Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Having a helper leaves Hong Kong’s young lazy and spoilt

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Peter Kammerer

Peter Kammerer says depending on helpers for daily living well into adulthood renders Hongkongers averse to hardship, unable to think for themselves and lacking basic life skills

The 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China raised all sorts of issues, among them whether our city has lost its edge. The conclusion seems to be yes – that we’re gradually falling behind competitors in virtually every area.

There was even a suggestion that our famed entrepreneurial spirit was disappearing, and questions were asked as to why. It’s a complicated subject with rent, education and parental ambitions for children at play, but I’d also wager that part of the problem is because we have too many maids.

Foreign domestic helpers aren’t to blame for the decline of shipping, universities slipping down rankings and Shenzhen lording it over us with innovations and hi-tech industries.

But my argument is less about advantage than laziness. Rather than coming up with solutions to our problems, we’re increasingly expecting others to fix them for us. Younger generations, like the millennials, appear to want everything laid out for them, from cheap housing to the best jobs – all for minimal effort.

It’s easy to see why people aged between 18 and their mid-30s would think this way; many had or continue to have maids to take care of them.

Between the end of 1998 and 2015, the year for the latest statistics, the number of foreign domestic helpers almost doubled – from 180,000 to 340,380.

That’s a lot of youngsters who didn’t need to clean up after themselves, had someone cooking for them, getting them ready for and perhaps taking them to school, and to be on hand to cater for their every need.

They were spoilt as kids and many continue that way as adults.

I know of single people who have full-time maids to take care of them and their pets. A couple with a pre-teen son have decided to move back into the wife’s parents’ home while their helper is on vacation because the thought of taking care of the child, cleaning the flat and cooking is too daunting.

Those raised by maids are readily identifiable at the gym I go to; they ignore rules to return used towels to the front counter and instead drop them on the changing room floor.

In the weights area, heavy plates are left either on the floor or attached to bars, rather than being put back in racks, posing a danger to other users. The toilets are left in a mess.

Helpers are an integral part of the Hong Kong government’s growth strategy. They enable both parents to work and provide care for children and the elderly. As a result, their wages are kept artificially low and exempt from minimum wage requirements.

With the typical Hongkonger earning about HK$15,800 a month, many working couples can easily afford the HK$4,310 salary.

But the influx of maids, at present increasing annually by about 10,000, has a litany of drawbacks.

The government is not under pressure to expand or improve child and elderly care services. Helpers may not be adequately trained to take care of a wheelchair-bound or bedridden person.

Sundays are a popular day for employers to give their maids their weekly day off, which means public places are overcrowded. And then, there is the reliance of families on their helpers to the point that they no longer have basic life skills.

Lazy people don’t necessarily have lazy minds; studies have found they’re often the intelligent ones and have figured how to get by with minimal effort.

But avoiding hard work and expecting something for nothing doesn’t teach us important lessons like success and failure, and finding solutions to problems.

Helpers free us up from what some people would consider the mundane, but the extra time is only worthwhile if put to constructive use.

Judging by our flat economic growth, reluctance to break away from businesses that are fading, and jump on opportunities offered by the Hong Kong and Beijing governments and take a risk, we’re well on the way to losing the ability to think for ourselves.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post

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In my facekini: How wearing a mask to shield me from the sun couldn’t protect me from racist America

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Kelly Yang

Kelly Yang says her personal experience on holiday in the US has made her question the future of a nation that has welcomed immigrants for centuries and successfully profited from their skills and talent

Hate. Racism. Hostility. That’s what flew in my face this summer when I wore a facekini while on vacation in the US. A facekini, in case you are not familiar, is a tight lycra-blend mask, one which covers your entire face and neck. No more messy sunscreens! No more visors flying off in the wind! And while my facekini proved to be excellent protection from the blazing California sun, it failed to shield me from the torrent of racist comments, from “Look at that Asian freak!” to “If you don’t like the sun, why don’t you go back to where you came from?”

People said this to my face, even in liberal California. Maybe it was Donald Trump fever or the fact people forgot that, underneath my mask, I still had ears. Whatever the reason, I suddenly found myself on the receiving end of American xenophobia, feeling sad, alone and vulnerable under my mask.

