Although we spent just three weeks in Hong Kong, I feel like we learned so much during our time there. As part of our orientation at Crossroads, we were given a one hour briefing on the history of Hong Kong (HK), with the intent that this would help us better understand the culture and way of life. It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t until 1997 that the British lease on HK land ended. And now, HK is an administrative region of China – “one country, two systems” is how it’s described. It’s an interesting dynamic. Two systems – capitalism and communism – under one country. HK is a bustling hub of trade and finance, home to the world’s busiest container port. It’s known as the gateway of China – so many goods manufactured on the mainland of China flow through HK to rest of the world. It’s fascinating to see the bustle of containers coming in and out of port. The relentless movement of goods, flowing in and out like clockwork, with no time is wasted. Goods move fast in HK.
Back in the 1950’s to 1970’s, HK was forced to develop its infrastructure quickly, following a rapid influx of 2 million of people into the area (doubling the population in just 20 years time). And it seems the pace of development hasn’t slowed down since then. HK continues to extensively develop its infrastructure. No doubt it helps that the government has a budget surplus. It seems there must be no shortage of funds for civil projects. Develop moves fast in HK.
The people of HK move fast too. In the office I worked in at Crossroads, I had the opportunity to work alongside a number of locals – interns as well as community volunteers who come one or twice a week to help. I was impressed by the work ethic of the HK people and blown away by the speed at which they work. I consider myself a quick learner, but could hardly keep up the intern who trained me the day I arrived. He was talking a mile a minute – in English, nonetheless, which is a foreign language for him. In 30 minutes tops, he’d gotten me up to speed on how to use Microsoft Dynamics CRM to track donor correspondence, how to respond to donor inquiries, what items Crossroads can and cannot accept, what areas of HK we will pick goods up from, etc. Next thing I knew, he was back to work and I was put to work.
Over the following days and weeks, as I worked in the incoming office there were a number of little cultural things I encountered that I found interesting. Some examples:
1. Unlike in the U.S. where we use terms like “excellent” or “slightly used” to describe the condition of an item, people in HK use percentages. For example, when a donor describes the condition of an item they have to donate, instead of saying “excellent” condition, they say “95% new” or for “slightly used”, “90% new.” In asking one of the locals to explain this to me, I found out that they also use percentages when ordering a steak. For example, well done is 100%, medium is 70%. It makes sense, but had never thought about it this way before.
2. In Chinese, when writing an address, the address lines are written in the opposite order that we write in English. In Chinese, the order goes from the largest unit to the smallest unit (e.g. the country is the first line, the region or state on the second line, followed by the city, etc.). Again, makes sense, but I had never thought about it this way before. I will point out that when writing an address in English, they do write it in the English order.
3. Speaking of order, in HK (as with seemingly every other place outside of the U.S.), the date is always written in day/month/year format. Nearly everything I handled at Crossroads dealt with dates, so I was forced to adapt quickly. After about a week, it became second nature…which now means I will need to re-adapt when I get back home.
4. There were a number of words I came across that were foreign to me. Some were simply British terms that we don’t use in the states (e.g. “pram” for baby stroller). Others were terms I was completely unfamiliar with, such as “company chop”. There was an email that said “please advise if your staff will bring along the company chop for the pickup.” I had no idea what this meant. I found out that a company chop is an engraved stamp used to validate a signature and they are quite common in HK.
Again, these are all just little differences – but I found them interesting.
As far as language is concerned, it seemed everyone I interacted with in HK knew English so it wasn’t necessary to learn any Cantonese. Nonetheless, I did learn a few words. The first was “hai ah” which means “yes”. I heard the locals in the office say this repeatedly during phone calls. I also learned that “Hong Kong” means “fragrant harbor” in Cantonese.
In anticipation for the upcoming Chinese New Year, one night Alice gave everyone at Crossroads a lesson on phrases to use for the new year. The one I made an effort to remember was “Guun Hei Faat Coi” (pronounced goon hay phat choy), which means “May you have a prosperous new year.”
The Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday of the year in HK. It was still almost a week off when we left HK, but people were talking about it during our entire stay. Unlike in the states where the public holiday for the new year is one day, in HK, the public holiday is three days. Interestingly, one of the main traditions for the new year is for parents, grandparents, neighbors, and close friends to give red envelopes with money inside to the younger generation. The belief is that this will bring the them luck and keep away bad events in their life. It all stems from a legend that dates back to ancient times.
