Arrival and First Days

September 9, 2009 — I arrived in Hong Kong on a direct flight from Newark, NJ on the evening of August 28th and have been here for about a week and a half. My first impression of Hong Kong is that it is one of the most extraordinary places I have ever seen. Even before I touched ground I was able to get a good sense of how stunning this city really is. My flight came in southward over mainland China and banked eastward just past Macau to circle the city before landing at the international airport. If I had come here a few years earlier I would have had the thrill of buzzing the apartment buildings of Kowloon in a harrowing landing at the old Kai Tak Airport right in the middle of the city. Though deprived of that opportunity, I did manage to get a full view of the city when the plane made a sharp turn for a westward landing right over the harbor. We landed at dusk so I was able to see the city lit up while there was still enough daylight to notice the contours of the buildings and mountains. What I saw is one of the most breathtaking skylines in the world (not an easy thing for a New Yorker to admit). It is just starting to sink in that I will be living here for nearly a year.

I am spending the year on a Fulbright scholarship specially designed to help Hong Kong universities make the transition from a three-year undergraduate curriculum to a four-year one. This change stems from a government directive to standardize degree requirements at all Chinese universities. Now that a decade has passed since the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, the universities here have been given a deadline of 2012 to complete this transition. Since Hong Kong had such a smooth transfer of government in 1997 I suppose the bar has been set high for the educational system to do the same. The expansion of the additional year will focus largely on enhancing general education as a component of university curricula, many of which are still mainly pre-professional. My role in all this is to serve as one of the members of the Fulbright team of professors from US universities and colleges who are here to advise the HK institutions about developing their general education programs. My colleagues and I were chosen because of our experience in developing and maintaining these sorts of programs at our home institutions. We are each assigned to a different university but will be working together closely and visiting all the universities together to consult with them about their programs. In addition, we will each teach a course or two in our specialty at our host institutions. It is an ambitious undertaking in which we are involved and will undoubtedly require a lot of hard work. Yet, for me at least, this is the opportunity of a lifetime, both professionally and personally. I had always hoped to be able to visit Hong Kong and East Asia and now I will be able to live and work here for an entire year at an exciting time in the expansion of higher education in the city.

For the next twelve months I will live in an area called Sha Tin in an apartment provided by my host institution, the Hong Kong Baptist University. The apartment is in an eight-story building (a dwarf by HK standards) located at the end of Sui Wo Road which winds to the top a hill that is higher than most of the surrounding high-rise apartment buildings. From my apartment there is a commanding view of the entire Sha Tin valley (see below). My building is in an industrial neighborhood called Fo Tan that is part of the larger Sha Tin area located in the New Territories on the northern side of a mountain ridge that separates it from Kowloon where I work. Apart from its wholesalers and auto repair shops, Fo Tan is gaining a reputation as an artist colony (cheap rents for studio space) and definitely merits a closer examination once I get settled and get my bearings.

During the weekend I had the chance to explore my neighborhood and get to meet some of the other residents in my building. There is an outdoor swimming pool in the complex where many of the tenants and their families congregate on warm days. It has been incredibly hot and humid since I arrived and I really wonder how anything got done in this city before the invention of air conditioners. Indeed, the weather has been the hardest adjustment for me since I arrived. It is exceedingly uncomfortable to walk outside, especially when dressed for work. During the day I find myself moving back and forth between steaming heat and humidity outside and cold, dry air-conditioning indoors. I am told that the weather will slowly start to improve as the autumn progresses and, in fact, this weekend was noticeably better than the previous one. The weather this weekend was just bearable enough that I was able to walk around each day for a few hours and get the lay of Fo Tan and Sha Tin. After several meandering trips I managed to find a supermarket, taxi stand, dry cleaner, post office, and a Catholic parish with an English mass on Sunday. Gradually I am starting to feel settled in my new home.

View of the Sha Tin Valley from 22 Sui Wo Road, 9 September 2009