Category Archives: USA vs. HK

USA vs. HK #4: Education

By most objective measures, this should be an easy one for HK.  In 2007, HK ranked among the best in the world on most measures of math and science science performance, ranking among the other developed Asian countries like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.  The US is toward the middle of the second tier, not as horrible as the media makes it seem, but not competing with East Asia.  (The US is way ahead of China though.)  So Hong Kong seems to be doing a much better job of teaching math and science to it’s children, at least on average.  But what about higher education?

The US still has the best universities in the world.  But on a per capita basis, the US and HK are pretty comparable.  Because of it’s protection of freedom of expression, and it’s high per capita income, HK is one of the leading centers of education in Asia, and the world.  The US has historically had a big advantage in this area, because there was a long period of time when it was one of the few places where academics could work without fear of the government looking over their shoulders.  This is the primary reason China will never have world class universities under the current regime, and why HK and Japan have such a regional advantage in Asia.  Asia is catching up in higher education and Hong Kong is a big part of that advance.  For a look at the world rankings of universities, according to the Times of London, check out this link:

Since we all know that K-12 education in the US sucks, and the US doesn’t have a big advantage over HK in higher ed, why am I still writing?  Doesn’t HK win?

I guess it depends on what the purpose of education is.  Basically all the school systems in the world were designed to train workers for the industrial age.  The goal was to teach basic literacy and computation skills, and to make people good at following schedules and obedient to authority.  Nobody explains this better than John Taylor Gatto, and his  basic argument is here.

Americans have never been the obedient type, blind obedience to authority is not an American value.  Years ago, I remember crossing a street with no traffic in Berin, watching the Germans wait for the light to give them formal permission to cross, rather than decide for themselves when it was safe.  The Chinese do not wait for the signal, they just go.  Obedience to authority is a Confucian value though, and it can stifle  creativity.  American schools have been much less successful in training obedience than Asian schools, and this helps explain why innovative companies like Apple and Google are located in the US, not Asia or even Europe.  Confucian values teach students not to question their teachers and professors.  So when a Chinese student has a new idea, and it conflicts with what the prof is saying, I have a feeling that student is less likely than an American student to decide that they might be right and the prof might be wrong.

Because of Americans’ issues with authority, they often have difficulty the hierarchical rigid environment created by most schools.  So even though American schools are failing to teach math and science as well as HK schools, they’re also failing to teach blind obedience.  In the age of the Google search and the smartphone, being able to do calculations quickly and memorize information is not a particularly useful skill; it’s creativity that counts.  Since public school systems all over the world teach how not to be creative, American schools succeed by failing.

The winner, in a shocker, is the USA.  It’s all tied up after 4: USA 2, HK 2.

USA vs HK #3: The Mental Environment

At first, I had planned to make this competition about “the environment.”  But I’m finding that issue too complex, so I’m breaking it down.  I’ll tackle sustainability in a later post, but this match will be determined strictly by how the environment makes me feel.

If you read my last post, you may think this is going to be an easy win for the USA.  But it’s not that simple.  To make things extra tough on HK, I’m going to compare it to the city I lived in before I left: Boulder, Colorado.  If I were to compare HK to some sprawling suburb, it would be a blowout.  To make this match-up competitive, I’ll exclude the parts of the US that make me want to stick a fork in my eye (and a good bit of the country falls into that category, unfortunately).

Boulder is bright and beautiful, but a bit boring.  I don’t have a whole lot of negative things to say about the place, in terms of the environment.  It has nice bike paths, which I miss using.  It has the Flatirons to the West (not the most dramatic mountain view on the Colorado front range, but picturesque nonetheless).  It has fairly clean air, beautiful little creeks coming down from the mountains into the city, and trees on every street.  Best of all, billboards are banned within the city limits, so you aren’t bombarded by advertising.  The Pearl Street Mall is lovely, particularly in the winter, with the snow and the Christmas lights.  It’s like Switzerland with more sunshine…too much like Switzerland in my opinion.  It’s all just a little too nice for me.  I recognize that reasonable people with disagree with me on this.  Part of this is my personality: I’d rather alternate between elation and misery than just feel ok all the time.  But it’s my blog, so I’m the judge and jury.

