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Expat's Eye
Print Edition> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: October 8, 2013 NO. 41 OCTOBER 10, 2013
Weighty Matters in Hong Kong
By Karmel Schreyer


Education is a rocky journey in Hong Kong. Costs are skyrocketing and competition is fierce, as it is on the mainland. But who would have thought that even the issue of schoolbags would be so contentious? News items about how heavy schoolbooks are here, and how to lighten the load for Hong Kong's students, are matters that everyone in the whole territory are invited to weigh in on. And as my own kids grow up, it is becoming an increasingly weighty issue.

My daughter is 11 years old and in Year Eight and weighs around 32 kg. Her schoolbag is new this year and today, Monday morning, it weighed in at approximately 1 tonne. "You need a suitcase!" I had said, not laughing, as I ran to get my camera—and the scale. The girls were running late (isn't that normal for a Monday morning?) but Eldest smiled for the camera as she tried to stuff a thick library book into the bag, and we all crowded around the scale to see an astounding 10.2 kg start to flash: me and my daughters and Aunty E, the person who helps me raise my kids. Aunty E's first point of business for the week is to carry my daughter's schoolbag down the 198 steps to the bus stop, and I sometimes wonder if I am guilty of illegal deployment.

Had it been Wednesday the schoolbag would have been even heavier holding her gym clothes. Had it been Tuesday she would have had to carry it along with her guitar case. On Fridays, she goes straight to golf squad and so she needs her clubs. (They only weigh 4.8 kg.) Being a Hong Konger, I am familiar with the issue of heavyweight schoolbags and their effect on the spines of the young, especially on those with petite frames.

So, on Tuesdays, I get on the school bus with my kids, saddled with my own kit bag, my yoga mat, 10 kg schoolbag, and guitar case. My Younger, of sturdier build, carries her own schoolbag, but being only in Year Five it is significantly lighter, for now. I don't get off the bus though. That is not allowed. Also, my contact with my kids' friends and other students is restricted: I can offer greetings, but no chitchat. And No Greetings is the preferred option, but my kids know their mum; there is a limit to how long she can be kept under control. I will admit that if the mood strikes me I will chitchat anyway.

On Tuesdays, I stay on the bus and get off one stop beyond the school, where I sit at a coffee shop for an hour then trudge off to my weekly yoga class (scary!). I get weight training from carrying the schoolbags. Aunty E gets additional exercise every Friday afternoon when she takes my daughter's golf bag to school on her bicycle, and returns with the 10.2 kg schoolbag. She is trying to make it up the hills back to our place without getting off and walking the bike up. It hasn't happened yet, but she's making progress. I said when she can do this I will sponsor her in the extreme sporting competition of her choice.

Mums—and Aunties—know that part of being a mum (and an Aunty) is about being a mule. Or, being Asian now, I will say Sherpa; it's so much more respectable-sounding, and a noble calling, too. After all, where would Sir Edmund Hillary have ended up without Sherpa Tenzing Norgay? He wouldn't have made it past the Khumbu Icefall, that's what I say!

Sherpa Tenzing was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Not only did he help other people achieve their goals (I am thinking of Hillary and countless other mountain climbers), but he was also able to achieve his own ambitions and help the community of mountain climbers/porters and his fellow-Sherpa people. To admirably do one's job to help others succeed, to fulfill one's own ambitions, and to contribute to one's community now that sounds like a life lived well! I think about this, especially every Tuesday morning, and I don't feel so bad.

In Wikipedia (attributed to James Ramsey Ullman's book Tiger of the Snows) Sherpa Tenzing is quoted as saying, "It has been a long road...From a mountain coolie, a bearer of loads, to a wearer of a coat with rows of medals who is carried about in planes and worries about income tax."

I don't know about medals—the thanks from my kids, and their uncompromised little spines, are reward enough for me—but the rest sounds about right.

The author is a Canadian living in Hong Kong

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