Tim Hamlett's Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 January, 2008, 12:00am

A veteran journalist and Baptist University academic, Tim looks at the issues facing the city. E-mail him at hamlett@hkbu.edu.hk

Christmas is a time for families to get together. Actually this is a western concept. In Hong Kong the Lunar New Year is the time for families to get together. But many Hong Kong families are stuck with a Christmas reunion because of overseas academic habits.

If you go to school or university in an English-speaking country, you will get your winter break at Christmas. And you will not get a Lunar New Year holiday at all. Holidays without a fixed date in the calendar are troublesome. People have had wars over the date of Easter. So they prefer to avoid lunar landmarks over there.

This is of some significance in Hong Kong because so many young people do the later stages of their education overseas. I am not sure what this tells us about the local education system. Almost everyone who opts for an overseas secondary school complains that the local version overdoes the pressure and examinations.

Some of them tell alarming stories of weak or confused students being ruthlessly culled by 'prestige schools' eager to preserve their averages. Local universities do not have these distressing features, but when it comes to attracting applicants who have escaped the local system by going to international or overseas schools, they do not try very hard. Even if they did I am not sure that it would make much difference.

Most young people feel that at a certain stage in their lives they want to leave nest, spread wings, sow wild oats and other picturesque metaphors. In short, a lot of people want to go to university away from home, not although, but because it is away from home. This is most marked in countries with a centralised university admission system. In Britain it would be regarded as eccentric (at least outside Scotland) to go to a university in your hometown, however good the local spot may be. Oxford residents apply for Cambridge.

At certain times of the year to or from intercontinental destinations with big education industries become unobtainable because the planes are full of students - whose parents have paid through the nose for early bookings. Last-minute travellers have to resort to unconventional airlines, or even routes, because their usual carrier is full of young things in baggy trousers and funny hats. Some departure times at Chek Lap Kok attract clusters of family groups.

An offspring, slightly over-dressed for Hong Kong and carrying a rucksack barely within cabin luggage limits, is bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and raring to go. The two parents conceal their distress as well as they can. It is rather guilt-inducing - if you did your own share of blithe youthful departures, puzzled by the fuss your parents were making - to discover that this necessary rite of passage is actually quite painful for the people you leave behind.

No doubt it is not as bad as it was when communication was either by horribly slow letter or even more horribly expensive phone call. I fear my letters home were infrequent. This is what comes of sending children to boarding school - they learn to manage without you.

But one can text, one can make calls on the internet, one can chat. But that doesn't actually solve the problem.

It's not that you want to see them all the time. This is just as well, because this is not on offer. Even if your children stay at home there are landmarks on the road to independence - his own room, his own computer in the room, his own television in the room. By this time you are only meeting for meals.

By the time your children reach university age you have to face the fact that parenthood - which is fun for most of us - is a temporary matter. That small person you loved unconditionally will turn into a big person who will be rather different and will want his or her life in which your part is still being discussed by the casting director. This is all right and proper but also saddening.

Going through a neglected corner of my desk a few months ago I was taken by surprise by a cache of carefully preserved Christmas cards, some of them home-made, all addressed in a childish hand 'to Papa'.

And I must admit I cried a bit. So I hope your family Christmas was a success, and that you treated your pigeons well, that they may fly home again next year.

Following the death of Kevin Sinclair, Tim Hamlett will be the regular columnist on Wednesdays. A celebration of Sinclair's life will be held from 6pm to 9pm at the Police Officers' Club, 28 Hung Hing Rd, Causeway Bay (near the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club), next Monday.

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