Sunday, November 9, 2014

Umbrella - ella - ella- eh -eh -eh

8th grade. Life Skills class. Probably the most useless class ever. Except the class in Senior Year where they taught us how to iron a shirt and make guacamole for a beer party to order to prepare us for college.

This particular class was about strength in diversity. Good topic since we were in an international school where kids hailed from all corners of the world. In order to get us interacting, our British teacher called out different countries and asked the kids to stand up when their home country was called. 






The cheap black chairs were screeching from kids standing up in a hasty attempt at patriotism, a brief moment of solidarity with their motherland, which they have long since abandoned for the metropolis of Hong Kong.


Only one chair was pulled back. And one girl shakily stood up. That was me.

Our teacher looked around the room, dumbfounded. He pointed to nearly half of the class. "Aren't you . . .  aren't you all . . .  Chinese?" The group of black eyes stared back at him. 

A tall boy from the track team, my neighbor who I had had a major crush on since forever, shook his head emphatically. "No. No. We're Hong Kongers. We're not like those Mainland Chinese."

After class, I was surrounded and taunted. "Sisi, you have to pick a side. You're one of us. You were born here. You're lucky. So why did you say that you are Chinese?"

Maybe they did not know, or maybe they did know, but my mom was from Mainland China.


Around a month and a half ago, the world watched as tens of thousands of people spilled into the busiest main streets of Hong Kong and demanded universal suffrage where they can freely elect their Chief Executive (equivalent to city mayor) without any pre-selection from the Communist Party which runs the PRC government seated in Beijing.

The protest was started by a group of high school and university students, but when the police used tear gas on them, tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens joined in a rare moment of solidarity and indignation. A movement was born. The propagandistic China Daily newspaper angrily called it a "bad Color Revolution" that the United States conspired to spark. The Hong Kongers proudly labeled it the "Umbrella Revolution" - a nod to the umbrellas that protesters brought to protect themselves from the tear gas. People were chanting "Our Hong Kong. Ours to Save." and wearing pollution face masks in lieu of gas masks.

There's something powerful in that statement. It is not "Our Hong Kong - because we don't want to be  Chinese." But rather, now it is "Our Hong Kong - because we are willing to fight for our democratic rights."

Magic happens when the young are galvanized enough to take action. Now my generation is increasingly well-versed in the Basic Law, our "mini-constitution" that governs Hong Kong after the handover from China. We are no longer apathetic and only concerned about buying the iPhone 6. We are finally awake and aware.

I cried when I first read about the protests on the news. I was in Greece and felt like my childhood home was calling to me to return and take a stand. I followed all the major news thread about Occupy Central and imagined myself on the streets with my rainbow umbrella.

After six weeks, A. and I finally went to Hong Kong this weekend and walked around the Occupy Central zone. The protesters still have the major highways and roads under hostage, stacking makeshift fences to delineate their territory. Whenever the police have tried to storm in and retake control of the road, more crowds will rally to the cause and push the police back. So that's how Hong Kong is stuck in this uneasy impasse, the police always alert to an opportunity to move in and the students and protesters at large carry on life within the bright tents that line the highway.

The protesters do not show signs of letting up. Many have brought their sofas, clothing racks, and juicers. They erected a study hall with wifi access and wooden tables so students will not fall too far behind their studies. Most leave during the week days to go to school or work and return on the weekends to continue the sit in. Parents bring their children to the tents on the weekends and eat McDonald's together while leaning against a road block.

While the society at large respects the patriotism underlying the cause, not everybody appreciates the inconvenience caused by the protests, cutting off a major traffic artery to the heart of Hong Kong. The taxi drivers grumble at the lower demand for taxis because of traffic and the nearby small shopkeepers also feel the pinch in their business. The local mafia (first time I knew that they existed outside of Jackie Chan movies) even incited a group of anti-protesters to go and tear down the barricades because they couldn't operate in their usual under-the-radar zones with all the students camped there.

I am mixed. Sometimes my chest burns with youthful idealism and hope that somehow all the umbrellas will be enough to bring democracy and solidarity to Hong Kong. Other times, I am worried that this will just deepen the fissure between Hong Kong and Mainland China for a pipe dream of true democracy that logically the PRC Chinese government will never relent to. And if universal suffrage will never happen, then maybe we should just let go and try to mend our fences with Mainland China so we can build a unified country?

. . . What was that line I learned in American politics 101? "Give me freedom or give me death" - Americans always made the pursuit of democracy seem so natural.

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