Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Last Word on Hong Kong?

I've been back in Hong Kong this week attending a conference that served as the culminating event for the four-year Gen Ed Fulbright program.  I helped in the early planning and design of the conference, and was proud to have been part of a great gathering of over 400 people from all over the globe committed to liberal education and excellence in higher education.

But while I was here in a professional capacity, and was very charged up by the debate and exchange of ideas that happens at a good academic conference, I kept finding myself reflecting on the personal dimensions of my time here last fall and how I felt about being back.

There was, of course, the sense that a chapter of life was ending.  And this made me nostalgic and sentimental.  Though not the quickest way to get into Central for a dinner with friends, I took the Star Ferry.  One last time.  The jingles in the MTR trains, drilled into my head over all those months last fall, made me smile this time.  The blocs of high rises, so characterless before, now seemed iconic.  And then there were the good-byes.

But I came to realize this visit wasn't really like the end of a story.  In reality, that happened in January when we said our farewells—plenty of sentimentality then, too—packed up all our stuff and moved away.  This time I was just visiting.  So I felt a bit detached and objective, reflective and retrospective.  It took me some time to work out the odd feeling I had about the visit.

What it was, what I was feeling, was epilogue.

When the story is over, a good epilogue lets the reader gain an alternative perspective on the story.  It's not really a part of the story, but rather lets the author and the reader have a kind of side discussion about the story.  But this doesn't make it less important to the overall book.  I think a good epilogue does two critical things.  First, it reveals answers to questions readers naturally have developed reading the story.  Second, it provides closure.

What questions did this epilogue visit answer?  I’ve realized how much I like Hong Kongers, who are gentle, kind, warm, diligent, elegant, orderly and passionate about ideas.  And I've realized how much I like the poppy, twangy, sounds of Cantonese.  I also realize now how much I learned about general education and the art of teaching.  Before I came, I suspected I would take away more about higher education than I’d leave, and now I see that has been true. 

I also know now that I can navigate a foreign culture.  Hong Kong did much to boost my confidence about traveling and getting along in exotic locations.  Living in Tuen Mun, way out in the New Territories, was challenging in many ways, but it was also satisfying to get along without the Western comforts of Hong Kong Island.  And the confidence I’ve gained in Hong Kong, and China too, has fed my travel bug.

Did this epilogue bring closure? 

We had kept our Octopus cards—the stored-value cards used on the MTR trains and in many stores.  The boys wanted theirs as souvenirs, but I brought the adult cards back to Hong Kong, intending to use them while here and then return them for the HK$50 (US$6) deposit.  I didn't want the souvenirs—I have other, more meaningful memorabilia. 

After cashing one card in when I arrived, I started to have an internal debate about turning in the other when I got to the airport to depart.  It would be good to have the cash, why not?  But having a charged Octopus would be handy if I returned... 

When I returned?

I kept the card.  And so epilogue becomes prologue.

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