NochNoch.com

Hong Kong: Stifled

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This post is part of the Travel Series – reflections and muses based on the cities I have lived in or travelled to. If you are looking for recommendations on food, things to do and the wows of a city, please go to other travel blogs.

It is a pity one lands in the grand veneer of the new Chep Lap Kok airport in Hong Kong instead of the grumble of the old Kai Tak, huddled in the midst of rundown houses, extension cords and messy loops of telecommunication wires. The affluence, development, and prosperity that Chep Lap Kok stands for are but the façade every tourist and businessperson wishes to see. Peer behind, and one finds a stifling backstage.

In the dire and dirty streets of Sham Shui Po, Kwai Chung, and Kwun Tong – the heart of Hong Kong’s production lines – small businesses and everyday laymen gather faithfully to keep HK’s economic machine fuelled. Dust rumbles as lorries shudder into parking mode

to download their cargo into freight elevators. Topless men with bulging stomachs and towels around their necks unload paper boxes onto trolleys. Every inch smells of unruly sweat. Stand on the pavement for a second too long and you would be shoved away by a workman’s gruff to clear way for the toilet paper waiting to be dispatched to the supermarkets. After 12 hours of daily labour, they return to their sardined apartments, gobble down some rice, green vegetables, and simple meat dish before passing out till dawn to repeat the same routine. A few proactive ones might learn English with audio tapes for 30 minutes, in hope they one day be promoted as manager of the godown.

The struggle is constant. Hong Kong overflows with people trying to get ahead and to create a better life – defined by most locals as “make more money, buy a bigger apartment.” Competition and rivalry infiltrates the air we breathe. From a humble fishing port in the beginning, Hong Kong transferred into a major financial center and trading port under colonial rule. After the wars, opportunities were plentiful and saw a period of self-made tycoons and businessmen. However, 4 decades later, the city is saturated. A few billionaires own 90% of the real estate, retail developments, petrol and even your neighbourhood convenience stores. The 10% is left to the bankers, lawyers, doctors, and accountants, of whom many are expatriates.

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What are the locals left with, then? They must fight to be entitled to dip their fingernails into the pie. How? The only route they know is by education and literacy. More examinations, more tests, more awards, scholarships, and internships to get into the best program in the best universities regardless whether one enjoys the actual subject matter. One must not disappoint the parents who took an overtime job after a day at the depot to be security guard throughout the night just to make an extra few hundred a month to put the children through private tuition.

I did not want to disappoint either. I did not profligate the hopes on me. I achieved with sedulous ambitions. I broke into the pie and became an expatriate myself, enabling me to relish in material goods I had never been able to afford.

Until it broke me.

It would be a futile attempt to distinguish nature versus nurture in my competitive streaks – I could have been born with the DNA to be a high-achiever and perfectionist, or it could have been the humdrum of Hong Kong’s culture and education style that moulded me into such a person.

Yet, is an achievement-focused society wrong? What would be erroneous with progress and improvement? How could one admonish parents and teachers whose intentions were for our best?

We were all trying to survive. But let us not be suffocated by mere achievements; we could strive for aesthetic appreciation and pleasure too after climbing Maslow’s bottom three layers – but is this also considered an achievement focused activity?

What do you think?

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13 Responses

  1. Nigel Chua says:

    Hi Noch

    You raised up several points, which is

    (1) Economic and Academic Pursuit – Futile Or Not?

    That is so true, even in Singapore, which economies and lifestyle rival Hong Kong. There is this constant race to “catch up or run ahead of the crowd”, beginning from the very beginning of birth such as early pre-school, tuition, “streaming” and elitism in schools…all the way down to choice of universities and ultimately worklife. It seems that whoever is placed in proper institutions, get ahead.

    In many situations and circumstances, that is true. Often, the top 10 schools which students graduate from gets the choice options out there…after minusing the expats specialists pick.

    This is the truth, and cyclical in nature. Normally.

    Yet, there are other fundamental truths and pillars that one cannot contend with, such as resourcefulness versus comfort. I’ve seen many who are born or given great resources being unable to utilize them, and they fall back into lagging – think children of rich families who had been spoilt. Yes, they have much more opportunities, but take a step back, and you’d see that the buck stops there.

