hong kong

Democracy: A Tale of Two Cities pt. 3: Hong Kong, Boots (flipflops) on the Ground

What is home?  Home is where the heart is.  Some people say home is where your family is. Some people say home is where you are born. Some people say home is wherever you currently are.  I agree with all of these, and to paraphrase a friend, you do not get to choose where you are born, but you do get to choose where you live. Eight and a half years ago, I chose Hong Kong. Or rather, Hong Kong chose me. I do still believe that all my paths have been leading me to Kabul, my great big pie in the sky dream; however, Hong Kong is the place where I became who I am today. Hong Kong is forever in my heart- my greatest love, my longest and most stable relationship. I think there will never be a place like Hong Kong for me- my #1.

Four days ago I hopped onto a plane from Kabul to Hong Kong, so that I could participate in the historic demonstrations that are ongoing in my adopted city. Anxious to join the protestors in the struggle towards democracy, my heart was full of anticipation and a bit of trepidation- would there be repeats of the tear gassing and pepper spray? What of the rumors of guns full of rubber bullets? Would the PLA show up, as people all secretly feared? What I actually encountered when I arrived in Hong Kong on Wednesday, 1st October (China National Day), was far more shocking, far more moving.

The main thoroughfare from Sheung Wan-Central-Admiralty-Wanchai-Causway Bay has been transformed. Instead of a busy highway full of taxis, buses, cars, and trucks, it has become a pedestrian zone full of black and yellow clad protestors of all ages. Contrary to what you might be fearing, after that tense Sunday night of tear gas and pepper spray, there has been absolutely no further violence or altercation. In fact, this is, by all intents and purposes, the best of anything I have ever seen in my 8.5 years of living in Hong Kong. This is the best of our courtesy, politeness, respect, compassion, and caring for one another as fellow humans, as fellow Hong Kongers. Here is what I have witnessed over the last few days of the protests:

  • Tens of thousands of people on Connaught Road. Walking around, standing around, sitting around…. You would never know that this is our main highway, that it is a road at all. It looks like a wonderful park.
  • Tens of thousands of people waving their phones and flashlights, and singing together. It’s no wonder the Taliban banned music in Afghanistan before…. The power of collective singing and music is far too powerful to ignore. Every time spontaneous song erupts I have to fight back my tears, as the camaraderie is so emotional
  • Students doing their homework on the street
  • People walking around collecting garbage
  • Garbage and recycling sorting stations
  • Kids handing out free water, food, fans, cool packs, stickers, democracy information, yellow ribbons, etc
  • People holding signs offering translation services for those of us who mm sic gong guangdonghua
  • People climbing ladders set up over the road dividers
  • Banner march by ethnic minorities
  • People walking through the crowd spraying cold water on overheated protestors
  • First aid stations manned by volunteers
  • Supply stations full of free water, food, umbrellas, raincoats, goggles and cling film to protect from tear gas
  • Signs advertising free legal services in case you get arrested
  • Signs advertising free showers and phone charges
  • Messages of international solidarity projected onto the walls of the government building
  • Protest art, everywhere
  • Signs of apologies for blocking roads, rogue graffiti, anything offensive
  • Yellow ribbons everywhere
  • People cooking and distributing food right on the street

People have accused Hong Kongers of being self-absorbed, apathetic, and driven only by money. What I have witnessed these last few days assures me of exactly the opposite- what I have seen is people caring for each other and for the city, offering help, assistance, advice, and being driven by a spirit of community and humanity that I always knew was here, but never got to see before.

Hong Kong truly is a SPECIAL Administrative Region…. The most special. Pray for peace, pray for progress, pray for Hong Kong!!

Phone charging station

Phone charging station

Crowds

Crowds

Lending a helping hand

Lending a helping hand

Barricades

Barricades

Recycling station

Recycling station

Messages of encouragement

Messages of encouragement

Free umbrellas

Free umbrellas

Ethnic Minorities joining the cause

Ethnic Minorities joining the cause

Kids joining the cause

Kids joining the cause

Wise words

Wise words

Collecting garbage

Collecting garbage

Solidarity

Solidarity

Dreamers

Dreamers

Crowds

Crowds

Help yourself!

Help yourself!

Homework time

Homework time

Ga Yau!

Ga Yau!

