Posts Tagged ‘United World College’

I think it was year 1990 or 1991 when I was in the United World College attending a media summit organized by the school faculty and students.   A few prominent speakers, including some movers and shakers of the media industry, were invited to address the students about the role of the media and its impact in the political world.  I don’t remember who the speaker (some American journalist) was now, but she was talking about her views on news productions around the world.  “You know what’s the worst news reporting production I have seen so far,” she shared in the middle of her speech.  “It was the Hong Kong TV news programs.”  There was laughter and gasps.  My schoolmates immediately turned to me giggling.  Being one of the only two Hong Kong students in the school, suddenly I felt that I was singled out.  Should I say something?  Should I defend something – anything?  The speaker didn’t need to be a genius to realize that a poor Hong Kong ambassador was in the hall, and she reiterated: “I’m serious.  The newscasters were babbling on and on at a piece that needs not much explaining.”

Maybe I didn’t quite get it at the time, since I hardly had much else to reference to, having only been away from my home town for less than a year.  But I get it now, big time.   Some 20 years later, I am still amazed and amused by where we are today with our news productions.

First a disclaimer.  I know nothing much about the industry, and my frame of reference since then has been largely related to that of the States.  But I think I am still entitled to share my views as a TV audience, and one attempting to seek up-to-date information from the local programs.  By the way, there aren’t that many choices to begin with.

I am a complete believer in news reporters’ and the station’s impartiality in any news stories, but do they all have to be so stone-faced and robotic?  Those of us who are also in the “people business” understand that we as the messengers play a huge part in getting our messages across.  How we say it and how we deliver it is an art by itself.  Yet throughout the few decades of TV news programs I have seen, it seems that there is a cardinal rule in their training programs that no news reporters or anchors should ever shed a single hint of emotion and intonation, whatsoever.  Hey, don’t get that mixed up with adding an opinion, as I know they aren’t talk show hosts and they are not supposed to.  I am talking about adding the right pause, phrasing, and emphasis to the key points, conclusions and transitions.  Sometimes subtle body language and hand gestures may be appropriate.  Though no, all I see is complete stiffness from beginning to end.  Maybe this is requested and demanded by the viewers?  I’m not sure, and I’m not one of them.

I like news anchors who have credibility and professionalism, and it takes them years on the field to gain that hard-earned reputation.  I don’t want them to turn into another extreme like some of the TV news programs in Taiwan, where the programs are much closer to entertainment than anything else, just so they could push up ratings in a relatively much more competitive media market than Hong Kong.  Despite the authoritative figure, I like to see some personalities being presented from time to time.  That brings an element of relatability, trust and connection with the audience.  I understand it can be hard to do here because the local presenters are not as high paid, their career prospect not as secure and promising, and hence it will be much tougher for them to build a distinct brand for themselves.

That’s what I would like to see changed, at least progressively.  It starts from the top at the leadership level, and goes down to where news stories are reported.  The news transcripts do not need to repeat everything we are already seeing on TV.  Come on, we are watching news with news feeds.  The news stories can stand to be a bit more original and non-repetitive.  Interviewing parents and school kids every year on September 1 when the new school year starts is not newsworthy material, similar to shooting at the flower market every Valentine’s Day, or dim sum restaurants on Mother’s Day.  Asking passing by citizens on the streets what they think of the recent public bus fare hike can only lead to one uniform answer.  Every time, I feel that 20 to 30 minutes of my life is robbed.  I don’t dislike the events themselves, I am just longing for a few more original questions or angles on them.

We need some pioneers and some daring moves to push everyone out of their comfort zones once in a while, even if they are of the TV viewers.  I want to envision myself jumping out of my auditorium chair some day, defending the next coming critique if I am fortunate enough to get stuck representing Hong Kong again. 

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The life lessons we learned in a school filled with so much diversity never meant to be easy.  When you were 17 or 18, you weren’t such well-behaved, accepting and politically correct as you are now.  Most students had never set foot out of their countries or even their hometowns.  We ran into schoolmates whose countries we couldn’t pronounce.  We celebrated each country’s national day, and we brought along our so-called national costumes to showcase in cultural events.  (Don’t ask me what national costume I brought along)  No matter how many seminars and coaching sessions the school teachers had hosted from day one, there were still many cases of disputes, complaints and charges on racial remarks, disturbances, and sometimes even physical fights.  However it was also these painful incidents for us kids to learn in a hard way.   Of course, there are still lots of funny bits which I can still remember quite vividly, even after all these years.