They were not feelings I expected to experience in the US, a place lauded for its tolerance and openness. I grew up there and remember always being accepted, even when I wore pyjama pants to school and had the haircut of a poodle.

So, who were these people, I wondered, as I peered out at them. Was it the mask? I’ll admit, I did look weird. But then again, this was the US. Being weird is practically a birthright in America, no?

As the questions swarmed in my mind, a little boy came running up to me. As soon as he saw my facekini, he told his mother he wanted one too. The look on her face was one of fear and disgust as she screamed, “Oh no you don’t! See that, son? That’s what our future’s going to look like if we’re not careful!” That’s when I started thinking that all that hate was not about my mask. It was perhaps about what was underneath it.

And if it was, then the ramifications are far greater than one tourist’s bad experience. It would fundamentally change America as we know it.

For centuries, America has successfully welcomed, leveraged and profited from the skills and talents of immigrants. That is the key to America’s success – not its capital or education system, but the fact that it is able to consistently attract the best people from around the world. For this to happen, America has built a culture of tolerance and acceptance, one which welcomes and appreciates diversity. If America were to lose this, or even the perception of this, it could set the country back in ways it couldn’t even imagine.

At the same time, if America’s xenophobia continues, it will be an opportunity for the rest of the world. Nations, if they are smart, could fill the void and reap the benefits of a diverse and skilled workforce. Hong Kong, in particular, stands to gain a lot from this approach. Now, more than ever before, the city is in dire need of innovation. It can’t just rely on the same old refrain – property, tycoons, finance and tourism. That song’s been played one too many times and it’s simply not working. We need to reinvent ourselves.

We need to welcome, not fear, fresh blood. We need to learn from countries like the US and what they did right, when they were doing it right – which is to be tolerant towards others, and welcoming and accepting of diversity. Only then will we have a shot at success in the global marketplace.

At the same time, we need to equip the next generation with the tools to compete globally, which means being able to communicate well in a global language such as English.

I was disappointed not to hear any mention of how to raise English standards in the chief executive’s recent policy address. Leung Chun-ying stressed the need to innovate but, without the right language skills, how can the next generation, and their businesses, go global? Similarly, if we don’t raise the English standard, the best talent in the world will also have little reason to come to Hong Kong – because they simply won’t be able to communicate with local staff.

Unlike the US, where elections seem akin to reality TV shows at the moment, our politicians are not as beholden to “likes”, hashtags and sound bites. Let’s hope they take advantage of that and make bold, brave and smart decisions that truly transform Hong Kong.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong.

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You don’t have to wear a suit and work in an office to make a good living, in Hong Kong or elsewhere

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Bernard Chan

Bernard Chan says our bias against non-professional jobs, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, is limiting young people’s career choices and causing them – and their parents – much stress

There was a time, some 50 years ago, when only 1 per cent of young Hong Kong people could go to university here. A few others who could afford it would study for degrees overseas. For the vast majority of people, college was an unattainable dream.

By the mid-2000s, the figure had hit 45 per cent. Just a few years earlier, then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa set a target of 60 per cent of young people receiving tertiary education.

However, the term “tertiary education” covers a wide range of courses.

Expectations, ambition and a sense of growing competition have led young people – and their parents – to believe that they must have a full university degree. Yet only half of qualified high-school graduates get a subsidised place on a full degree course at a local university, which is equivalent to around one in five school-leavers.

Many students go to college overseas, some to selective or prestigious institutions, some to lesser-known schools. And there has been a huge increase in the number of young people studying locally at their own expense for associate degrees and diplomas. Some are attracted to courses that point to careers in particular sectors like business and finance.

The result is bound to be frustration for some of these students later on. They want and expect jobs in what they think are high-paying and high-status positions. As a Central Policy Unit study on the “post-80s generation” found, the number of opportunities in management and the professions has in fact been growing. The problem is that the number of college graduates is growing faster.

