First YDS exchange student to Chung Chi College in Hong Kong reflects on experience

Editor’s Note: In 2009-10, Yale Divinity School laid the groundwork for a new student exchange program with the Divinity School of Chung Chi College, an affiliate of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  Kimikami Miyake, who will graduate from YDS in December with a Master of Arts in Religion degree, was the first YDS student to participate in the newly established exchange program.  Here, he reflects on his experience at Chung Chi during the spring 2011 semester.  While Miyake was in Hong Kong, two Chung Chi students attended YDS, and three more are scheduled to be at YDS during the 2011-12 academic year.

By Kimikami Miyake ’11 M.A.R.

After several years working in ministry and social service, I decided to pursue the academic study of religion in the M.A.R. program at Yale Divinity School.  I was interested in the relationship between religion and society in the Pacific Rim, particularly in China, and how religious organizations and officials have played a changing role there throughout history.

Miyake and LoTo accomplish this, I chose the M.A.R. concentration in Asian religions, where I examined sects within the Buddhist tradition and contextual theology—primarily theology constructed in an East Asian context

During my time at YDS, the interface between the contrasting cultural and philosophical forces of the East and West, as represented by the transplantation and indigenization of Christianity, became an increasingly intriguing subject for me.  So, armed with a bachelor’s degree in international politics and previous studies in Christianity and Buddhism in China, I applied to YDS’s exchange program with Chung Chi Divinity School. I believed that on-site study at Chung Chi would provide the resources and opportunities to explore these topics more intimately.

Beginning with my first day in Hong Kong, I encountered numerous obstacles that would not have been overcome without the support and care shown by administration, friends, and peers at Chung Chi. The director of the divinity school, the Rev. Lung-Kwong Lo, and his assistant, Natalie Wai, were instrumental in helping me address these difficulties and successfully transition into life in this foreign region. Since this was my first visit to China, one of the initial challenges I had to address was reconciling my preconceived notions of this territory with its reality.

The language barrier, for example, was an issue I had not adequately anticipated. Due to the territory's legacy of British colonial rule, I had believed that nearly all people in Hong Kong spoke or had a fair command of the English language. I was disabused of this notion on the night of my arrival when a friend and I reached the subway station in Shatin, just minutes away from the Chinese University of Hong Kong campus. There we had asked a taxi driver to take us to the university, only to find that we were headed back to Hong Kong Island near the airport, where we had arrived not long before. The driver apologized when we pointed out, through gestures and an incoherent sequence of words in Mandarin, that the university to which we were headed was located in Shatin. He later discounted our fare for his mistake after our delayed arrival. This was the beginning of a series of navigation difficulties through the semester, ranging from ordering meals to asking for directions.

The language barrier, however, proved to be a blessing in disguise, as it compelled me to practice my Mandarin. Although most of Hong Kong's residents speak the southern dialect of Cantonese, which differs widely from spoken Mandarin, more people I encountered had a better command of Mandarin than English. The assistance and support I received from friends, peers, professors, Yale Divinity School alumni, and former exchange students were critical in helping me ease into life in Hong Kong. Memorable instances during my stay include: an unexpected invitation to enjoy a delicious meal of hot pot with student union members before the start of the semester; visits to friends' churches; dazzling firework displays over Victoria Harbor during Chinese New Years; the complexity in baking home-made cookies for Chung Chi’s walk-a-thon (which were lauded as better than the store-bought Mrs. Fields cookies, thanks to my wife); and lively nights out in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

GroupRegarding my studies at Chung Chi, it was only during the first few weeks that I found the language barrier to be a pressing issue. Fortunately, when I was selecting courses, they were listed with their languages of instruction—English, Cantonese, or Mandarin—tailored for a student body made up of Hong Kong residents, mainland Chinese students, and Southeast Asian international students. Regrettably, there were some courses that I was hoping to take that were not offered in English. On such occasions, foreign exchange students rely on interpretations provided by the class's teaching assistant. In cases where the class does not have a TA, foreign exchange students must rely on a willing and generous classmate's simultaneous translations, which may take away from their personal study of the course. Ultimately, I decided on a fine selection of courses within the scope of my interests that were offered in English instruction or were provided with excellent translations.

One aspect of the coursework that I found to be particularly valuable and that, I believe, should have played a greater role in the classroom was the space for open discussion and free exchange of ideas.  Through discussions I learned about the plight and oppression of the people in Myanmar and was able to engage several of the Myanmar theology students about their views regarding the church's role in the public square and progress that can be achieved in confronting oppression by a militant regime.

Personal testimonies from fellow students were also greatly appreciated.  One mainland student from a house church described the persecution and hardships his family and friends continue to endure for practicing their faith without the state's approval.  It was a heart-rending account that greatly contributed to my understanding of the restrictions imposed on today's Chinese Christians.

Unlike worship services in YDS’s Marquand Chapel, which are held every weekday morning, Chung Chi worship for all full-time students and professors were held weekly. Since songs were sung mostly in Cantonese, I had to hum along while many others sang, but that was surprisingly enriching.  The student union made persistent efforts to create an inclusive environment for the internationally diverse congregation through translations provided by student volunteers, creating cohesion where alienation might have been felt. Despite occasional lapses in translation, the worship experience and the academic lectures that followed were informative and uplifting

Because of the kindness of students and faculty, it was not difficult to feel welcome as a participating member of the divinity school community. During last March's tragic tsunami in Japan, I can recall several occasions when words of sympathy and prayers were offered as concerned students and professors inquired about my Japanese relatives, who were fortunately unaffected by the tragedy.

Encountering theories, models, and first-hand accounts of religion's relationship with society in China greatly enhanced my knowledge, and I believe my semester at Chung Chi was well worth the effort.

In the immediate future, I intend to pursue language studies and, following that, enter a doctoral program in religious studies.

Posted: 07/29/2011