1. To Eat

With students coming from over 65 countries, there is only one commonality of all: we all hated the cafeteria food.  It serves American/Mexican and occasionally blends in exotic choices from around the world.   Regardless of their efforts, no one was pleased, including the Americans.  The result was that the dorm pantries were filled with students scrambling for the shared pots and pans to make their own meals, utilizing less than exotic ingredients we could gather from the nearby Safeway.   Our American friends were not used to the pungent smells and smoke we created downstairs, but when hunger striked, you often saw them digging in the stir-fry you just finished from scratch.  It was loads of fun when you find eating the ultimate universal language.  It is unimaginable for us now that the most popular staple food in school used to be the super unglamorous and unhealthy instant noodles.  The instant noodles they sold in the school’s store as well as in Safeway was the worst you could find on earth, with bizarre flavors named “Oriental”.  Yet on almost every hungry long night, nothing was more satisfying than a hot steaming bowl of noodles.  The Asian students first started cooking them and after a week or so, all of our European and American friends became adopters.  Soon after we experimented various new ways of cooking instant noodles like pan flying or mixing with other ingredients we stole from the cafeteria.  I always had my American friends knocking on my dorm room door at 3am, asking whether I could spare a pack or two.  I miss those simple days.

2. To Hear

There was one public phone per dorm and it was always occupied.  I think some of my schoolmates lived there.  In those days long distance calls were incredibly expensive and I barely made one every few months to call home.  I could understand how emotionally challenging it was for all the international students, but I couldn’t help to frown at those American friends who were glued to the phone every night.  After all, they could have their families visited them, on campus, much easier than everyone else.  To this date, my parents still have absolutely no idea what I went through in those 2 years.  I could have attended Hogwarts with Harry Porter, for all they care.

3. To Run

You would think that with all those physical exercises as described in Part Two, we would all be sound asleep at nights.  Oh no, there would be on average a night per week where we would be awoken by loud piercing fire alarm at 4am.  Everyone ran to the porch where you could see the weirdest pyjamas of all cultures.  Some wrapped themselves with blankets, and some amazingly fully clothed as they had not even been to bed yet.  It was always caused by kids smoking inside their rooms, or somebody forgetfully leaving their bag of popcorn in the microwave.  The most interesting scene for all, however, was to see who came out together from a room.  I am not talking about roommates here, people.

4. To Perform

You are naturally possessed with patriotic adrenaline the moment you enter the school.  Since you may be the only one from your country, you become the ambassador.  I remember I used to write to the Hong Kong Tourism Association offices in the States to ask them to send me all kinds of crap to spread the goodwill across, and they did!  I had beautiful posters of Hong Kong skyline, junks, lion dancing and dim sum, and I also got cardboard displays sent in.  My dorm room looked like a freaking tourist information center, for god’s sake.  Yet that was the pressure I felt back in the days.

And then there were these yearly cultural performances we had to perform.  Asian National Day, Latin American national Day…you get the picture.  We scratched our heads out thinking what we could do including Tai Chi, Kung fu, Chinese dances, reciting poetry, calligraphy etc..  It was hugely entertaining for us since we could just draw up random figures on red paper in front of unsuspecting audiences. 


The UWC life is a very unique experience.  Since my time, more schools have been opened, including one right here in Hong Kong.  Each school has its particular offering which no other could compete or replace.  I wish I could have kept in contact with more of my schoolmates, though it was challenging when e-mails weren’t too popular when we left.    One thing I know, is that many of them are now working in public offices and environmental bodies.  To me, I am just grateful to be sponsored to enjoy such rewarding experience.

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After literally 2 full days of connecting flights and school buses, I arrived in the middle of nowhere.  Montezuma is next to a town called Las Vegas but nothing like its sister in Nevada.  The school is located at a 3-hour drive from New Mexico’s airport in Albuquerque.  I couldn’t pronounce half of these names at first since they are all Spanish.  The community is largely Hispanic and I felt nothing like in the States, though technically I got no reference in the first place.  So when my friends and schoolmates asked me whether I had been to New York, San Francisco, LA, Washington DC or Florida when I was studying in the States, they couldn’t believe my answer. 

The school however was located in a picturesque part of the rocky mountains.  Although it is located far south of the States next to Mexico, the town is 6,400 feet above sea level, so there was a decent amount of snow during winter.  We were completely isolated from everything else because there was no public transportation, no shops or malls.  The students were not allowed to drive because of insurance issues, and had to rely on scheduled school vans to take us out to the nearest Safeway (supermarket).  I felt completely trapped.  I was surrounded by my schoolmates 24 hours a day, and the school and our second year seniors had organized all types of activities for us that were meant to knock down cultural barriers.  That was very much needed, since there were language issues, cultural issues, curriculum issues, discipline issues, and sex issues.  Yes, you heard it right.

The UWC schools have a long tradition of incorporating wilderness and community services inside our curriculum.  For a city boy who was hardly skilled in sports in school, it was definitely something new.  I went for 5 day hiking and wild camping trips carrying backpacks half my height, stuffed with cooking pots and pans, food, sleeping bag and mat.  We hiked through the woods with compasses and maps and had to hang our food up the trees at night to avoid sniffing bears.  The boys needed to pee around the wild camp site to mark our territory against bears, and we often saw knocked down trash cans the morning after as proof that they were around us just a mile away.  Sometimes part of the hike involved kayaking.  After 10 hours of hiking and paddling every day, I always collapsed no later than 7pm after the camp fire, under the brightest and biggest night of stars I had ever seen.  Rock climbing was another extremely scary but fulfilling experience.  And no, we didn’t do it on a rock wall.  We did it on the coarse mountain tops under light snow.  When I repelled down, I felt that I was literally going to die.