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Democracy: A Tale of Two Cities pt. 2: Kabul

Afghanistan’s first round of elections took place on 5th April 2014. An unprecedented 8 million people- men and women alike- came out to cast their vote, despite Taliban threats. As there was no clear majority, the elections went into a runoff vote on 14th June to determine if the next president would be Abdullah Abdullah, former Minister of Foreign Affairs (and warlord from the Northern Alliance) or Dr. Ashraf Ghani, former Minister of Finance and founder of the Institute for State Effectiveness, which focuses on rebuilding failed states (this election should have been a no-brainer, right?). The ensuing months were at first a heated race, dwindling down to a stumbling not-quite finish.  Both sides were of fraud, and an audit of the votes was necessary.  Abdullah Abdullah protested and withdrew from the recount process so many times that his name became synonymous with a joke about Gul Marjan, a village girl, who refused all potential suitors, until she died an old maid. “Gul Marjan ye nemanee.” The months prior to the entire election process were fraught with violence and terror, with devastating attacks on restaurants, guesthouses, and hospitals. The months during the election recount slog were also peppered with violence as well; however, by the time Afghanistan limped over the democratic finish line, there seemed to be no fight left for aggression.

After recounting first 10%, then 20%, then 100% of the ballots, eliminating about a million as fraudulent, Ghani surprised nobody by winning over 55% of the vote.  I don’t know what I can say about Abdullah.  As an outsider, I was so unimpressed at his whining and withdrawing and threats of running a parallel government.  Even up to the very last day, he threatened to boycott the actual inauguration, as his demands that the official numerical results of the final count be kept secret from the public were not met.  In the end, a tragic compromise was reached: the winner would become President, the loser would become Chief Executive, a post which would eventually transition into Prime Minister.  The IEC (Independent Election Committee) had to make an outrageous number of concessions, including giving powerful cabinet positions to both candidates’ cronies, no matter what the Presidential outcome.  So what was the point of the election at all?  The point was that at the very least, Afghanistan got to choose.  The people of Afghanistan got to let their voices be heard.  Twice.  (and then wait, and wait, and wait, and endure, and talk about nothing else but the election).

September 28th marked Afghanistan’s first ever democratic transfer of power, and instead of the customary celebratory pickup trucks full of AK47s and testosterone, Kabul heaved a great sigh of relief, and slept in late on the inauguration day public holiday. A friend, who has been in country for several years, mused that the people were simply too tired of the elections to fight anymore. Today was day one of Ashraf Ghani’s presidency, and the Afghan people are ready to get back to work. Bring back the businesses, bring back the contracts, bring back the projects, bring back the development. People are keen to resume life as normal!

Meanwhile, in my alternate reality, Hong Kong people are surging onto the streets to protest the diminishing of their democratic rights. After the initial night of tensions between demonstrators and police, crowds swelled to a reported 150,000 strong. Solidarity movements are in force all across the globe, from Taipei to New York to Berlin to a small band of Afghan students and teachers wearing yellow on October 1st. The eyes of the world are fixed firmly on Hong Kong this week. And my own eyes are fixed on Hong Kong as well.

Hong Kong, my adopted home. To paraphrase a friend, you do not get to choose where you are born, but (sometimes, if you are lucky) you do get to choose where you live. By the greatest providence ever, Hong Kong seemed to have chosen me 8 years ago, welcomed me into her steamy embrace, molded me, formed me, introduced me to the best friends I could ever know, and gently guided me towards my dream, Kabul. And although I have a different address now (at the end of the access road beyond the second gate past Kabul University secondary entrance…. Who am I kidding? I have no address. It’s Afghanistan.), Hong Kong will forever be my home.

The crazy juxtaposition of these two opposite cities is unbelievably hard to wrap my head around. Most people would think of Afghanistan as a failed state, yet we just peacefully transferred the power over a conservative Islamic republic to a man who spent decades of his life in America, and is married to a Lebanese Christian. Most people would think of Hong Kong as a very developed and stable, but politically apathetic city full of money-chasers. And yet, faced with the mortality of our burgeoning democracy, we take to the streets in peaceful, but adamant protest.

