October 28, 2014

KIM | But I’m Not the Only One

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I want to talk about Hong Kong. But let’s talk about protest first.

To some, the culture of protest is a familiar one. We see them on campus, sometimes barefooted. This person may be you. But it certainly isn’t me.

Not to say that I haven’t dabbled in both traditional forms of protest (those budget boycotts though) and everyday forms of protest (flexitarian, anyone?). But it’s easy to get enraged over issues. And for me, it’s been just as easy to detach myself from these issues as it was to engage myself with them.

The process of disengagement begins when I recognize that I can never truly live out the purist, Thoreau-like essence of protest that is, living and breathing the very issue you are protesting. It’s especially difficult to keep tabs on the issue when it is an external one. For college students, universities and their preoccupation with morals and ethics provide the perfect breeding ground of irony: students becoming more politically and socially-engaged global citizens while also lacking any identifiable attachment to these issues. We can voraciously read news of disaster within the African subcontinent while we’re tucked safely away in Ithaca, finding temporary solace in the joy of eating a hearty Ivy Room spinner.

But we signed up for some degree of separation from the world when we agreed to attend Cornell. In fact, I find a lot of merit in being a part of this breeding ground (although sometimes it can feel like a petri dish). But far too often, campus and this column space exhibit Itha-centrism and are not at all representative of our generation’s activism. So let’s talk about our friends in Hong Kong.

The desire of the people of Hong Kong to elect their own leaders has never been clearer than now. Although protest has always provided the youth with a voice they didn’t have at the ballot boxes since the ’60s, it has grown into a passive form of expression in subsequent generations. But Hong Kong knows protest.

Because of Hong Kong’s rocky democratic development, protest has become a way of life, embedded deep within their cultural identity. Massive crowds piling up on the busy streets of Hong Kong are not uncommon to their political history. Yet the current Hong Kong protests have a new poster boy, a collective poster boy: the student. And the most popular student leader is a skinny 17-year-old named Joshua Wong, leading a group of high school firebrands called Scholarism.

Their classroom experience consists of tent-making, speaking through megaphones and holding umbrellas (household symbols of the working middle-class of Hong Kong). I asked my friend, John Yongsun Park ’16, a PAM major currently studying abroad at City University of Hong Kong, about his experience. He said:

“Real, visceral learning takes place in Central and Admiralty in Downtown Hong Kong. While roaming the streets on foot, I find myself at the core of this movement, learning much more in the moment than what any Hong Kong history course or textbook readings could teach me. The people of Hong Kong became teachers as they brought their frustrations towards the government. In this very classroom, without a single lecturer or any prelims, I am pushed to think outside the boundaries of the classroom.”

I envy John. My knowledge of Hong Kong is limited to what I’ve only seen through their cinema. Although I couldn’t have asked for a better entryway into Hong Kong’s history via the marvelous cinematic lens of Wong Kar-wai and my Asian Popular Cinemas course last semester, my thoughts and contemplations are still confined within an institution or the black space we call the theater. I have probably thought much more (maybe too haughtily) about Jackie Chan’s bodily politics with respect to the commoditized space of Hong Kong than most people my age. But as imperative as it is to have a critical vein of thinking within an educational institution, it usually stops there. It becomes more of a matter of creating a reservoir of facts and figures rather than actively responding to learned material by way of protest.

And by protest, I don’t merely mean to reduce it to the tradition undertook by our sixties predecessors. John described, “The culture of protests,” as “not being much different from the culture of Hong Kong as a whole.” He continued to say, “Protesters conduct themselves highly, understanding that this protest shouldn’t be merely following the tropes of a radical overthrow of government. This movement also seeks to reflect the innate kindness and honor code that I have witnessed personally in my Hong Kong friends and professors at my host school. And I’ve had the privilege to witness this spirit of protest both on and off the streets.”

Okay John. We get it. Hong Kong is pretty great now (not that it’s a surprise). But there’s also something to be learned in the way these students conduct themselves both in and outside the classroom. They’re not satisfied with merely garnering intellectual capital in the library and leaving as soon as the bell rings. They take their intellectual persona with them to the streets. And this is the persona that should stitch itself into both our passive and active duties.

A huge thanks to John Yongsun Park ’16 for being the Christiane Amanpour to my column this week.

Teresa Kim is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Her Meneutics appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.