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”

On the Merits of Young Adult Fiction

“But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” – C.S. Lewis

When bubbling excitedly about a novel I have just finished reading, I am often met with the same uninterested shrug. “I don’t care for young adult books.” I see questions on Goodreads below new releases, anxiously asking whether they are adult books, because how improper would it be to enjoy something aimed at teenagers. So I cannot help myself but try to articulate how this folly against young adult literature is misinformed on multiple levels.

Level 1: There are two sides to every coin.

Young adult books are not by definition insubstantial – take The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, chock-full of literary and cultural allusions to rival (and better) most adult books I have read. Nor are they necessarily lacking originality – Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a favourite example. It is true that publishers are far more generous when it comes to green-lighting young adult books, which allows a much greater volume of less-than-stellar novels to be made available for public purchase. But obversely, this also enables fledgling writers to take greater risks with idiosyncratic ideas and writing styles. Most of my favourite authors were first found through their young adult books, rather than their adult ones.

And on the other side of the coin, adult books are not necessarily deliciously complex either. In fact, with the additional burden of having to prove themselves unconventional enough or controversial enough or profound enough, many just come off as pretentious try-hards, for want of a more elegant phrase. There are delicate balancing acts between showing and telling, and then there are broken sequences of such shapeless impressions that you wonder whether the author himself has any idea what he wants his readers to be mystified about in the first place.

Level 2: Do not judge a book by its cover (or blurb or genre).

Perhaps the irony is that even beautifully articulate and sufficiently phantasmagorical adult works are frequently shelved as ‘young adult’ books. Not because of their content or tone or whether the author usually writes for young adults. But because they are fantasy novels. I have seen The Night Circus and The Magicians in the young adult section in bookstores and on Goodreads. The problem with thinking of young adult and adult as genres is that they simply are not. They are audiences, both perfectly capable of reading sci-fi and romance and horror and thrillers set in sleepy suburbs. The distinction is better drawn between the themes that they are more likely to be interested in (perhaps adults are less inclined to read coming-of-age fiction, because it does not reverberate with their current circumstances).

In an effort to circumvent this preconception, yet another age group has been coined ‘New Adult’, which loosely encompasses the years between 18 and 30. Supposedly, the books in this category provide much better ‘insight’ than properly young adult books, because they show the protagonists’ life experiences gradually eclipsing their childhood innocence. Personally, I do not see why this label is needed at all. The primary purpose of many young adult books is precisely to explore this transition, albeit some fulfilling it better than others. But the same goes for whatever books might be in this new category. There are always well-written and less well-written novels, regardless of who you lump them with. Though I suppose, from a purely commercial perspective, it makes simultaneously marketing the books to young adults and adults easier. (Which simply supports my point that the separation between young adult and adult is often arbitrary.)

Level 3: Implications.

Besides, labelling any and all fantasy publications with relatively young protagonists as young adult, when combined with the presumptions discussed under Level 1, implies that adults have no time for such frivolous escapism. Which sounds rather dull and unfortunate to me. Surely, there is a reason that popular children’s books are cherished as tales for all to read? The Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter series… all classics today. They fill us with childlike wonder as they whisper lessons on love and friendship and courage and faith. Fantasy is no juvenile plaything to be trifled with.

I do hope that you are nearing the age where you will start reading fairy tales again. Or young adult for that matter. Or whatever book you like, without a care for these categories or what people might say.

Moi, en français

J’ai lu récemment un paragraphe du blogue d’une vieille camarade de classe, dans lequel elle a discuté de ses personnages différents quand elle emploie les langues différentes. C’est un phénomène scientifique – nous adoptons des personnalités, des manières distinctes avec les langues différentes. Et sa réflexion m’a incité à réfléchir quelle sorte de personne je suis quand je parle le français, une matière que j’étudiais avec assiduité pendant sept ans.

