  

Happy week after Independence Day.  Let's talk about the world.

market boat

market boat


Let's get this out of the way first:  Hong Kong is not (technically) China.  Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China, which is complicated. Basically, Hong Kong was a British colony for most of its history but was returned to China in 1997, beginning a 50 year reunification process. 2017 is the 20 year point, which is interesting. In March, the election of the new Hong Kong Chief-Executive Designate brought up a lot of questions about whether or not Hong Kong is really a democracy.  Most of the students I spoke to told me it was not.  The Election committee, which is made of 1200 people, is the only group that gets to vote.  The idea is that the group is representative of the larger population, but they're really mostly business people.  The Election committee is pretty loyal to the Beijing government, and many of the students I spoke to worry that they have basically no say in the government.

Obviously the American system is flawed in many ways, but seeing these Hong Kong residents who truly have no say in their government, made me realize how much I take for granted that I have a say in the political future of this country.


On the flip side, I've never felt safer in my life than I did in Hong Kong.  I don't think I realized how exhausting it is to be vaguely nervous for my safety all the time until I came back to the United States and was like "Oh man, this sucks."  I felt completely safe riding the subway or walking home alone at night.  Taxis are safe.  Buses are safe.  

The difference was most striking to me on an evening when I was walking home with a local friend. It was dark and I noticed a man walking behind us, so I picked up my pace and adjusted my purse.  My friend asked me what I was doing and when I pointed out the man behind us, she had no idea what I was talking about.

It felt good to breath easy, but now I'm like "What are we missing over here?"


I have a lot of complaints with the cost and efficacy of the US education system, but I was struck at HKU by how little creative energy the students seemed to have.  Because they are accepted into universities solely based on a score on a test they take at the end of high school, there's an intense focus exclusively on grades, with little concern for whether what they're learning about is interesting, engaging, or important on a larger scale in the world.  It made me so grateful to have had the opportunity to attend schools where my engagement was considered important, not just my score on a test.


Hong Kong really pushed my understanding of culture.  Though American culture is obviously not just one thing, Hong Kong is a small country that holds a lot of intense contradictions. Even now, the influence of the British is clear, but it is right up against the influence of the Chinese.  The most obvious example of this, for me, was food.  Milk tea with boba, various types of French toast filled with funky flavors like yam, and biscuit-ish sandwiches stuffed with red bean paste are just a few examples.

Because England had control over Hong Kong for so long, these types of food aren't called "fusion" they're just called Hong Kong style cuisine.  A little like Tex-Mex...but more integrated.

I wonder a lot if Hong Kong is a city of the future - a true melting pot.  I think cultures are melding more and more and in the future we'll see a lot of cities that have a double heart the way Hong Kong does - both Eastern and Western, British and Chinese. Cities of the future will be more like Hong Kong in that they'll be made from the country they're in but not of that country. Hong Kong could kind of be anywhere, and that's the beauty of it.