Hong Kong | 2 Hours in a Slum

Real talk: I was not excited about spending our Spring Break in Hong Kong with 13 high schoolers. I kept hearing about other GWAM trips (Guardians With A Message) that sounded a little more up my alley. Up my alley basically translated to a tropical and/or exotic location. I mean, really, why not serve high schoolers and get a great vacay out of it at the same time? But, no, it looked like God had us going to Hong Kong. I may or may not be exaggerating, but I can honestly say that Hong Kong was not on my bucket list when I set out for this trip. While there were certainly some challenges on this trip, I was pleasantly surprised by the city of Hong Kong as well as the people we met while volunteering.

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Before I get into the deets of the trip itself, can I just say that Hong Kong is a GORGEOUS city! There’s nothing like a good port city (shout out to my Seattle homies!) and Hong Kong is, without a doubt, a stunning port city. Ross wants me to mention that he thinks the city’s beauty is due to its great feng shui. You really can’t beat a city built around mountains and water. We also loved this city’s fusion of cultures and explosion of colors. It seems that big cities either beat you down or give you energy, and Hong Kong was one of those cities that gives you a spring in your step.

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There’s a lot to be said for the beauty of Hong Kong but the real theme of our trip was “Beyond the City Lights” and focused on the extreme wealth and extreme poverty that live side by side in this booming city. In fact, Hong Kong has one of the largest wealth gaps in the world right now. It has the largest concentration of billionaires in the world. The rich are mind-blowingly rich and the poor are devastatingly poor. Many of our students in Seoul come from affluent families and have not experienced financial struggle…or many other struggles that stem from lack of finances. So, our trip was meant to show them the highs and lows of the socioeconomic ladder in Hong Kong and hopefully help them make connections to their lives in Seoul. This proved to be harder than it sounds. Unfortunately, privilege is a thick wall that seems to have more layers the harder you hammer. We hope and pray that God continues to break down heart walls and pour out His justice and mercy.

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The real highlight of our trip was the days we spent volunteering at Crossroads Foundation. Crossroads is an incredible organization in many ways. As someone who has worked for and with many non-profits, this one stood out as an organization of great integrity.

Crossroads was birthed out of need. It did not start with people who saw themselves as heroes or had a dream to save the world…it began with a family of four who heard about one need, and decided to do what they could to help. In their words: We never meant to start Crossroads. We believed the world had enough worthy causes. Rather than begin another, we decided to help those already in existence. We couldn’t stop Crossroads from starting, though, and, now, can’t stop it from growing. This is how Crossroads got its name. It is a meeting point, a connection between those who want to help and those in need. Crossroads has many functions but its main one is to bring in donations of materials (furniture, toys, computers, electronics, clothing, you name it) and redistribute them to people who will use them. Amazingly, there was not a successful database for people to enter donations and others to request needs before Crossroads created one. The UN was in need of such a database and Crossroads Foundation actually started running a donations database for them! It is such a simple idea, this idea of gathering the overabundance of some to give to those without…and yet there was no database to do this successfully in a global setting!

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Not only does Crossroads have an army base (literally the Chinese government let them use an old army base) full of donations and shipments going out weekly to the four corners of the earth, they have also started doing simulations which they call “X-periences.” We x-perienced three of these over our days there: AIDS simulation, Blind simulation, and the Struggle for Survival (as a worker in a slum) simulation. The most impacting by far was the Struggle for Survival. This simulation was intense, frustrating, and brought light to the truth that poverty is extremely complicated.

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Describing what happened is probably the best way to show what I’m talking about.

We entered the room where the simulation would be held. The old army base room was bare apart from a small straw hut in the corner and barbed wire on a few of the walls. We sat down on the concrete floor and some of the Crossroads volunteers explained who we were in this setting and what we needed to do to survive. We were placed in “families” and given newspaper to make small grocery bags by folding and gluing with water and flour. There were three rounds of frantic bag-making. Each round, we had to make as many bags as we could and sell them to one of the shopkeepers in the village. The shopkeepers were played by the Crossroads volunteers. These shopkeepers, however, would not just sell willingly. We were made to beg, to persuade, to grovel, to sell the shoes off our feet to get the money we needed for our “families.” At the end of each round, we had to make enough money to cover the cost of our housing (or the land we lived on), our doctor bills, and our child’s education. If not, we would lose one or all of these things.

I was amazed at how this simulation really put me and the people around me into a state of desperation. It all felt so real and the atmosphere was so tense, so frantic, that I found myself offering up my wedding band to make enough for our family to stay in our house. Yes, there was certainly an element of “game” to this simulation and I knew I would get my wedding band back at the end of it, but my emotions went to a place I don’t think I had experienced before.

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Meanwhile, while all this was happening, there were other elements that came into play during the simulation. Volunteers would come up and offer money to some in our group if they gave “hugs.” Shopkeepers began ripping up bags we’d made because they “weren’t quality” but really they wanted to show us who held all the power. Prices for housing were raised without a reason why. All we could do was keep frantically making bags.

The debrief at the end of this simulation was fascinating. We had particularly wonderful volunteer leaders who asked great questions of our students about their experience.

“How did you feel when prices for housing were raised without reason?”

“What feelings came up when you were made to beg on your knees to sell your bags?”

“Why did the shopkeepers have all the power?”

“What are some ways we can change the face of poverty in our neighborhoods, our communities, our world?”

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These are complicated questions with complicated answers. But, I was so glad our students were being asked. I hope and pray this makes them think. I pray it continues to make ME think. This is how we grow…by putting ourselves in situations where we are uncomfortable. Where we are face to face with realities of power and privilege and need that are not just going away.

Thanks for reading and check out Crossroads Foundation HK if you’d like to find out more or get involved. Ross and I would just LOVE to be able to go back someday and volunteer for an extended period. We’ll see! In the meantime, we are tucking these experiences in our hearts and storing them up to put into action…both in our lives now and hopefully in Nepal one day soon.

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