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




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