Real value

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:11pm


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Every time I go back to America, it tugs at my heart. It's not just the hills and tree-lined streets; it's the values, optimism, equality and freedom it represents. When I was six, my family moved to America, hopeful, heedful and hungry. We chased the American dream. Fifteen years later, I moved back to Asia for a better dream. The Asian dream now seems to trump the American one.

Seven years on, I am about to become a Hong Kong permanent resident. I don't know exactly how much of the Asian dream I've obtained, because I'm not quite sure what the Asian dream should include. What is the goal of a Hongkonger? What is 'success'? How do you know if you've 'made it' in Hong Kong?

Most Hongkongers would say owning a flat is a true beacon of success. Owning several flats is even better. Next is money; having enough to lunch at the Four Seasons, or better yet, join private clubs with million-dollar membership fees. And, surely, we cannot forget one's children's success, as measured solely by which schools they go to.

These pillars of the Asian dream are not the reasons I came to Asia. They are not the values I have lived my life by. Yet, sadly, they have influenced me. I find myself worrying about property, money and schools with the same fervour I used to reserve for issues like affirmative action and civil liberties. Materialism now stands where idealism once held sway.

But every time I go back to America, I remember my roots. This summer, I spent three weeks in California. I hiked in the woods and took my children to beautiful parks in posh neighbourhoods. I also hung out with working-class Americans who are struggling to pay the rent. I headed back to Hong Kong both energised and hesitant.

I am more hopeful of Asia than ever because the decay of America is becoming impossible to ignore - from the endless lines at the airport to the general torpor of service staff. Hong Kong, with its efficiency, diligence and drive, is a dream city in comparison. Our people work hard, don't complain incessantly, and don't take everything for granted.

And yet, there still is no other place quite like America. It is a democracy and a meritocracy in a way that Hong Kong is not. In America, the underdog is celebrated, not beaten over the head. Insider deals, gifts to lawmakers and favour-swapping are not tolerated. Not every piece of available land is given over to property developers. The tycoons are not entitled to special treatment. American schools do not issue debentures; you cannot buy your way in with million-dollar fast passes.

Democracy and meritocracy are vital to any society's well-being. Equally important is a system of values, beliefs and ethics. For Hongkongers to get to the next level, the people need to believe in something other than the power of property. Hong Kong has vast potential but, to unleash it, we must think less as individuals and more as a community. In this Asian century, Hong Kong has the skills to lead - if we find the courage. When I become a permanent resident, I will do so with my heart full of hope.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.