By Zona Zhang
Petite, frame glasses, and a sweet smile were my first impression of Yan when I saw her in an English seminar. Indeed Yan looks very Chinese, but her Western ideas and intellect impressed me in class, and I came to know her as a person who embodies both Chinese and Western characteristics. She graduated from Diocesan Girls’ School (DGS), a top EMI (English as Medium of Instruction) secondary school in Hong Kong. Later, Yan got into Hong Kong University, and now she is an exchange Junior at Yale.
Yan’s academic courses back at Diocesan Girls’ School and Hong Kong University resemble those of the rigorous Western education system. However, she chooses to exchange at Yale because she believes that there is no real liberal arts education in Hong Kong. “My major is International Business, and it was fixed the moment I got into college. Although you can still choose some interesting classes in college, basically most of your classes are major-related.” Seeing college as a place to explore more possibilities, Yan chooses classes that are not exactly related to her major. Yan takes an English literature seminar called “Good Literature,” a class on “German Fairy Tales,” and another European literature class related to the Holocaust. She told me that she might consider minoring in literature when she went back to Hong Kong, but she took these classes mainly because she liked them. For Yan, Yale provided her with this opportunity that was not available at Hong Kong University. Yan’s openness to Western education and her initiative to pursue a variety of interests makes Yale a perfect fit for her. Learning how Yan ended up at Yale, I became curious about how her “western” intellectual experience and her “eastern” life experience jointly shape her as a person.
When I asked Yan about her favorite place in Hong Kong, to my surprise, she immediately picked Mong Kok, an old retail district that is characterized by the various dazzling shops that load the narrow streets, with neon lights and big plastic bill boards that stick out above the local crowds. “I actually prefer Mong Kok to anywhere else in Hong Kong. There are always a lot of people on the streets, jostling and wandering around. Sometimes it’s really sweaty, crowded, and loud, but I feel that it’s the authentic Hong Kong that I relate to the most.”
Yan described her school life at DGS as the “western part” of her life, as opposed to the “eastern part” of her life outside school. DGS is located in the core urban area of Kowloon Peninsula. “Chinese (Cantonese) is hardly heard at school. There are some EMI schools in Hong Kong where everybody still talks in Chinese (Cantonese), but every single class at Diocesan is taught in English and people speak English all the time.” Impressed by the fluency of Yan’s English and her familiarity with Western education, I could hardly imagine the young lady in front of me as a local Hong Kong girl who’d find herself in the crowd of Mong Kok.
“Outside of school, life in Hong Kong is pretty traditional.” Family is a huge part of Hong Kong life and the young are expected to respect the elderly and visit them from time to time. Yan’s grandparents came to Hong Kong when the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong happened. They opened a small local wholesale store, or a “Sham Shui Po.” “It was our family business back then. My father was born after my grandparents had the store, and he used to help out in the store when he was young. The shop followed my grandparents when they moved to Mong Kok, and I like to go visit from time to time.” When speaking of Mong Kok, Yan smiles relaxingly and her eyes shine with the joy of memories. She told me that her mother was an expert of the Mong Kok area: “She was able to tell every corner of Mong Kok. She used to take me to this street that sells all kinds of beads and ribbons, and as a little girl I really liked it.” Yan described to me the crazy streets in Mong Kok. There is an entire street that sells goldfish, and another that sells flowers; there is even a street called “sneaker street.” At Mong Kok, Yan also learned to play “Gu Zheng,” a traditional Chinese string instrument. “I took Gu Zheng classes at Mong Kok. I had so much fun that a lot of the inspiration of my later creative writing came from back then.”
From Yan’s depiction, Mong Kok sounds like a maze that would immediately engulf me with the colorful and diverse Hong Kong local culture once I stepped into it. Yan gestured with her hands frequently to show me the complicated structure and the different aspects of Mong Kok. She used Cantonese to describe the name of certain places and objects, and the familiar Chinese tone of excitement gradually reveals Yan’s “eastern part” to me.
“Here at Yale I realize how Asian I am.” When asked about how she managed to balance her traditional Eastern identity and her pursuit of Western education, Yan compared the different values she saw in Hong Kong and the United States. “In the US, people are very individualistic, while in Hong Kong, I feel we care more about families and communities.” To Yan, family and traditional values sometimes mean sacrificing or hiding part of herself. “Back home, family was always a priority.” Yan’s family, like many traditional Hong Kong families, gathers from time to time. During these gatherings, the elders expect to see all the children of the family having come home to visit them. Yan’s grandparents would always tell her to “Come visit more” and “Have dinner with us next time!” “The family gatherings are really sweet. They make me who I am today, but sometimes, it’s a pressure as well.”
Compared to her cousins, Yan has had a very different education. “My father did not receive the best education when he grew up, so he decided to provide me with the better resources of education.” Yan’s father works as a banker. His income supports the family so that Yan’s mother can stay at home and take care of Yan’s school and family life. Yan’s cousins have very different family settings. Their parents were all very busy with their work, so they were taken care of by Philippine domestic workers. Most of Yan’s cousins went to CMI (Chinese as Medium of Instruction) schools, and are more or less unfamiliar with the Western education system. “My aunts and uncles talk about how well my cousins are doing in school during our family gatherings. Whenever they say it I just nod and smile and reserve my opinion. Because they and I have very different standards when it comes to the definition of ‘doing well.’ ” Yan’s cousins are perhaps the most typical local kids in Hong Kong, who are limited by a single-aspect understanding of academic achievements. When I asked Yan whether this “different standard” creates conflicts within her family, she said that the conflict is certainly there, but she tries not to address it: “Every time I meet my cousins I just say things like ‘What are we going to play tonight?’ We never talk about academics. Some of my relatives don’t know that I’m at Yale now. I just don’t want to boast about myself in front of my cousins, especially because I know that some of them are even having trouble getting into a local college.”
Yan did not have a condescending tone when she talked about her cousins. However, there was a sense of resignation hidden beneath her sweet reminiscence of family gatherings: “It was never about myself, or I choose to not make it about myself. I never try to compete with my cousins. It’s more important to enjoy one another’s company.” From Yan I see the subtle Chinese family value unveil itself. It is the way one treats the elder and the peers, and it is the compromise one makes to keep the family a whole.
Zona Zhang ’18 is in Davenport College. Contact her at email@example.com.