Getting Catty in Hong Kong
There is a lot to love about Hong Kong. For a city so well known around the world, it is actually an endearingly provincial place once you get to know it. Nightly news headlines range from the latest high-level talks in Beijing to the increasingly high-level price of pork per "catty"—a word I Googled after hearing it for the first time. According to Wikipedia, catty is the English word for the traditional Chinese unit of mass, commonly used in wet markets. The actual weight varies from country to country, rounded up to 600 grams in Taiwan and Thailand and rounded down to 500 grams in the mainland of China. Here in Hong Kong it is 604.78982 grams.
I also get a kick out of Hong Kong public service announcements, which exhort us to: wash vegetables thoroughly; remove stagnant water in the dishes under plant pots; be optimistic (even on rainy days); and my personal favorite, ending with this refrain: "Love your family. Say it! Do it! We are a family." How can you not love Hong Kong when you hear THAT on television?
But the city's thriving conspicuous-consumption industry is not so charming. There are at least four thick, glossy monthly magazines dedicated to luxury timepieces. I see them in the reading room at the "Residents' Club" (another thing you don't often see in my home country of Canada) of the housing development where I live. One day I gathered them up, along with the 20-page Special Report on Watches and Timepieces in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and a magazine called Allure: Watch and Jewelry best picks 2008 published by the Hong Kong Economic Times. Then I took them home—and weighed them. I know: Get a life!
The timepiece industry has historically been big for Hong Kong, and now the enclave is winding up to beat Switzerland—the world leader in luxury timepieces—in terms of dollar sales (it has been far ahead in terms of unit sales for years now). I understand that the industry employs thousands while supporting other businesses indirectly (such as printing and publishing). It's about jobs, yes—but there is something not quite right when people are employed making something that they will never be able to afford to wear themselves. And what are all these magazines aiming to do? I opened up Montres to the last page, and the last line gave an answer. A watch brand CEO ponders the following question: What is the function of the watch today? His answer: "A watch today is all about self-expression. We want to reinvent the interactivity between the watch and the user. Whether it is mechanical interactivity or optical interactivity, it is of fundamental importance to have this link between user and watch, because this is what creates an emotional link."
In letters to the editor of the SCMP, I've teased property developers for their giggle-inducing ads that want us to believe that buying a Hong Kong flat will make us feel like European royalty. I hope, someday, public relations companies and their clients will get this message: Money and material things can't buy the emotional link needed for true happiness, but using money to help others certainly can. Go ahead! Buy that watch since you can afford it, but do it because you can do a good deed (like fund a scholarship or build a school through Room to Read) at the same time, not because you have been convinced that the watch itself makes you a better person.
Well, you may be wondering just how much those five glossies and 20-page section of the SCMP weighed. The answer: 5.4 kg. That's 11.88 lbs. If you live in China, you may better understand this as 10.8 catty. That would be 8.9287217 catty here in Hong Kong, but I don't think you'd be finding any of these magazines—or the subject of their contents—at any wet market.
Weighty Matters in Hong Kong
Education is a rocky journey in Hong Kong. Costs are skyrocketing and competition is fierce, as it is on the mainland. But who would have thought that even the issue of schoolbags would be so contentious? News items about how heavy schoolbooks are here, and how to lighten the load for Hong Kong's students, are matters that everyone in the whole territory are invited to weigh in on. And as my own kids grow up, it is becoming an increasingly weighty issue.
My daughter is 11 years old and in Year Eight and weighs around 32 kg. Her schoolbag is new this year and today, Monday morning, it weighed in at approximately 1 tonne. "You need a suitcase!" I had said, not laughing, as I ran to get my camera—and the scale. The girls were running late (isn't that normal for a Monday morning?) but Eldest smiled for the camera as she tried to stuff a thick library book into the bag, and we all crowded around the scale to see an astounding 10.2 kg start to flash: me and my daughters and Aunty E, the person who helps me raise my kids. Aunty E's first point of business for the week is to carry my daughter's schoolbag down the 198 steps to the bus stop, and I sometimes wonder if I am guilty of illegal deployment.
Had it been Wednesday the schoolbag would have been even heavier holding her gym clothes. Had it been Tuesday she would have had to carry it along with her guitar case. On Fridays, she goes straight to golf squad and so she needs her clubs. (They only weigh 4.8 kg.) Being a Hong Konger, I am familiar with the issue of heavyweight schoolbags and their effect on the spines of the young, especially on those with petite frames.
