The City With Three Heads

3 head city

The best view in Hong Kong is from the top of Victoria Peak, which is the highest point on Hong Kong island. In the area called Midlevels, Hong Kong’s ultra-rich experience this world-famous view on a daily basis, in apartments which dot the sides of the slope all the way up.

On a humid Monday morning, I was sent to teach a private English lesson in one of the area’s luxury apartment buildings. I’d tried to look a bit nicer that day in an attempt to fit in, throwing on some cheap pearls and my black heels (though I was still pretty sure that with my grey cardigan from Target on, I wasn’t really fooling anyone). I took the subway to a bus station and hopped on a rickety minibus which wound its way alarmingly quickly up the hill. The man in the lobby gave my client a call to make sure she was ready for me, and I was whizzed right up to the 50th floor.

I stepped into a flat that looked like a model home. The furniture was so pristine it had either been delivered a day earlier, or had never been used. Not a single speck of dust sat on the floor, which was a gleaming dark wood. Blanketing the walls were giant windows, overlooking the expanse of the city, the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, and the boats of Victoria Harbour. I could barely breathe just looking at it.

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The view from the top of the Peak AKA about the same as the view from my client’s apartment…

A maid offered to take my shoes and I immediately kicked them off, not wanting to damage a thing. She got me water, then coffee, as I tried to make myself comfortable around the ridiculously elaborate dining table. My client walked out, a middle-aged woman wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

“How are you?” I asked her.

“Yes?” she replied, blinking. Apparently that was the only English she knew.

We spoke a bit in Mandarin, her native language, first, as she was from mainland China. I taught her basic greetings in English, and then watched her struggle to communicate with her maid in Cantonese. After about an hour, I returned to the lobby. There, in fluent English, the doorman led me to a parking attendant who, in fluent English, directed me on how to take the minibus back to the metro.

While speaking English is not the only marker of educational attainment, and I’m sure my client is a very shrewd businesswoman in her native tongue, the situation still doesn’t feel 100% fair. It’s because the parking attendant and doorman, likely fluent in at least Cantonese and English and possibly Mandarin too, actually had to gain more skills growing up to attain their service positions than my client did to attain her phenomenal wealth. They had to gain more skills than even I did to obtain my job as a teacher of that same client, which most would agree is a higher-class job than a parking attendant, even if it’s at a luxury building.

The scenario is a good representation of the different parties who coexist in Hong Kong today, and in particular, the extreme lengths Hong Kongers need to go to just to stay afloat in their own city.

Still pretty British (Photo Credit: BBC)

After over a century of British rule, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, and ever since, wealth from the mainland has been pouring into the city. Offices have moved across the border, creating jobs for people fluent in Mandarin. Beautiful properties have been purchased by those who can afford them, and hordes of tourists from the mainland flock over and fill the already crowded streets, buying up all the luxury goods in sight.

While the culture of Hong Kong is similar to China in that people tend to be polite and indirect about addressing concerns, somehow when Hong Kongers talk about Chinese people all of this goes out the window. It’s not just the sheer size of the crowds that is a nuisance, but the fact that Hong Kongers believe the Chinese to be uncivilized. “They walk too slowly, talk too loudly, and don’t dress fashionably,” they’ll say. “And they don’t even speak English!” It seems most of Hong Kong’s ideas about “civilization” have come directly from the British colonial attitudes which governed their city up until the 1990s, but the irony of looking down on China as “uncivilized” when there was previously no border there seems to be lost on most Hong Kongers.

Instead, what people here seem to understand is that Hong Kong’s relative Britishness always gave it a competitive advantage in the international business arena, as it made it easier for foreigners to set up shop—that is, until businesses started flocking to mainland China instead. Hong Kongers can laugh at the Chinese all they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that they have achieved extraordinary success without having to jump through the long list of “civilization” hoops that Hong Kongers have spent centuries clearing to engage with the world. Now, mainland China is where big business prefers to go, despite the large cultural gaps there that are not shifting, and despite the skills that most Chinese do not have, such as speaking English.

The irony in that is not lost on Hong Kongers at all.

Now, the region is in a state of cultural whiplash. The rules about what is necessary to be successful have all been scratched, and Hong Kong is scrambling to figure out how to regain its footing. Should it deepen its ties to the Western world and ensure all students speak fluent English? Should it begin using Mandarin as the main language of instruction, while adopting more Chinese-style classes on mainland values and history? Should it forget the rest of the world and double down on local investment, Cantonese, and Hong Kong culture? Or will some combination of the three provide the perfect way forward?

3 cultures edited

My favorite picture of the collision of China, the West, and Hong Kong

Like most exam questions, Hong Kong has decided “all of the above” is the best answer here. In an effort not to leave anything out, as it could damage their students’ chances later in life, Hong Kong schools are teaching everything, and students are feeling the pressure. By the time students are in high school, they can speak three languages. They have one class dedicated to Hong Kong society, another dedicated to Chinese history, and a third where they must slog through Shakespeare. In terms of raw skill-building, the students are knowledgeable about an impressive variety of topics. The downside is that there seems to be little room left to teach skills like critically thinking about these ideas, or even firmly arguing an opinion, which is actually what most of my adult students want to work on. Perhaps it’s the great diversity of cultures the students are made to encounter, and the great uncertainty about their city’s own future, which seems to say that every angle is worth considering and every skill is worth having. I guess no one really knows what will come in handy.

Hong Kongers are trying to gain enough knowledge to fill three heads, to keep up with the mainlanders and expats who generally only need to fill one. No matter how competitive Hong Kongers are compared to the other parties, the game is already stacked against them.

I believe this won’t last forever—eventually, things will boil over, and there will be a new status quo as far as what skills are really necessary to get a job here. But what exactly this will look like is uncertain. All I know for sure is that in a city with three heads, only one will be allowed to tell the body—and that includes all three pieces of it—where to go next.

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