Sunday, October 20, 2013

Work and Violence

I’ve never been afraid to go to work.

I’ve held a job in some form or another almost continuously since I was 16. I’ve worked for minimum wage in retail, as a camp counselor, and as a barista; I’ve scrubbed toilets, woken up for the 4 AM Black Friday shift, stayed past 1 AM on school nights, and done various other unpleasant things associated with service industry jobs. These were minor aggravations at best; I wouldn’t say I enjoyed every minute, but they were tasks that came with actually doing the job I was getting paid for.

Many people in the U.S. do much harder work than I’ve ever done for the same (or lower) wages, and most people have much higher stakes than whether they’d be able to afford textbooks next semester. At $7.25/hour, I could earn the daily wage of a foreign domestic worker (who works on average from 6 AM to midnight) in a little more than 2 hours at home.

I’ve been inconvenienced, but I’ve never felt physically threatened for just trying to exist and do my job.

Earlier this week a client came to the mission seeking advice regarding her employer. She’d been harassed, threatened, spit on, poked in the eyes, and told she should “shrivel up and die of hunger.”  Her employer had already told her she would make her life a living hell. She had a detailed diary of each of these assaults as well as audio recordings of some of the threats. I could tell that she was shaking and near tears for most of our conversation. She was terrified of her employer to the extent that she felt it necessary to have a complaint on file in case something happened to her. In these sorts of cases, it becomes a he-said-she-said situation between the worker and the employee, and they’re very difficult to prove without concrete physical evidence.

Despite her fear of being attacked, she was determined to work for at least another month to support her family back home. In Hong Kong, if either party terminates the domestic foreign worker contract without a 30 day notice, they are forced to pay a month’s wages, and her family couldn’t afford to pay back that wage. I admired her determination, but I also felt completely helpless knowing that I was sending someone back into a situation that could easily escalate further.

I wish that this were an isolated case. I wish that I’d been shocked by her story in the ways that I should have been. I wish that I’d known something to say to make her safer in the place where she lives. Unfortunately, her story was not uncommon. In my short time here, I’ve met women who’ve described the terrible abuses they’ve faced in their situations. I’ve seen the bruises on one woman who’d been bitten so hard that half of her arm was purple. I’ve heard audio recordings of a woman being called a “piece of shit” and of loan agencies threatening to kill their families if they didn’t pay money (which was fraudulently lent in the first place). I’ve counseled people who were forced to sleep in bathrooms, hallways, and even on top of the fridge. My coworkers tell me about a woman who’d been branded with a hot iron on her hands because she’d messed up the laundry, and another who’d had cans of food thrown at her head every time her employer was displeased with something. I see women every day who are regarded as less than human for simply trying to better the lives of their families.

For these women, each day is a struggle for survival; the mere act of existing becomes a form of resistance.

I can talk about the statistics surrounding gendered violence all day: about 80% of the roughly 800,000 individuals trafficked each year are women. One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Up to 50% of rapes worldwide are committed against girls under 16. The statistics are grim, but from my comfortable chair in the Sewanee library they were just numbers to be discussed as part of a broader discussion on the issues.

Knowing these numbers intellectually and looking into the eyes of someone personally experiencing them are very, very different.

Fortunately, I suppose, these stories aren’t necessarily the norm for Hong Kong. There will always be good employers and bad employers, and many domestic helpers enjoy great relations with the families where they work. To me, that still doesn’t outweigh the minority who live in constant fear of their lives.

I can’t pretend that I can make sense of these things. I’m grateful for my support system here and abroad, and I’m grateful that I have never felt these sorts of threats in my own life. They certainly aren’t exclusive to Hong Kong: domestic violence is still a pervasive worldwide problem, and many, many people work in unsafe conditions in both the U.S. and abroad. I don’t have any answers about this, and it’s quite possible that I’ll never know what happens to the woman I met earlier this week. What I do know is that the fight to end gendered violence is worth it.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Juxtapositions

First: I am alive and well after Super Typhoon Usagi! We did not lose power, but it looks like there may be some minor wind damage to a few of the surrounding buildings. Most of the major storm happened overnight, so we were able to sleep through most of the rough parts. It seems to have more or less missed Hong Kong, though southern China was not as lucky. I returned to work today (Monday) at 1 P.M., and life seems to be quickly returning to normal.