I have a lot of complaints about HK.  It’s smoggy and loud.  I can’t escape the constant advertisements.  And I’m a big fan of adbusters, if that gives you any idea how much I hate marketing.  But I’m not going to get into why I think advertising sucks so much.  That’s not the point of this post.  Just know that I can’t get away from it here, and it bothers me quite a bit.

So how could this be a close competition?  In a word, complexity.  I’ve always loved New York and Chicago.  The energy, the richness, the density and the vitality of those cities is unparalleled in the US.  HK has all the gritty urban beauty of NY but virtually none of the crime.  I can walk down dark alleys with my headphones on at 2am in HK, something that would be super stupid in Chicago.  The energy in HK is infectious.  Much of the energy Boulder has is drunken frat boy energy, otherwise it’s just a little too nice and laid back for me.  I left because I was bored.  I’m not having that problem anymore.

Many of the things that used to give me gas bladder isssues are the things I’m most in love with today.  Now that my brain has adapted to the initial shock of the visual bombardment that is HK, I’m really appreciating the urban beauty.  It took me a while to really “get it” here; I recognized it in NY and Chicago immediately.  But now that I can see it, it’s so much more beautiful, so much more dense and complex than what NY or Chicago have to offer.   I can’t really explain it, so I’m hoping my pictures can augment my words here.  Problem is, I’m visually challenged (maybe that’s why I had so much trouble adjusting) and I have no talent for taking photos.  And all these pictures were taken with a 5 MP camera-phone.  I’m hoping they can do some justice to what I love about the look and feel of HK.  But I know they can’t, and neither can my words.  Hopefully the combination can convey my feelings to some extent, but you really have to experience it yourself, for a couple months at least, to really understand what I’m talking about.

Now I realize that most people don’t prefer urban grime to mountain majesty .  But here’s the kicker: HK has both.  80% of HK is actually green space.  It has mountains, forests and ocean views.  And that’s what really seals the deal.  HK can actually compete with Boulder on Boulder’s home turf.  On HK’s home turf, Boulder has nothing to offer.  Discovery Bay is a town on Lantau Island, HK’s largest island.  Lantau is sparsely populated and heavily forested.  It’s quiet, except for the birdsong.  Discovery Bay actually reminds me of Boulder, which is probably why it’s so popular with the gweilo.  By American standards, Boulder has great transportation.  Public transportation is efficient, and the bike lanes make getting around without a car pleasant and easy.  But Discovery Bay beats Boulder here; there are no cars allowed in the town (just golf carts and bikes).  The lack of cars makes it a great place for kids to run around with dogs, and creates a vibe more laid back than a vegan co-op in North Boulder.

The winner, in a colossal upset, is HK.  The score so far, USA 1, HK 2.  This was a competition between two winners, but somebody had to come out on top.  Sustainability is next, and there the USA and HK are both losers, but somebody has to win that one too.

Health Care Update

So I visited the doctor for the first time in HK today.  I have a sinus infection.  Normally, I just wait these things out, but this one had been persisting for a while.  So my coworkers encouraged to see a doctor, and they helped me find one.

When I got there, they didn’t ask me if I could prove that some corporation certified to my right to see a doctor.  They just took my name, my temperature, and some basic information.  There was a wait, but we made the appointment literally 5 minutes ahead of time.  I asked how long it would be, she said a 45 minutes, so I left and came back then.  When I got there, I waited another 5 minutes, and I saw the doctor.  He checked me out, listened to what I had to say, asked me some questions, and prescribed me some decongestants.

This is western medicine, “Chinese style.”  Chinese style means lots of different little pills, rather than one pill that has all those ingredients.  Chinese people trust medicine like this more, because it is more similar to traditional Chinese medicine.  So the placebo effects are better this way.  The decongestants seem to be working about as well as what I would get in the US, but don’t make me as drowsy or jittery.  The little pills make it seem gentler…

The doctor didn’t prescribe any antibiotics, which I respect.  I’m not that sick.  But he told me that if it gets worse or persists, that he can give me some.  The whole visit, with the drugs, cost me $160 HK.  That’s about 20 bucks.  Less than a haircut.  The whole deal seemed entirely reasonable.  As an American, I must admit that I was somewhat flabbergasted by the reasonableness of it all.   No political power players politely picking my pocket.  And no perpetual payments.