One thing that I have learned this year is that one person CAN make a difference. Our efforts, no matter how small, combine to form world-changing movements. If a little violin teacher from Upstate New York can help bring stability to a child’s life in Kabul, then one person’s tiny voice can add to the roar against tyranny and suppression.   I am writing this from the Dubai airport, as I could no longer sit back and watch history in my home-by-choice unfold in such a crucial manner. I am on my way back to join my adopted brothers and sisters in Hong Kong in the noble struggle for democracy tomorrow on October 1st, Chinese National Day. Please lend your solidarity and support in our fight to keep our democracy and our rights! Wear yellow on October 1st, and send a picture to a friend in Hong Kong. 加油, 香港!!!

Ashraf Ghani is sworn in as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as Hong Kongers peacefully protest for the right to elect our own Chief Executive

Ashraf Ghani is sworn in as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as Hong Kongers peacefully protest for the right to elect our own Chief Executive

Democracy: A Tale of Two Cities pt. 1: Hong Kong

photo credit: Joshua Wong

Police standoff.

The front pages of SCMP, New York Times, CNN, BBC, Time, Al-Jazeera, Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal are all the same:

Tear gas fired at protestors as streets become a battleground/ Police unleash tear gas/ Clashes at protest frontline/ Tear gas and clashes/ Tear gas used against protestors/ Bedlam/ Chaos

photo credit SCMP

Cops tear gassing HK crowds around 1am

These are the kind of headlines I would except from Kabul, the city where I currently enjoy political instability, city-wide lockdowns, vehicle born improvised devices and the likes.  These are not the kind of headlines I would expect from my beloved home, HONG KONG, safest and most stable city in the world!!

Why is this happening?  Recently, Beijing issued a statement saying that THEY will choose the candidates to go on future ballots, that they will have veto rights over who gets “elected.”  Essentially, Mainland China is ruling out our democracy.  We already have extremely limited suffrage, and this further diminishes our rights, and swallows us more and more into the gaping maw that is the PRC.    Hong Kongers are peaceful people, and we love our city.  For us, protesting is a way of life.  It is one of the things that makes Hong Kong so great- we are able to voice our opinions without fear of oppression from the government.  But tonight, protests have turned ugly, with police firing tear gas and pepper spray into the crowds of thousands, with a constant rumour of guns (rubber bullets, let’s hope) to follow.

I have been glued to the live feed on http://hongwrong.com/occupy-central-live/ since getting home from work.  It is so surreal, to be sitting here in an ACTUAL CONFLICT ZONE, watching live footage of the unfolding chaos like I would watch in an action film.  The thing is…. it’s not a movie, it’s my home, and it’s happening live.  Scenes of the Admiralty MTR piled high with garbage cans, cordons, and barricades; footage of police in riot gear shooting pepper spray and tear gas into crowds of unarmed students with their hands in the air, reports of my friends getting hit with tear gas canisters; whatsapping with friends on the ground, listening to thousands of my HK compatriots singing “Do you hear the people sing” and “Beyond” through the Hong Wrong live feed……. I am overcome.  I am so frustrated to be in Kabul, and not in Hong Kong right now.  I feel helpless that I am not there with my friends fighting for our democracy, for our votes, for our rights, for our voices.

Something significant resonate strongly with me.  This protest started days ago, and yet, every piece of footage shows protestors with their hands raised and open, no rioting, no aggression, no looting, no violence whatsoever.  You will never find a more peaceful protest.  Hong Kongers just want freedom.  On the other, coming from the Kabul perspective, a city where I regularly see pickup trucks full of police carrying automatic weapons, where I have to avert my eyes at traffic checkpoints, where at any moment those who keep order here can become perpetrators, it should to be noted that the Hong Kong police are actually showing a great deal of restraint.  The whole situation could have escalated way further than it has, and although I am horrified to see my city imploding the way it is, I am grateful for the control thus far.  I just pray it doesn’t go any further…….

This movement in Hong Kong…… is not just important for Hong Kongers.  This is important for everyone who lives in the territory- local and expat alike.  This is important for Taiwan.  This is important for Macau.  This is important for DEMOCRACY IN GENERAL.  Can the world sit by and watch a peaceful and wildly successful, autonomous, first world territory have its rights taken away?

