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At Harmony in Hong Kong: My Summer of Teaching and Organic Farming

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At Harmony in Hong Kong: My Summer of Teaching and Organic Farming

By Ayla Fudala.

When I stepped out through the sliding glass doors of the Hong Kong International Airport, located on Lantau Island, the first thing I noticed was the heat. I felt as though I was swimming in a hot tub. The air was so thick with humidity that I almost could have swum to the taxi that took me to the New Territories, and to the organic farm at which I was to spend the next two weeks. Out of my taxi windows I saw dazzling skyscrapers, towering green mountains, and the blue of the sea. On that first trip to the more rural mainland, I took in Hong Kong’s grandeur, rather than the crowding and clutter which I would later become a part of when, at the end of my stay at the farm, I would move to the city for my summer internship.

I was visiting the organic farm, Efarm HK near Hok Tau Village, in order to work and to conduct interviews for my Environmental Studies thesis on organic farming. I had secured my stay at the farm through WWOOF, or the World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program. This program helps you get in touch with organic farmers across the world who provide you with housing and some food in exchange for farm labor. After my two weeks living and working at the farm, I would move to Hong Kong city’s central district, on the main island, and spend eight weeks teaching creative writing at a learning center called Elephant Community Press. That opportunity was acquired through Penn’s International Internship Program, which also provided me with funding for the summer. 

I arrived at Efarm HK at three pm Hong Kong time, three am US time, and immediately passed out in a bunk bed, serenaded by the rhythmic croaking of toads. The next morning I woke up early and explored the farm, observing two large fish ponds, an aquaculture set-up under a greenhouse, rows of papaya trees, fields of corn, soy beans, and other vegetables I didn’t recognize, and another greenhouse full of squash. The farm was surrounded on all sides by impenetrable jungle, and a lush mountain rose above the fields.

From that day on I tried to wake up as early as possible and get my farmwork done before it got too hot. Then I would lounge near the fan with the farm’s two cats and two dogs, sorting good soybeans from rotten ones while the farm workers drank ice water flavored with honey from the farm’s beehives and chatted in Cantonese. For lunch one of the workers, Mr. Wu, would catch a trout from the pond and sauté it with herbs from the garden. I eventually met the farm’s owners, Teresa and Augustine, and interviewed them at length about their careers as organic farmers. They had bought the farm after retiring from their lifelong careers. (Augustine, funnily enough, had been a salesman of women’s underwear.) They made no profit from the farm, and had started it because of their concern with Hong Kong’s lack of sustainable agriculture.

At 5:30 pm, all the farmers drove home, and I was left alone on the farm. This scared me at first, but before long it had become my favorite part of the day. I could watch the sunset and sip lemon tea, a mosquito coil lit under the table and the farm’s friendly dogs lying panting at my feet.

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Eventually my time at the farm ended, and I moved to my tiny apartment in the Central district of Hong Kong’s island city. I began my internship at Elephant Community Press, a writing center for children founded by enterprising Penn grad and new mother Christine Choi. Various workshops are taught for different age groups, and some of the workshops are publishing. That meant that the kids’ stories were typed up, edited, and published in a book available for purchase by their proud parents. The center was small and pleasant, with teal walls decorated with butterflies and fish, and overflowing bookcases in each of the four classrooms. I got my own classroom, and over the next eight weeks I taught two different workshops which I had designed. One was based entirely on Harry Potter, and was for nine- to eleven-year-olds. The other was a publishing workshop where the students created their own fantasy worlds and wrote stories set within them. That class was for ten- to twelve-year-olds. The Harry Potter class was by far more popular, and I was very impressed with how many avid readers of J.K. Rowling there were in Hong Kong.

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Some of the buildings on either side of the streets contained grimy pawnshops and tiny apartment buildings. But the rest of the buildings alternated between massive glass skyscrapers with beautiful plant arrangements and fountains, gigantic, frigidly-air-conditioned malls that sold only Gucci and Prada, and expensive bars and restaurants. There were more Dior stores in Hong Kong than I had seen in all of New England combined. These streets were always packed, especially during lunch hour, when workers of all levels would stream out of their offices and line up for shrimp dumplings in noodle soup with lemon tea.      

Despite its high population density, Hong Kong still has many beautiful rural areas. So every weekend, I tried to travel somewhere new. In my experience, Hong Kong consists of four major regions: the mainland part or “New Territories,” which is quite rural and has some farms as well as a couple of large towns; Hong Kong Island, which is where the main city is located and where I lived and worked; Lamma Island; and Lantau Island. There are also several smaller islands scattered about, a couple of which I visited and found to be breathtaking. One of my favorite places to visit was Tai O Fishing Village, located on Lantau Island. Tai O is a traditional sea-side village with winding streets lined by shops selling dried fish and squid, bordered by towering greenish-gray mountains, and including an area called “Cat Street,” where all the stray cats gather to be fed each night. The houses stand over the water on stilts, and pink dolphins swim in the harbor. Nearby is a strenuous path along the coast and up the mountain which leads to the fabled “infinity pool” which is filled by a waterfall. 

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The wonders were endless in Hong Kong. I went to an area of Mong Kok called the goldfish market, at which fish of every shape and color are displayed in little plastic bags; the bird market nearby, where the air trembled with exotic birdsong and I met a parrot who could say “Papaya”; Cheung-Chau Island, where I followed a festival procession led by two dancing dragons and a team of drummers and which terminated at an incense-filled temple; Fanling, in the New Territories, where I first learned about the fascinating tradition of burning paper items (paper hats, fake paper money, even paper Prada purses) in order to send them to your ancestors; the Big Buddha which towers serene over Lantau Island and the golden inlaid Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas which lies nearby; and of course the Stanley Dragon Boat Festival, where different companies race their boats to win the prize and party junks with DJs and caterers overlook the whole spectacle.

Despite the heat, I found Hong Kong to be an extraordinary place combining modernity with tradition and East with West. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to live there, and I have learned so much from my experiences.

Ayla Fudala is a Senior double-majoring in English and Environmental Studies. She works at the Kelly Writer's House and is a fellow with the Penn Program for Environmental Humanities. Her dream is to find a way to advance environmental causes through writing and the arts. 

Edited by Mariah Macias.