Students reflect on time in Hong Kong
One city, two realities
Bags in hand, Nora Leidinger exits through the sliding doors into the arrivals hall at the airport. She had a long, twenty-hour journey, and she knows she looks it, since the businessman next to her on the last flight from Moscow to Dusseldorf was only too happy to tell her. As soon as the doors open, Nora is overcome, literally, by the flowers flung in her direction. Her dad pops a bottle of champagne and fills the flutes he brought from home, and her mom and boyfriend embrace her. ‘You’re not allowed to leave any time soon’, they tell her.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever been welcomed back in such a great manner. It was crazy’, says Nora. She’s lived abroad for several months before, in Laos and Canada, but this time her homecoming is very different. She’s just spent four months in the midst of the Hong Kong protests.
I don’t think I’ve ever been welcomed back in such a great manner
Even though the political situation had been unstable for some time already, Nora was determined to go to the Special Administrative Region of China for her exchange at City University. She had spent months preparing for this adventure.
But the semester turned out very different from what she had planned. When the protests – against a controversial extradition bill and in favour of independent democracy – escalated, Nora got more and more involved. She took food and first aid supplies to injured protesters so often that she almost go used to getting tear gassed.
Then, on November 14, the universities in the city closed temporarily, with several institutes cancelling classes for the rest of the semester. Nora, like other RUG students, had to cut her exchange short. She decided to go home.
‘My parents had been so worried about me, that I have a free pass for everything right now’, she says. ‘The first thing I did when I got home was tell them that I got three new tattoos. That was the only time slot that I could’ve told them without them getting angry.’
Nora doesn’t think she’s deserved it, though. ‘It’s not about me. This entire conflict is so much bigger than one person. I was a foreigner and could always leave immediately. The seven million residents don’t have anywhere else to go.’
Now that she’s back safe and sound, she says, her friends and family can relax. They haven’t so far. Her mother called her six times a day during the first few days she was at home in Cologne. Just to check she was still there. Her friends treat her with kid gloves. ‘I think they expect me to break down and cry.’
When her Groningen friends visited her last week, they showed up with a bottle of red wine and a box of tissues. They frequently ask her how she’s feeling, and put a hand on her shoulder when they see her scrolling through Hong Kong updates on her phone, which are a stark contrast to the fashion and food posts that used to dominate her Instagram feed. ‘But,’ she says, ’I don’t need to be pitied. I don’t want to be pitied. I’m okay.’
I think my friends expect me to break down and cry
Yet as she says this, she loses her train of thought when she spots a yellow vest on a construction worker’s back through the windows of the Harmonie building. A second later she shakes her head. In Hong Kong, a yellow vest is worn by the press and first aid workers. Here in Groningen, that same vest means something else. The violence is far away.
‘Everything here is the same as it was. It makes Hong Kong feel like it didn’t really happen.’ Much like one of her last days there, when she went to visit Disneyland with her roommates, being back in Groningen feels like the outside world doesn’t exist. ‘Nothing here is affected. Just like Disney was the one spot in Hong Kong that wasn’t touched by tear gas.’
After the first UKrant publication on Nora’s involvement in the demonstrations, the comment section flooded with people criticising her for getting involved in a situation that had nothing to do with her. Her friends also berated her, calling her out for having ‘helper syndrome’ and always acting like the ‘mom friend’ in any social group. They knew she wouldn’t be able to stay out of the situation.
‘The violence was highly problematic and I never condoned it’, she says. ‘But it’s much easier to identify with the protesters, who are people I know, than to identify with those in a uniform that get paid to do what they do.’
She never felt she was in the way, like she was making things difficult for her friends because they had to keep an eye out for her. ‘A lot of people came to me and thanked me for being there, while I was standing there being useless. It made a difference for them.’
Nora’s experience seems a world away from that of Lars Bartsch, who went to Hong Kong Baptist University for his exchange. He feels his time there was largely unaffected by the demonstrations in Hong Kong.
Except for once, when he saw thousands of students and protesters building roadblocks and walls on the HKBU campus, trying to keep the police out. ‘The situation was quite intense and definitely not normal.’ It was over quickly, because the police didn’t show up. The roads these protesters had blocked weren’t of strategic importance, so the students cleaned up again.
Lars never felt unsafe, but he didn’t hesitate to take the university’s exchange office’s offer to put him up in a hotel instead of the dorm where he’d been staying. ‘Better safe than sorry. There was a good chance the police would show up, and I didn’t feel like being near campus at that time.’
His parents were worried, but he calmly reminded them that wasn’t necessary. ‘I know how to avoid the demonstrations.’
When HKBU cancelled classes for the rest of the semester, the exchange office told Lars and other internationals to leave Hong Kong, at least for a while. ‘They told us to clear our heads, so we took this opportunity to go to Thailand.’
Amid trips to the beach and following online classes, Lars stayed in contact with the local friends he’d made as the only international on his dorm floor. They kept him up to date on what went on in the city and whether it was safe to return.
The exchange office told us to clear our heads, so we went to Thailand
‘I enjoyed every single day of my semester and every moment in this stunning city’, Lars says. In fact, last week, he took a plane back to Hong Kong to do touristy things like hiking and cliff jumping in Sai Kung park, and visiting a nearby island.
In the meantime, he’ll also have to apply himself to his studies. Classes may have been cancelled, but students still have to hand in essays and group assignments. And deadlines have been moved up a month, so Lars has plenty to do. The same goes for Nora. ‘I need to channel my energy into something positive right now’, she says.
That’s not necessarily easy, though. Nora hasn’t opened the farewell presents her Hong Kong friends gave her, nor has she read any of their letters. ‘I haven’t distanced myself enough from the situation yet. I’m not ready to read them, because I’ll be very upset. I need a few more days.’
Photo of Nora Leidinger by Valeska Schietinger