“Uncertainty is a motif of my life,” Columbia College first-year Derek Ng tells me, one evening over Zoom.
Seven months into the coronavirus pandemic, which has upended the lives of people across the globe, many would share his sentiment. In Hong Kong, where Ng grew up, the pandemic has coincided with a year of political upheaval that most recently involved the passage of a new security law—a decision widely seen as an attempt made by the Chinese government to tighten control on the semi-autonomous city. Since the implementation of the “one country, two systems” policy in 1997, Hong Kong, a former British colony, has preserved political and economic freedoms unseen in the rest of China. But in the passage of the law, which seeks to clamp down on protests for greater autonomy and democracy in Hong Kong by circumscribing freedom of expression, many see the beginning of the end of the city’s special status.
It is against this backdrop that Hong Kongers like Derek Ng are transitioning to Columbia. For Ng—who was born and attended boarding school in the United States—a future in America, the fabled land of freedom and opportunity, seems to have been in the cards for a long time.
Connections to America are coming in handy at a time when Hong Kongers are increasingly pessimistic about the future of their city. Theodore Chow, a Columbia College first-year who has called Hong Kong home his entire life, says, “There is a sort of belief that Hong Kong has given up its sovereignty, and it’s time to leave before it gets too late.” Chow possesses legal permanent residency in America through his green card; he says he is “probably going to reside in the U.S. in the future” and that his parents are considering retiring in the United States, rather than in Hong Kong.
Yet as America has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, and as the Black Lives Matter movement has renewed the struggle to bring this country to terms with its long history of systemic racism, international students have also been reevaluating the image of the United States as a beacon of democracy and educational opportunity.
Hong Kong students like Ng and Chow, who have some sort of legal status in the United States, are insulated from many of the uncertainties and pandemic-related travel restrictions that plague international students. While the Trump administration recently rolled back its mandate that international students taking an all-online course load must leave the United States, many students’ ability to get a visa still remains uncertain, even with in-person or hybrid classes.
Columbia College first-year Jillianne Zhang, who is also from Hong Kong, says that “as awful as it was,” the recently announced, then retracted, mandate did not affect her as an American citizen. Timothy Eng, a Columbia College senior and former president of the Hong Kong Students and Scholars Society, the main cultural club for Hong Kong students at Columbia, agrees that “for people who are American and Hong Kong citizens, they’re fine.” However, he adds that “when ICE came out with that policy with international students, I think people really panicked.”
Less visible fears remain. According to Victoria Tin-bor Hui, a Columbia alumna, professor of political science at Notre Dame, and Hong Kong native who has written extensively on the city, the national security law suppresses dissent: “I think the national security law succeeds in enclosing a blanket of fear,” she says.
Hui believes this “blanket” encompasses not only Hong Kong but also its residents who have relocated to other cities around the world. She describes students from Hong Kong as intimidated by the new security law and vastly outnumbered by mainland Chinese students—with whom Hong Kongers have recently had tense confrontations on American campuses, including at Columbia. She reminds me that “Hong Kong’s population is 7.4 million, and a lot of Hong Kong students do study abroad, but they are so scattered.” Furthermore, she adds, “It is very difficult for Hong Kong students to explain to American students about this very difficult identity,” and, because of the new security law, “now they would be afraid if they go to a talk [on Hong Kong issues], and they say something, what if fellow students take pictures of them and call them out?”
Hong Konger Charmaine Ko, a first-year student in the dual B.A. program between General Studies and Sciences Po, seemed to confirm that the new security law gave her a heightened sense of fear. During our interview, she admits, “I think I am censoring myself to an extent.”
However, Hui cautions against overgeneralizing about the political alignment of Hong Kong students. “We know the Hong Kong people themselves are divided, and that should also apply to the amount of students being abroad,” she says. She also notes that “a lot of Hong Kong students who study abroad … are not really the grassroots” and avoid the controversy of Hong Kong politics not necessarily out of fear but out of genuine indifference.
Although most of the students I spoke to expressed some degree of apprehension about the future of their city, none had participated in the pro-democracy protests which have taken place in Hong Kong for the past year. Zhang says that she perceives people in her own “fairly homogenous community” in Hong Kong as being “less concerned with politics” than people in America.
“They kind of treat it as an elective class, instead of something that we should all talk about and something we should all educate ourselves about,” she says.
