The loss of in­no­cence in Hong Kong

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT -

On my way to work each morn­ing, I ea­gerly await on the bus the lit­tle pas­sen­gers who make our morn­ings ever so bright.

Lit­tle more than tod­dlers, some barely out of in­fancy, re­splen­dent in the uni­forms of which­ever kinder­gartens they are at­tend­ing, clutch­ing the hands of par­ents, grand­par­ents or care­givers, they board my bus from stop af­ter stop. And, with each new ar­rival, some­thing soft­ens in the faces of most of the pas­sen­gers. Hard­nosed of­fice-go­ers stand­ing pressed against anx­ious stu­dents, el­derly ma­trons jostling for space with smartly dressed young ladies, all mo­men­tar­ily for­get their pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. For, each new ar­rival is her­alded by a squeal of de­light or non-stop chat­ter, pit­ter-pat­ter of lit­tle feet and rarely, a cry of sep­a­ra­tion from a young mother bid­ding good­bye at the bus stop. The sight of the shin­ing faces, the neatly parted hair or lit­tle pig­tails, the col­or­ful ac­ces­sories, and the oh-so spon­ta­neous laugh­ter, is like sun­light it­self in­vad­ing the re­cesses of the packed bus.

This is the power of in­no­cence — it is trans­for­ma­tive and in­clu­sive. Even the most re­served of par­ents will of­fer a smile if their child spreads joy.

So, what changes be­tween the ages of 3 and 7? Or 8, 11 and well into the teenage years? Ho w d o e s t h e s p o n t a n e i ty evap­o­rate and what causes a shut­ter to come down on emo­tions, mak­ing Hong Kong’s chil­dren lit­tle more than au­toma­tions? And what causes the malaise to spread so deeply that in a city branded sad by sur­vey af­ter sur­vey, the sor­row should be un­der­lined by a ris­ing in­ci­dence of stu­dent sui­cides?

Early in Novem­ber, the gov­ern­ment-appointed Com­mit­tee on Pre­ven­tion of Stu­dent Sui­cides tabled its report on the re­cent spate of stu­dent sui­cides in Hong Kong. By all ac­counts, 71 stu­dents com­mit­ted sui­cide over the past three years — of them, shock­ingly, two Pri­mary 6 stu­dents dur­ing the 2013-14 to 2015-16 school years.

What drives 10- to 11-yearolds to kill them­selves? The c o m m i tt e e i d e n t i f i e d f o u r ma­jor ar­eas of con­cern, namely men­tal health, psy­cho­log­i­cal con­cerns (wherein the child ex­pressed sui­ci­dal ideas and neg­a­tive think­ing), re­la­tion­ship prob­lems that spanned prob­lems with both peers and fam­ily, and ad­just­ment dif­fi­cul­ties which could be aca­demic­sor fam­ily-re­lated.

B u n d l e d t o g e t h e r, t h e s e causes, how­ever re­searched and ra­tio­nal, com­prise a litany of clin­i­cal de­tach­ment. They do noth­ing to re­as­sure the lit­tle boy or girl who might be, at this mo­ment, con­sid­er­ing a plunge from a high-rise window.

I am re­minded of a lit­tle girl, who as a tiny tot on the bus, would keep her face glued to the window, her ab­sorp­tion punc­tu­ated by squeals of de­light at what­ever caught her fancy in the world out­side as the bus kept moving. As a pri­mary school stu­dent, it would not per­haps be un­usual to find her to­tally ab­sorbed in a smart­phone, the real world shut out in fa­vor of the vir­tual. How de­sir­able is that? When we shun the real world, we close our in­ner eye, we turn off the sen­si­bil­i­ties that fuel our em­pa­thy, that fire our imag­i­na­tion.

This is also a city that has for­got­ten how to read — that art of great es­cape that puts us in touch with a larger world but never lets us lose our grip on re­al­ity. So­ci­ol­o­gists call it de­vel­op­ing a per­spec­tive. But, book­shop af­ter book­shop is clos­ing and pub­lic li­braries keep cry­ing out for young pa­trons.

It must be ad­mit­ted that Hong Kong’s so­ci­ety is essen­tially util­i­tar­ian. Its ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is per­ceived as elit­ist and its cul­ture of ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties com­pet­i­tive — de­feat­ing their very premise. Even the games that chil­dren — and adults — com­pul­sively play on their phones are al­ways about win­ning and los­ing.

Sadly, no amount of suc­cess can re­coup the loss of in­noc e n c e . A n d , i f Ho n g Ko n g doesn’ t stop to think about how to put smiles back on the faces of its chil­dren, it will be star­ing at an in­cal­cu­la­ble loss.

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