A Little Empathy

Two days ago, some friends and I went to a popular 茶餐廳 (cha chaan teng, literally, ‘tea restaurant’) for lunch. Within seconds of arriving, we heard a loud stream of Cantonese profanities, punctuated only by shrill cries of ‘democracy’, ‘independence’ and ‘ridiculous’. Searching for the source of the commotion, my eyes found an elderly man hunched beside another group of waiting students (as I said, this restaurant is popular). He was hurling the same fragmented insults again and again, raising his voice whenever an onlooker smiled (from his perspective) dismissively.

The man was evidently unwell. And the students seemed to know. So they continued to wait, staring nonchalantly at their phones until a waitress called their number. Eventually, the same waitress also called the police. Of course, shouting in a public space is not a crime in Hong Kong. Nonetheless, I still had some trepidation – given our city’s reputation as a community that still stigmatises mental illnesses, the Hong Kong police did not seem to me to be the most well equipped to recognise, empathise with and help aggravated mental illness sufferers. But the policemen who came were professional and understanding, and gently asked him what was the matter. Gradually, he calmed down. From the little we could glean, the man had lost his livelihood, possibly during the Occupy Central movement, which had ended just over two years ago. He had consequently lost his apartment as well because he could not pay the rent. Regardless of whether these years of pent-up bitterness triggered his outburst yesterday, or whether it was a genuine account at all, the man was obviously stuck in a cycle of despondence and desperate anger, which he unfortunately directed at the students.

What struck me was not his ceaseless barrage of insults, but the reactions that it elicited. Most onlookers who commented on the situation were clearly sympathetic towards the students, but none towards the man. Instead, the surrounding faces were marked by irritation. A few even disgust. Some explicitly remarked that they felt much more sorry for the students than the man, because the students’ afternoons were now ruined. Or that they wanted the man to be arrested, good riddance. Frankly, this irked me. In the first place, the students did not look all that perturbed. If they felt too uncomfortable, they could have always left. Sure, being shouted at could not have given them an amazing time. But whatever distress they may have experienced would have been temporary – probably even easily washed down with some good food and retrospective laughs, or the thought of having a ‘juicy’ story to tell their friends. The man, on the other hand, had no such options. Would I rather be subjected to his insults for less than half an hour or be filled with so much misplaced anger that wiling away my hours shouting at passers-by becomes an appealing pastime?

Even if he were arrested, it would have done nothing to solve the actual problem. I doubt he would have been referred to a specialist outpatient clinic or otherwise given the mental healthcare services that he so clearly needs. In all likelihood an arrest would have made him feel even more marginalised and ignored. Admittedly, public mental healthcare services are woefully limited. But that does not take away from the fact that wanting such people removed from our vicinities without even trying to empathise with them is not an ideal way forward.

Just last week, another elderly man had set himself on fire on the MTR (the underground railway system in Hong Kong) at rush hour, an eery mirror image of the 2004 incident. He had a history of paranoia, and although his condition had been stable, he had missed his most recent check-ups. I understand that this does not make his actions any less terrible (19 passengers were injured, some critically). But this also highlights, like the 2004 incident did, how inadequate the Hong Kong mental healthcare system is. Almost a quarter of Hong Kong residents are estimated to suffer from a mental illness, yet psychiatric patients in the public sector have the longest waiting time out of all specialties. Among the seven hospital districts, the longest wait is currently over three years. Our psychiatrist-patient ratio is also ridiculously low compared to other developed nations (only 4.5 per 100,000 people; in the UK, the ratio is 14.6 per 100,000, and in Australia, it is 9.16 per 100,000). Not to mention that only 344 psychiatrists work in public hospitals or clinics.

And yet many reactions to the fire were fuelled by anger. Why did he have to hurt others too? If he wanted to die so much, he should have killed himself somewhere else, quietly. But the tenet of mental illnesses is that they do not deal in the currency of rationality. Does shouting at random students because you lost your job and apartment make any sense? Is setting yourself on fire, knowing that you will likely injure other passengers, remotely reasonable? Imagine how tortured he must have been to consider self-immolation the best way out. He was in no place to properly evaluate the consequences of his actions. Even if, in that moment, he felt a searing rage to see others hurt, he could not have rationally comprehended the harm that he caused them.

Having been fortunate enough to grow up in schools keen to teach their students about mental health, I wholly underestimated how widespread misconceptions are. I was shocked to hear one of my Medical Humanities instructors tell us how frustrated she was when her close friend (who had committed suicide) ‘chose to be so depressed’. Thankfully, she is not a doctor (if she were, I would be even more worried about our mental healthcare system). Not that that is necessarily an excuse.

I say all this not from some pedestal of superiority, because I am no expert on mental illnesses. But as someone who suffers from cleanliness anxiety and who knows family friends crippled by clinical depression, I could not help but empathise with the two men above. Lashing out at my parents after an anxious incident, sometimes until they cry, is not exactly comparable to screaming at passers-by, but I think it stands on the same principle. What mentally ill people need is not more fear or marginalisation. The least they could ask for is a little empathy.

The Samaritans Hong Kong +852 2896 0000 is a round-the-clock hotline offering emotional support for anyone experiencing emotional distress and/or suicidal thoughts, no matter how disturbing or ordinary the problem may seem.

What My Mother Speaks

As Chinese New Year approaches (the best holiday, really, with the optimum permutation of food, family festivities and money), it is inevitable that I would contemplate how much more concrete the ‘Hong Kong’ facet of my identity has become since spending two years abroad. And enclosed within that facet, as the city is plastered with more and more fai chun (auspicious characters and couplets calligraphed onto bright red paper), is the problem of my mother tongue.