In comparing America to Hong Kong, Zhang says, “I feel like so many people [in the United States] have their own opinions, and really care a lot about what’s going on in the country; that makes it so interesting.” Indeed, Zhang remembers “taking a history class winter term that covered the history of 1968, and I remember being so, so ecstatic when we covered an article about the Columbia protests during that year,” referring to the 1968 protests by nearly 1,000 Columbia students against the construction of a university gymnasium in Harlem and the University’s involvement in weapons research for the Vietnam War.
On seeing one Hong Kong pro-democracy protest up close, Zhang says “it was an entire jumble of emotions that I was feeling. I felt pride because I knew that Hong Kongers were fighting for our rights and democracy and freedom of speech. It was also kind of terrifying because there were a lot of armed police officers, and … [it] definitely looked like hostility was probably going to rise.” Zhang, who was very involved in social activism during her schooling in the United States and is passionate about supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, sees parallels in how “the protesters in both America and in Hong Kong have been demonized for destruction of property.” Though Zhang herself is staunchly anti-violence, she views violence in both protest movements as the last resort taken by those who have been too long ignored—something that “demands that the government and other institutions take notice of what they’re fighting for.”
Zhang further describes seeing the Hong Kong protesters as “a sobering moment, especially when they all started chanting in Cantonese and started walking all together as a crowd.” She reflects that it gave her the impression that “Hong Kong was so unified right now, as fragmented as it may be.”
Many other students, however, did not have the same experience as Zhang, who witnessed the protests up close. Instead, they viewed what was going on in their hometown through social media, family, and the news. “I’m watching Hong Kong from a distance, which is because I don’t really spend a lot of my time in Hong Kong,” Ng, who has attended school in the United States for the past five years, says. “I just want to educate myself on both sides and on all the perspectives of what’s going on in Hong Kong right now sociopolitically. But I’m not really taking a side. In Hong Kong, at least, I think it’s just really a very divisive issue, and people don’t usually talk about it at the dinner table.”
Multiple students spoke about a sense of division and tension in Hong Kong. From what Eng tells me, it seems that this tension has reached Columbia as well. Eng mentioned that as protests began in Hong Kong in June 2019, HKSSS board members started discussions about whether to take a political stance or remain neutral. Ultimately, HKSSS chose the latter. “We thought best to keep it mainly as a cultural club because if you turn events too political, it’s not necessarily healthy for club members and the dynamic between members in the club,” Eng says.
Nevertheless, HKSSS proceeded to host talks with both members and non-members of the club to discuss what was going on in Hong Kong. For Eng, these discussions were extremely helpful: “Personally, I feel like it was good to talk about it, because I didn’t really have that much space, or I didn’t really get the opportunity to talk about it that much, even with my friends.”
According to Eng, this was an issue not just within his friend group but also across campus: “Even the Hong Kong kids at Columbia don’t really talk that much about it publicly.” Eng himself says that he is not too concerned about Hong Kong’s political changes, even with the new security law.
Many students feel that pro-democracy activism within the city has died down since the national security law was passed in late June.
“There isn’t a lot of political activism right now, I think, because of this general fear that they might be arrested or prosecuted because of what they say, or the political slogans that they’re chanting. So I think that for me—even I could feel that there was a sense of self-censorship,” Chow says. “Technically, the national security law is supposed to apply to everywhere around the world … but I think that just being out of Hong Kong and knowing that you’re not in the vicinity of that area would probably make that fear go away.”
When I ask him why he decided to come to Columbia, one of the things Chow references is America’s cherished freedom of expression: “I think that it’s clear that people [in Hong Kong] aren’t afraid to go out and protest and to speak up for what’s right,” Chow says, presumably referring to a time before the passage of the new security law. “I think that the U.S., and Columbia specifically, also has that kind of mentality—that they aren’t afraid to confront people with different opinions and to protest and to actively practice their freedom of speech.”
At the beginning of the protests, Ko says she realized that she was the same age and held the same educational background as the average demonstrator. Ko says the idea of finding herself in a pro-democracy protestor’s place was “horrifying.” But as someone interested in politics from a young age, she also says that seeing the protests inspired her to study what she loves. When the protests began, Ko says, “I was considering that politics is not the smartest [field to join] because if I do get a political side streak and I’m looking for some job in the field, when I come back, in Hong Kong, that may not exist.”
Ko plans to study political science as an undergraduate, but not through an “American-focused political route, because I just believe that that’s a very one-sided [way] to look at things.” Ko explains, “I think a lot of the problems that international diplomacy has today is the fact that it’s very hard to look past one’s culture if you don’t even know that that exists. It’s very hard to step into someone else’s shoes if you don’t even know those shoes exist.” She cites her desire for a political education from a different perspective as the main reason she applied to the dual B.A. program, through which she will spend her first two years as an undergraduate not on Columbia’s campus but abroad: “Sciences Po-Columbia was my first choice because I wanted [to go to] Europe.”