I wish the Democrats well in their attempt to tame the middle-men, even though what is really needed is to gut them.  But I fear that the prostitutes in the Party are permanently paid-off by the same power players pocketing my payments.

I am officially not afraid to go to the doctor anymore!  Well, I wouldn’t go that far…better google what’s in those pills…

USA vs. HK #2: Health Care

I don’t mean to spoil the suspense, but this is an easy one.  HK has one of the healthiest populations in the world, easily beating the US in basically all measures of health.  HK is #2 in the world in life expectancy, and the US is #46.  HK has the 4th lowest infant mortality rate in the world.  The US has the 41st lowest.  And keep in mind that the diet here is not exactly what I would call healthy (though I’ll grant that it’s probably better than the average American diet.)  And HK air is fairly toxic (more on that soon).  So there are confounding factors on both sides to be sure, I could cite other indicators, but I won’t bore people with anymore numbers unless someone actually disagrees with me here.  We can get into the details in the comments section.

It’s true that rich people in the US have excellent health care, but that’s not the standard I’m using.  If I were a rich person, I might see things differently.  But I’m not, so I don’t.  If rich people want to comment and tell me why I wasn’t good enough to deserve access to basic health care in the US, feel free.  To me, fairness is an important concern when we’re talking about who gets to live and who dies.  As bad as the US is on important measures like infant mortality, it fails the fairness test even more miserably.

For the first time in my adult life, I don’t have to worry about an injury or illness forcing me into bankruptcy.  Health care isn’t free here, but it would cost around 12 US dollars for me to go to the emergency room.

The major objection Americans are likely to have to the health care systems in HK, Europe or anywhere in the developed world is the waiting.  It’s true that people in HK often have to wait to see a doctor if they have a non-emergency illness and want to go to a public hospital.  But doctors are the ones who decide who gets health care first, and they decide based on medical need, not cost or insurance company decree.  Private hospitals here function like private hospitals in the US, no crazy long waiting or anything, and excellent quality of care…except everything is roughly one-tenth the price.

But this has already been way too much discussion for such an easy contest.  The winner is HK.

Keep in mind, I’m writing this on November 19th, 2009.  It’s possible that things could improve in the US.  But I’m highly skeptical that the Democrats will be able to pass a bill that cuts the blood-sucking insurance company middle-men out of the system.  That’s what would need to happen if the US health care system is going to make this contest competitive.  I don’t see that happening any time soon.

The score so far: USA 1, HK 1.

USA vs. HK #1: Racism

A friend of mine came across a short essay by Andrew Sullivan called The Racism in China, and suggested that it might be an appropriate topic for me to write about.  Since racism has been lurking in the background of many of my posts, I guess I should take the bait and discuss it more directly.  I was going to start off this new USA vs. HK series with something a little easier, like health care or the environment, but I’ve haven’t been stirring up as much controversy as I’d like anyway, so here goes…

Much of what Sullivan says is consistent with my experiences both in mainland China and in HK.  Chinese feelings toward Westerners are definitely complex; there is a mixture of respect and disdain.  I’m considered somewhat barbarous and uncultured (and rightly so).  But I’m also seen as clever and knowledgeable (often undeservedly).  The complexity of the term gweilo is an illustration of this ambivalence.  Gweilo is not a racial slur in the sense that an American would think of one, nor is it a purely positive or even purely neutral term.  Like most things in HK, the meaning of the term gweilo depends on context.

But in general, being a gweilo in HK is hardly something to complain about.  There are advantages with women, and there are the corresponding disadvantages with men (mostly just a few nasty looks on the trains so far).

Sullivan also mentions that Chinese feelings toward non-white and non-Asian minorities (“blacks, browns and reds”) are considerably less complex.  Here, Chinese racism approximates white American racism; racist Chinese people see themselves as racially and culturally superior to dark skinned people.

