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Where in the World is Dr. Beal? November Update Part Two

Hello from Hong Kong!

There’s plenty of fun to be had over here—trying new foods, learning new customs, seeing new sights, watching my kids grow with new experiences. But the study abroad experience, and more specifically my Fulbright work as cultural ambassador, comes with some struggles, too.

Some of those struggles are superficial, mostly having to do with the comforts of home. For instance, the coffee here tends to be roasted darker than I prefer, though it’s passable. The beer here is much lighter than I like (and I’d wager, preferences aside, that most of it here is objectively not-good). And the cheese dip? That Arkie staple? Virtually nonexistent. There are good reasons for each. Historically the Chinese lean toward tea instead of coffee, and they have little interest in alcohol and still less in Tex-Mex textures. I can survive without these comforts, of course, and reflecting on cultural differences is an important part of experiencing other cultures.

Other struggles run deeper, raising unsettling questions about my own identity.

I continue to struggle with Asian values of orderliness and personal space. Our whole family does. It’s not only that it’s often crowded here, though that’s a practical concern, too. The issue is twofold, concerning right-of-way and how much space a person grants another when one can.

For instance, people here don’t conceive of the line—the queue—in the same way that people do in the States. If I give the next person in line a couple feet of personal space, almost certainly a third person will glide in front of me. And the same could be said of a map at the metro station: no point in standing back a bit so others could look along with you, because someone will likely step in between you and the map, impeding the view for anyone else.

Of course cultures have unique rules governing social behaviors such as personal space, and I have to remind myself that people aren’t being rude here. They aren’t breaking any rule; there simply isn’t one to break. But this is one cultural difference that still nags at me each time it happens. “I was here first!,” I find myself wanting to shout. And then after a moment of cooling off, I wonder why being there first matters so much to me, and I wonder how this response signals core assumptions of Americans—perhaps even pathologies of whiteness. I still don’t have good answers to those questions, even though I confront them regularly. And not understanding myself is still more of a struggle than managing social spaces here.

Remind me sometime to tell you about another Hong Kong issue my wife and I struggle with: “helpers.” Largely Filipinas and Indonesian, these women act as live-in maids for the families who can afford them. It’s a complex issue, and another one in which I feel it difficult to understand my own assumptions about the practice.

Struggles, yes, but instructive experiences that we couldn’t have without leaving home.

Anyway. Here’s a picture of me and my daughter at the Man Mo Temple nestled in the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong’s Central district. It’s a Taoist temple dedicated to one of the gods of literature, Man, and one of the gods of war, Mo. Inside, the room is thick with incense burning for different favors and blessings, and the surfaces are painted in deep red, gold, and dark browns. After a few minutes inside the temple, it’s easy to forget that it’s situated in one of the world’s major financial hubs, with gleaming high rises and high end shopping malls nearby.

Until next time.

Wesley Beal is an associate professor of English at Lyon College. This fall he is serving as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar at the University of Hong Kong, where he teaches two courses in American literature and continues a study of the campus novel genre. Please reach out to him at wesley.beal@lyon.edu if you have Hong Kong- or Fulbright-related questions for him to investigate. He’ll do his best to oblige in subsequent blog posts.