Other interesting things about HK:
-If you are on social assistance from the government and an able-bodied person between the age of 15-59, you are required to actively seek full-time employment and participate in a “support for self-reliance” program, which puts you to work for a specified number of hours per month if you are unemployed or underemployed. The goal is to improve the employability of people receiving assistance. As an example of this, there is a bus of men from the Salvation Army that comes to Crossroads three days a week to help maintain the site (e.g. landscaping and maintenance work). I like this concept; it seems far better than folks having no requirement to work and no opportunity to gain skills.
-HK is the most vertical city in the world. Even the buses have gone vertical – nearly all of them are double-decker. I’m just surprised they haven’t taken it one step further and made the subways double-decker.
-Real estate is scarce in HK. As such, expansion means not only building toward the sky but also into the sea. On HK island, Queens Road used to be on the coast; now, it’s a 15 minute walk from Queens Road to the water. As a result, Victoria Bay has shrunk dramatically over the years.
-HK is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Given the dense population, combined with the shortage of real estate, it is no surprise that housing is expensive in HK. And, you don’t get much square footage for the high price you pay. There are even what’s called “cage homes”. Which, as the name depicts, are essentially human-sized cages. They are typically just large enough for a bed and are basically just one step up from being homeless. Just do a google search if you want to see some images. Warning: It’s disturbing.
-On the other end of the spectrum, HK is toward the top of the list of countries with the most billionaires per capita. I have never seen so many luxury cars as I did while in HK…Maseratis, Ferraris, Lamborghinis…you name it. We learned that parking in HK is so expensive that, typically, if you can afford the cost of the parking, you can afford to buy a really nice car.
On a more serious note, there were some heart-felt things we learned in HK. As I mentioned in my last blog, the Crossroads Foundation runs various simulation experiences – which provide a chance to “walk a mile” in the shoes of someone else. We had the opportunity to participate in two of these experiences.
The first was the AIDS experience. As AIDS impacts so many different types of people in so many different countries, the simulation allows you to choose from one of various identities at the the start of the experience. I stepped into the shoes of a teenage girl from rural Cambodia. I was given a set of headphones that narrated “my” story and guided me into different rooms filled with props and decor depicting my surroundings at different points in my life. The narrative described how I was recruited from my small rural village to work in the city as a waitress in a restaurant – it was an opportunity I could not refuse as a horrible accident had left my family desperately in need of money to survive. As I listened to the narrative, surrounded by props and scenery of each room, the story come to life. And for a moment, I felt as if I was walking in this young girl’s shoes. The horrific reality was that the job in the city turned out to have nothing to do with being a “waitress”. I was made a prisoner – forced to “service” up to 30 clients a day, until the time came when I became so sick I was no longer wanted. At which point, I was thrown out into the streets, abandoned and alone. Although I knew in the back of my mind what I was experiencing was just a simulation, I know there are so many for whom this story is reality. And so, for the 45 minutes of the simulation, I imagined walking in those shoes. What a nightmare. Although the experience wasn’t reality for me, the feelings that I felt going through it were absolutely real. I felt disgusted by the evil in this world. I felt heartbroken for those who have suffered such atrocities. I felt lucky that I wasn’t born into a place where this could have become my reality. I felt grateful for my health. And I felt moved to take action.
On another day, we did the Blind Experience, which provides the opportunity to walk a mile in the shoes of a blind person. The setting of the experience is a rural area of Nigeria, in an area where river blindness is prevalent. River blindness is caused by bites from black flies that breed in the river. The bites cause discomfort, impair vision, and ultimately lead to blindness. There is a vaccination to prevent it, but it is too costly for most to be able to afford it. At the start of the experience, we were each given a walking stick and told that we had contracted the disease and would eventually be completely blind. We were told that we were fortunate that someone had come to our village to train and prepare us for the blindness we would soon face. We then spent the next hour in complete darkness, guided through the simulated village by man who is blind in real life. There is a well known saying,”you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” That’s exactly how I felt being “blind” for an hour. I realized just how much I take my sight for granted. The overwhelming feeling I felt was slowness. I had to move incredibly slow without my eyesight. I would feel and touch to get my bearings, but it took me so much time to figure out what was around me. I began to really appreciate the fact that with my sight, in a fraction of a second, I can capture the entire world around me. Being in the absolute darkness, the world became a much different place. It was like feeling around for individual pieces to the puzzle and then trying, one by one, to piece them together. While at the same time, dealing with the realty that one misstep could easily lead to injury or even death. What if I didn’t hear a car coming and the driver didn’t see me? I was not put in any real danger during the experience, but these are the sort of things that were going through my mind. And to think, this precious gift of sight could be preserved for many, if only they could afford the vaccination. It really makes you think.