But Sullivan seems to be drawing a distinction between the uniformly tolerant Americans and the uniformly intolerant Chinese.  Here, he completely misrepresents reality.  There is racism and ethnocentrism in both the US and China.  The difference is a matter of degree.  And particularly in HK, which has attitudes the mainland is likely progressing towards, most educated young people are not racist.  Do they stereotype?  Of course, but I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t.  I don’t see a lot of racial hatred here, and I don’t see (open) expression of racial superiority.  It’s pretty similar to the US in these respects.  In fact, I see much less than I saw in Alabama before I left (the ride from Birmingham to Atlanta on the airport shuttle was quite educational, to say the least).  But I can’t understand conversations between two Chinese people, and my minority status doesn’t make me privy to the kinds of conversations I heard as a white person in a group of white people in Alabama.  So like all my observations here, these are biased by what I can understand.

Still, there are differences that I can detect.  Having worked in the same industry in both the US and HK, things are definitely different here when it comes to race.  In Boulder, if a parent actually requested a white teacher, we would absolutely refuse to accommodate such a request.  And everyone knows that, so even if some Boulder mom really was that racist, she would no better than to ask.  In HK, we get this request fairly often, and though my co-workers think it’s ridiculous, racist, and unreasonable, and they push against it to a certain extent, in the end they generally find the mom her white faced tutor.  My predecessor was Indian, and he experienced several incidents of racism: people assumed he wasn’t qualified to teach classes that required native English ability because he didn’t “look” like he was a native speaker, and some students just made up excuses not to work with him.  But generally it’s the older generation that holds these beliefs.  The cops in HK, like the cops in the US, have their favorite ethnic groups to target: here it’s mostly South Asians they mess with.

But when speaking of the US, Sullivan forgets his own history, and present.  It wasn’t that long ago that the US had all the problems he currently ascribes to China.  And though the US is far from perfect when it comes to race relations, we’ve come a long way.  We aren’t the only ones capable of such progress.  Sullivan assumes that Chinese racism is a fixed characteristic of their culture.  He writes, “It is thus hard to imagine China welcoming millions of hard-working Nigerians and Bangladeshis with open arms. This could change over the next couple of decades as China’s labor shortage grows acute. I wouldn’t bet on it.”  Why not?  It’s been changing in most parts of the world, why not in China?  (As for his prediction that China will have an “acute” labor shortage in the near future…I wouldn’t bet on it.  But I’ll save my discussion of technological unemployment for another day.)  And what planet does this guy live on?  Is he under the impression that Americans are all welcoming hard-working Mexicans with open arms?  Has he seen Fox News?

I love my country.  Now more than ever.  I’m proud that people of different backgrounds can live, love and learn together in the US.  I’m proud that my identity as an American is broader and more inclusive than just my ethnicity or race.  But like the Chinese, not all Americans are so cosmopolitan in their love of country.

HK is in between China’s past and China’s future.  As the planet becomes more globalized, and people move around more and more, egocentricity will continually decline.  I’d say the Chinese are moving in this direction at least as fast as the Europeans.  This idea of “the West” being ahead of “the East” seems particularly misguided, given Europe’s recent troubles with immigrants.  Hopefully, China, HK, the US and the world continue on this track.

So I addressed the issue, and I tried to do so evenhandedly, from limited information.  I encourage comments and debate, particularly from anyone who has seen these issues from a perspective different than my own.

This is also the first in what I intend to make a regular series on my blog: USA vs. HK, so I have to decide on a winner.  The winner in the “who’s less ethnocentric” contest, as Andrew Sullivan framed it, is the USA.  Not a big surprise, but it’s a lot closer than Sullivan implies.  And it’s a matter of degree, and neither society is static or homogenous when it comes this stuff.  But if I have to choose a winner, I choose the USA on this one.  Parts of the US would surely lose to HK, but to be fair, I’m comparing HK to the places I’ve lived in the US (places like Madison, Denver, Boulder, and Minneapolis, not Louisiana and Mississippi).  That will be my comparison throughout this series.  I think it’s a reasonable comparison; after all, HK doesn’t represent mainland China any more than Madison and Denver represent the US.

The main reason for the US victory here is the intolerance of racism by non-racists.  Both countries have laws officially outlawing racial discrimination of any kind.  The difference is that the US (at least my parts of the US) has a cultural norm that reinforces the law against discrimination, and this completely changes the whole equation.  That is one area where I see a qualitative difference.  By being more intolerant, the US wins the battle of tolerance.