Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Anatomy of a week: Thursday

           Thursday is a peculiar day, though not as peculiar as Wednesday, which is pronounced like Wends-day but spelled the other way around, kind of like “Farve” and “Favre” (curse his black black heart). 

But even so:  Thursday’s a little funky.  In the morning Ellen and I head down to Sha Tin to the immigration office, where we register for HK identity cards.  This is required of anyone living in Hong Kong for more than a month, which must reek havoc with all those Thai hookers and the Republican senators who frequent them. 

Anyhow, before we came down Ellen got on-line and made an appointment for us at 9:30, so that we won’t have to wait in line.  Oddly, I think it worked.  When we get to the office, it’s packed, and we dutifully take our numbers then take our seats, expecting to have to wait for at least until the cows come home, have their dinner, and read a really long Russian novel.  But by 9:30 both of our numbers have been called and we proceed to the back room where we sit at separate desks while two women in white cotton gloves looked at our passports, then at our faces, and then take our thumbprints.  And that was it.  By 10 we’re out of the office and heading back to campus.  Kind of boring, really, if you think about it.  I mean, where are the men in trench coats?  Where are the glaring hot spotlights drawing sweat out of our brows? The penetrating questions:  Have you ever been a member of the communist party?  Do you support the idea of a proletarian revolution?  Does this shirt look good with these pants? 

Back in the flat I change out of my “I Heart the Suppression of Human Rights” t-shirt and into some decent clothes before heading down to the office, where I spend three hours flicking paper-clips off the balcony at undergraduates while trying to think of something to write about. 

At 2:30, Huixuan shows up for an appointment I arranged to talk with her about an upcoming meeting to discuss a new first-year course.  Huixuan is a mainlander with a PhD in general education, and her only flaw is that she’s pretty much always the smartest person in the room.  Seriously, she’s funny, intelligent, humble.  And she laughs at all my jokes.  If she just came with Rice Krispie bars glued to her clothes, she’d be the perfect woman. 

In retrospect, I don’t even know why I asked her to come talk to me.  The fact of the matter is I’ve yet to present any information to Huixuan that she hasn’t already encountered. Case in point:  on this particular Thursday our conversation eventually leads to the question of how difficult—or not—a first-year course should be.  This is just the question I am waiting for. The moment she mentions it, I leap out of my chair, strike a Dudley Do-Right pose, and say, “I have just the thing you need!”  Then I leap to my desk (still maintaining my pose), flip on the computer, and go to www.Wabash.edu.  Leaping back to her, I gesticulate like a drunken ape playing the accordion.  “I doubt you’ve heard of this, what with living in the primitive wilds of Hong Kong, but” and then I go on to explain about Wabash’s national study on liberal education—one of the results of which was to discover that first-year students responded positively to challenging courses. 

Huixuan waits politely until I’m through.  Then she nods and says, “This is not the only study of this kind.  There is—“ and then she names another study that I’ve never heard of, one that sounds much more comprehensive than the Wabash effort. 

Luckily, though, I’m ready for this.  I leap back to my desk, punch in another web address and say, “Well what about this study?”

“Yes,” she says.  “It is a very good study, I think, only its results were called into question by—” and then she names two people whose names sounds distinctly like “Fok” and “Wit.” 

“Well never mind,” I say, typing frantically.  “Here’s another one!”  And I point at the screen, triumphant. 

She leans forward, sucks on her lower lip.  After a moment she says, “This study is on monkeys.”

“Very smart monkeys,” I say.

“But monkeys nonetheless.”  

I slap my forehead.  “You know what?” I say, trying not to shout.

She draws back a little, eyes wide.  “Yes?”

“I think I hear my mom calling,” I say.  And leave. 


Luckily for my ego, I have something that Huixuan does not:  a ticket to a formal dinner hosted by the PRC Secretary of Education to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Mao’s formation of the communist government.  So after I have a good cry and a cold shower, I change into a suit and tie and head back down to the administrative building to catch a commissioned bus into Kowloon.

Only when we arrive at the Shangri-La and are escorted into the pre-dinner cocktail party does the obvious hit me:  I don’t actually know anybody here.  And what’s more, I’m guessing the speeches etc. won’t even be in Cantonese, much less English. 

Fortunately, I’m not the only Anglo at my table.  Also seated there is a white-haired Australian who runs some center for something or other kind of research at one of the HK universities.  Like most Australians I’ve met in recent weeks, his attitude toward the Chinese—particularly the mainlanders—is decidedly cynical, this despite the fact that he’s fluent in Mandarin and has spent most of his life studying China and its cultures. 

Luckily, his brand of cynicism is not only deep, but witty.  “There is he is,” he says to me when the Secretary of Education enters the room, “looking like a real-life version of a cartoon squirrel.”   And when some university alum in a white cheongsam gets up to sing the Chinese version of “Red, Red Wine” in traditional Peking Operatic style, complete with glued-on smile, warbly falsetto, and—I’m not making this up—a pre-recorded soundtrack with Flock of Seagulls electronic drums sounds—doo-doop, doop doop—this gentleman leans over and says, “You do know you can shoot them in season, don’t you?”

There is something weirdly earnest about the entertainment.  It’s the only time since I’ve arrived in Hong Kong where I’ve thought, “Man, these people don’t know what they’re doing.”  Seriously, a couple of the little a cappella student groups seem like they’d stepped straight out of the ‘50s:  lame clapping and foot taps that would have made any half-way decent Step club fall down laughing.  When I ask my neighbor what the various songs are about, he bends his ear for a moment, then translates, “This one is about how wonderful the Chinese language is,” or “This one talks about what a beautiful country we live in.”  When the evening ends with every one in the audience of any significance—every performer and dean and provost and secretary and under-secretary of the under-division of groinal psychology—when all of these people get up and sing some song about wheat fields and peasant girls dying under the foot of the capitalist rapist while a slide show of sunsets and sun streaming through storm clouds and sun flashing off the boots of marching soldiers played—at this point I realized why the evening feels so awkward and uncomfortable:  what I am witnessing is a very round Hong Kong—a region free and thoughtful and engaged and willing to challenge itself and authority—trying desperately to fit into the square hole of the communist dictatorship to its north. 

I’ve seen this before.  In 2002, Reporters Without Borders named Hong Kong the #1 freest press in Asia.  By 2008, HK was 51st.  This is not because of explicit pressure from Beijing, but rather because Hong Kong newspapers are owned by large corporations who don’t want to lose their business stakes on the mainland. 

That night was the first night since we’ve arrived that I had stomach upset.  It wasn’t the food.


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