So, on Tuesdays, I get on the school bus with my kids, saddled with my own kit bag, my yoga mat, 10 kg schoolbag, and guitar case. My Younger, of sturdier build, carries her own schoolbag, but being only in Year Five it is significantly lighter, for now. I don't get off the bus though. That is not allowed. Also, my contact with my kids' friends and other students is restricted: I can offer greetings, but no chitchat. And No Greetings is the preferred option, but my kids know their mum; there is a limit to how long she can be kept under control. I will admit that if the mood strikes me I will chitchat anyway.
On Tuesdays, I stay on the bus and get off one stop beyond the school, where I sit at a coffee shop for an hour then trudge off to my weekly yoga class (scary!). I get weight training from carrying the schoolbags. Aunty E gets additional exercise every Friday afternoon when she takes my daughter's golf bag to school on her bicycle, and returns with the 10.2 kg schoolbag. She is trying to make it up the hills back to our place without getting off and walking the bike up. It hasn't happened yet, but she's making progress. I said when she can do this I will sponsor her in the extreme sporting competition of her choice.
Mums—and Aunties—know that part of being a mum (and an Aunty) is about being a mule. Or, being Asian now, I will say Sherpa; it's so much more respectable-sounding, and a noble calling, too. After all, where would Sir Edmund Hillary have ended up without Sherpa Tenzing Norgay? He wouldn't have made it past the Khumbu Icefall, that's what I say!
Sherpa Tenzing was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Not only did he help other people achieve their goals (I am thinking of Hillary and countless other mountain climbers), but he was also able to achieve his own ambitions and help the community of mountain climbers/porters and his fellow-Sherpa people. To admirably do one's job to help others succeed, to fulfill one's own ambitions, and to contribute to one's community now that sounds like a life lived well! I think about this, especially every Tuesday morning, and I don't feel so bad.
In Wikipedia (attributed to James Ramsey Ullman's book Tiger of the Snows) Sherpa Tenzing is quoted as saying, "It has been a long road...From a mountain coolie, a bearer of loads, to a wearer of a coat with rows of medals who is carried about in planes and worries about income tax."
I don't know about medals—the thanks from my kids, and their uncompromised little spines, are reward enough for me—but the rest sounds about right.
My Hong Kong-born daughters have had a slow start in learning Chinese. It's something I deeply regret. But I couldn't help it, having emigrated from Canada and being of Bessarabian heritage. Over the years, my girls have picked up a smattering of languages: They can sing Happy Birthday in Cantonese; they can count to 20 in French; they know a few Japanese phrases; and they know quite a bit of Tagalog. Now my daughters go to a school that offers Mandarin instruction every day. I am excited for all of us—because I have decided that learning Mandarin is going to be a family matter. I have always felt that the supreme benefit of living abroad is that your offspring will be bilingual.
Where I grew up in Manitoba, western Canada, I was the star pupil of my French lessons which began in grade five. I was so good at picking up la langue française that I became the teacher's helper. Knowing talent when she saw it, my French teacher soon was calling on me to help students who were having a hard time mastering the language. I remember quite clearly coaching my classmates in French pronunciation. I knew that mnemonics would be useful to help them with the recitations necessary to advance to the next page in the textbook. In this way, C'est une bonne idée (It's a good idea) became "Such a bonny day." My methods worked; classmates advanced and I patted myself on the back for a job well done. But when I moved to eastern Canada with my parents, I discovered that my French was not good at all and found myself receiving remedial lessons after school. This was a valuable, character-building experience in the long run—but I didn't know that at the time.
Because of this formative experience in foreign-language acquisition, I am determined to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my children as they learn their second language. Full disclosure: I spent one summer studying at a Mandarin conversation course at the Beijing Second Foreign Language Institute when I was a university student, and my three years in Japan means that I can understand quite a few kanji though that would still make me functionally mute in Mandarin.
The timing of my newfound determination is auspicious. One Friday recently, my youngest daughter came home with a low mark in a Mandarin dictation. She was demoralized: It was probably the first time she had had a result so dangerously low in any subject. I realized the day had come when I could start applying my language-learning background to my native-English-speaking children's education. Flashcards for everyone! Posters by the bedside, and even a few next to the TV. A Mandarin dictation APB (all-points bulletin) was sent out. There was going to be a different dictation on Monday and e-mails of encouragement ricocheted to and from all family members.
Over the weekend, we played the game "concentration" on three levels: Chinese pinyin (pronunciation) and English meaning. We played until the Mandarin pronunciation and English meaning became second nature. Then I made a second set of Chinese character cards and we played concentration by matching the identical pairs. Every time we flipped a card we had to say it and pretend to write the character in the air with our index finger. After a while, I would flip the cards for my daughter and she would write the character in the air, no longer allowed to look at the card as a prompt. On the Monday morning, our family helper walked my daughter to the bus stop, to give her what we named the "last-chance-saloon" quiz. By then my daughter was so sure of herself for the upcoming dictation. And she got a perfect score. I even learned a thing or two.