    On the contrary, I’ve seen people who are so poor, yet, they work so hard to put their children and future into schools to get better opportunities, and they get promotion at work and in life, and the children, sensing the tough times where they come from, also drive to push forward, and building legacies for the future.

    It’s not about “what’s left for the locals”, which seems to blame outsiders, the rich for giving scraps to us – we can and will rise up.

    (2) Being Achievement Based

    From the beginning, human beings has always been achievement driven – it’s just different things entice different people. Some like the common – sex, power, status, material wealth.

    Yet there are others pursue the uncommon achievements, such as freedom, green world, philantropy, philosophy. Or take up farming. Or writing. Whatever one wants. These are people who either “wakes up suddenly” realizing all they’ve been chasing all these years are either not important to them because it’s been ingrained to them, or they were born into a society or family that is uncommon, and they enjoy it.

    Regardless, all human beings are blessed with freedom of will and choice, regardless of circumstances. Some are more blessed than others, definitely, but we are.

    See, life is amazing, amazingly open ended and interestingly intricated. Both ups and downs are required to make them beautiful.

    • nochnoch says:

      That’s very true Nigel, that the ups and downs is what makes life interesting. I guess at the crux, achievements is what we all want, but the issue is whether we are achieving what we want, and whether we are achieving for ourselves or simply because of others’ expectations on us. It’s an phenomenon many of us battle with to this day. And I hope we all have the luxury of time and space to take a step back, and review those points you brought up

      NN

  2. I can totally identify with all of the points in this post. That’s the same thing in Korea and Japan too. Sometimes we put so much focus on academic, getting a job, having a career, making money, everything else has to wait. We don’t support music, arts, sports in HK unless you are at the very top (so a lot of competitions and pressure just to get there) and can make a career out of it. Because being successful=having money, having a stable and good income, have the ability to purchase an apartment, everything else have to wait. Life has to wait but the truth is TIME never waits for us. I think that’s why we have a lot of unhappy people =(

    • nochnoch says:

      Hi Katherine

      Yes I agree with you. And maybe because we have been so busy being “successful” we don’t have time to think about what we want and what will make us busy!

      NN

  3. timmie bear says:

    Seems you just cant help yourself, I think it is in your DNA to overachive becuase your writing is just getting btter and better

  4. Richardo Mustachio says:

    For most of my life I have had great surroundings to fall back on. Food when I needed it, privacy (even in a shared bedroom I found some), clean clothes and clothing choices. Compared to 80-whatever percent of the world’s population, I lead a lazy fat life of milk and honey. The “spoon” may have been made of stainless steel, mass produced in millions, but I was certainly born with one in my mouth.

    I have never experienced “rich”, most of my life as a child was purely American working class, lower middle class, and for a few years, upper middle. I came from a broken home, so Ive been around, state to state, and have experienced a wide variety of lifestyles. I once had to live in a moldy fire trap (it burnt down a few years after we moved out) with cellophane-enhanced windows and froze my ass off on those frigid winter nights. This was about 50ft from my junior high school, they all knew I lived there but I was only a little embarrassed. My mom had a dependent alcoholic boyfriend to suck up all her time and abuse her, leaving little attention for my sister and myself, but fortunately my father had bought me a Nintendo 64. I saved for 007 Goldeneye, the best game to come out for that platform bar none. My sister and I spent at least 9 hours a day killing soviets with repeated crotch-shots, or ran around in crouch mode “dancing” and firing lewd messages onto walls.

    My life has been the opposite of many (all?) the posters on this particular blog. I started with all the opportunity, had absolutely zero guidance or any example of how to properly live a life, did worse and worse and ended up being the fuckup. (to be fair, Im not the only one in my family, and I have the best excuses of the bunch) I squandered so much potential, material wealth (in modest amounts) good schools, positive surroundings (not *in* my household, which was often tense and occasionally hell on earth), great grades (for like 3 years, I did crap in kindergarten (I think) and never took preschool), and seemingly blew it all off and squandered it away in lazy American apathy.

