Somewhere in the green Taiwanese mountains, above the clouds on a hot August day, I was sitting at a lunch table in an air-conditioned restaurant next to my grandmother and her friends. Somehow, in a setting that seemed so distant from the world below us, we could still feel the fumes of the undeniable tension coming from beneath. Something everyone in the room was thinking about for weeks, but couldn’t speak the specifics about out loud. No one dared nor found it necessary to outwardly express their diplomatic opinions. But what was clear, through fragmented and unfinished sentences, was the unanimous feeling of confusion, alarm, and wavering hope. Something was changing, and there was no certainty as to what was going to happen in the near future.
In the months that followed, I returned to Europe for university and followed the Hong Kong protests from afar, through the news and close loved ones who live there. In the small Dutch city I currently study in, there had mostly been very vague ideas of the turmoil going on thousands of miles away. I didn’t blame them: when it comes to Asian current events, attempting to stay informed on the part of the western media presents double the effort it usually takes to gather accurate and nuanced information.
However, a couple of months later, I came across a headline in my university’s newspaper that my friend urged me to read. The article in question was among the only firsthand accounts I had seen of Hong Kong in western media, and it explained the situation there through the lens of an exchange student from my university who’d stayed there for a couple of months. From the get-go, my mind couldn’t help but wonder why the region being described couldn’t be presented by a native.
The city I currently live in isn’t entirely habituated to international students just yet, and people often still have problematic, preconceived ideas about other ethnic groups and extra-continental countries. I was stunned when I witnessed my university’s newspaper ride that same wave.
As I read on, the article felt like a slap in the face. I first tried giving it the benefit of the doubt but ended up faced with the regrettable fact that the piece’s priority wasn’t to be informative to its largely European demographic; it contained no in-depth historical background of Hong Kong’s politics and no particulars on what exactly sparked the protests. The piece condescended the protestors and summarized the entire turbulence as a stark matter of good against bad — it is a fact that clashes between different police forces and groups of protestors there simply cannot be labeled that way. The report sensationalized the political upheaval by heroizing the exchange student’s intentions to assist in protests she wasn’t even informed about in the first place. Worst of all, the student’s accounts lacked sincerity, as my own friends who work and study in Hong Kongese universities couldn’t corroborate with the aggrandized pictures she painted.
I’m not going to deny it: it is difficult to entirely grasp the ongoing situation in Hong Kong, even for those who are directly impacted by it. But what’s for sure is that a report written by someone who has a shallow knowledge of its history and culture isn’t going to help clarify much.
After long ponderings with others around me, I decided to write an >extensive response<, with the optimism that the newspaper, which calls itself “independent”, would be open to listening to other accounts — especially from those directly affected by the event. In the piece, I rectify and enquire about the article, and most importantly provide background information on Hong Kong in the hopes of properly informing the students of the city. Some of them, as a result of the newspaper, had already begun a petition demanding my university to question its relations with Hong Kongese universities.
I was told not to get too hopeful, and for good reason: >my response< was rejected a few days later by the editor, under the pretext that the newspaper had brought forward enough “substantive nuance” thanks to one of its other articles which talked about how the Hong Kong protests have supposedly “divided the university” between those who support the protests and those who support the Chinese government. In the following weeks, it became doubtless as to why the newspaper refused to hear me out once more articles about Hong Kong came out in the following weeks with the same perspective, tone, and narrative it held before. I understood that the outlet simply took the opportunity to overlook ethics in order to profit from another country’s commotion as much as it could.
For what all of this was worth, I found myself gaining a better understanding of my Chinese mother’s mindset which stems from her own experience during her youth, and who’d always told me to get used to mediatic misrepresentations as they were battles she’d come to believe are not always fruitful and even potentially dangerous. However, with the privilege I now have to take advantage of opportunities my parents may not have had in the past, I realized that staying passive in the face of misrepresentation when I can respond to it isn’t an option for me anymore.
Although presumptions aren’t as brutal as they were when my mother was my age, there is still a long way to go, and I learned that making my voice heard is vital in order to help deconstruct systems that still aren’t used to hearing non-western perspectives. And if you find yourself being misrepresented, I urge you to make your voice heard wherever you can.
Featured Image by Matheus Ferrero