“Good morning!” he said. “Would you like some breakfast?”
I stared at him. He was nearly as tall as I was, with spiky hair and a bad skin. Despite this, he was handsome, kind-eyed and confident. A female student peered out from behind him, dressed in a white shirt similar to his, and wearing glasses. She, too, was holding what looked like a jelly sandwich wrapped in cellophane.
“Nutritious breakfast,” she said, which is impressive in any language that early in the morning, but in English from a Cantonese speaker for whom “r” is about as foreign and gagging as the oxygen content of Pluto. Then I realized that there was a group of them present, all dressed in white shirts, all looking cheerful, all holding sandwiches.
“I’m going to work out,” I said, tugging at my grubby t-shirt, just in case they thought I was lying and was actually on my way to meet the dean. “But thank you.”
They nodded politely—actually, no, that’s not accurate: they nodded eagerly, happily, earnestly, in a way I’d never seen Chinese students behave before—at least not toward me. With the rare exception, when I passed any of the students around the building that contains our flat—students are housed on the bottom 8 floors; faculty on the top 4—most of them would look at me and glance away. Or worse, pass me without a glance, as though somehow there weren’t a 6 foot 3, 220 pound bald white guy taking up three-quarters of the hall. This isn’t exceptional of course: students everywhere take great joy in ignoring professors at every opportunity, particularly in class. With Chinese students though, this is even more the case as a casual nod hello to someone you don’t know isn’t a part of Hong Kong street etiquette. Unless, of course, you work in Mong Kok or Wan Chai at night, wearing very little in the way of clothing.
So needless to say, never before had a group of Chinese students said good morning to me, much less offered me soggy sandwiches wrapped in plastic.
I pondered all of this while working out to the rocking tunes of David Soul (Don’t give up on us, baby!) then made my way back to the dorms, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Rounding the stairs, I was shocked to find that the first group of happy students had been joined by another, equally cheerful gang. The second group, though, were al wearing red t-shirts and had set up a table on the opposite side of the open-air hall. They, too, had some sort of juice in paper cups that they were handing out to innocent passersby. But instead of sandwiches, they had small packets of crackers wrapped in green ribbon. I bounded toward them, eager to have more of the cross-generational Hongo-American (well, what would you call it?) interaction that had so warmed my heart earlier that day. Plus, of course, I wanted one of those sandwiches.
“Cho sun!” I exclaimed. “Nay ho-a?”
To my dismay, all of them, white shirts and red shirts alike, recoiled in horror.
“What?” I said, into the awkward silence. “Are all the sandwiches gone? That’s okay. I like crackers.”
Then one of them—the handsome pock-marked boy, I think—spoke up: “Were you in a rain shower, perhaps?”
He nodded, indicating my clothing. Glancing down, I felt my face burn. My shirt was drenched with sweat, belly to neck, shoulder to shoulder. Rather than shower at the fitness center then walk back to the flat, getting soaked with sweat yet again in the process, I’d decided to conserve water, clean clothing, and time by heading straight to the flat after coming off the treadmill—something the appearance-conscious Hong Kongese would never do.
“Oh,” I said, trying to appear nonplussed. “I fell in the pool.” Then I straightened my shoulders, lifted my head, and strolled past their doubtful expressions, trying to pretend I didn’t reek like something from the bottom of a laundry basket buried in a garbage dump next to a sewage-treatment plant that’d just been bombed with sulfur coated in vomit.
They remained there all week, red on the left, white on the right. The only thing that changed were the types of snacks being passed out: fruit one day, petites fours the next, small packets of cookies on another. Sometimes there was no food, just a group of students nodding and smiling cheerfully. More than once I heard a melodious chorus of “Cho Sun!” as a particularly favorite student or professor passed by. The two groups were clearly in competition, but it seemed amicable enough—no fisticuffs or graffiti, as far as I could tell, though I kept hoping.
Nor did they limit their efforts to that particular corner of the dorm—a point through which, needless to say, every student had to pass en-route to classes. All of the main halls in the dorm were strung with competing flags from the two groups; likewise with the stairwells in the academic sections of campus. Even the stop for the shuttle bus down to University station flashed blue and pink in the morning sunlight.
From a colleague I was able to gather that the two sides were competing to win an election. And election for what, no one—at least none of the professors I spoke to— seemed to know. As far as I could tell, one group is the Super Mas. I knew this because I can read, and because every flier in the elevator, every flag strung across the hall, every poster on the table where they hand out grape juice, bore the words “Super Ma.” Almost always, this legend was accompanied by the same picture of a donkey in a Union Army Uniform, hooves in the air as if shouting “Go Team Go!”, with Xs where the eyes should be. Whether or not this meant this group favored the zombifying of Yankee barnyard cheerleaders is something I never determined, though I have noticed our kids appear to be having more nightmares lately.
The other group I referred to as the Horse Shoes, because that shape adorned all of their literature. None of this group’s posters were in English, except for one that stated, “Positive, Active, Never Give Up,” and another that made note, amongst a cluster of Chinese characters, of “Home-made Valentines.” To be fair in my grammatical mockery (‘cause you know, it’s cool to mock people who are functionally tri-lingual, even if you yourself are so linguistically limited you can’t talk your way out an Alabama PTA meeting), I should mention that one of the Super Ma posters referred to “Hall O’ Camp”—which, like home-made Valentines in October, intrigued me as much as it confused me.
While I confess I have no idea what the Horse Shoes’ platform was, I’ll admit to having fantasized that they called themselves the Glue Toes. Even better, I found myself wishing that the motto they placed beneath that shod donkey hoof was: “Vote for the Super Ma’s if you want, but eventually, it’s all gone but the glue. “ This is probably why the Obama campaign never returned my calls.
Anyway, it turned out these weren’t the only two groups competing on campus. In front of the other dorm on campus, a cluster of student dressed in black stood beside the main door, chanting in sing-song voices at folks walking by. Further down the road, students in yellow countered in an equally melodious chorus.
I’m not sure why, but this dorm seemed to have a mathematical theme: one group was called Integration, while the other was Coordinate Geometry. Of all the social, cultural, racial, political, and culinary differences we’ve encountered since arriving in Hong Kong almost two months ago, this was perhaps the greatest: no group, of any age, at any university anywhere in the United States, would ever try to win any election by naming themselves “Coordinate Geometry.”
That said, I have to admit that I quite liked this group for no other reason than that they all wore black suits for their campaign posters.
This was just flat-out cool, particularly for the women in that it invoked a sort of Gillian Anderson/Dana Scully science-nerd hotness with an Asian twist.
Integration also wore black suits, but let’s face it: a thumbs up sign will always undermine whatever other message you have. And some of those kids don’t even look eleven.
That said, if you look closely at the next picture you’ll notice that the Coordinate Geometry group: A) also had their thumbs up; and B) had a little abbreviation problem with “association.” Note to CG: always end on the "C."
In the end, I have to admit that I enjoyed the election. I liked the cheery morning greetings, the camaraderie of the students who spend hours sitting outside the dorm waiting for someone to come by so that they bribe them with cookies and fruit punch. I liked being bribed with cookies and fruit punch. I liked how active and engaged and energetic the students seemed to be—so different from when I see them walking the central corridor of campus on their way to classes, looking as though they just buried their favorite pet.
Yes, all said and done, I was thrilled by this election. It might just have been the best election I’ve ever had the opportunity to witness.
I just with I knew what it was about.