Hong Kong Dispatch: Cultures Clash in Residence Hall

BY KEN BASIN

After I arrived in Hong Kong for my study abroad program, the most common question I received from friends and family was, “How are you adapting? Are you feeling some culture shock?”

Adapting to life in Hong Kong society has been remarkably easy. Adapting to life at Hong Kong University has been spectacularly hard.

Do you remember the feeling you got when you first moved into a dorm before your freshman year of college? The feeling of excitement, the sense of community? The idea that you were becoming part of a proud tradition for people of your age and station in life?

None of these feelings apply when you are a third-year graduate student moving into undergraduate underclassman dorms.

And I say this as someone who lived in the majestic Gropius complex during 1L year. At least we had our own bedrooms, and mattresses that were more than 3 inches thick, and weren’t sharing living space with 19-year old economics students who play 12 hours of World of Warcraft per day.

They’re very serious about the dorms here. All of their materials suggest that you are expected to hang out with your hallmates. Like, constantly. And join clubs. They loooooves them their clubs here (also, on campus, they seem to love blasting cheesy American pop music, usually Christina Aguilera or Gwen Stefani, non-stop and at high volume . . . but that’s a different issue).

There’s a hall song, and a hall war cry, and you have to be able to recite both. They also have these “high-table dinners,” once-monthly formal dinners that you are required to attend. Like, if you don’t attend, you must provide some kind of written explanation that offers a legitimate reason for your absence. And if you don’t? There will be discipline. Probably in the form of a strongly-worded letter, but actually, they can deny you readmission into halls next year, and if you’re especially egregious, kick you out midway through the year.

Of course, neither of these threats hold any meaning for me, so my liability is limited to the strongly-worded letters, but still, just the principle of the thing. I dared to speak ill of the concept of mandatory formal dinners in front of some of the local students, and they giggled awkwardly and looked at me like I was blaspheming. To them, I guess I was.

I expect that if these formal dinners were optional, I’d probably attend most if not all of them, but because they are mandatory, I will be inventing Jewish holidays that require me to miss them. Jewish holidays that will also require me to travel to Thailand or Cambodia to celebrate them. It’s in the Torah. Look it up.

When the floor representative commenced the first floor meeting of the semester, everyone began to clap. They didn’t need to be prompted, there were no stragglers, everybody immediately clapped. They held a vote on a day, time, and location for a floor dinner, and when the vote was completed, everybody clapped again. The rest of the meeting was relatively uneventful, though they did resolve to reconvene next week, so that they could elect a finance chair for the floor, who could then buy new kitchenware for the floor kitchen. No kitchenware could be bought without a finance chair, and no finance chair could be appointed without an election. Then the meeting ended and everyone clapped again.

Out of the 16 people who attended the meeting (not counting myself), 14 were rail-thin Asian boys with glasses, and everyone was either an engineering student or an economics/finance major. It was like being beaten over the head with a burlap sack full of cultural stereotypes, though everyone did seem exceedingly friendly and nice (though that is actually part of the same sack-‘o-stereotypes too).

Highlights of the hall rules and regulations include: mandatory meet-and-greets with other hall residents that you must chronicle in a log provided to you upon moving in (as an exchange student, I have unilaterally determined that I am exempt from this); a requirement for all visitors to sign in and out; a blanket ban on visitors after 11 pm; and a ban on in-hall visitors of the opposite sex after midnight.

And honestly, nice as he undoubtedly is, the completely WOW-obsessed roommate doesn’t help the Hall situation much. I had initially estimated that he played 12 hours a day, but I’ve since come to believe that estimate is insufficient. He is always in the room, and if he isn’t sleeping, he is always playing. I haven’t seen him eat, I haven’t seem him interact with other students unless they’re both playing on their computers, and I certainly haven’t spoken to him for more than a grand total of 9 minutes. He is like one those Korean kids who eventually dies of malnutrition and dehydration and exhaustion, or whatever the opposite of exposure is, because he plays for too many hours non-stop. Truly, my mind is boggled. I’ve never seen WOW addiction from so close, and it’s a scary sight. Based on what I saw in the film “Traffic,” I think heroin abuse might be easier to watch.

Normally, I would just ignore his misery, but it affects me adversely, and so I care about it. Even when I had a roommate in an American dorm, there were moments of privacy available. I’d be out and he’d be at home, and he’d have the room to himself. He’d be out and I’d be at home, and I’d have the room to myself. Sometimes one of us would go to bed earlier, and the other would have a few hours to feel like we had our own living space. But I’ve gone to bed around 3 am every night this week, and every night when I go to bed, he’s still up, and he’s still playing. My moments of privacy come in the approximately 30 minutes I’ve gotten on a couple of mornings, when I wake up before him. But then I, you know, go outside.

So why put up with it all? Simple: $700 in rent for the entire semester. Can’t argue with that.

Ken Basin is a 3L who is currently studying abroad at the University of Hong Kong, and is being every bit as diligent in Hong Kong as he would be in Cambridge. He is strongly pro-steamed pork bun, vehemently anti-panda, and can’t believe someone is paying him to publish something he was already writing for free. His complete adventures are chronicled at kbasin.blogspot.com.

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