In the month that I've been here, I've learned that Hong Kong is a city that exists in a state of contradiction.  Eastern and Western cultures coalesce in unique balance; extreme wealth and extreme poverty stand next to one another; and celebrations and challenges happen simultaneously. This week, it's felt like a constant shift between these highs and lows. I have spent much of this week trying to absorb and understand these different, intersecting parts of Hong Kong culture.

Last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to attend a press conference held by MfMW, Bethune House (the shelter associated with MfMW), and other welfare organizations in anticipation of the decision of a case that has been in the news in Hong Kong recently: an Indonesian maid who endured being beaten with a bicycle chain, tied up for days with no food or water, and forced to drink from the toilet, among other abuses.  The organizations used the imagery of the Mid-Autumn Festival to call for an end to policies that place women in positions where they are vulnerable to these sorts of abuses within the employer's homes. One employer was sentenced to three years in prison and the other to five. I'm grateful to have been given the opportunity to attend the press conference, but I wish that the circumstances had been different.

Beautiful Lanterns in Victoria Park
On the same day that the verdict came out, Katie and I attended the Lantern Festival at Victoria Park as part of the celebrations of the Mid-Autumn Festival. While it is still very, very hot in Hong Kong, we enjoyed being among the festival-goers and seeing the displays of lanterns, inflatables, and lights around the park.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the biggest holidays in Hong Kong, and people celebrate by giving one another moon cakes for weeks leading up to the date. We enjoyed both white lotus bean paste versions (which are more traditional) and chocolate versions (which are really just made to appeal to western pallets). Once again, the East meets West in Hong Kong, and new traditions are absorbed into the old.

A few streets down from Victoria Park in Tai Hang was the annual fire dragon performance. We weren't quite sure what to expect, but apparently it originated during a plague during the 1880s. According to legend, a village elder was told in a dream to perform the fire dragon dance with fire crackers during the Festival. The sulphur from the crackers drove the plague, which saved the village. These days, the dragon is over 200 feet long and made of burning incense sticks. It was a beautiful, if pungent, experience!
Fire Dragon Progression
Year of the Snake: Katie's worst fear.
This was made out of water cooler bottles and LEDs.

If anyone reads Chinese, please let me know what this means. 
Katie and I also visited the history museum later in the week. An annual pass to all of the museums in Hong Kong is about US$12.50, so I see a lot of museum trips in my future! The museum was fascinating, and it gave the history of Hong Kong as a linear journey complete with life-sized models. It provided some much-needed context for the social dynamics of Hong Kong's cultures and position in the world. As I spend the majority of my days immersed in Philippine culture rather than Cantonese culture, it's nice to have more background knowledge for the days I venture outside of my work life. 
My life in Hong Kong is consistently about contrast: I live with American, British, and Chinese hall mates in a shared kitchen. I work almost exclusively with Filipino clients and staff. I attend St John's, which has members from the UK, Australia, China, the Philippines, South Africa, and dozens more locales. Although my neighborhood is fairly expat-heavy, I still stand out as a blonde, pale American walking around. I'm barely 5'4", but occasionally I'm the tallest person in the room by a head. Hong Kong Island and Kowloon can easily seem like different countries. I'm still trying to adjust to these seemingly conflicting facets of life here in Hong Kong, but that's part of why I'm here. As I learn more about these histories and these contexts, the lived experiences of the people I encounter become clearer, the city richer, and the discussions more meaningful. I can't wait to watch it unfold. 


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Settling In

Hello from Hong Kong! 



It's hard to believe that I've already been here for three weeks. Since arriving, I've been learning more about the legal work that the Mission for Migrant Workers does and about the challenges faced by Foreign Domestic Workers around the world. It's difficult and at times emotionally challenging work, but the other staff members at the Mission have been very patient with my questions and uncertainties about what to do with cases. I began seeing clients last week, so there's definitely been a good deal of trial by fire. 

Because I am just starting out, I mostly handle agency fee cases. In the Philippines, it's illegal for agencies to collect placement fees from potential Foreign Domestic Workers. In reality, they often charge women between 80-100000 pesos (1800-2200 USD), forcing them to take out fraudulent loans. The wage for almost all FDWs in Hong Kong is $3920 hkd/month (~500 USD), so the loans are a huge burden for the women. In addition, the lending companies then harass the workers, their families, and their employers with threats and/or huge interest fees. One of the most important services of the Mission is helping women file complaints against these illegal lending companies in hopes of getting their money refunded. Currently, cases being filed now are backed up until 2014, which means both that more and more women are filing complaints and that people are becoming more aware of the problem. As I continue working, I will likely be doing work with the Bethune House (one of the shelters associated with the Mission) and working with clients with more complicated cases. 

