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Hong Kong: big, beautiful, broken. I recently hit the halfway mark for my DukeEngage independent project, and I wanted to give myself some time to reflect on my experiences thus far, especially since Hong Kong is a place where the pace of life doesn’t really give people much time to breathe, let alone think.

It’s overwhelming, in many ways. This is the first time I’ve spent a significant amount of time in a city like this: big, dense, loud, busy. Humid. I honestly don’t think I’ve sweat this much just by existing, ever. I walk outside and become a literal fountain within minutes.

Being in Hong Kong and working with my NGO on health care access is a difficult and interesting endeavor, and I’ve been thinking and learning more than I have in a while – what does it mean to work toward justice and equity in a city that is literally built upon inequality?

Inequality glitters here. I’ve been inside and walked past many shopping malls here in Hong Kong (the city actually boasts the highest density of shopping malls in the world) – the metro station I go through on my way to work every day is actually a giant mall itself. All around me is Versace, Gucci, Fendi, handbags, jewelry, expensive clothes. But even during the metro ride from the center of downtown to the northern part of Hong Kong where I work, closer to the outskirts of the city, it’s easy to see how the scenery outside the speeding train shifts rapidly from gleaming skyscrapers and outstanding public infrastructure to husks of old buildings and dusty footbridges. Turns out that even across the globe, inequality still murmurs underneath the thin veneer of a “high standard of living.” This is what the city with the second highest Gini coefficient in the world (directly behind New York) looks like – the lined faces of the people in washed-too-many-times shirts doing manual labor near my work office, juxtaposed with the people in finely-pressed suits walking home from their finance jobs near my temporary apartment.

I’ve had to come to terms with my own role in all of this, too, in the way that I am able to live and sustain myself while I’m in Hong Kong. The irony of being given a generous sum of money from Duke to work with underprivileged communities here is not lost on me. I wouldn’t have been able to afford living in Hong Kong, one of the most expensive cities in the world, without that money. My apartment rent for this summer nears 12,000 HKD – to put that in perspective, asylum seekers in Hong Kong receive a 1,500 HKD housing stipend from the government each month, paid directly to their landlords. Inequality is part and parcel of Hong Kong, and it is an issue that I am still only beginning to understand. I’m still working through what it means for me to be able to return to a small but comfortable apartment at the end of each day working with an NGO that serves underprivileged communities in Hong Kong.

All of this is a process, of course – I won’t pretend to have suddenly discovered a solution to global inequality or answers to my many questions in the few weeks I’ve been in Hong Kong. I have, however, gained a sense of the magnitude of the issues that plague dense urban areas like Hong Kong, and have been able to ask myself questions about things I haven’t thought about in a long time. And that is important, in and of itself.