There’s a photo of myself that makes me cringe whenever I see it. Actually, there are a number of such photos, but there’s one in particular that I have in mind. I’m standing on a street in Bologna, Italy, holding a white coffee cup that I had smuggled out of a cafe minutes earlier. In my other hand I am holding a cigarette. It was a cold day, and so I was wearing a dark jacket, dark pants, a black scarf and a fedora. I was 20 years old.
A few months before that photo was taken, I had arrived in Italy to begin my year as a student in Padua. It didn’t take me long to adapt. The Italians seemed to live just a little bit better than everyone else. They dressed well, appreciated beauty, ate excellent food, took time for conversation, and refrained from working themselves to death. Their country was a repository of history, art, and architecture, and there seemed to be an endless supply of quaint villages and cobblestone streets. They were friendly, funny, and embraced each other often.
Of course, my perspective was more than a little skewed. If students in Italy had it easy, then foreign students had it easier still. We were not expected to do much except occasionally attend class and take oral “examinations”, most of which consisted of light conversation with the professor. Although I had gone there ostensibly to study, I can’t remember learning much of anything academic. What I did learn, though, was far more important. I learned that I liked living abroad, had a facility with language, and wasn’t unduly burdened with homesickness. I liked traveling alone, keeping a journal, talking to strangers, and taking very long walks in new cities. I was willing to try new experiences and eat whatever anyone suggested. In short, I found that I was a natural expatriate, and a born-again European.
Had I known then that I would spend six more years abroad, I would not have been the slightest bit surprised. But had I known that those six years would be spent in China, a country which I had barely even thought about at that point, I would have laughed uproariously. China, and Asia, could not have been farther from my mind.
The story of how I went from being a European-tinged American to a long-term resident in China is a long one, and I won’t bore you with it now. But between my life in Asia and occasional trips home to California, Europe receded further from my memory. My ability to speak Italian never left me, thankfully, but opportunities to practice it did. And when I moved to New York to attend graduate school, choosing to focus my academic interests around China, Europe seemed to be little more than a distant dream.
Tomorrow I will board a flight to Italy for the start of a 11-day vacation to the old world. I’m planning to return to Padua, which I haven’t seen in eight years. No one I know lives there anymore, but that doesn’t matter. I’m sure I can still find my way around. And just maybe, I’ll find that 20-year old kid again and tell him to enjoy it while it lasts, because fate works in funny ways.
A friend of mine used to say that the Communist Party slogan about Hong Kong- “one country, two systems”- got it exactly backwards. Hong Kong has a different language, currency, customs , and legal system- in short, it’s a different country. But since both China and Hong Kong practiced a similar form of authoritarian capitalism, the more accurate variation to the slogan is “two countries, one system”.
Of course, this joke doesn’t go over particularly well with the Chinese, for whom the return of Hong Kong was a significant source of national pride. But it does underscore the ambiguity of Hong Kong’s relationship to the mainland. On paper, the rules are fairly clear. China has jurisdiction over Hong Kong’s defense and foreign policy, while all else in Hong Kong is to remain the same through 2047.
To the uninitiated, Hong Kong and China are very different- as even a quick hop over the border from Shenzhen will reveal. Hong Kong has a well-deserved reputation for being apolitical and business-minded, a tax shelter filled with shopping malls and countless dim sum joints. While China endured great political convulsions during the Maoist era, Hong Kong simply carried on as before, running as efficiently as a sewing machine. The fact that the territory’s highest political officer is called “chief executive” further reinforces its image as a corporation masquerading as a city.
Yet despite this image, Hong Kongers are decidedly not apathetic about their situation. Every June 4th since 1989, thousands have gathered to mourn the victims of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square massacre, displaying a freedom of expression that their mainland cousins can only envy. Many more have protested recently over the appointment of Leung Chun-ying as Chief Executive, a reminder that the lack of democracy has not gone unnoticed. Even the South China Morning Post, once an emblem of Hong Kong’s cherished press freedom, has recently come under attack for a ham-handed, politically motivated cover up.
All in all, there’s an underlying sense that the Sino-British agreement underpinning Hong Kong’s status may be increasingly wobbly. A stronger China may feel less inclined to honor Hong Kong’s de facto independence, particularly if the locals continue agitating for political rights. China’s history with Hong Kong has always been gentle in comparison to its turbulent relationship with Taiwan, but in the coming years and decades the Bamboo Curtain area seems poised for greater conflict.…