Contrairement au cantonais ou même le chinois, je n’ai pas fait apparaître d’une image immédiate. Y auraient-il des différences nettes de ma conduite? D’impressions les autres développeraient de moi? Alors, l’idée me vint soudain que pendant ces sept ans, je parlais le français rarement à l’extérieur de la classe. Sans occasions d’examiner mon ‘caractère français’, ce n’est pas étonnant que je n’aie pas une image plus claire. Néanmoins, je remarque des changements subtils quand même. D’abord, je deviens plus aventureuse avec mes choix des divertissements (français, bien sûr) – je suis attirée par les films d’art et d’essai (normalement, je me sens intimidée), je mets de côté les productions amusantes mais bêtifiantes, je fais attention sciemment à la technique cinématographique, le montage et la réalisation… Non seulement je suis bien plus sensible aux films, j’apprécie les émissions et romans plus aussi. Je les considère comme des œuvres d’art et non pas des simples distractions. Oui, peut-être ces pensées découlent du cliché de la France cultivée et artistique. Mais comme j’ai écrit dans mon dernier paragraphe français, quand on acquiert une nouvelle langue, on s’informe sur la culture et les normes sociales aussi.

Deuxièmement, je fais l’effort d’être poétique. Pour les étrangers comme moi, le français semble vraiment musical à cause des rimes internes abondants et les élisions et liaisons. La juxtaposition des bruits gutturals et légers créent un son chantant aussi. Par conséquent, chaque fois que je dis ou j’écris, je fais attention à la ‘mélodie’ de mes phrases. Je me demande comment les syllabes s’alignent pour modeler les rythmes. Ce qu’il y a bien, c’est qu’on peut dire n’importe quoi pour sembler lyrique – un autre cliché, mais c’est vrai! De plus, j’ai tendance à employer les expressions et les gestes plus exagérés. Il y a un élément particulièrement brûlant quand les Français allongent les voyelles et mettent les accents toniques sur les derniers syllabes. D’une certaine manière, l’intonation ondoyante m’encourage à adopter un langage du corps plus expressif.

Et en dernier lieu, bien que je devienne douce (parce que mon vocabulaire est relativement limité), je deviens quelque peu idéaliste aussi. Peut-être que c’est en raison de mon appréciation augmentée pour les arts, ou l’élégance de la mélodie ondoyante, ou le fait que le français est ma langue enfantine tout de même. Quoique je l’étudiasse pendant sept ans, j’apprenais le chinois (mon autre langue étrangère) depuis deux fois plus de temps. Et peut-être c’est parce que d’habitude, je suis seulement exposée aux problèmes discutables et questions mondiales par les sources en anglais. La crise des réfugiés à Calais? Le BBC, le CNN, The Economist… Je suis Le Figaro et Le Monde, mais je n’ai toujours pas cliqué sur les gros titres (plutôt que de faire défiler distraitement). Encore une résolution pour la nouvelle année!

Pour conclure, il semble que beaucoup d’aspects de ma personnalité devienne plus prononcés (j’ai utilisé le mot ‘plus’ dix fois dans ce paragraphe jusqu’ici). Peut-être (j’utilise ‘peut-être’ beaucoup aussi, mais ces réflexions sont toujours spéculatives) c’est parce que lorsque j’ai commencé à apprendre le français, je m’étais battu lamentablement pour apprendre le chinois depuis neuf ou dix ans. Par contre, j’ai saisi le français vraiment rapidement, et j’ai obtenu les notes meilleures de ma classe. C’était pas surprenant que je suis légèrement plus hardie quand je suis en mode français. Bon, je réfléchir quelle sorte de personne je suis quand je parle mes autres langues?

Les Mondes entiers

Il y a deux choses que vous ne devriez jamais abandonner: l’instrument et la langue. – Une élève de terminale de mon premier lycée

De toute évidence, j’ai déjà raté le premier lorsque j’ai arrêté de jouer du piano et de la cithare chinoise avant que je sois allée en Angleterre. Et à cause de ma paresse, il se peut que je perde le second aussi. Si vous regardez la page Currently ou mon Goodreads, vous remarquerez que le même livre français avait figuré dans la partie ‘reading’ pendant cinq mois. Donc, ce paragraphe est une tentative de préserver mon aptitude s’effaçante. Notez le mot “s’effaçante” – je m’excuse pour mes fautes nombreuses. Si vous parlez le français, corrigez-moi s’il vous plaît!

J’ai découvert mon amour pour les langues quand j’avais environ sept ou huit ans. J’aimais beaucoup un anime (après coup, l’émission était vraiment hérissante, mais l’intrigue banale plaisais aux écolières jeunes) et j’ai supplié ma mère de me laisser avoir des leçons de japonais. Bien que j’aie commencé cet hobby en raison d’un réflexe soudain, je m’ai rendue compte que je possède un intérêt réel pour l’apprentissage des singularités et des nuances des langues différentes. On peut comprendre les attitudes d’une culture étrangère dans une mesure qu’est impossible d’atteindre avec des autres façons. On peut interpréter leurs médias et publications directement. Et on peut s’entretenir avec les autres qui étions issus des milieux très divers. Contrairement aux autres matières, les langues m’offrent des mondes entiers (🎧 Ce rêve bleu). C’est éculé, mais cette profusion d’opportunités semblait incroyablement séduisante.

