1. The Demonstration of The Argentine Masses
It took over thirty hours, but my friend TF and I finally arrived at our first destination, Córdoba in Argentina, to carry out an academic trip that would hopefully connect Hong Kong scientific research to developing countries.
The first day was a preparation meeting. Nacira introduced to us the highlights of the trip, the institutions we would visit, the subjects of academic reports and the personnel that we would meet. (Editor’s note: Nacira Muñoz is a Professor at Universidad Nacional de Córdoba and a researcher at the Argentine National Agricultural Technology Institute. She has collaborated with Professor Lam on soybean research and related publications.) Apart from that, she also briefly described the situation regarding Argentina’s soy production and scientific research.
By dusk, Nacira brought us to see an important mass march. On March 24, 1976, the totalitarian Argentine Government assumed power by coup d’état and installed a civic-military dictatorship. From 1976 to 1979, 30,000 young critics of the Government were “disappeared”; all were believed to be killed by the dictator. Since democracy was restored in Argentina, that day has been marked as the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice. Every year tens of thousands of people gather on the streets, in them not only are the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who seek to bring justice to their disappeared children, but also lots of young people, along with parents bringing their kids to ensure that every generation would never forget the lessons of history. I saw the sign “ construyendo memoria” plastered to a toddler, who was still in his mother’s arms: it meant “constructing memories”, which spoke to what many parents had in their minds.
“ Podrán morir las personas, pero jamás sus ideas” (“Men die, but dreams don’t”) — Che Guevara
Nacira told me that Argentinians are patriotic; they are willing to fight for their nation or even sacrifice for it, but unwilling to stay silent in the interest of the government. That’s because government officials do not equate to the nation, but are just civil servants. This is the Argentine understanding of democracy.
In the procession were many energetic students, one of their banners had “por la educacion liberadora” written on it, which explained the important connection between education and freedom. I went into the ranks of the students and walked along with them for a stretch. I cleansed my three-month-long doldrums with the passions of youth, straightened up, and braced myself for the results of an election that Hong Kong citizens did not have a vote in, but would nevertheless make a deep impact on the city. (Editor’s note: Professor Lam hereby refers to the 2017 Hong Kong Chief Executive Election, where an 1194-member Election Committee determined the person taking the highest office of the HKSAR.
2. Altas Gracias
Before beginning a hectic schedule of academic interviews and visits on Monday, Nacira said that she would take advantage of the Sunday before and show us around the province of Córdoba. Nacira proudly told us that Córdoba, her home, is the birthplace of many Argentine social movements, including the push for free-for-all university education and the resistance against the military junta.
Our destination was Altas Gracias. It had just rained in the morning, which cleared the clouds in the sky; we strolled around this idyllic town under the afternoon skies and sun. Along the way were nice huts and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a classical church built by early Jesuits.
Passing trees and shrubs under the sinking sun and wandering through narrow winding paths, we arrived at Che Guevara’s former residence, the place he left his mark as a child and an adolescent. It happened that Che Guevara was born into a wealthy Argentine family; seeing a poverty and injustice-plagued world spurred him to turn his ideas of global revolution into action.
By the intervention of the American CIA, Che Guevara was captured by the Bolivian Government and executed in 1967; by the time the legend passed away he was only thirty-nine. His motto back then, “ Podrán morir las personas, pero jamás sus ideas” (roughly translated as “men die but dreams don’t”), became the rallying cry of many idealists who advocated for social reforms.
Idealists gather and scatter as their ideals would take them; opportunists come together but fall out during the fight for their own gain. Idealists sacrifice themselves to complete the revolution so they often never taste the fruits of success; opportunists sacrifice revolution for their own benefit, lurking in search for the perfect time to strike and steal the fruits of the revolution.
Every time I come to Argentina I could feel the passion and friendliness of Latinos. Regardless of gender, friends would hug and kiss each other’s cheeks when they meet. I wasn’t used to it at the beginning and only shook hands with them. Later when I found the courage to hug them, my friends had already learned the Chinese manners of hand-shaking from me.
A few days ago, after I had delivered a speech at the Universidad Nacional de Río Cuarto, a student invited me to take a selfie, and even hugged and kissed me lightly after that. Sometime later a PR officer in the school contacted me with an invitation to share my impression of Argentina since I’ve arrived; I replied that I could feel Argentinians’ passion, directness, optimism, and energy, and made my point to praise the respect student had for their teachers.
My friends here also had a special habit: they would always grab a kettle of hot water and a teacup to enjoy Maté. This strong tea is drunk using a metal straw; after one person had finished he would add some hot water and pass it on to the next person, and all of us would drink from the cup and straw. This one wasn’t a challenge for me, and I blended in right from the start.
Some local friends showed us around their soybean farms and gave me a bean pod with four soybeans inside as a good luck charm. To satisfy my desire to observe the soybean harvest up close, when they saw someone harvesting soybeans from the distance, they drove me to the site; they even helped me ask the farm owner to let me sit inside the harvest to get the most immersive experience.
The processes of harvesting, husking, quality control and returning straws to the field were done by a single-person-operated machine over a vast area. Collected beans would be delivered into transportation trucks via collector vehicles; I simply made my way up the top of the vehicle to take selfies with a truckload of soybeans.
The biggest reward of the visit was that I got to know a group of dedicated, straightforward and passionate friends, among them breeders. Using the Argentine traditional dance tango as an example, scientists and breeders are like tango partners: mutual understanding and respect makes great dance moves.
4. Argentinians’ Idea of Patria
The intensive academic exchange in Argentina had reached its end: five lectures, a string of forums and visits to many scientific institutions and farms later, although I feel physically drained, we had a lot to gain.
When it comes to initiating international cooperation, apart from finishing some designated projects to tackle scientific problems of mutual interest, I also hope to take the opportunity to know new friends and understand the history and culture of other places.
Before leaving Buenos Aires, I stepped foot on the Plaza de Mayo for the third time. Every time I come to this modestly-sized square, I could always experience the history of Argentina. Nacira took me under an Argentine flag hung at the Plaza to see two texts, etched on the ground, on the founding of Argentina. She took her time to explain the word Patria, which translates to “Fatherland” in Chinese. Here Patria does not signify national boundaries or regimes, but encompasses the people, the land, the culture, the history, and collective memories; these are irreplaceable. The government and the military do not equate to Patria because both of them could be replaced.
Argentinians believe that the duty to protect Patria rests on the hands of every citizen, but not the administration or armed forces. When the administration and armed forces fall on the wrong path, that is the time for the people to stand up and defend Patria. Perhaps Argentinians have this concept after pondering on the ideas of nation and freedom after going through the War of Independence and anti-military resistance movements.