My Semester in Hong Kong

By Adriana Leila Rocks

I recently got a text message from a friend: “You’re literally experiencing history! So interesting.” I guess it’s “interesting” to see fires outside my window and riot police storming my campus to assault kids I knew last week as classmates. It’s said there’s an ancient Chinese curse that goes: “May you live in interesting times.” Right about now, I’m ready for some seriously boring times.

I set out at the end of August to Hong Kong, excited to see what the city offered. I hung out on rooftops drinking beers, downed cheap vodka at ladies’ night, and watched the sunrise from a beach rave. I lived like an exchange student, with few limitations as long as I could find an ATM.

The experience was indeed “interesting”: the city, the cultural differences, the endless stream of humanity. It was even “interesting” when the Chinese University (CUHK), my school, was plastered in graffiti and posters, and when 30,000 students rallied on campus to demand freedom.

As protests escalated in mid-October, the MTR subway system stopped running, businesses closed, ATMs ran out of cash, and protesters burned anything they could rip up from the streets or find in garbage bins. The police lobbed teargas, charged into crowds wielding batons, and arrested scores of protesters. I didn’t leave campus for a week.

But people can’t stay on the streets forever, and they eventually have to return to their day jobs. Even as the protests bubbled along at a low boil, I reverted to my comfortable life of classes, beers, and sunsets.

Then on Nov. 11, protesters blocked roads and MTR stations in retaliation for the death of a student who fell from a parking garage. The police originally claimed they hadn’t been there, but later admitted they were. CUHK cancelled classes. Police stormed campus, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds of black-clad students crouching behind makeshift roadblocks of gym mats and trash cans. That evening, things cooled off a bit as the police retreated and exhausted protesters returned to their dorm rooms.

The next day, I was engulfed in a cloud of teargas outside my building, only 300 meters from the front lines. Riot police shot over 1,000 rounds of teargas, much of it around the field and running track where I watched sports teams’ practice from my eighth-floor window. Bike-sharing cycles were unlocked and students quickly hopped on, ferrying cargos of Molotov cocktails and bricks.

It felt like preparations for a medieval siege, albeit with 21st-century characteristics. Students formed assembly lines to pull chairs and desks out of classrooms and ripped down trees to erect barricades. Someone broke into a sports equipment closet and stole bows, arrows, and javelins to launch at police. A dinner prepared by dining hall staff was contaminated by tear gas. The college warden ordered trays of butter chicken and rice from a nearby Indian carryout joint — which students picked up at one of the roadblocks ringing campus.

On WhatsApp and Telegram news, and disinformation, spread like wildfire. “There’s a bomb.”, “The water supply has been contaminated by cyanide stolen from the chemistry lab.”, “If enough international students contact their consulates, they’ll send in foreign troops.”

It became a lot less “interesting”. The campus was no longer a place of education. Teargas really hurts. Seeing nursing and medicine students treat your peers for rubber bullet wounds and burns isn’t fascinating anymore. It’s no longer an interesting experience when people you know steal sugar from the canteen to supercharge their Molotov cocktails.

I support the cause that sparked the movement. I do think Hong Kong deserves freedom. And the last thing I want is to see this city descend further into violence. But what I saw that week no longer felt like a means to that end. A video of a pro-Beijing man arguing with protesters went viral. In the clip, protesters pour gasoline onto the man and torch him. Flames burst out as he writhes in pain. He is alive, but has suffered serious burns all over his body. CUHK students told me, “We have to protect our freedom of speech.” Freedom of speech also involves listening to people you disagree with, and not setting them on fire. From the evidence I’ve seen around Hong Kong and my campus, the protesters lost sight of what they truly wanted that week.

The next day I evacuated CUHK shortly before the administration abruptly canceled classes for the rest of the semester. I made a plan to stay with a friend on Hong Kong island, packed some necessities, and set out across campus on foot. Sidewalks had been ripped up. Scouts with binoculars occupied a platform overlooking a highway bridge. I passed a mini Molotov cocktail factory on a route I normally took to class. Buses I had ridden across campus just a week earlier had been hijacked, covered with pro-democracy graffiti and used to transport supplies. The energy and innovation of the student protesters was “interesting,” but I’m sure they would have preferred living in uninteresting times.

I joined a stream of evacuees carrying backpacks and trailing suitcases on a narrow path through the woods to the highway. In the other direction came a line of students hauling supplies dropped off by sympathetic Hong Kongers.

It didn’t take long to shift from besieged campus to plain old life. At my destination, I was greeted with a home-cooked meal and a family watching Netflix. As I slowly decompressed, I started looking for flights out of Hong Kong.

The gravity of the situation didn’t really set in until I got to Vietnam the next day and had time to reflect on what I’d been through, and –more important –what Hong Kong was going through. The police assault, the pervasive smell of tear gas, the organization of supply drops and medical facilities built, the surreal getaway. I had become numb; it was as mundane as going to class or ladies’ night.

Of course, I’m an outsider. My blue eyes, curly brown hair, and credit card meant I had little problem getting out, other than an extra-long walk across campus and a detour in an Uber. The outcome doesn’t affect me like it does the locals. I can go home to a place with a lifestyle that’s not that different from the one CUHK students had grown up with. And I’m sure it’s what they want: uninteresting times, but with universal suffrage.

I will never forget my foreshortened semester in Hong Kong. The “interesting” and mundane, the violent and peaceful, the stressful and the relaxed. It taught me to react quickly, clean teargas from my eyes, and value public transportation. And it’s taught me what democracy isn’t. Here’s to living in uninteresting times.

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