Community service was not easy work either.  Yes it did sound like something which mild law offenders were sentenced to do in orange jump suits.  We built houses for the elderly, painted fences, cooked for the homeless, and in my second year I paid weekly visits to the elderly who lived alone and wanted someone to talk to.   It was the school’s mission to pay back to the nearby community, and being located in a rather run-down hispanic environment, there was plenty that a group of 17-18 year olds could do.


During the two years in UWC, I hardly spoke a word of Cantonese or even Mandarin in front of mainland Chinese schoolmates.  The norm was not to speak in languages which others couldn’t understand, so we were instructed to always use English whenever possible, with no disrespect to our own cultures of course.  I remember I was tongue-tied when I landed HK during summer.  For the first hour or so I had to remember how to speak in Cantonese.  The people, the various accents, the cultures, the weird food, the temperature, the wilderness, and depending on nobody but yourself was quite daunting for myself at the time, but it was exactly this exposure that helped shape who I am today, rather than the academic curriculum that you haven’t heard me mentioning one bit, so far.

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After my secondary school education in Hong Kong, together with a number of my classmates, I was nominated by my secondary school counselor to apply for an international school scholarship.  I didn’t know much about what it was at first except that our school had a pretty high acceptance record in the past years.  There were only 10 seats per year for Hong Kong graduates to compete against each other based on school merits, extra-curricular activities, and personal presence.  The scholarship was not widely known except for a few rather prestigious private and subsidized secondary schools in Hong Kong.  Our Hong Kong alumni comes from a dozen well-known schools who truly understand the value and mission of the scholarship.

“The United World College (UWC) schools deliver a challenging and transformative educational experience to a diverse cross-section of students, inspiring them to create a more peaceful and sustainable future.”, the brochure says.  The current President of UWC is Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, and its Honorary President is Nelson Mandela.  During my days, the President was HRH The Prince of Wales.   The UWC concept was conceived in the 1950s, and it has now 13 colleges and schools across five continents, offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma.  It was like the UK A-Level in my days.

After submitting my school records and a number of other papers and recommendations, I was invited to attend a face-to-face interview with a panel of judges who were tasked to screen and select the students representing Hong Kong.  I recall that the panel was headed by Doctor Man Wui Ho (何文匯博士).  I don’t recall much of what happened during the interview, but it was mainly an attempt to select young people who were eloquent, had common sense and open minds.  Just before the Hong Kong Certification of Education (HKCEE) results were out, I got notified by my school that I was fortunate to be selected as one of the 10 that year.

In my days there were only 7 schools within the network, and we applied to this network instead of each school individually.  We could put down our preference and rank them in order, but there was no guarantee.  Some schools have slightly larger student bodies and could accommodate 2 or 3 HK students every year.  Some schools can only take 1.  Each school is committed to have a student body representing over 65 countries every year like a mini UN, so they have to be extra careful in filtering each year’s applicants by personality, country of origin, and gender.  Like many of my fellow scholarship applicants, I picked the supposedly safer bets of UK and Canada as my preferred choices in my application.

I was notified by my school that I was selected to be the only 1 Hong Kong student to attend the UWC in the states that fall.  The school was in Motezuma New Mexico.  Like almost everyone, I flipped out my atlas with my parents and simply couldn’t find it on the map.  At the time when HK people are only familiar of east coast schools and west coast Hollywood and California beaches, anywhere in between was utterly non-existent and unthinkable. 

The school is named Armand Hammer United World College of the American West.  It has one of the smallest student bodies in the network, just over 200 students.  The 2-year IB program means that each year there will be around 100 new students from all over the world.  Being the school in the states, US students occupy about 50 seats each year, leaving the rest to be shared amongst 60 plus countries.  It’s easy math that the school will never have more than 2 Hong Kong students, one of each school year.  I was the only one attending that college from my home country.  The scholarship covers all room and board, tuition and books, as all students live on campus.  Everyone needs to pick up two languages, and will be responsible for plane tickets and incidental expenses particularly during winter and summer breaks. 


So that fall, I waved goodbye to my family, friends and classmates.  I packed my whole life in two super sized luggage that weighed more than myself, bought a one-way ticket that would need me to make 3 stops across continents, and left Hong Kong for the very first time in my life.   I got no friends or relatives anywhere in the States, and I had a million questions and thoughts on my mind.  However, everything happened so fast that I simply had no time to be scared.  I just knew that I would not be able to see my sister and parents for a whole year.  In an era without cell phones, internet, Skype and e-mails, that thought was utterly horrendous.

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