November 2019 | Volume 21 No. 1
Swimming in the Deep End
A swimming pool might be a luxury add-on in some places, but in the village of Trung Dung in Vietnam, it was seen as a lifesaver. Several children had drowned in a dirty pond that was situated between the primary and secondary schools. A proper swimming pool with fencing could prevent such tragedies, while keeping the amenity for the community.
This was the proposal put to a cross-disciplinary team of teachers, who have jointly organised student learning excursions to Trung Dung for several years with World Vision. In previous years, students built toilets and libraries. This time, a team of 16 students would help build a village-funded pool and provide other support, including child safety assessment, in what proved to be a deep learning experience.
For instance, Sunny Wong Kei-chun, a third-year civil engineering student, helped with the swimming pool construction, where he discovered local builders had different ideas on worker safety and workmanship than he had been taught. “I came to understand that there is no conclusion on which is the best way to work. The most important thing is to learn from each other and find something in common so we can solve any disputes and get the work done,“ he said.
Students from other disciplines mainly did risk assessments of child safety around water, in the home, on bicycles and the like, and taught English to the village children. Since there were only three interpreters on hand, the students often relied on Google Translate and body language to communicate. “I used to think language is the key for communication but in Vietnam, I found that building a relationship with others does not solely rely on the language we speak. It is the experience and time we spend with each other that matters,” said third-year social work and social administration student, Ariel Ho Cheuk-ki.
Such takeaways are a goal of the programme, which was organised by Faculty of Social Sciences lecturer Elsa Lam under her Faculty’s GloCal initiative with Dr Ryan Wong Cheuk-pong in the Department of Civil Engineering and Dr Fiona Law in the Department of Comparative Literature.
“We want to demystify developing countries so our students can form their own understanding of places that are economically, culturally and socially different from Hong Kong and become aware of their own assumptions,” said Ms Lam.
A similar outcome was achieved in remote Durgapur town in Nepal, 14 hours by road from Kathmandu, which hosted three HKU students this summer. They were tasked with interviewing the villagers on migrant work and microfinance and producing a report for the local think tank, Centre for Social Change.
As with Vietnam, the process was as important as the product. One of the first demands on the students was to relax their ideas about time. Meetings and departures often started two hours or more late. “We would sit for hours waiting in 35-degree Celsius weather without aircon or fan,” third-year politics and public administration student Quah Wei Vei said. “Eventually, we started learning from the locals and adopted a looser concept of time, such as arriving later than the agreed time.”
HKU students teaching English to the village children in Vietnam.
HKU students had interviews with villagers in Nepal on migrant work and microfinance and produced a report for a local think tank.
Over their four weeks in Durgapur, the students found their perspectives on migrant workers changing. They were struck by the sacrifices families made to secure a better future by splitting up and sending a family member abroad. “Their love for Nepal was also surprising since most migrant workers worked in more economically-developed countries, but still preferred to stay in Nepal if possible,” said Tom Janghyeok Lim, a second-year politics and public administration student.
The cosmopolitanism of the Nepalese also impressed third-year Hong Kong studies student Phoebe Lai Wing-sze. “I had assumed people in Nepal would be less well-educated or not have as wide a global view as us, but many people are well-educated. What they lack is opportunity,” she said.
The experience challenged students’ views on migrant workers in their home countries, too. Wei Vei is from Malaysia, where many Nepalis work and are stereotyped as low-skilled. “I realised I had a false perception of migrant workers. Some of the returnees we met were highly qualified and built successful careers,” she said.
On a more practical level, the students learned to negotiate difficult logistics on their own, including the return trip to Kathmandu after landslides blocked the road. Since Ms Lam was in Hong Kong, they had to make their own decisions and arrangements.
“The interesting thing about the GloCal programme is that the student-teacher relationship changes,” Ms Lam said. “They face issues or problems that I don’t have answers to, so we have to work together and with the local partner to find the solution.”
They face issues or problems that I don’t have answers to, so we have to work together and with the local partner to find the solution.
MS ELSA LAM