The Mission is on the grounds of St John's Cathedral, which is a gorgeousuuu Anglican Church in the middle of the financial district of Hong Kong. As you can see, it's a nice contrast from the surrounding skyscrapers:



The grounds of St. John's - possibly the greenest thing I've seen in Hong Kong!
During WWII, St John's was an entertainment building for the Japanese. Other than that, it's the oldest Anglican church in the Far East! 




I live in an Anglican seminary in Central, which is in a very nice neighborhood on Hong Kong Island. The area is great, but I do a LOT of walking uphill! On my hall, we have 4 Chinese students, 2 Brits teaching English, my fellow YASCer Katie, and myself. It's been wonderful to have a community in such a foreign place, and it's made the transition much smoother. 

In addition, I have been able to do some exploring! I haven't made it to most of the traditional sightseeing places yet (I work 5-6 days a week, and it's VERY hot outside right now...) but I've been to a few different parts of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. I'm trying to spread out my touristy things through the year to keep things fresh. 

I've been told this was may be the sunniest day I'll see in Hong Kong. Despite the heat, the pollution blocks out most of the visibility. 

More of Central

The view from the Avenue of the Stars in Kowloon. 

Once again, thank you everyone for the support! It means the world to me.

In peace,

Sara




Sunday, August 25, 2013

Made it!

First, I am happy to report that I've officially met my fundraising goal! THANK YOU! I'm incredibly grateful for all of the support I've been given, and I couldn't have made it here without you.

Second, I've made it to Hong Kong! My journey began around 4:30 AM Tuesday morning, and I arrived here Wednesday night around 10:30 local time. Suffice to say, it was an incredibly long 30 hours. Since then, it's been a bit of a whirlwind!

On Thursday, Grace, who served as the YASCer at the MfMW this past year, was kind enough to show me around my new neighborhood. Hong Kong is much steeper and much more winding than I thought it would be! We stopped by the Mission for Migrant Workers office at St. John's Cathedral, one of the shelters in Kowloon, a grocery store, and around the subway station.

On Friday, I had my first meeting at MfMW. I'm thrilled to be working for this organization, and I greatly enjoyed meeting the people with whom I will be working. I officially start work on Tuesday!

Today, Grace and I attended St. John's Cathedral, and afterwards she took me to the areas where migrant workers typically hang out on their days off.  Later on in the year I will be spending most of my Sundays working in these communities, but today I had more of a quick tour. Afterwards, we stopped by Ikea for a few necessities (a coffeepot).

Unfortunately, I haven't really taken any pictures of Hong Kong yet, but I promise to do so once I get a bit more settled in. In the meanwhile, I'm looking forward to starting work, exploring more of the city, and learning more about what this year has in store for me. It's going to be great! 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Two Weeks Away

"May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise, and love.
It is there for each and every one of us."
-St. Theresa's prayer, which was given to me by my Sawyerville Day Camp prayer partner.

I'm leaving for Hong Kong two weeks from today! It's hard to believe, especially considering how much I still need to do to prepare. It's been a whirlwind of fundraising, traveling, and managing the small tasks that seem to pile up as I'm getting ready to leave. 

While we were in Florida for Discernment back in February, we were told that fundraising was a critical component of this year for many reasons.  First, it allows twice as many people to serve as YASC missionaries than could if the national church covered all of the costs.  Second, it gives us a chance to spread the word and build a support network at home.  They were so, so right about this. 

When I started this journey, I never would have imagined that I would meet so many inspiring, kind people in one summer. It's been a simultaneously humbling and empowering experience to feel the support of so many people, many of whom I have never met before.  In addition to financial support, people have offered up contacts they know in Hong Kong, advice about what it's like to leave the comfort of the United States for a year, encouragement and kind words when I had moments of doubt, and offers of prayer.  Word has spread around Albany, and I was interviewed for the Albany Herald (and made the front page!).  St. Paul's held a bake sale and raised over $1,500! These incredible gifts have given me new hope and drive to leave for Hong Kong. With everyone's support, I'm at around $9,000/$10,000, and donations are still coming in! THANK YOU to everyone who has donated! 

St. Paul's bake sale. This is only 1/3 of the goodies!
My contributions!