Malheureusement, comme la musique, la langue est insaisissable. Sans entraînement continuel, son aisance dégrade rapidement. Il est nécessaire qu’on se plonge dans les œuvres du pays – une tâche intimidante et quelquefois usante. Après tout, de nos jours digitals, il est facile de chercher les sous-titres et les traducteurs intégrés. Pourquoi doit-on utiliser toujours tellement de temps et d’effort? De même, nous savons que les conversations avec les personnes originaires sont l’exercise le plus utile, mais d’habitude, nous sommes trop gênés. L’acquisition d’une langue est un art qui a besoin d’assiduité continue.

Et mon progrès personnel? Ma compréhension du japonais est pratiquement inexistante. Mon vocabulaire latin aussi. En plus de mes langues maternelles (l’anglais, le chinois et le cantonais), ma seule activité linguistique restante est le français. Ce fait me propulse dans l’auto-apprentissage proactif, et la rédaction de cette réflexion. Alors, quelles sont mes prochaines mesures? Bon, il est probablement une sage idée de finir le roman susdit. (Je lis encore le premier chapitre, c’est honteux.) En outre, je prévois de publier au moins un paragraphe français chaque mois. Ainsi, je peux garantir que je rafraîchirai mes compétences régulièrement. Gaspiller encore tant d’ans que je consacrais à étudier une autre langue, quel dommage!

Unfolding Photographs

As I stare unthinking at my haphazard notes, I surreptitiously recall the pleasant surrealness of an unidentified language, the pulsating vibrancy in the night market air, and the comforting stillness of rural evenings. The unbridled laughter of incredulous children, chasing tirelessly, sun-bleached hair flying across the pitted path, rings phantom notes beside my ear. It is on solitary nights like these that I unfold sepia images and stain my fingers brushing the fine films of dust. In youth, our inherent flaw is to overestimate ourselves, and I am surprised by how unfocused these mental photographs have become. My memory is evidently less crisp than I had believed.

It was during those moments, many spent sitting on rickety floorboards playing Chinese card games (one particularly lively match had resulted in a sprained finger), that I had found myself enveloped in unexpectedly deep camaraderie. The adage, ‘nothing strengthens bonds quite like a holiday’, proved very true. This sense of membership had come after months of uncertainty and self-doubt, and my relief was comparable to the electrifying streets of Hanoi, which we had run across blindly with our cumbersome suitcases, then still protected by our indomitable sense of invincibility. (I suppose a streak of it is still alive and well, given the laughable amount of studying that I attempt to get by medical school with.)

The songs that had saturated our endlessly meandering bus rides, our pathetic construction efforts and the dangerous sway of an elephant’s neck are all fond Polaroid snapshots. What feels like half a lifetime later, I can only regard my younger self – who had led a shameless performance of the Hoedown Throwdown before politely baffled locals – with utter bemusement. I had also taken my first selfie (on a point-and-shoot, for that matter), bargained for the first of many shoulder bags, and discovered a lasting love for Korean barbecue (despite having been over 3,000 miles away from Seoul). Though the draft for this post originally began as a short aside, here I am about to publish three paragraphs positively oozing nostalgia. This may be an abrupt departure from my usual (slightly) less directionless reflections, but this platform is supposed to be a personal blog after all. I cannot help but include the occasional rambling reminiscence.

To intrepid youth and more adventures. ☄️


Subtitled ‘grainy evenings in Laos’. 🇱🇦

  1. We Are Young – Fun.
  2. It’s Time – Imagine Dragons
  3. Radioactive – Imagine Dragons
  4. Tonight Tonight – Hot Chelle Rae
  5. Hoedown Throwdown – Miley Cyrus
  6. 99 Bottles of Beer (American folk song)
  7. Hey, Soul Sister – Train
  8. Chasing Pavements – Adele
  9. Royals – Lorde
  10. Some Nights – Fun.

