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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Trip to Hong Kong

I left Wichita at 5:45am on Saturday, December 4; I arrived in Hong Kong at 10:10pm Sunday evening, after having spent 6.5 hours in Detroit, and 17.5 hours in flight. Weirdly (or perhaps thanks to an early nap on the plane, and some selective use of melatonin) I suffered no jet lag whatsoever. In fact, I was up at about 6am the next morning, despite a long and frankly delirious bus journey through downtown Hong Kong on the way from the airport which deposited me at the hotel after midnight the previous evening, and I felt fine. I went walking around out in front of the hotel, and was struck by the sight of the harbor, and the smells of the city--fish, oil, and more.

This was my first morning in Asia in more than 20 years. It was amazing. I felt like parts of my brain--deeply buried, almost reptilian parts, sensitive to the sounds and odors surrounding me--that I hadn't used in decades were creaking to life. Some of that was a bit of conscious wish-fulfillment I'm sure...but not all of it.

The conference was "Confucian and Liberal Perspectives on Family, State, and Civil Society," sponsored by the Chiand Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange at City University of Hong Kong. My presence there was fundamentally a matter of random luck. Back when I was a missionary in South Korea, I'd developed an interest in Chinese philosophy and Asian political thought; while making that my area of academic specialization never worked out, I nonetheless managed to keep one foot (or maybe just a toe) in those conversations as the years went by, and as a result I managed to meet different scholars for whom it was a specialization from time to time. Being the sort of inveterate community-builder that I am, I tended to network amongst these folks, putting together panels at conferences, and publishing a couple of things here and there. Then one day, it turns out that Kim Sungmoon, a brilliant up-and-coming political theorist I'd gotten to know, had been hired by City University, and together with Philip Ivanhoe, one of the pillars in the field of East Asian and comparative political philosophy, had the money to put together an international conference of scholars; was I interested in coming to Hong Kong? Me, with my lack of expert historical knowledge and language skill; me, with meager publishing record; me, presenting a paper alongside such influential and serious scholars as Joseph Chan, Leigh Jenco, and Li Chenyang? Being the meek and humble person I am, I of course told them that wild horses couldn't keep me away.

My paper was on civic education and the Confucian tradition; it was the last paper presented over the two-day conference, and it definitely didn't close the conference on a high note. Let's just say that my argument that the Confucian vision of moral education, because of its particular conception of the state of nature, cannot be made wholly compatible with social contract thinking, therefore cannot provide the sort of explicitly civic virtues (as opposed to "civil" virtues) that many neo-Tocquevillians claim to be necessary for democracies to survive, needs a lot of work before it sees the light of day. But that's what these occasions are for, right? To receive criticism and feedback--which I did, from Leigh, Sungmoon, Philip and others. Having my paper hammered was, in a sense, a side-benefit of the real purpose of the trip: to see a part of Asia I'd never seen before up close, despite having almost no free time to wander around like a proper tourist. The second night I was there, we did get back to the hotel from the university (which did feed us very well; see more below) early enough for me to take off. I walked down along Hong Kong's Tsim Sha Tsui shopping area, all the way to Victoria Harbour and the old Kowloon-Canton Railway Clock Tower, snapping pictures all the way at the amazing Hong Kong skyline. I just wish I'd had a better camera.

The second day of the conference was the day my laptop died (a power surge killed it when hooking it up to the 220 volt adapter, I think), and I ran all over City U's campus (and had some helpful graduate students do even more running on my behalf) to attempt to get the laptop fixed, without success. So, operating off a borrowed computer (which, as it turned out, probably saved me $60 or so in additional internet fees; nothing is for free in Hong Kong, one of the capitalist paradises of the world), I pulled up my paper and gave it my best shot. That was a bit of a low point for the day; fortunately, there were three high ones. First was a break I took from conference at lunchtime, to walk about a mile off campus to visit the Hong Kong LDS temple. I couldn't have called myself a faithful member of my tribe if I didn't at least make an appearance there.

The next highlight was dinner--while involved a journey up the coast to Sai Kung to the Chuen Kee Seafood Restaurant, where we had our pick of fresh from the harbor (or from the tank) mussels, lobster (with vermicelli noodles and sauce), crawfish (just steamed, and delicious--I probably ate ten), mantis shrimp (cooked very spicy), sea bass and more. They even had old skool Coca-Cola from the bottle to help me wash it all down.

Then there was the final evening at the hotel. Several participants at the conference were staying on in Hong Kong for a day or so, but unfortunately, in order to make the conference fit into my work schedule, with the semester ending and finals coming on, I'd had to find the smallest travel window I could, and that meant leaving early Wednesday morning. So that evening I set out again, this time with some friends, to play tourist and buy some toys for my girls. Justin Tiwald and Ranjoo Herr, a couple of great scholars that I was able to re-acquaint myself with on this trip, came with me as we priced out dolls and rice bowls, and ended up quite satisfied.

I left Hong Kong at 10:35am Wednesday, December 8, spent only 14.5 hours in the air (traveling east as opposed to west across the Pacific is apparently always easier, due to winds and such), and arrive in Detroit before noon on the same day. After an hour or more unloading and walking through two immigration checkpoints, and opting out of the line where the evil scanners had been installed--the whole process of which took about twice as much time as did arriving in Hong Kong--I settled in for the rest of my 8 hour lay-over...at which point jet lag really did hit me. I was so wasted that I actually found myself blankly watching Fox News on the airport monitor after a while (Glen Beck is almost hypnotic at times). Finally, by 9:15pm or so, I was back in Wichita, where my wonderful wife was waiting for me at the airport. I was ferried home, where gifts were delivered, and sleep was embraced.

It was a great trip. It left me exhausted, excited, and encouraged. Here's hoping that it isn't another twenty years before I'm able to visit Asia again!


Unknown said...

Great pictures, interesting travelogue, and intriguing conference report.

Amira said...

Thanks for the great post, Russell.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks guys! (And Amira, where are you these days? Not still in Seattle, are you? Have you made it to Kazakhstan?)

Amira said...

Still in Seattle waiting for visas. The only good thing is that Christmas is a lot better in the US than it would be in a small village in Kazakhstan. We have to leave in January, so hopefully someone will take us.

Baden said...

Crazy food. Thanks for taking the pictures. Sounds like a great experience!