An exchange student’s perspective during the territory’s 2019 uprisings.
Dear Hong Kong,
I could tell everyone back home that it was the rows of shimmering neon signs ornamenting the streets of Mong Kok — the sweet aromas of freshly baked Char Siu Bao pervading the humid air. Perhaps I’ll say that it was the taste of crisp Tsingtao beer on top of roaring cascades after a hike through the jungles of the New Territories.
But that would be a lie.
What made me fall for you were sights of brilliant flames on top of barricades of trash cans; the looks of intimate camaraderie among black-masked strangers. It was hearing thousands of voices chorusing “Do You Hear the People Sing” along Victoria Harbor. It was even the sting of tear gas filling my lungs as I sprinted through a sea of glued-down bricks.
The brutality between protestors and police — the marches, MTR arsons, and Molotov cocktail explosions that so many exchange students fled from — is precisely what stole my heart.
Sure, as an aspiring journalist, I am someone who naturally runs toward mayhem. But more importantly, the people’s political fervor lit a spark within me to become a greater advocate of democracy — you have shown me what it means to be a steward of liberty and justice for all.
Frankly speaking, I initially overlooked your glamour. Having learned Mandarin for more than a decade, and having lived in Shanghai earlier this year, I reckoned my time in Asia was over; I was yearning for some new, flavorful affair. But your program was more affordable than other locations, and after reading about the curriculum at university, I elected to give you a chance.
When the protests began in June, I could have followed my family and friends’ advice to study abroad somewhere else. After all, if something happened, I was at risk of losing credit for the semester.
But when life presents you with unparalleled opportunities, you take them. The trepidation of losing classes was tangible, but not understanding the fundamentals of a revolution of our times was terrifying.
It was within the first couple of weeks of our time together that I began illustrating your intricacies. After visiting Lantau Island one day, my friends and I discovered that the airport uprisings had shut down the MTR service; the only way back to our apartments was squatting on the 1-foot-wide aisle of an overcrowded bus slugging through stand-still traffic.
To be fair, the stench of body odor and my ever-so-aching hamstrings made the five-hour journey, usually only a 40-minute ride, more irritating than entertaining. But being squeezed in between dozens of protestors gave me an opportunity to finally conversate with the frontliners.
“Wouldn’t it have been easier for you to ride the subway home, instead of trying to study right now,” I asked a 20-something-year-old student who had ransacked the station, her eyes glancing towards me as she looked up from her law textbook.
“I could have gotten more studying in, but then you wouldn’t have been here talking to me,” she bluntly replied. “Now you and your foreigner friends know what’s going on here. If we don’t cause havoc, Hong Kong as we know it will die.”
I soon realized that what I thought was a battle against an extradition bill had become more than just a fight for judicial independence — this was a war to save your grace and glory. The passion was both beautiful and resounding.
You see, we may live thousands of miles apart, but our stories are not much different.
Living in the United States, I am too familiar with stories of police officers shooting innocent black men. I am too aware of an unresponsive, distant government that slowly chips away our democratic values. I am too exhausted of a society telling us that young people are too immature and unexperienced to guide forward our country.
Where our stories diverge is in the means by which we express our dissatisfaction. The violence and anger I witnessed from your people forced me to weigh my ethical morals against my political values.
Waking up to the news of one protestor being shot, only to see the video of his allies first beating a riot officer had me question the claims from local classmates that the police were the only instigators. And the calls to the police officer that followed — protestors telling him they’d rape his daughter, kill his wife, appalled my soul.
I only recently began to understand the innate fatal feedback loop that drives your revolution. Yes, there is upright fake news of police burying bodies at sea and pushing protestors from bridges that angers your people. But as a journalist, I also know that without the arson and vandalism, the outside world would never hear about your battle against tyranny from a lack of coverage.
It was at the end of our time together that I began to slowly tolerate your extreme methods of protest, quickly realizing this was not a local but global struggle — a fight that sets forward our young, interconnected society’s values. As students began barricading universities in November — turning dorms into a scene from Les Misérables — a friend asked me to come witness the action firsthand.
We watched from the rooftop of City University as students dropped chairs from their windows. The incessant “cling” of clasping metal picks against the pavement to remove bricks for roadblocks was only overpowered by shouting men teaching crowds of peers how to throw Molotov cocktails.
I watched my friend smoking a Marlboro Gold, the anxiety throughout his body obvious. He was different from most exchange students — a German, philosophy major-turned activist in charge of building an internationally crowd-funded statue symbolizing a female protestor staggering through tear gas. I couldn’t help but wonder how he felt about the situation — given the imminent violence against the approaching police.
“Just because I’m not from here, doesn’t mean I’m not part of this war,” he told me, exhaling a hazy cloud of dark smoke. “We may not fight this battle today, we may use art instead of bricks, but when any authority attacks our generation — the people asking for a fighting chance at life — it’s crucial that we resist.”
As I count down the days until I return to the United States, I recognize that I may not be on the streets with your people, but my weapon against a battle of repression, unresponsiveness, and injustice of our generation are my words and creativity as a journalist — a chance to showcase the struggles of the oppressed and subdued.
I didn’t want to leave you so soon, but under pressure from my parents and home university, I had to leave earlier than planned. Returning home, I am now more inspired than ever to join protests and rallies against a government interfering with our rights to vote and dismissing innate segregation.
I was once afraid to be so openly political — I worried about straining relationships with others or being perceived as too biased in my writing. But my time with you has shown me that cowering behind a wall of oppression only allows the tyrants to build that wall higher.
The people of Hong Kong have shown me how to tear down that wall brick by brick.
Thank you for your time, Hong Kong, for your everlasting mark on me. With your memories, I know that it will never be “goodbye,” but rather “see you later.”