Gershom Tse

Giving Empathy Time or: What I’ve Learned from the Students

Though having been born and raised in Hong Kong, I’d never once boarded the tram at its Shaukeiwan terminus. But now that I’ve moved overseas and back as a sort of double expat, I do things that are very different than what I used to in my first-coming, like, I now mostly hang out with expats and act like an aloof snob to those local “friends” that I pretend I don’t have or know anymore, and I act like a haughty English-speaker at Starbucks who doesn’t know what latte in Chinese is (which, in fact, I don’t), and I find myself wanting to board the tram at Shaukeiwan and ride it all the way west, to Kennedy Town, like I’m some foreigner who finds anything along the north Hong Kong Island corridor utterly wow-worthy. Except, as I’ve now found out, trams don’t go all the way from Shaukeiwan to Kennedy Town, even though there’s an ambiguous message on Hong Kong Tramways’ website to make me think that two trams per hour do.

I ended up loitering at the Shaukeiwan terminus, letting numerous trams—destined alternately between Happy Valley and Sheungwan Western Market—pass, hoping that the next one would read “bound for Kennedy Town” on its front, but that tram never came.

So even though I didn't feel like I was in a hurry, I didn’t wait anymore; I boarded one for Sheungwan. Come to think of it now, sitting at my desk staring at the pile of student research reports that has been there since before the New Year but I have yet to get to grading, I now wish I’d been in a hurry on that mid-December day—a mere few days after the Causeway Bay faction of Occupy Central with Love and Peace was finally cleared off the street after 79 days. I now wish I had gotten home on the MTR instead. I could’ve used some precious time to at least make a dent in my backlog of work instead of being on the upper deck of that agonizingly slow tram, making its way through Shau Kei Wan Road, then King’s, then Causeway, Yee Wo Street, Hennessey Road, Johnston, Queensway, Des Vœux Road… (I really do have more inside-track than most expats writing about Hong Kong; this list I’ve just spieled in one breath proves it!). But that’s what I did on that mid-December day: sitting on the hard plastic seat for so long that my bum screamed for mercy, all in the name of people watching, and looking for writing inspirations.

I had wanted to make this journey for a while but never got round to it. Then the Occupy movement obstructed tram service altogether: for about two months, from Shaukeiwan they could only go as far as Causeway Road just outside Victoria Park. But I’d felt my trip on the tram could wait. The crumbling streets of Hong Kong would still be crumbling when tram service eventually resumed—there was no doubt. The Occupy movement had to end sometime. It was just a matter of time.

The students and young people, however, would not stay young forever. Is that why they never have any patience? Is that why they can’t wait for anything? Whatever they want they have to have it right that instant. That’s one of their downfalls. And that was why before they even thought they were going to play their endurance game—“We won’t leave the street until our wish’s been granted!”—with the government and whoever the government represented, they had already lost.

I used to think even before September 28th—when 87 rounds of tear gas were launched at protesters who had shown up to Admiralty in support of those students trapped by the police around the government complex—that I much rather the students stay in school and learn, so they produce more intelligent research reports and I wouldn’t have to dread reading them as much as I do now. I used to say to them my vote wouldn’t be for universal suffrage when they asked for my thoughts. I’d explain how I’d long made up my mind on that with an epiphany I’d had: not long after I moved back to Hong Kong, on the upper deck of a bus, sitting across the aisle from an old lady with a bloody chicken in a plastic bag—presumably having just been to the wet market—and something else, seemingly a fish, wrapped in newsprint, hanged on an S-hook off the seat in front of her, spreading germs to the unsuspecting next-passenger in that poorly ventilated cabin, talking on the phone about this person and that person. This sort of thing could be seen every day in Hong Kong depending on what part of town one would venture into, and it made me think to myself, so I get one vote regarding how this place should be governed, and she gets one vote too? If that should be the case, then why have I spent so much on my university education?

I’d ask the students the same, and would get no answer. Perhaps because they really were thinking carefully what I’d just said. Perhaps, also, they really didn’t have an answer. They didn’t know why they were in university; this town could really be this perplexed about the notion of education.

I suppose calling for calm, asking young people to thoroughly consider any potential consequences of their action when the movement was still in its brewing stage had very little effect in the end. I saw posters everywhere on campus calling for class boycott for September 22. The university emailed staff about being empathetic of students and go easy on them. Whatever, I’d thought. A few days later the students moved stage from university campuses to the government complex. They couldn’t wait for change. Change takes time, but a revolution takes merely minutes. We need a revolution. The progress China had made towards a more open society over so many years be damned! We need to get back control of our own future and we need it now!