MEANWHILE, Afghanistan is poised just hours before the inauguration of our new president, in the first ever democratic handover of power in the country.  Ashraf Ghani won 55.27% of the vote, but sadly has to share the power with Gul Marjan Double Abdullah, in a deal that has been met by heavy sighs across the nation.  Afghanistan has been crippled for six months by these election processes and recounts and withdrawals from the audit process, so the unsurprising results were met not with the bang that some suspected, but by the whimper they deserved.  And just a few hours ago Mr. Gul Marjan ye na mani threatened to boycott tomorrow’s inauguration!!  Let’s see what, if anything, happens tomorrow in Kabul, my other home.

tear_gas_cops1am

Cops tear gassing HK crowds around 1am

photo credit NY Times

Tear Gassing

photo credit Mazen El-Mahmoud

Beyond the barricades….

photo credit Hong Kong Allies

Face off

Hong Wrong live feed:

Watch this South China Morning Post video on the clashes today:

http://static.movideo.com/flash/movideo_player.swf

photo credits: Joshua Wong, SCMP, Hong Kong Allies, Andrea Banang, Mazen El-Mahmoud

How it all began

“When that guy leaves Afghanistan, I want his job.”

In 2008, after having read several books about Afghanistan, I found myself in love with the country and dreaming of someday living there.  I was particularly inspired by “Kabul Beauty School,” by Deborah Rodriguez, a hairdresser from Texas, who made her way to Afghanistan to do hair and makeup for the embassy and NGO workers stationed there.  Moved by the plight of the local women, she set up  a beauty school to teach them skills that would empower them and give them purpose and independence as they set up their own shops.

I remember thinking that a Suzuki program would have a similarly empowering effect– mothers learn to play the violin together with their children.  They learn how to teach their kids at home, and in a country with so little, a skill like that would mean so much!  Dr. Suzuki originally started his incredible teaching movement in a similarly ravaged post-WWII Japan.  His goal was not to train prodigies, or to raise up concert violinists, but rather to bring peace and hope to a generation of children who were growing up with destruction and despair.  He believed that if children could learn to create something beautiful, they would be more sensitive and caring themselves, that “music exists for the purpose of growing an admirable heart.”  I share Dr. Suzuki’s passion for changing lives through music; I believe in it 100%.  And thus the seed of my Afghanistan dream took root and germinated.

Faced with the realization that the country was too dangerous and unstable for my dream to be a reality any time soon, I focused my attention on adventure travel, teaching around Asia, church, sports, and nurturing my school as best as I could.  God blessed all of this richly- the school has grown to over 150 students, with the most incredible staff you could ask for.  I have more stamps and visas in my passport than I can count, and live in the best city on the planet! My church community is like family, and I can proudly say that I have paddled the circumference of Hong Kong Island. Yet in my heart, I always yearn for more; to be more impactful, to reach disadvantaged children, to go more third world-y.

I remember the moment when I read that William Harvey, director of my favorite charity, Cultures in Harmony, had moved to Afghanistan.  I turned to the person sitting next to me and said, “When that guy leaves Afghanistan, I want his job.”    Fast forward four years, almost to the day; I see William’s blog post entitled “Leaving Afghanistan.” Leaving.  He needs someone to take over to teach the students and train the local teacher for a year.   My heart must have skipped 12 beats.  Was this real?!

What transpired over the last 2.5 months has been a whirlwind:  I email William to congratulate him on his new post, and to enquire about life in Kabul, as I *might* be interested in his soon-to-be-vacant position.  He writes me back within hours, encouraging me to apply.  I freak out.  I apply.  Mind fills with self-doubt.  Awash with guilt at the prospect of leaving my beloved school and my amazing staff and my children that I have been teaching for so long. Prayers.  Then, I feel peace.   Interview- good!   Short-listed for position- great!   Job offer- amazing!  Fabulous colleague agrees to take over directorship of the school for a year- incredible!  Several superb teachers interested in taking over my studio- what the heck!!  Icing on the cake, another of my fabulous colleagues agrees to cat-sit my big fatty Kaseem- hurrah!

 I ACCEPT MY DREAM JOB AND AM MOVING TO KABUL IN 100 DAYS.  

I cannot articulate my joy and gratitude.  God has already blessed me beyond my wildest dreams- who would ever have thought that He would bless me with this as well??  He knows me so well.  He knows the desires of my heart- He planted that desire there in the first place!- and has directed my path to Afghanistan so clearly.  I have no doubts, no fears about going, just only joy and gratitude.

There are a hundred Rumi quotes with which I could close this entry.  Here is how I feel about Afghanistan, and why I am so excited to go:

“Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.” … “Respond to every call that excites your spirit!”