There is another experience that I didn’t participate in, but was able to watch one Saturday while we were at Crossroads. It’s called the Water Experience and it’s geared toward kids. Many kids from schools in Hong Kong come to participate in the experience. It’s meant to give them a better understanding of the impact of the water problem in the world.
The Water Experience takes place in the “slum house” area of the Crossroads site. Alice lead the experience that day. She started by explaining that of the 7 billion people in the world, 2 billion live in a slum situation like this. She asked the kids to explore the slum houses and answer two questions – 1) What would be good if you lived here? 2) What would be hard if this was your home?
The kids responses were honest; they had a hard time finding any good, but were able to describe many things that would be hard. The conversation then turned to water…Alice asked the students how many taps each of them had in their home. Then she asked, if you had no taps, how would you get your water? She explained that in many villages, going to get the water is the job of the children. Often, these children have to walk for hours to get the water. And, the kids can only go to school if they finish getting the water in time. As part of the experience, these HK school kids got a taste of what that is like.
At the end, there was a discussion about the experience and the things the kids learned by going through it. No doubt these kids left with a new appreciation for being able to turn on the tap. But more importantly, they were challenged to think about what they can do about the problem. There was discussion about ways to conserve water and other things the kids can start doing today. And then, Alice showed the kids an invention that has helped many children faced with the water problem. It’s called a Q Drum. It’s a rollable container that reduces the number of trips (children able to drag a large container of water vs. make multiple trips with smaller buckets). In addition, the drum has a water filter inside. When the drum is rolled, it activates the filter. Pretty cool. Alice ended the experience with a statement that left me with goosebumps…she said to the kids, “Maybe when you grow up, you can have good ideas to help the poor.” I can’t help but think that one of them will.
Of all the things we learned and experienced in Hong Kong, there was one recurring theme that I kept coming back to – WE ARE CREATED TO LEARN FROM STORIES. Time after time, I found myself realizing that what really left a mark on my heart were the different stories I heard about people. There were many opportunities for story sharing during our time at Crossroads. We heard people share their own stories, and we also heard people share the stories of so many who are suffering around the world. As aptly described in one of the books I read while in HK (“The Insect and the Buffalo”) – “We each have our own personal stories that make us smile, laugh, cringe, cry, stand tall with pride, or hide with embarrassment. Stories from which we draw our identity and through which we find meaning in life.”
While we were in Hong Kong, one of the members of the Crossroads team came back from spending time in Syria and shared his experience with the team. He talked about the situation and how the UN saying it’s the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history. (And yet it seems so little is being done.) He shared statistics, such as the fact that Lebanon now has population of 4 million and 2 million of them are refugees. In Jordan, another million are displaced. He talked about the broader issue – that 43 million people in the world are currently displaced. He talked about how refugee camps, on average, will last for 17 yrs (there are some that have been in the Middle East for 60 yrs). All of this information is mind boggling. It’s almost too hard to comprehend. How can I grasp the issues and realities faced by millions of refugees, when I can’t even visualize what a group of a million people looks like?
It was only when he started showing pictures from his visit and telling us the stories behind those pictures that I started to begin to understand. There are two million people living in refugee camps in Syria, which is unfathomable. But when you break it down to the individual level, down to each individual person, you realize that each one has their own story. We were able to hear some of these individual stories. One that stuck with me was of this mother of six. Her husband had divorced her while living in a Lebanon tent settlement. So she was forced to move out and find a new tent for herself and her six kids to live in. She was roaming around, trying to find one that was no long occupied so they would have a place to live. She had been faced, again, with the reality of having to start all over.
This is just one story. And to imagine the millions of others. And so, I’m convinced – sharing stories is often more effective than sharing statistics. For stories give us a picture of reality in ways that abstract numbers cannot.