Hong Kong Dispatch: Love and Hate in Hong Kong

BY KEN BASIN

Last week’s cliffhanger raised a question: would I close the semester by attacking Hong Kong or by praising studying abroad? The answer, of course, is both. So, step one:

I hate Hong Kong.

I hate Hong Kong because it is the shallowest, most superficial and culturally immature metropolis in the world. For a city of its size, it is remarkably devoid of art, culture, and music, or any awareness of the fact that it is lacking art, culture, or music. The cultural scene here ranges from nonexistent (music) to embarrassingly immature (art). The best museum exhibition in town, by orders of magnitude, is a loan of items from the British Museum. The city is a giant shopping mall. Every MTR station, every bus depot, every office building, and I suspect most personal homes, are malls. If you want to shop, no matter where you are or what time it is, and never tire of that, Hong Kong just may be the place for you. I have to assume that Internet merchants do very little business with Hong Kong, because if they did, the residents here would apparently have no reason left to go outside.

I hate Hong Kong because of the lack of social variety. Every bar and club seems to be a minute variation on the same theme. I like some better than others, but I’m utterly exhausted with that one theme. And the theme was never for me in the first place. The generically cool room full of status-obsessed drones who seem to be concerned about everything but having fun. I’ve tried to find jazz clubs, salsa nights, and other things that would be considered “niche” anywhere in the world, but here, the very desire to seek any of them out is apparently considered “niche.” I’ve also embraced the islands and rural areas – which, in all fairness, must be considered part of the total Hong Kong equation – as my primary means of staying sane, but by themselves, they just haven’t been enough.

I hate Hong Kong because of my own living situation here. Being a graduate student who is accustomed to some semblance of privacy and autonomy in a borderline fascist residence hall makes for decently entertaining rants, but a rather uncomfortable living experience. This is, of course, a result of my own decision to be cheap and stay in halls rather than seeking out the costly comfort and privacy of my own accommodations. I regret this and take full responsibility. But I still blame the pollution for my bout with bronchitis, the first time I’ve even gotten the disease. And all that being said:

I love studying abroad.

I love studying abroad because of the unabashed internationalism of it. Last week, I lay on the pavement in front of my building with a Singaporean, a Canadian, an Australian, and a Venezuelan, while a French guy played a saxophone rendition of “Le Petite Fleur” (which was composed by an American). Each person described the story they saw unfolding in their own head as the music played, and each listener’s story was completely different from everyone else’s.

I don’t think any prolix homage to cross-cultural relations is needed to explain the awesomeness of that. It pretty much speaks for itself.

I love studying abroad because of how it shrinks the world for you. Two days before my outdoor transcontinental jazz jam session, I went out on the town with a Gambian-British lawyer I had originally met at a negotiation competition in Leipzig, Germany, who brought along his

American-raised, British-educated Belgian friend, who in turn brought his American coworker, who was the college roommate and annual ski buddy of someone from my 1L section here at Harvard.

With the end of the semester, it has been strange to see everybody forced into goodbyes that acknowledge the distinct possibility that they will never see one another again. But at the same time, there is a pervasive optimism, a seemingly genuine belief that whether you realize it or not, you meet everybody in life at least twice, and so everyone here will eventually cross paths again.

I love studying abroad because, even if you’re unhappy with whatever else is going on, you’ve got to be happy about doing it. Studying abroad offers perspective in so many senses of the word – internationalism, self-understanding, whatever – but in this case, I mean the fact that, no matter how horrendously I might have been feeling at any given moment, I could always look out my window, peer through the impenetrable blanket of gray haze draped over Victoria Harbor, and think to myself, “I’m in Hong Kong, and this is totally counting toward my degree.” Then I’d probably cough a little from inhaling the pollutants.Oh yeah. I also love studying abroad because the lowest recorded temperature in Hong Kong since I’ve been here, day or night, has been 59 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ken Basin is a 3L who is now done studying abroad at the University of Hong Kong, and is amazed to report that he looks forward to seeing everyone in Cambridge soon. He has, however, recently heard reports of wintry mix in Cambridge, and may be forced to seek refuge in some other random country instead. His complete adventures are chronicled at kbasin.blogspot.com.

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