Ko’s sense of dissatisfaction with the limitations of the American point of view is echoed by Ng. He expresses disappointment with American news outlets’ coverage of Hong Kong, saying, “You can’t really use the way Americans view American government and apply that same analysis to [the] Hong Kong government. … There are a lot of discrepancies between the two. I think that sort of discrepancy is reflected in a lot of the conversations that I’ve had with people about Hong Kong in America.”
Yet Ng also cites the opportunity to live in both the United States and Hong Kong as the reason his “world is definitely a bit more wide.” Later in our interview, Ng says, “It’s much more progressive an environment in the U.S. than it is in Hong Kong, and that has sort of shaped my worldview a lot as well.”
Chow says that one of the things he likes best about Hong Kong is that “Hong Kong really is an international city with so many different cultures and ethnicities and ideas that are represented here,” adding that “I think that that multiculturalism is something that Columbia also has, which is why I wanted to go there.”
Ko agrees about her hometown’s multiculturalism, saying, “One of the things I love about Hong Kong is that it’s so international. … Let’s say I didn’t speak a single word of Cantonese; let’s say I spoke English. And I said, ‘Home is Hong Kong.’ A lot of people would still believe me, even in Hong Kong.”
Calling both Hong Kong and the United States home comes with both privileges and difficulties. Zhang characterizes it as “a weird dichotomy, because in America, when people ask me where I’m from, I say Hong Kong, but when people ask me where I’m from here, I say America. … It’s always been like walking between the two worlds for me.” Regarding his similar connection to both places, Ng says, “I think, being from both the United States and from Hong Kong, you call both places home, but you also call neither home. … You’re part of both, but you’re not really entirely grounded in one at any given moment.”
Although all students interviewed acknowledge significant ties—both legal and cultural—to America, they differ in how they view their relationship to Hong Kong. According to Chow, while “there’s a lot of controversy in terms of whether someone identifies as Hong Kong Chinese or just Chinese,” he has self-identified growing up as a member of the Hong Kong community. Zhang views her identity differently, and says that “being Chinese is very important to me. I was raised in a household where cultural heritage is so incredibly important.”
For many students from Hong Kong, defining their identity is a struggle due to sociopolitical factors and their families’ lifestyles. Ko split her childhood between Shanghai and Hong Kong, and like Ng and Zhang, attended boarding school in the United States. (Tellingly, her family now calls her “the American.”) Because of her upbringing in multiple countries, “it was very difficult for me to pinpoint where home was,” Ko says. Despite this, she says that she still feels the strongest tie to Hong Kong: “My mom has always instilled in us that home is Hong Kong. Even though I have not lived here, in Hong Kong, for the majority of my life.”
Still, some students plan to continue building lives in America after college. Chow says that, although he has some concerns about racism against Asian Americans and life under the Trump presidency, “I don’t think that that’s enough to deter me from wanting to move to the U.S. in the future.”
Zhang, when asked about staying in America, says, “As of right now, I think that’s probably what I have in mind.”
Unlike his counterparts, Ng is still relatively unsure about where he wants to reside in the future. With all the recent changes at home, he says, “It’s really hard to determine whether or not I can or I want to live in Hong Kong. … And same for America—America is going through unprecedented times as well, similar to Hong Kong, different but similar. And I don’t know … whether I would want to live in the U.S. either in the future.”
Ko is equally uncertain. “The goal for me had always been, I’m going to come back from Hong Kong when I’m done with school, right? America is not home for me, it’s just education. … I want to come back because I want to contribute to this city that I love and continue building it. I don’t exactly know what that means yet, but that is what the goal had always been. But then I think with the 2019 protests, and just politics that the city is going through now, … I’m unsure whether I want to return.”
Later in our interview, Ko reflects, “I actually think the two places are pretty similar. … With the Black Lives Matter movement, I think Hong Kong is going through the same thing, and has been going through the same thing for a really long time because of how the police have been treating protestors. And the police brutality is seen both in the distrust and disdain for the government—it’s seen on both ends. Young people being unhappy and seeing no hope for the future is seen on both ends.”
She concludes, “And of course there’s the aspect of Hong Kong being a democracy-loving city—respecting free speech and wanting that—wanting human rights, wanting freedom of protest—all things that America also values.”
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