I have been traveling around for the past month or so speaking at various churches, and each parish has been a unique, but perfect, experience. I preached a sermon at St. Paul's, given unction at St. John/St. Mark's (who also offered their loose plate offering once a quarter–WOW!), and spoke to a Bible study at All Saints' Homewood, among other things. 

They say it takes a village to raise a child.  Now, I don't have any children, but I know that it's taken a village for me to get to this point.  I believe strongly that nothing happens in isolation, and I am the product of countless mentors, teachers, professors, friends, classmates, acquaintances, and others with whom I have interacted and learned both from and with. I am an incredibly lucky woman to know such wonderful people and to have had so many invest parts of themselves in me.  In particular, I would like to thank:
  • My parents, for not completely freaking out when I told them what I would be doing;
  • Donna Murdock, Julie Berebitsky, Lisa Howick, Michelle Williams, Judy Quick, Logan Rothschild, Alex Middleton, Cameron Jefts, Sarah Corley, Fleming Beaver, and ADT, for seeing promise in me even when I couldn't,  encouraging me to dream big, and calling me out when I needed it as well;
  • The Diocese of Alabama, the Diocese of Georgia, the University of the South, St. Paul's Episcopal Church (Albany, GA), All Saints' Chapel (Sewanee, TN), Cathedral of the Advent (Birmingham, AL), St. Mary's-on-the-Highlands (Birmingham, AL), Holy Spirit Episcopal Church (Alabaster, AL), St. Luke's (Birmingham, AL), St. John/St. Mark's (Albany, GA), All Saints' (Homewood, AL), St. Patrick's (Kenwood, CA), & Cathedral of St. Phillip (Atlanta, GA), for your contributions;
  • Every single person who has donated, whether it was in money, a kind word, or in passing along information about my journey. I couldn't be doing this without you! 

If you're interested in reading the sermon from St. Paul's, click here.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Just go and be."

So much has happened recently! From June 16th-29th I was in New York attending YASC Orientation, where I was able to reconnect with my fellow YASCers and participate in two weeks of cross-cultural training. I consider myself very privileged to have met each one of the YASCers from this year, as each has touched my life in some form and taught me something new about service and faith. 

Here, in no particular order, are some photos from training: 


Sign at the Stony Point Center

Julie and Keri skip rocks near the monastery

A window at the Eldridge St. Synagogue in Chinatown 

Coney Island

Joseph, Maurice, Rachel, Emily, Claire, Julie, and myself at the Church Center in NY

Team Hong Kong! Katie, Grace, me, and Will. You'll probably be hearing a lot about this group, as Katie, Grace, and I will be living together in Hong Kong. Will will be across the city, but we'll see him often! 

A Russian restaurant in Brooklyn during "finding your way in NYC"

Bishop Katherine at 815

Bishop Katherine, graciously posing with her fans


As you can probably guess, orientation was filled with many adventures, lessons, and moments of reflection. We spent a good deal of time discussing cross-cultural issues, practicing shifting our frameworks to better understand the communities in which we will be serving, and preparing to tell our own stories as we enter into a new context.  In addition, we spent time at a monastery, participated in a tour of a variety of religious houses of worship, met with the staff of the Episcopal Church Center, including the Presiding Bishop, and learned about the history of Anglican Mission. 

More importantly, we learned about the challenges of being a cultural "other" and about the dangers of a single story. While I will always be an outsider to Hong Kong culture, I will hopefully be able to seek out the multiple, interlocking stories of the people whom I am serving.  This is one of my goals during my year abroad, and I aim to communicate those stories with people at home as well.  Finally, we received the advice to "just go and be" with our new communities, and the rest will work itself out.  This one may be my biggest challenge, as I am more inclined to want more defined goals and expectations of myself and others. 

Over the next few weeks, I will be continuing to fundraise and preparing to move abroad for a year. On July 21st, I will be speaking at my new church home, St. Paul's in Albany, GA. I have set a date of departure of August 20th, which is rapidly approaching! It won't be long now!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

