Photo 1: Trimmy on the 3rd floor of the main library at HKU, 2015

Minorities at HKU #4 – Thrimendra the Sri Lankan

June 04, 2015 / by / 0 Comment

Arriving in Hong Kong when he was 11 years old, Trimmy at first found it difficult to get to know Hong Kongers.  After he became one of three foreigners in an otherwise Chinese class, he had to work out how to build relationships.  Now he is full of good advice for those coming to study in Hong Kong – and he starts off by telling everyone not to be shy. 

Series introduction:  In this series I will be interviewing different students at Hong Kong University (HKU) who are also members of ethnic minorities in either their home countries or in Hong Kong.  I’ll be finding out about their lives as members of an ethnic minority, and what their experiences at HKU have been like.

I first met Trimmy because while walking around HKU I saw someone who looked different.  I asked him where he was from and he said Sri Lanka but that he’d lived in Hong Kong for many years.  He agreed to do the interview so a few days later we met up in the 3rd floor of the main library.

“Can you introduce yourself?”

“Trimmy is my short name, because people can’t pronounce my full name properly.”

“What is your full name?”

“The full name” he says in surprise at the large scale of the request before composing himself politely and finishing with an affirmative, “okay.”

He patiently spells out his name, which is Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Trimendra Kaushika Dissanayake.  As he finishes each word I would put my pen to the side and relax; then he would begin a new name.  The ‘Dissanayake Mudiyanselage’ part is a family name which is something like a surname, Trimmy comes from Thrimendra, and the first name is indeed repeated at the end.

“Most Sri Lankan’s have three names” he informs me, “but my dad gave me five.”  I can imagine how his heart must sink when certain forms say ‘write your full name’.

“I came to Hong Kong in 2004 when I was 11.  I went to secondary school and took their public exams.  I went to a community college for 2 years, HKU Space, then came to The University of Hong Kong.”

“Do you consider yourself a Hong Konger?”

“Partly, yes.  Mainly because I’ve been living here.  And the culture” he reflects, “I would say half half.  I have been asked this question a lot.  I take all the good sides of everything and try to integrate it into my personality.  It helps me understand other cultures as well.”

“You came to Hong Kong when you were 11.  Did you go to an English speaking school?”

“It was a public school but there were two parts, an English speaking part and a Chinese part.”

“This was when you first started to mix with Hong Kongers.  What was that like?”

“In the beginning there wasn’t much mixing at all.  We were in our own classrooms and interacted with our own friends.  Classes A, B and C were English classes and D, E and F were Chinese ones.”

“When did you start to integrate into Hong Kong society?”

“In forms six and seven, when I was about 16, there were only three other English speakers in my class – the rest were Chinese.  Both groups were quite shy.”  We laugh.  But then I wonder if there are more serious situations in life where different peoples don’t mix just because of shyness.  Do some misunderstandings start not with an action, but with inaction?  Perhaps because of shyness?

Then Trimmy reveals his secret weapon for getting to know the locals: “Initiating the conversation first is very helpful – you can make a lot of friends.  Even at university, if you initiate conversation, you can make a lot of friends.”

“Do you consider yourself to have some good Hong Kong friends now?”

“Yeah, I have a lot” he replies instantly.  “Actually, I would say, more than non-Chinese.”

“After grade 13, my grades weren’t good enough to get into university so I had to go to community college.  About 95% of people here were Chinese.  [This] really helped me learn how to make friends [here].  You have to initiate the conversation.”

“Do you speak any Cantonese?”

“A little, I learnt it from Form 2 to Form five.  Afterwards the school stopped teaching Chinese but I wish they’d continued.  [But,] I’m having an education I wouldn’t have had in Sri Lanka.  In Hong Kong there are good opportunities.  I didn’t learn it for a while.  Now I’m at HKU I’ve enrolled in Cantonese classes.  [Knowing Cantonese] helps make friends too.  They see you are making an effort.”

“Sometimes Chinese people can be racist against darker skinned people.  Have you experienced anything of this?”

“Luckily I haven’t, but I have heard stories from friends.  Actually I have been stopped by police once in a while, which is understandable because there are lots of south Asians who are overstaying.  It’s understandable that they do suspect, which is okay, I understand they’re just doing their job.  I haven’t done anything wrong so I don’t mind [when they stop me].”

Silently I praise his acceptance of this as being tolerant, because I imagine it must be quite annoying to be stopped.  He gave me the impression that the police are quite civil with him, even though they stop him.

“What are the differences between yourself and a Hong Kong person culturally?”

“They’re quite shy and I was quite shy, and I thought – this isn’t going to work.  I thought, ‘maybe I’ll try for a change’.  After the first time I thought ‘this works’, so I did it more and it got easier.  I was quite active in the non-Chinese group so it was quite easy for me to ask the Chinese something like, ‘do you want to go for lunch?’  Other than that, there isn’t much of a difference.  Similar to Sri Lanka there are many religions.”