On Diversity

Yet another post stolen from a college essay. Two days ago, a university emailed me a stack of essay prompts and forms to complete – just four days before my IB results will be released. Somewhat irritated (alright, very irritated), I thought: Couldn’t they just wait until then? I might not make my offer anyway. Unfortunately, the essays were due this morning, and I was (and am) still in Taiwan without a laptop. I had to resort to using my cousin’s yesterday evening, which refused to run its only word-processing software. Thankfully, our hotel has a working Internet connection, so I dutifully copied the fonts and formats of the forms on Google Drive.

All three essay prompts were maddeningly vague (we only had to choose one). For some friends, this was probably a godsend. But for me, already nonplussed at the idea of actually having to think during my vacation, I was only even more annoyed. In the end, at some hour long past midnight, utterly defeated by the word limits of one of the forms, I simply gunned for the topic that I had already rehashed countless times in my US applications: cultural diversity. At least this university opted for a slightly less conventional direction, asking for both the values and the problems of a highly diverse community, all presented in a specific encounter. It may seem blatantly obvious to inhabitants of cosmopolitan cities that multicultural, multilingual populations face unique challenges, but in the essays that I had had to write so far, a purely positive spin was always expected.

In any case, the encounter that immediately sprang into my mind had occurred during my final year at my English boarding school. On an otherwise unremarkable winter evening, a close friend suddenly exclaimed, “I wish I could visit China!” Without much thought, I automatically replied, “Then go.” “I can’t, they eat dogs there.” Granted, she had never set foot on Asian soil in her entire life. And people do still eat dogs in very few isolated rural regions, despite many residents living in considerably less impoverished conditions. (The practice of eating dogs is a relatively universal characteristic of areas suffering from famines; historically, it has been recorded on all continents, including the Western cultures that condemn it so vehemently today.) It is also true that the Western and international media focus on communities where dog eating does persist, because commenting on the vast majority of the Chinese people’s nonexistent interest for dog meat would not make particularly gripping news.

Nonetheless, I was still caught off guard. I had thought that in such an international environment – our school prides itself on actively accepting 80 strong cohorts representing over 40 nationalities each for every incoming Sixth Form class – everyone would recognise this stereotype as largely just that, a stereotype. Admittedly, I know relatively little about my friend’s own culture beyond the events commonly taught in History and significant enough to appear in the international news. But I like to think that any misconceptions I may have are never founded on something so widely recognised as a ridiculous stereotype that it is now the punchline of countless clichéd memes.

What shocked me even more, however, was when I tried to tell her that no, dog eating is not rampant in China and she retorted, “How would you know? You’re from Hong Kong, not China.” While I appreciate her recognition that Hong Kong and China are not interchangeable, I still felt that as a Chinese national, I was much more likely to have the better understanding of the dog eating situation on the mainland than someone who identifies as a European and who had only ever travelled within western Europe.

So what are the values and problems of highly diverse communities? Let me begin by acknowledging that despite the singular incident mentioned above, I personally experienced overwhelmingly more benefits than problems. Still, spending 24 hours a day with students from backgrounds very different from my own inevitably led to clashes – cultural, dispositional, political… While it was a springboard for lively debates, congregating so many cultures also highlighted unfair stereotypes and inaccurate preconceptions. Almost every cliché that I had heard of was thrown at me during my first term in England. “How is your English so good? You must have grown up in America.” In good humour, I would reply, “Your nation did only colonise us for 150 years.” Another one: “[A friend’s name] is hot for an Asian.” Complete strangers would approach me in the library asking mathematics questions, without even bothering to introduce themselves or ask me what subjects I take. Every interaction enlightens us about another nuance of our cultures’ influences on our behaviours, but they also create opportunities for miscommunication. Such is the dual nature of diversity. And this was only considering a community that spoke a unifying language fluently – in this case, English.

But having discussed both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, it becomes apparent that the ‘bad’ are just stepping stones to the ‘good’. Every (usually unconsciously) microaggressive comment is another opportunity to clarify. Every argument against your nation and culture is another chance to refute, reflect, even be proven wrong. And when understanding cannot be reached, at least we become acutely aware of the pitfalls that we should avoid next time, or the prejudices that we subscribe to too steadfastly. When there is deliberate racism, it builds our resolve. As we navigate the labyrinth of political correctness, we become extraordinarily prepared for our futures as global citizens. And so, while I know I sound terribly cheesy, I still conclude that a diverse community is the best community of all.