    Yet, somehow, I managed to be miserable anyway 😉

    I had a very close Korean friend in the ninth grade, went to her house a few times, more so than with any friend till about a year ago. We were chattering away like the teenagers we were, when apparently her step mom opened her older brother’s report card. He had a C or D or something. I remember her throwing his rather large stereo system around the room and out of the doorway and screaming viciously till it seemed her head would fall off. He, at seventeen, cried like a child. It scared the shit out of me, yet I was vaguely curious as to her reaction; why get so upset? What did it matter? It wasn’t until many years later that I realized i got the short end of the stick when it came to parenting. I’d much rather have that crazy wicked stepmother than the halfhearted attempts to teach me anything of value as an adult I received form my even more psychologically abusive family. Shit, I never even had a stereo system to get thrown around like a hurricane wind. It would have been nice to have that. *My* mom was on welfare.

    Having been born with the proportionately nice lifestyle and severely superior potential to “just make it” -the “American dream” as it were (and it did exist then) I would look upon the hustle and unpleasantness of some upbringings with a certain amount of horror, if not disgust and sorrow for such unpleasantness to befall my fellow human beings. Yet I know, that having been born into and conditioned for such -certain, and not ubiquitous- luxuries of laziness and entitlement, I own a less than non-subjective view on the matter. Had I been born into circumstances otherwise, then that would be what I would naturally be accustomed to. Though it is not my place to say that that would be best, for I will never know.

    Once again, did anyone find a point in my contribution? I’m thinking of offering a reward for the one who finds it for me.

    your’s dearly,

    Mustachio

    ps. I shaved it off, but I simply cannot be bothered to alter my “handle” (name)

  5. Richardo Mustachio says:

    Clever, but no. That would be too easy 😉

    I think it may have to do with the circle of life, or was that the Lion King? Or… perhaps despite the best intentions of others, or the societies we are born/emigrate into, a person’ s life may fall on hard times, and that it is up to us, the troubled masses, to strive for ourselves, looking to our own strength or forging what was not there to start with. We may have to depend on others, but if we cannot depend on ourselves, we are lost. That was my lesson. Is still my lesson.

    I “jump out of the frying pan and into the fire”, throwing myself into what I know will hurt or seems impossible. The burns leave scars which may never fade, but those lessons stay with me. They are mine, my own and no one else can lay claim to them.

    Through fire we forge a stronger mettle.

    • nochnoch says:

      Hi Richardo

      You know, the Chinese also have a saying that the stronger the fire, the better the gold / metal we are making and moulding. So challenges are lessons to learn, which makes us grow and learn more about ourselves

      NN

  6. richardo mustachio says:

    Oh good, I’m not just a madman then.

    Putting one’s self through torment, eg taking the more difficult path or choosing a more challenging course provides a twofold benefit. It strengthens and desensitizes yes, but it gives you a glimpse of yourself you might not have the opportunity to find otherwise. Just as you put it. I just skimmed through an article in national geographic yesterday morning that covered the importance of failure. Without it we would learn no lessons, never grow or prosper. failure is what makes success possible.

    Sometimes I cannot get up to face yet another day and dream of never waking up again. It is those days that I SIG down deep and pull out that grimace of determination and say “damn it! I will have a good day! I will go downstairs, say good morning even if I feel like talking then to go above it take my coffee on the porch and there will be humming birds! And I will like those birds and nor curse them for being greedy squabbling ass holes who poop on me while I garden!”

  7. richardo mustachio says:

    Typed from a phone that is terribly inaccurate touch screen, and whose auto fill has a sense of humor.

  8. […] my readers challenged me to understand my motivations for writing, and to look into my soul. Was it external validation? Perfectionism? A mid-blog crisis is an opportunity for some soul searching and introspection. […]

about Noch Noch

Enoch Li, (pen name: Noch Noch) was born and raised in Hong Kong and Australia. She has also studied / worked / lived in the US, France, UK, Japan, The Netherlands, China, and has travelled to more than 40 countries. She loves travelling and her curiosity in foreign cultures and languages has led her to enjoy her life as an international executive in the banking & finance industry. However, she was forced to take time off work in 2010 due to her illnesses and after spending time in recovery, cooking, practising Chinese calligraphy, reading and writing – in short, learning to take care of herself and letting out the residual work stress, she has transitioned into a Social Entrepreneur and founded BEARAPY to help corporates make workplaces mentally healthy, and support executives to become more resilient.