I want to probe further to see how deeply he really has integrated with Hong Kong people.  “If you don’t mind me asking, have you had many relationships?”

“Not really.”

“Any?”

“A few.”

“Who were they with, ethnically?  I’m not asking for names.”

“A Vietnamese girl, a local girl and currently a Sri Lankan girl.”

Photo 2: Trimmy in the 3rd floor group work area of HKU's main library, 2015

Photo 2: Trimmy in the 3rd floor group work area of HKU’s main library, 2015

“You came to HKU.  What do you study?”

“Biological Sciences, third year.”

“Do you know what you want to do in the future?”

“I do definitely want to get into research.  Possibly, try to become a professor, because I do like teaching.  I’ve been teaching English part time.  It would be great if I could teach something I enjoy.”

“Do you think most Hong Kong people support the Occupy Movement?”

“Students, yeah.  About the older generation, from what I’ve seen, some of them oppose it.  I lean more towards the student side, because I think democracy is more important for a better society.”

Talking about Occupy was a little tense so I take the tone down a little. “What’s the best thing about HKU?”

“Well, coming to HKU is like a dream for me.  I’m studying what I like.  I’m meeting great people as well.”

“How would you characterise life in Halls?”

“So far, I’m having a blast.”  He has a huge smile.  “In the hall, relationships are close, especially people on the same hall.  In Star Hall there are girls on one floor and boys on another.  It’s like a family.  People are sad to leave.”

“What are challenges with life in halls?”

“If you have a romantic relationship in halls,” Trimmy begins but struggles to express himself – as he tries to do so sensitively.

“You mean, your partner can stay over in halls?” I ask.

“Well it’s not allowed,” he says, “but people are basically living in the same place.  Because – obviously – outside you can’t live together.  It’s the culture.”

I don’t know what’s obvious.

“Parents don’t really like it if that happens [i.e. living together and taking part in its associated activities].  So, [living in halls] is a different experience for the [Chinese] students too.”

“The student community is more accepting?”

“Yeah.  And for me as a non-Chinese from Hong Kong, it was easier to fit into hall life because I speak a little Cantonese.  This can help bridge the gap and make it easier for me to get in.  For the other international students it was hard.”

“You must know some international students now who are not integrating well, what’s their problem?”

“I think they are not interacting enough with the locals.  I only know a few who have a good relationship with locals.  I think the main thing to do is spend the time.  Go to the dinners and things like that – try to make an effort.  They’re actually really nice individuals.  When I first came they asked me if I wanted to go with them and I was like ‘sure’.”

“So it’s normal just to ask a classmate to go out for a coffee?”

“For example, everyone does group work.  Don’t just meet to do group work – go out for lunch with them.  You can have a proper conversation during the lunch and eventually you will be comfortable doing things with them.”

“A foreigner is in halls.  They get invited to an event.  What things should they be aware of?”

“There’s not much personal space.  You need to accept it.  Food is totally fine.  I didn’t have to eat anything weird.  They’re friendly.  Don’t worry about offending them.  I always don’t have the same point of view as them.  But I do explain why I think this was and they do understand.”

“Always?”

“Most of the time we agree, but not always.  Once in a while, everyone goes into a room for a discussion.  We talk until early morning.  We talk about stuff and not everybody agrees on the same thing.  If you explain your point of view they will think about it.  It helps build a relationship because they understand you and you understand them.

“Are Mainlanders the same?”

“I’m not sure.  They don’t really integrate very much.  I’m not sure why?  Maybe they have different points of view?  Maybe the shyness comes in.  I think they’re shy too.  I think they’re friendly too.  I’m in the middle.  But they don’t have the same interaction that I do with the locals.  They wouldn’t go and talk until early in the morning.”

“Any final tips as someone from an ethnic minority point of view?”

“You can’t change how the locals think – it’s better to be understanding.”

“Any examples from your life?”

“The personal space thing.  [At first] I was like ‘I need my space’ but now I’ve accepted it.  Hong Kongers don’t really care if they’re close by and they’re touching your hand.  So I was like, ‘well, it’s not going to kill me’, so I got over it.”

Moving to another country can be hard because there are a lot of adjustments to make.  For building relationships Trimmy has learned that you need to have confidence to make the first move.  When you are talking to friends there aren’t no-go areas, like the political sensitivities of mainland China, you just need to remember that while you have your opinion, they have theirs too.  Mutual respect is important.  Also, when you are a guest in Hong Kong – you should accept the Hong Kong way.

Follow these ideals and you can have a happy life, and enjoy your hall life frivolities.

Photo 3: Trimmy out the front of the main library at HKU, 2015

Photo 3: Trimmy out the front of the main library at HKU, 2015

 

By Martin Archer – Interview on 6th May 2015

Also in the series:

Thursday 30/04/2015: #1 Jin Peng the Manchu from China

Thursday 14/05/2015: #2 Kimberley Watt the Jamaican

Thursday 21/05/2015: #3 Ai Weihua the Tujia from China

Thursday 04/06/2015: #4 Thrimendra the Sri Lankan



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