Written by Luke Thompson, (College of the Holy Cross) Student Correspondent CET Intensive Chinese Language in Beijing, Fall 2015
This past month has been one of great change and new experiences. Indeed, just as October brings about a change in the seasons, so has it brought about a change in my life here in Beijing.
Just as the weather was starting to chill I whisked myself away on Fall Break. The destination was Hong Kong, and a break was greatly appreciated after a month of classes. Upon arrival in Hong Kong I went from dreading the slow onset of winter to being overwhelmed by the heat and humidity of southern China. While there, I talked with expats who had lived in Hong Kong for years who said that they were still not used to the humidity, and probably never would be.
Aside from the oppressive heat, Hong Kong was a paradise waiting to be explored. I had come with two of my best friends that I’ve met in my time here, so I knew no matter what we did it would be a good time. Being a lover of history, I knew that Hong Kong was a former British possession, and it wasn’t until 1997 that the city and surrounding area were handed over to the Chinese again. What I was not aware of until my arrival, is just how much British culture was able to influence Hong Kong before the handover took place. British exports ranging from chocolate and tea to hair products and pints of cold English lager were everywhere to be seen. They even drove on the other side of the road. In Hong Kong I did a range of activities: Although it is a very dense city, the surrounding area is a very mountainous jungle. We spent most of our days outside of the city, hiking through jungle in search of the best views or untouched waterfalls. For the most part we were successful, except for the massive golden orb spiders that we periodically encountered along the way.
Some people like to refer to Hong Kong as “Asia lite” in the sense that it has been westernized and thus easily palatable to the
western tourist. While it is definitely a fusion between two vastly different cultures, I disagree with the notion that Hong Kong is somehow a “lighter” version of China. It still has a distinctly Chinese feel to it. I think if anything, the dichotomy of east and west in Hong Kong goes to show that culture is not how people think it is. It is by no means set in stone. The British ruled Hong Kong for 156 years, which seems long compared to our lives but in the memory of history it is nothing. Thus, in this very short time, Hong Kong was transformed from another Pearl River delta city to something entirely new: not quite Chinese, but not quite British either.
Returning from this trip I found myself back into the mix again with three big events coming up. Within two weeks my parents would be arriving and the week after that I had my midterms followed by a trip to Shanghai and Hangzhou with my parents. Since first coming to China on a study trip in 2010, I had always wanted to share why I loved being here so much with my family and friends. I feel like any experience is better if you can share it with people you love. Seeing them at the airport was a great feeling, and the following nine days was a once in a lifetime experience. For the first time, I was the guide here, and my parents depended on me to help them get around and have a good time. Unless you have language experience or a tour company planning your trip, China can be a difficult place to travel around. This was apparent even to me in Shanghai and Hangzhou, where I spent a weekend with my parents. I felt a huge responsibility to keep them both safe and entertained, but I think Shanghai and Hangzhou did that for me; the temperate weather and strolls along Shanghai’s scenic Bund River and Hangzhou’s serene West Lake more than made the trip worth it.
In the end, they had a great time, and I would highly recommend arranging a visit from family if it is possible. Aside from this, I myself gained many new insights about China on my travels around the country this past month. My experience in Hong Kong taught me that culture is not as rigid as we are led to believe. It is constantly evolving through assimilation and fusion. My travels also taught me that China is similar to the United States in the sense of its vastness. Going to New York or Washington D.C is going to America, but you cannot sum up the American experience in either of those places. Similarly, seeing the cities of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Hangzhou expanded my understanding of the Chinese experience, but no amount of travel will ever be able to fully encapsulate it. I can only try as best I can, and when possible, bring the one’s I love along for the journey.