When the tram waded its way through Yee Wo Street and I looked at where the Occupants had had their makeshift community-of-tents now being trampled by a collective attitude of indifference from those who had little respect for the cause of the movement, however, I felt resentment for inaction, and for those who sat comfortably on top of a pile of apathy, pretending to be sitting on the moral high ground. I thought I had seen an elephant there in the middle of Causeway Bay, and though people were talking about it they circumvented important matters like how we’d let it get there in the first place, and how we should get it off the street and what to do to appease the situation. Instead, they talked about how Causeway Bay was better without an elephant, and how the elephant had inconvenienced them. They called the elephant ungrateful. They said it shouldn’t be discontent about its shackled life in a circus, not having to worry about another meal, with its future well planned and all. We are watching you, they told the elephant, so why don’t you go learn some more tricks and entertain us some more?

This all made me think of the French Revolution, the American Revolution, our own Revolution of 1911, and how better societies come because bad ones have been revolted against. Apathy is a result of having been conveniently born into a post-revolution society, and apathy degrades that society, driving it towards another need for revolution. It turned out 79 days wasn’t enough to stage one, but it was enough for me to find empathy for the students.

At home, my eighty-eight-year-old grandmother who lounges around all day like a shriveled bitter melon, and sixty-year-old uncle who is divorced for certain habits that must’ve driven his ex-wife out of her mind—the sum of their educational years is a single-digit number—have their eyes transfixed on the TV screen watching all the developments and pretending to know something about governance. My uncle, especially, has poked fun at the apparent naïveté of the students. Why don't the police just kick their ass? He’s chanted, as if he knows something that they don’t. He is convinced that he knows something they don't, and that’s just the beginning of the problem in Hong Kong. I, the one who pays off the mortgage and puts food on the table, have shouted “Shut up!” at them; Chinese respect-your-elders traditions be damned! And they go silent, because I have a university education, and they don’t. And they know it.

What bothers me, nonetheless, is how democracy, as the pan-democrats and students and their supporters are calling for, empowers people like that old lady with her chicken and fish and my grandmother and my uncle to exercise non-sensible, un-informed political power. I have raised this issue with intellectuals including pan-democratic ones in Hong Kong. They, too, recognize the problem, and their answer is education, as if education is the answer to all prayers.

What education? I ask. The same education that we offer students but they don't have time for? Should we now offer it to those who couldn’t get into university in the first place? Should we dumb down everything? Break everything down into bite-size pieces for them? Will everyone understand the merit of democracy then? Will we be equal then? I don’t get it.

I don't see how I’ll ever be fully in support of the students, but the least I can do is to empathize with them, because I know those who fail to see the cause for action are those lucky enough to live in a time of relative stability, and life has gotten too comfortable for them. And then somewhere in there are those who have conveniently profited, so they are naturally protective of everything they have. They have been riding a comfortable train.

I was too, on that mid-December day, but mine was the double-decker tram now slowly passing Queensway, right by where tear gas had been utilized. The different is, I knew where that tram was going even though it was short of where I wanted to go. For the students, they are forced onto a high-speed train they’ve never wanted to board in the first place, not knowing where it goes. The operator of this train—we have a vague idea of who—is not the sort of character they’d prefer in the driver's seat. We have seen spectacular high-speed train crashes. Come to think of it, when that high-speed link—ironically called Harmony—from Hong Kong to the mainland is finally completed, guess who won't be on the first train? Or any subsequent train?

At the end of the day though, what prevent me from siding completely with the students are the incoherence and logical problems in their rhetorics. They portray themselves as a suppressed bunch, but they are far from living a shackled life of a circus elephant. They don't need to be granted freedom, which they claim they don't have. Freedom is where you’ll find it, sometimes in a little corner. Right now, right in front of me, my desk is my mess but I feel content, because in this mess I find my freedom, the way I like it. I guess, we are all free to find our freedom. We are just not free to let our freedom affect others when they are also exercising their freedom to find freedom. We are all given equal opportunities to work hard—to me that’s the ultimate freedom—but some choose not to.

But, being in my peculiar double-expat situation, I’d be seen as unfit to comment on any of this, because I’ve removed myself from the situation and am speaking from an irrelevant position. It is a privileged but irresponsible position—when disaster strikes, with the push of a button, my ejection seat will launch me to safety, with nothing more than a few minor scrapes and bruises.

So I’d better get off now.

Gershom Tse

Gershom Tse graduated an electrical engineer from the University of Toronto and a CNF writer from the City University of Hong Kong. He is a Teaching Associate at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology where he tries to make sense of a world of scrambled words and jumbled theories. He moonlights as a composer and fiddler, and his pet project is to find that unifying theory of everything—every-his-thing.