“It’s Not Enough Just to Stand and Stare”: A Reflection on the Hong Kong Protests

As I write this, I should be finishing my Fulbright application. It’s due in 48 hours, I think. Probably less. But sometimes—and I hope you know this feeling—sometimes I feel so compelled to write about something that I have to write immediately. The words just come pouring out.

While browsing the Internets (as I am wont to do), I encountered plenty of coverage on the Hong Kong protests. I’d been staying casually updated, but I haven’t had the time to browse photos and articles properly (see first sentence; also, midterms). For once, I paused for a moment to investigate something unrelated to coursework.

And God, it was heartbreaking. Hong Kong was my favorite stop on my Asian travels last summer; it’s a stunningly bright city with green parks and pristine beaches and glistening skyscrapers and a top-notch metro system. It retains a sort of vitality I found relatively absent in Beijing or Shanghai; these people are proud of their city. As I meandered through photos of the recent protests, I was shocked—okay, I teared up a bit—to realise that I knew precisely where some images were taken. I had walked along that very street in the Central district trying to reach the bus station; it had been packed to the brim with people. The scene has changed since July. It’s still packed to the brim, but this time with protesters and riot police; a haze of tear gas smudges the air.

Protests are nothing new in Hong Kong. The violence, however, is abnormal. People in Hong Kong usually enjoy the freedom to protest peacefully, one of the proud capacities of a democracy standing against the Communism of mainland China. Now, though, they’re protesting passionately against the potential restriction of those democratic rights; the Chinese government has issued a plan for Hong Kong’s 2017 elections, and it involves running only Beijing-approved candidates. Doesn’t sound very democratic, eh? It’s not. And the people know that. And those protesting want no part of it.

During my time in China, I had never felt so very American. That wasn’t merely due to my inability to speak Mandarin or to constant requests for my photograph. Rather, nothing made me appreciate my home like being so far away from it; indeed, I even discovered a bit of a patriotic streak. It was the little things. Things like going on road trips and seeing only one company’s petrol stations—Sinopec—along the highway, because it’s a state-owned enterprise. Things like coughing nonstop in Beijing because the air scraped through my throat with its 150+ Air Quality Index rating (100 is considered unhealthy). Things like crossing the border into Hong Kong on Independence Day and almost crying when I realized that I was, in fact, freer than I had been on the other side. Things like the recent arrest of an Uighur advocate for human rights for his discourse on the issue of Xinjiang province. Things that make me realize that, while the American government does a lot of things wrong, it has a pretty great foundation.

I’m incredibly fortunate to live in a democracy. I thrive on voicing my own strong opinions. I, however, can do so with ballot or speech, unlike those elsewhere who must take to the streets to fight for the same right. And I absolutely take that right for granted—just see how moved I was by those small standouts in China—but I also exercise it whenever possible. I have to admit, though, that it makes me sick to realise that while people across the world fight for the powerful right to democracy, many of my fellow Americans dismiss their own right to the very same.

This bit is going to seem tangential, but bear with me. For the past week or so, I’ve been helping out with a campaign to register voters on my university’s campus. Surprisingly, people can be pretty reluctant. “My vote won’t matter,” they say. “I don’t have time,” they say. You don’t have time for democracy? Do you realize how valuable that is? Talk about misplaced valuation. You don’t have time to sign a few pieces of paper, drive down to the polling station in a month, and cast your vote? Hell, you can even vote early by mail now. And while countless organizations try to make voting easier for you, the general American public, people in Hong Kong are fighting for the same right by defying riot police who carry tear gas and rubber bullets. They’re fighting to remain distinct from the same China that brought out my inner patriot. Similar and worse things have happened elsewhere; Hong Kong is now, but let us not forget Tahrir Square or even the Prague Spring of the sixties. People have been fighting for democracy for a long time. We might have declared our rights in 1776, but that doesn’t mean we can allow ourselves to become complacent in our perceived security. Complacency is a precarious point; let us not tip over the edge. Some might argue that we already have. We must realize the value of the democratic principles we claim to hold in such high regard; we must live up to the dream of democracy, for it can be demolished so easily.

I am filled with nothing but admiration for the brave Hong Kong protesters who demand their rights in the face of adversity. Stand strong!

*If you want to catch up on the goings-on in Hong Kong, the BBC provides a nice little summary.

**This post’s title came from Pink Floyd’s fabulous “On the Turning Away.” Highly recommended.

Here, have a picture of Hong Kong sans protests.

Here, have a picture of Hong Kong sans protests.

Wanderlust: The Post

So despite the amount that I’ve travelled in the past year, I’ve failed to write a single proper blog post about it. I know: ridiculous, isn’t it? But I’ve been thinking about traveling a lot lately—so much that my friend and I have started a game I call “Where Are We Going?”, in which I ask her where we’re going, she tells me a city, and I type it into Kayak to see how expensive the flight would be. Pathetic, really, but it give us hope. Anyway, I decided to write up a little post reflecting on the travels of the past year.