Inevitably, many go into junior clerical or sales jobs, and they and their parents probably feel disappointed. This must add to the overall feeling in Hong Kong of inequality and declining social mobility.

As educational opportunities have expanded, we seem to have seen a growing bias against the option of learning a trade. The strange thing is that the pay for many skilled jobs in construction, hospitality and the clothing industry compares favourably with that in entry-level positions in local banks or big conglomerates.

Hong Kong offers a wide range of technical and vocational training options to prepare young people for such skilled work. Yet it seems everyone wants to wear a suit and work in an office in Central.

Speaking as someone who wears a suit and works in an office in Central, I can say that this sort of life is not really very glamorous. A small number of investment banking jobs offer huge salaries – plus extreme stress. Many other jobs in financial services come with sales quotas and are very much focused on marketing. It is no secret that legal and accounting work is not always very exciting.

However, there is clearly prestige attached to financial and professional careers. Our media portray businessmen as stars and quote them as if they are gurus. In advertising, the boardroom and business-class travel are images of success. Within schools and families, there is clearly a bias in favour of particular academic and educational qualifications.

This is not unique to Hong Kong. Canadian officials are worried that young people want humanities degrees when the big employment opportunities are for people like electricians. The Singapore media recently blamed the high status of business as a career for a shortage of mass transit engineers.

Maybe we should look at it the other way around: the real bias is a negative one – against certain types of training and trade. The media, parents and society in general have become so focused on particular narrow forms of achievement that anything else is seen as failure.

A task force on vocational education in Hong Kong found that much of the problem comes down to image and prejudice. A big contrast is with Germany, where market-driven and well-funded apprenticeships are a first choice, not a second one, for many smart young people. In Germany, a good mechanic has as much pride and respect as a white-collar worker.

We need to get the message across: skills in creating and working with actual things are a sign of success.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council

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Hong Kong high school students: If you want to stand out from the crowd, get a summer job

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Kelly Yang

Kelly Yang says if students want to impress US university admissions officers, they should get some life experience, not another perfect score

As a college admissions adviser, I work with a lot of Hong Kong teenagers to help them navigate the minefield of getting into a good US university. Invariably, though, whenever I ask them what they’ve done in summer, their response is the same: they studied, for their SATs, ACTs, APs and/or IBs. These kids can reel off a list of exam acronyms that will make your head spin. When I hear this, I cringe and tell them straight: by joining the dime-a-dozen club of Asian kids who only study each summer, they’ve squandered a chance to stand out.

Instead of studying for endless tests, high school teenagers should be working during summer. And, when it comes to jobs, “prestigious” isn’t better; what matters is the substance of the work. Is it meaningful? Is it challenging? Did you stick with it even though it was hard? I’d be far more impressed with a kid who sweats it out working at a frozen yogurt start-up in Mong Kok than someone who just fetched coffee and filed papers at daddy’s bank. The former shows initiative and imagination, not to mention pushing oneself out of one’s comfort zone. The latter shows you’re a wannabe princeling.

The US university admissions officers I talk to agree. They say they’d love to see, on Hong Kong students’ applications, not yet another perfect score, but something that really took courage, commitment and grit.
I learned valuable skills – how to deal with customers and respond to unexpected situations

Sadly, though, studying seems to be the only activity that takes courage, commitment and grit for too many students. And that’s true all over the world. According to the Pew Research Centre, last year in the US, the teenage summer employment rate was 32 per cent, compared with 58 per cent in 1978. Instead of getting a job, more teens are signing up for “prestigious” summer courses at universities and boarding schools. These kids or their parents think these courses will somehow give them a leg up in university admissions. It won’t.

As a kid, I had a job every summer. Mostly, it was pretty unglamorous work in a shop. Still, I learned valuable skills – how to deal with customers and respond to unexpected situations. I dealt with angry customers and learned to be flexible and compromise. These skills proved invaluable later in life, not just in work situations but also in school. They helped me become a more responsible and resourceful person, one who understands the value of a dollar. I could not have gained these skills any other way.

So whether you want to impress college admissions officers or you just want to best prepare yourself for life, the answer is the same: stop studying all summer and go and get a job.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.