When she signed up for Anthropology 350, senior Martha-Alice Miyoko Kiger had no idea the course would bring her across the oceanâ€”for free.
“Every single one of us thought it was going to be a regular lecture class,” said Kiger of the ten College students signed up for the course.
On the first day of class Professor Tomoko Hamada announced that they would have to travel to Hong Kong at the end of the semester. If anyone decided not to go he or she would have to drop the class or fail. The Reves Center for International Studies’ Freeman Grant would pay for the flight, leaving housing ($200 to stay in a designated guest room in a dorm at Hong Kong University), food, and transportation (an estimated $200 total) for students to pay.
Like most of the class, Kiger was excited by the prospect of going overseas, and felt it was an opportunity she could not pass up.
In the months leading up to the trip each College student was paired with at least one student from the sister class at Hong Kong University (HKU). Each group developed and carried out a research project exploring an aspect of SARS, such as the disease’s psychosocial impact, which Kiger and her group investigated. Students communicated weekly via in-class international video conferences and used e-mail and AOL Instant Messenger outside of class.
When HKU and College students finally met after a semester of purely digital contact, things were “comfortable because we kept in touch,” said Kiger. “They were very welcoming and kind.”
The group roamed Hong Kong, one of the world’s largest cities, touring Buddhist temples, karaoke-ing, exploring street markets and malls and enjoying the view atop Victoria’s Peak, one of Hong Kong’s tallest mountains. They ate dinner at HKU Professor Tom Stanley’s home overlooking the bay and got to know the city by riding the subway, disembarking at random stops.
One night they had a barbecue on the beach, where the HKU students taught their College guests songs and cheers in English and Cantonese. Despite or because half of them had food poisoning the next day, this event was memorable, said Kiger.
The cross-cultural group of College and HKU students became close during its two weeks together. The HKU students’ previously hidden personalities were able to “shine through” in ways they did not when talking across the ocean. The Hong Kong natives’ true characters were especially apparent when they spoke in Cantonese. According to Kiger they were more timid when speaking English.
Kiger was amazed by the number of transportation options available in Hong Kong, including trams, trolleys, double-decker buses, minibuses, trains, subways, and taxis. Only the very rich of Hong Kong can afford to own a car. She observed, and HKU students confirmed, that there is a large gap between the upper and lower class, with no significant middle class.
When Kiger and the other College students tried to go shopping, all they could find were tacky eighties clothes, which is the popular fashion of the city. Hong Kong natives were equally interested in the Americans' strange appearance, and students of the College got many curious looks when traveling the city.
In between touring and karaoke-ing, students found some time for research. They talked with anyone who was willing about SARS, from doctors and nurses to hairstylists to HKU students to random passersby.
Fear was the common thread connecting the research that Kiger and her group found.
“While some people were very fearful and they took a lot of precautions, other people felt going through their regular routine was more helpful,” she said.
According to Kiger, SARS and the mad cow disease scare currently sweeping the US have much in common. Both have evoked similar reactions from the community and the economy, hurting businesses and causing people to change their way of life. In the US many people are avoiding beef products. In Hong Kong, hygiene awareness has been heightened, and there were street signs prohibiting litter and spitting. Notices in the dorm bathrooms at HKU demanded that users flush with the lid of the toilet down to prevent splashing since SARS is spread through water.
These signs of danger did little to faze HKU and College students alike. “It was an adventure,” Kiger said.