On Commencement and Mission

On May 12, 2013, I officially earned my Bachelor's Degree in International & Global Studies.  Honestly, it all still seems rather surreal; I was traveling for two weeks after graduation, so I've only been settled into my new house in Georgia for a few days. Between unpacking my dorm room and unpacking an entire house, things have certainly been chaotic! I've finally started to have time to reflect on my college experience – something that has shaped my life in ways I'm sure I will continue to discover for years to come. I've also started reflecting on what, exactly, "Commencement" is and how it relates to my work for next year. While it may be the end of my undergraduate carrer, it is the beginning of my being sent out into the world, carrying the lessons I have gained within and outside of the classroom. 
Our Baccalaureate speaker was David Brooks, who gave us this advice:  "Don’t think about what you want from life. Think about what life wants from you. If you’re observant, some large problem will plop itself in front of you. It will define your mission and your calling. Your passion won’t come from inside. It will come from outside." It seems appropriate that "Commencement" and "Mission" have similar etymologies. "Mission" comes from the Latin word meaning "to send out" and "commencement" is "the act of beginning." As I begin preparing to leave for Hong Kong, the similarities between the two become more and more apparent. 

In other news, I am still fundraising! The Diocese has set up an online payment system which should make the process easier. I have also set up a Calendar, which marks the sponsorship days. Each day in Hong Kong is approximately $30. If you would be willing to make a tax-deductible donation, you can follow the link and select "YASC Mission: Sara Lowery" from the drop-down menu. In the comments section, please note which days you would like to sponsor. 

The next step for me is training in New York! In two weeks, I will be reunited with my fellow YASCers while we prepare to depart. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone and to learning more about what it takes to move abroad for a year! 

In peace,

Sara

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A beginning, of sorts



Welcome, friends, family, and all to my blog! I'm excited to finally announce my plans for next year and to share the details of my mission with the world.  My name is Sara Lowery, I'm 22, I'm from the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, and I will be serving at the Mission for Migrant Workers in Hong Kong for 12 months starting in August through the Young Adult Service Corps. While Hong Kong may not be first place we think of when we think of mission work, there is need all over the world, and the Mission for Migrant Workers gives Foreign Domestic Workers both a physical shelter and an organization that advocates on their behalf.




The video below helps to explain the status of Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong:

Next month, I am graduating from the University of the South in Sewanee, TN.  I am an International & Global Studies major with a concentration in Global Culture and Society in Asia and Europe and Women's & Gender Studies minor.  Ultimately I would like to be working with public policy and women's advocacy, but I believe that in order to do so effectively I must spend time learning from those with experiences different from my own. As the name of my blog suggests, I believe we are all called, as stated in the Baptismal Covenant, to, "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being."

I've been privileged to have such an engaging academic career, to which I owe so much of who I am.  My high school teachers taught me what it means to think and to question the world around me--instead of focusing on route memorization and maintaining the status quo, we were taught that the things we learned mattered and challenged to think for ourselves.  In college, I have studied the creations and effects of globalization. In particular, I've studied how people, ideas, technologies, and funds are moved around the world and how globalization is impacting individuals, systems, and economies.  This directly aligns with my YASC placement, as the vast majority of the migrant women do so in order to support their families due to these economic policies.   College has taught me the importance of checking and understanding my privilege: my experiences and oppressions are not universal, and presuming that I have the answers to injustice and oppression is unproductive.  I owe a great deal to my educational institutions, and I feel ready to take on this new challenge of learning from and building relationships with people halfway across the world. 


How Can I Help?

I'm so glad you asked! I need support in many ways, and I invite you to help support this ministry and my work in a variety of ways:

  • Emotional support: Hong Kong, while a very large city, is probably going to get lonely! Any letters, emails, Facebook messages, and/or carrier pigeons would mean the world to me. 
  • Logistical support: Can you help spread word about this mission? I'd like to get as many people as possible involved, so directing your friends, family, and coworkers would be a great help! 
  • Financial support: As with any mission work, YASC can't function without financial support. Each YASCer is asked to raise $10,000 for their mission.  This is about half the cost for one year, and covers all airfare, training, housing, language programs, health insurance, and a monthly food stipend. This is a pretty daunting amount, but it breaks down to around $30 per day. Could you consider sponsoring a day? For every $30, you get claim to whatever day you want! On your chosen day, you'll get a personalized email from me updating you on my journey.  Of course, donations of any size are GREATLY appreciated. Consider giving in thanksgiving or remembrance of a friend or relative.  Gifts are tax deductible. 
The Episcopal Diocese of Alabama will be collecting the funds. If you are able to give ANY amount, please make the check to the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama with "Sara Lowery - YASC" in the memo line. Please send them to 
Episcopal Diocese of Alabama
ATTN: Rob Morpeth
521 N. 20th Street
Birmingham, AL 35203 

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