Against my own (and my family and friends’) expectations, I enrolled in a Hong Kong university four months ago. Since my early childhood, initially for no other reason than a romanticised Great Britain constructed from The Five Find-Outers and Harry Potter, I had always envisioned myself studying in the halls of some centuries-old English institution for my university career. It was only when I reached the wholly surprising conclusion that yes, I do want to be a doctor, and yes, I want to be a doctor in Hong Kong, that I grudgingly admitted Hong Kong is the most practical choice. Continue reading “What My Mother Speaks”

Hong Kong, Literally

View from my living room window.

Three weeks of exams later, I can finally set foot on the glistening stretch of freedom laid out before me. As I recuperate from a 12-hour flight in my home city, my mind (now feeling strangely idle) wanders back to my favourite conversation starter – the nomenclature of Hong Kong places. All locals are familiar with the sometimes comical district and street names, most of which were transliterated (as opposed to translated). Sadly, this means that the English etymologies of countless places have withered away – most severely so for the non-Chinese-speaking demographics and constant streams of tourists. Admittedly, over 90% of our current population are ethnically Chinese. But I still believe that because English is our region’s second official language, and because it is no doubt visitors’ main gateway to appreciating an integral aspect of our diverse heritage, English names should reflect the meanings of their Cantonese counterparts.

Take Kowloon (九龍), which literally translates as Nine Dragons. Choosing to name it according to how it sounds instead of what it means was a terrible missed opportunity. Like all traditional tales, the origin of this majestic name differs slightly depending on who you ask. But the common backbone follows the young Emperor Bing1, who had fled to Hong Kong from the Mongols. When he had arrived, he named the area Eight Dragons (八龍) after eight tall surrounding mountains. (It is an ancient Chinese myth that every mountain houses a sleeping dragon.) However, a courtier had wittily suggested that he name it Nine Dragons instead, since the Emperor was there. (Chinese dragons are symbols of the Emperor, and ‘dragon’ and ‘Emperor’ were sometimes used interchangeably.) Not only would translating the name properly have exponentially increased Kowloon’s ‘coolness’, so to speak, but it would also have made an interesting morsel of Chinese folklore and history that much more prominent.

For other places, it just makes more sense. We have Mong Kok (旺角), home to tourists’ favourite suffocatingly jam-packed open-air markets, aptly called Busy or Prosperous Corner. And of course, Lok Ma Chau (落馬洲), which can be translated as Get-off-your-horse Area. Is it because it is next to China and it is high time you got off and turned back or presented yourself to customs officials? Sure, this version is a mouthful, but English-speaking nations are just as guilty of similarly verbose place names (see Cottonshopeburnfoot, England). We also have Tsing Yi (青衣), which translates as Grue2 Clothing, interesting mainly because ‘grue’ is unique to Chinese culture. Finally, even Hong Kong itself can be translated as Fragrant Harbour, apparently because the historical trade in sandalwood and incense lined the harbour with a pleasant aroma.

But names guard much more than ephemeral flashes of interest or humour. They embody deep-rooted identities, tying us firmly to our histories and cultures. Nine Dragons highlights a centuries-old myth and Emperor Bing’s fleeting reign, while the Cantonese name of Stanley (赤柱) simultaneously underlines the infamous activities of Cheung Po Tsai, a notorious pirate, and an ancient cotton tree, which had been a landmark of the town. The Cantonese name of Aberdeen (香港仔) translates as Little Hong Kong, drawing attention to its historical role as the first point of contact between British sailors and local fishermen. Of course, this does not exclusively apply to places – names are just as pertinent to the identities of people.

Until my middle teenage years, my cultural identity was far from concrete. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I was content with a fabricated identity wholly dishonest with myself. Although I am ethnically Chinese, I have attended British and international schools since I was a kindergartener, and have continually been exposed to Eurocentric perspectives and values. The omnipresence of Western media in Hong Kong and the many advertisements that imply caucasian women are the ideal definition of beauty only added to the strong influence of Western cultures on my self-perception. In fact, I became embarrassed by my traditional Chinese upbringing – why must I speak Cantonese at home? Why are my parents so unfashionable and unsophisticated?

Until my late primary school years, choosing the English name Christy was a major source of pride – it was almost unique in my international schools. But when I started to interact more and more frequently with students from local schools, I found out that it was, in fact, extremely popular among local girls. If I were to walk into a local school and shout “Christy”, I would be perfectly unsurprised to see a dozen girls turn around. But I was less perturbed by the general commonness of my name than by its commonness among the local Chinese because I had equated ‘non-Western’ with the opposites of ‘cool’ and ‘attractive’. In an almost pathetically desperate attempt to correct this, I had told my Year 5 classmates that my name is actually short for Christasia, an ungainly, Frankensteinic lump of sound inspired by Grand Duchess Anastasia, because what can be less Chinese than an European princess enrobed in romanticised mystery?

Thankfully, two years in England later, I am ever more aware that the one-dimensional caricature of British culture that I had sketched has no bearing on my actual identity. ‘British’ will continue to be my nationality, but it is a grossly inaccurate representation of my cultural affiliations. I am glad that this awareness has also restored my English name to a source of pride, and the fact that it is so recognisably ‘Hong Kong’, as my foreign friends in England have repeatedly pointed out, is yet another tie to the city that I proudly call mine.

1Emperor Bing (1271-1279) was the last emperor of the Song Dynasty.

2青 (often transliterated as ‘qing’) is a colour unique to Chinese culture, and can be roughly conceptualised as a mixture of blue and green. In most cases, it is more green than blue, especially when describing mountains (青山), grass (青草) and vegetables (青菜). It can even be used figuratively; 青春 (literally, ‘green spring’) means youth, comparable to the English usage of ‘green’ to describe a young, inexperienced newcomer. In other cases, it leans towards blue and aqua, such as when describing the sky (青天) and the Azure Dragon (青龍).