Readjusting My Dream of Hong Kong
When I decided to move to Hong Kong to teach high school English, I ignored almost everything that suggested living there would be different to what I imagined. I did not heed my employers’ warning about Hong Kong’s astronomically expensive real estate market, nor did I fully comprehend the news I’d been hearing about the growing political unrest between locals and government officials in Beijing.
In choosing to move to Hong Kong, I disregarded what little I knew about the city’s social realities in favor of chasing the dream I’d harbored as a college student studying in the sleepy hills of rural Northern Georgia. My dream was to live in a big city, and Hong Kong seemed to offer the perfect antidote to the small town existence I had always known. Ever the idealist, I based this assumption on a collection of films that I had fallen in love with. Set in the blazing streets of Hong Kong, the films of Chinese director Wong Kar Wai fueled my desire to move there.
His films depict Hong Kong as a city full of romance and color, where people spend their days longing after old lovers, taking midnight trips to noodle stalls, and playing mahjong in smoke-filled tea rooms. Although it is silly to make a life-changing decision based on the visual appeal of a few films, I was nevertheless taken by Wong Kar Wai’s vision of the city. I applied for a job to work as an English tutor in a local high school, and the pursuit of my Hong Kong dream began.
My dream was to live in a big city, and Hong Kong seemed to offer the perfect antidote to the small town existence I had always known.
When I arrived in Hong Kong it didn’t take long for me to realize that the city was no longer the stuff of the ’90s art house films I loved (although upon further reflection I’m sure it never was, and that the purpose of art is to alter perceptions). Arriving in the heat of August, the appeal of the city’s skyscrapers and outlying islands was greatly diminished by the overwhelming humidity that not even living in Georgia could have prepared me for. The crowds were so dense that I developed a slight anxiety towards going outside for non-essential reasons.
On top of not being suited to Hong Kong’s climate or to its people-to-square-kilometer ratios, it seemed like I was also not a good fit for the corporate school culture I found in my new job. I had a hard time adjusting to my school, where interactions between teachers seemed to be dictated by an inexplicable social hierarchy, and where daily “moral education” morning assemblies held outside in the searing heat were accepted by students and parents. Although my colleagues tried to help ease the culture shock I was feeling, I was unhappy and I questioned my own judgment in deciding to move there.
I was considering quitting my job and moving back home when something happened that helped me see beyond my own narrow vision of what Hong Kong ‘should’ have been. In late September 2014, widespread sit-in street protests began as a result of the restrictions being imposed by the Chinese Communist Party, on Hong Kong’s 2017 Chief Executive elections.
Walking among the protesters who lined the streets in makeshift tents for weeks on end was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I was impressed not only by the sheer number of people participating in the protests, but also by the extent to which the sit-ins took place with such a minimum of violence and destruction, especially when something as great as democratic freedom was at stake.
Wong Kar Wai’s films depict Hong Kong as a city full of romance and color, where people spend their days longing after old lovers, taking midnight trips to noodle stalls, and playing mahjong in smoke-filled tea rooms.
Witnessing the 2014 Hong Kong protests changed me. After the protests ended in December, the stifling crowds and conformist school culture remained, but my perception of the city was no longer colored by the preconceived notions I had had of the place. I learned that the reality of Hong Kong is much greater than a film. It’s a city where several million people continue to fight for personal freedoms that many people take for granted every day. I’m glad I followed my dreams, as misguided as they were, in order to glimpse a historic example of the unfailing hopefulness of humanity.