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The Class and The Intellects

Updated: Apr 19, 2019

By Sena Lai

The huge room is a bit shabby with greyish white walls and an open kitchen on the side, filled with smell of spice and food. The tables are put together to become the high table for another furious yet exciting debate. The members come from all kinds of countries, Ghana, Togo, Iran… yet if you intended to be ignorant and racist, you may see no difference but “just” a bunch of Africans or black people mixed with a few unidentifiable ones. Among the foreigners there are from time to time a few timid Chinese students, usually from Hong Kong but not always, who rarely become the minority here. As the class starts at noon every Saturday, the white American professor, obviously standout from all the non-white participants, throw to his students every time a challenging or even radical sounding question, “do you think there is racism in Hong Kong?” “Do you think there is a need to refine the gun policy in the US?” Then the debate sparks off spontaneously and lasts for 2 hours non-stopped.

As the topics diversified from Hong Kong localism to corruption in Africa countries, to be able to speak with some concrete grounds, it actually requires a lot of knowledge and understanding about different countries and their societies. Being a student of one of the so-called top universities in Hong Kong, it is normal to be perceived, or even I would have perceived myself as one of the smartest people in the society. Nevertheless when I listen to these people throwing out history and names of politicians, citing examples from one country to prove the failure of another, that is the moment I realized that there are indeed many people who are much more smarter and wiser than me. And these people are among us in Hong Kong anonymously. Later I got to know that some of the participants actually worked for embassy, some holding numerous degrees, some once owned a company. If we are to value someone by their educational levels and social classes, these people were definitely to be respected and honoured. However, it is only due to one label, “asylum seeker”, that has made them disregarded of all their achievements and values as a person in this very moment.

During the class, it is fascinating and surprising to see people from the same country or of the same religion would not necessarily be backing each other. There seems to be a united camp for one political topic, but for the other the team just dismisses and the members would turn against each other. The beauty of the debate is that despite the arguments are critical and sometimes even on fire, once the class ends, everyone would help each other to clean up the place, pad on the shoulder and go to have lunch together. In today’s world people easily get defensive and offended. When we look at the hate comments on the Internet or even the racist harassments on the street, it is the ignorance that causes overreactions to a foreign-looking person. It is also the groundless pride that made people turn a deaf ear to knowledgeable and legitimate criticism. However, in the class it is impressive to see people of different nationalities and backgrounds being open and honest to share their opinions, not afraid to speak against others in discussion, yet no one is offended by the opinions shared and can still be friend with each other. What if the world could also share such a picture?

In the whole experience of the class, the status of asylum seeker really does not matter at all. The only relation would be that the status is the reason why these people join the class, and their experiences add on to their articulations and perspective to see the world differently. But that’s all about it. For anyone coming in the class for the first time, it is unable to tell who is THE asylum seeker by appearance, by educational level, by birth origin or by anything obvious. The disguising nature tells exactly the reality of asylum seeker status: irrelevant to their individuality and character. If we see these individuals through the lens of “asylum seeker”, it may turn into coloured spectacles and distort our visions from seeing who they really are; yet if we could put away this label, we can see how these individuals shine as intellects and mature global citizens.

A high school English teacher, best known as the son of a prize-winning historian, David McCullough Jr. once said, “climb mountains not so the world can see you, but so you can see the world”. Among the many debates and discussions happening in Hong Kong about the local society and the world, people may be shouting loud to protect themselves, to make themselves heard, yet sometimes we forget the fact that the “opponents” are also human beings, and they could be much more of a legitimate speaker in different issues. To what extents can we claim ourselves as acknowledged to argue for something? To what extents we have the capacity to recognize others for their strengths, but not limited by one or two labels we add on them? Maybe it is time for us to shut our mouths for a while and listen, to let ourselves be humble enough to be impressed by these “outsiders” we dismiss, be open enough to learn about how the others perceive the reality we thought we have known.

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