I know at this level, it will be easy for me to stay one page ahead in my children's textbooks, so to speak—at least for now. But it is my fervent hope that both my daughters will be talking circles around me very soon. I am already dreaming of summer sojourns to Beijing for further study, but for now, I'd better hit the books, and make some more flashcards.
There has been a lot of media coverage recently regarding the issue of Chinese-American Yale law professor Amy Chua's parenting practices, her book about them entitled The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and the resulting brouhaha over the pitfalls of Chinese parenting. At first, the way the issue was reported, I felt guilty. Was I not doing enough for my own children? At first, as a Hong Kong-based mum, I felt I could relate. My two daughters, about the same age as Chua's, are accomplished dancers and gymnasts, earning marks that make me proud, spending their time outside their IB-program school practicing violin and guitar, and augmenting their classroom Mandarin with Mandarin-by-Skype lessons.
Our holidays included summers spent in Iceland where, in addition to rigorous hiking and playing golf under the midnight sun, I offered "study-tours" of geothermal power plants and close-up looks at hydroponic greenhouse agriculture staffed by special-needs personnel. We spent one Christmas in Cambodia, to teach English to orphans and to learn the basics of torturous traditional Apsara dancing alongside talented youngsters who study the art to earn a living for their families. And then there was the trip to Paris, for an immersion course in Impressionism. Trips to Florence (Renaissance art), Bali (The Green School) and Barcelona (Gaudi-appreciation combined with clown school) are forthcoming.
I spent a while wondering about what kind of mother I was, and what animal I could appropriate as a label. As a Hong Kong-based person of Canadian descent, could I call myself a Polar Bear Mother? How the mighty have fallen! From being the most fearless animal on the Earth to one that now resorts to garbage picking on the outskirts of Churchill, and at the mercy of global warming, too. Moose Mother is just not flattering. I asked my British husband about animals native to his country, but Badger Mother has that inconvenient double entendre, and Fox Mother, while something that Yummy-Mummy wannabes may aspire to, has the wrong connotation as far as I am concerned.
In a way, the media rumble made me feel better. In recent years I had been worried that I was pushing my children, that I was guilty of "competitive parenting," and so I would write magazine articles about "overprogramming" to assuage my guilt. Now I knew—I was nowhere near approaching the level of "focus" that Chua had been demanding. For Westerners living in Hong Kong, it is easy to understand why the motivation to push children to succeed exists as it does here. Big population, small place. Passports that don't always get you where you want to go. Bathroom attendants and old men and women pushing trolleys piled high with cardboard through the city's streets. It's basically in the numbers. It is a search for a competitive edge. Here in China, competitive parenting is not an ego trip.
I picked up the issue of Time magazine that followed this media scrum; Chua and her daughters were the cover feature. Certainly, the article and the photos will be worth a few more book sales for her. It does say, however, that the violinist is now continuing her lessons "for fun." Again, I feel so much better. Unlike Chua, I never had any expectations that my daughters would play Brahms and Mozart at Carnegie Hall. But, I have mentioned to my guitar-playing daughter that, all things being equal, it is the guitar-player who will get that job at that international summer camp when she's in high school. My Tiger Mother efforts go so far as compiling a list of songs she can work at, like Kumbaya and Leaving on a Jet Plane. My little violinist also plays a mean ukelele. She will never be Hong Kong's Sarah Chang but, let me tell you, nothing beats having your child sing and play Let It Be on that instrument after a hard day. Nothing. You may have to make a deal; some television or permission for a playdate or sleepover in exchange for those sweet sounds, but it's infinitely worth it! And, I believe, the pride and pleasure they derive from—so easily—pleasing their parents may someday prove to be their competitive edge.
The truth is, this whole Tiger Mother business is just good business for Chua. But it is also the equivalent of playing the race card. It is inflammatory, risky, and essentially dishonest. And parenting is a high-stake game. The fact is, if you have ever seen a real Tiger Mother with her cubs you will recognize the similarities between her and yourself. We are all tiger mothers. In spite of whatever mistakes we make along the journey of parenthood, all we wish is the best for our children, and recognizing that we cannot leave that job to others. It is not a cultural or race-based issue. It is a human concern, and also, for some species anyway, an animal concern. It is the one truly universal issue. Happy parenting.