Today is September 8. It marks the day that, one year ago, I arrived in St. Andrews, Scotland, for four fabulous months of study abroad. I played polo; I studied Chaucer and other English greats; I consumed copious amounts of scotch whisky; I saw snow for the first time. I’m not even going to try to sum up how I feel about Scotland; all I can say is that I miss it (and the people I met there) every day. The point, though, is that I’ve been thinking about travelling a lot. Almost constantly. Rather problematic, actually. So now I’m thinking about what travelling means to me, and I’ll share my (murky and wistful) conclusions with you.

views of a tiny town on the island of Zhujiajian

views of a tiny town on the island of Zhujiajian

I returned to Texas from travelling in Asia less than a month and a half ago. Funny how time passes—it seems like years since I touched down in Austin, but the two-and-a-half months spent in Asia are a blur. That absolutely has something to do with the lifestyle; in Shanghai, at least, where I lived and worked for six weeks, the city is nonstop. It’s chaotic, it’s hectic, it’s full of life and sounds and sights and people. To be honest, I didn’t like the person that Shanghai made me. I had to buy into the intensely materialistic, disconnected culture that permeates the Shanghai lifestyle; it made me reckless and perhaps a bit callous. Regardless, it’s an incredible city—it may be chaotic, but it’s an amazingly organized chaos. I mean, the metro might be brimming with endless people, but at least the trains run on time. Plus, I was able to take advantage of my weekends to travel into different parts of China, from an island beach to the Yellow Mountains. I may not love Shanghai, but I love what it gave me.

the Temple of Heaven in Beijing

the Temple of Heaven in Beijing

After Shanghai, I don’t even know where the time went. After a few beautiful days spent in richly historical Beijing, we changed gears a bit and took an eight-hour bullet train from Shanghai to Shenzhen and, subsequently, crossed the border to Hong Kong. There’s a story here; it involves running out of money buying food on the train, having no money to purchase metro tickets to reach the border checkpoint, experiencing a detainment at the crossing into Hong Kong, and some harrowing heckling on the street in front of our hostel’s high rise. You can imagine it. But Hong Kong was beautiful, a city of greenery and skyscrapers and ocean views and twisting streets. I fell in love. But it was short-lived—we were there for just three days, and then I was en route to Singapore.

views of Hong Kong from Hong Kong Park

views of Hong Kong from Hong Kong Park

I don’t really know what to say about Singapore. I was in the city for two and a half beautiful weeks that seemed in some ways far too short, and in others far too long. It’s incredibly clean and orderly—look no further than its metro stations for that—and the food is without a doubt some of the best cuisine in the world. Think of anything; Singapore will have it. I relished rambling those scorched streets on my own, wandering through Chinatown and Little India and Haji Lane in the Singapore heat (which, in all honesty, is nowhere near as bad as San Antonio heat). And, somewhat surprisingly, the city has some beautiful parks; the Botanic Gardens even contain a rainforest preserve. Somehow, though, the Lion City felt a bit artificial and soulless; perhaps it was the skyline comprised almost exclusively of the financial district, or the weirdly pristine view of Marina Bay Sands. I didn’t really connect with Singapore, not with the city itself—but I’ll always remember it with love.

near Arab Street in Singapore

near Arab Street in Singapore

Coming home is hard. It’s hard to come back and realize you can’t hop on the metro and be anywhere within fifteen minutes. It’s hard to come back and encounter only the familiar. It’s even hard to come back and hear English spoken everywhere–I keep almost responding with “xiexie” to thank people. I miss the thrill of finding new places; I feel a profound lack of excitement and energy in my life. I want to walk along city streets I don’t know, breathe unfamiliar (and sometimes startling) smells, see alien plants, hear the sounds of a different city. I thrive on encountering new things. Don’t get me wrong—I do love my home. But nothing compares to the thrilling sense of exploration I have when I travel. After spending half of the past year abroad, I feel like I can’t stop now. I want my world shaken. What’s next?

 

For the Love of Literature: A Top 10 List

Recently, a couple of my lovely fellow English majors challenged me to post a list of the top ten books that have influenced me. They’re calling it the Book Challenge or something on Facebook. Well, I compiled the list, and I posted it, and as I wrote each title into that little status bar, I realized this list was incomplete without exploration and discussion. What good is sharing the title of a book if I don’t describe why it made the list? Plus, ten is clearly an inadequate number. I’ll add a few in an “Honorable Mention” section, just for the books that didn’t immediately come to mind. Here we go!

Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown

My first excursion into Rushdie did not, as one might expect, include Midnight’s Children or his Satanic Verses. Instead, on the suggestion of a friend, I delved into this fascinating novel that leaps from contemporary California to Kashmir in the 1960s to World War II and back again. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so incredibly shattered by an author’s ability to portray loss, heartbreak, violence, and the many other themes that contribute to the agonizing tale of Shalimar. Rushdie’s sheer delight in language shines in this richly textured novel; on more than one occasion, I wanted nothing more than to tear my eyes away from the pages so I could escape the suffering within them, but Rushdie’s language captivates. It’s luxurious. And so Shalimar the Clown made me fall in love with language all over again.

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

My first attempt to read this Faulkner great (or at least the Benji section; I didn’t even reach the Quentin section before starting over) was miserable and painful. My second attempt ended in awe and admiration. See the previous post for the most profound reasons for this book’s impact on me; but beyond that, Faulkner’s stream of consciousness delighted me with its simple brilliance. I will always love Virginia Woolf above others, but Faulkner’s style is equally—and, in some ways, more so—impressive, especially in his ability to convey the impressionistic mind of developmentally-delayed Benji. Faulkner showed me that language can do far, far more than simply tell; it can show.

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

I don’t even know where to begin with this one; it remains one of my absolute favorites after several years. Egan is a beautiful writer with an impressionistic, transcendental style, in that she lifts you out of her story’s disjointed timeline only to drop you back into a new place, time, and life. Plus, I’ve never seen anyone write music as well as Egan—and by that, I mean she writes about its relationship to life and soul with startling dexterity. When I had the pleasure of studying Goon Squad in a class last semester, I came to the rather pompous conclusion that music is “the great unifier of humanity.” By this, I meant that music—as Egan tells it, at least—provides a common theme to life and its meaning: constant change. Goon Squad made me realize that we aren’t supposed to pinpoint the essence of life, as it were. We’re simply supposed to accept constant change and live. Hell of a message, isn’t it?

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway was one of the first literary works I tackled on my own. In retrospect, that was a poor choice, but it has given me the added benefit of discovering new heights of meaning every time I read it—if only because I read it so poorly the first time. Woolf introduced me to stream of consciousness, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Encountering that mode of writing has made me more aware of my own processes of consciousness. Beyond that, though, Mrs. Dalloway is just a beautiful book. Woolf’s delight in language is even more powerful than Rushdie’s, considering the quotidian nature of her subjects; her ability to reveal so much significance in the everyday is powerful and inspiring.

Margaret Atwood, the Maddadam Trilogy

Atwood’s trilogy combines hilarity, pain, destruction, loss, and survival into one wild, shockingly realistic dystopian tale. I won’t go into specifics here. I can say, though, that this trilogy left me with the most profound feeling of despair for the future of the human race. If that isn’t impact, I don’t know what is.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

This book has the longest-lasting impact of any on this list: it inspired a six year old to tackle a proper book on her own for the first time, triggering a lifetime of literary passion. I never tire of returning to this book; it’s like an old friend, and I know I’ll continue to adore it for years to come. I will shamelessly maintain that I probably received much of my moral education from Harry Potter, and it started here.

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Thanks to Rushdie and Roy, I gained a powerful introduction to South Asian literature, which has become a major area of fascination in my studies and personal reading. Roy has an incredible ability to write from children’s perspectives, and the gravity of the story she tells is only heightened by her young characters’ perspectives. With all the confusion and suffering in this small, beautiful, painful novel, Roy still managed to leave me feeling optimistic with the promise of “tomorrow.”                       

Pablo Neruda, Collected Poems

Neruda’s one of the sexiest poets around. Also: odes to random things like artichokes. He’s brilliant and quirky and passionate, and he showed me that poetry defies restrictions. His poem “Horses” remains one of my favorites.

T.S. Eliot, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”

The beginning of my masochistic descent into Modernism. It takes an excruciating amount of effort for me to analyze Eliot (this one’s more straightforward, actually), but it’s so satisfying and thrilling to do so. Such brilliant language—I mean, I consider this brief moment one of the most powerfully affecting lines I’ve ever read: “Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium.” Fantastic. “Rhapsody” began my love affair with Modernist literature.

James Joyce, Ulysses

Oh, Ulysses. I’ve never viewed a book with the same mixture of adoration, fear, and loathing; but I can’t deny that I overwhelmingly feel a great deal of affection for Joyce’s masterpiece. Of all the books I’ve studied during my undergraduate career, this novel has demanded the most intellectual effort. After Ulysses, I think—dare I say it?—that I have learned to read intelligently and discerningly. Also, I can’t deny that I absolutely revel in the madness of “Circe.” Oh, Leopold Bloom. Yes I said yes I will yes.

There are many more works that have left me with profound impact: Love in the Time of Cholera, 1984, any number of Emerson essays, the Communist Manifesto (only joking, honest), A Farewell to Arms (possibly the only book I’ve ever flung across the room while sobbing my heart out at 4 a.m.). To detail each one would take more time than I have, considering I’m preparing to publish this at 2 a.m.; perhaps another descriptive list waits in the future. For now, though, I’ve given you the first ten that came to mind in the moment. Cheers!