Few tourists get to the place in Hong Kong they call the “New Territories.” While all the hustle and bustle, and tourism for that matter, stays on the island of Hong Kong, the vast majority of Hong Kong’s 7.78 million people live in these so called “New Territories”.
A friend of ours, who is getting his masters at HKU, took us there to see the real Hong Kong. We found ourselves around lunchtime in one of the many government assisted housing units. The 15 story buildings are built in a way that there is a center area where the people that live there do their commerce. We wanted noodles. So we found noodles. It was never a place I would eat at in the states, or even on the island for that matter.
“Noodles?” we said.
“Nooooodles? The cook said to us back like vowels were an area of contention.
We nodded, and he smiled and started cooking.
After a few minutes, he brought us a plate of eggs, random meat and toast. (There was obviously some misunderstanding).
I said to our friend that lives in Hong Kong, “This area is so different than the Hong Kong we have seen on the island. This is some of the first poverty that I’ve seen.”
“They hide it.” He replied “No tourist would ever make it to this part of Hong Kong. And they want it that way. They just put on a Thai smile and go on with life.”
“A Thai smile?”
“Ya, Thais use smiles to express emotions of politeness, happiness, embarrassment, frustration, indifference, condescension, nervousness, or just to mask their real feelings. They just want everything to look ok. Hong Kong is the same way. That’s why they hide their homeless people, prostitution, and drug traffic. It’s not that it's not here, it's just not anywhere that you can see it.”
“Wow, I had no idea.”
“No one does. Unless you really know Hong Kong, you won’t know it exist.”
I sat there in a white plastic chair that felt like it might have snapped under me, thinking: It’s just like us.
Hong Kong is just doing what we do. It's actually one of the most honest representations of the human condition.
We hide everything. Well everything that makes us look bad, or weak , or not perfect.
Doubt me, go look on instagram.
And it's more than that. It goes to our daily life and a lot of us live in it.
But truth is, if we want any sort of freedom we have to expose the hidden self. Hong Kong won’t ever deal with it’s problems with children being malnourished until it is honest that the problem is there.
Augustine put it that if we cannot humble ourselves before the complexities and emotion that “makes our heart deep” we cannot ever find healing.
Put shortly, vulnerability is the first step to freedom.
Augustine was like us. He hung between worlds. He wanted to live a truthful life. But he wasn’t ready to give up his career, or sex, or some of his worldly pursuits. He, like us, wanted to just find the self-help book that would fix our problem with porn or pride.
You know, that idea that to live a better life you just have to work harder. Attack it like a homework assignment or school project. We even establish a relationship with God that way. By achievement: by reading certain books, attending services regularly, practicing the disciplines of prayer, or reading the bible, by just doing their spiritual homework.
The problem is our willpower isn’t strong enough. If it was New Year's resolutions would work.
The hidden self seems impossible to overcome. But the only way to live like Matt Chandler says “with no secrets,” is to start where the Gospel starts. With grace.
Paul Tillich puts it this way in his collection of essays, Shaking the Foundations:
“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted.’ You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. DO not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try and do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted. If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing except acceptance.”
It’s surprisingly difficult to receive a love that feels unearned. But once you accept this grace, there is a great desire to meet this love and show it to others.
The dismemberment of the hidden self starts with inner transformation. This is no one time feat. “His mercy is new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23). One day you notice that everything inside has been realigned. Your past loves no longer thrill you. You love different things. It’s a slow process. But as Augustine said over and over again, you become what you love.
To be healed is to be broken open.
I’ve seen it true in my life. My God has done this for me more than abundantly. And because of the grace, freedom prevails.
*Photo taken by myself at Choi Hung Estates, Hong Kong