One Identity, Two Cultures

By Alec Hernández

A Vicarious Globetrotter Interview with Peter Wang TD ’18

Often seen sprinting across campus from class to class, Peter Wang ’18 is by far one of the most multitalented members of the freshman class. Whether organizing events on the Student Activities Committee in Timothy Dwight College or racing between classes on Science Hill, Peter’s positive attitude rarely sways. His bright demeanor never ceases to attract other Yalies to join him around the table in a dining hall or the common room of his suite, where Wang pulls everyone into the conversation. Hailing from Hong Kong, Peter is frequently confronted with the reality that he is quite far from home.

“Objectively, my favorite part of Hong Kong is that it can be characterized as cozy, communal, and diverse, but the best part – it’s fast paced,” Wang mentions. Clutching his computer and Organic Chemistry textbook, Peter is already enjoying his time on campus and in the United States. Peter first arrived at Yale after the daylong journey from Hong Kong for Orientation for International Students in August, and has been participating to the fullest in everything our campus has to offer, since then.

“The best part about Yale is how openly friendly everyone is,” he comments. “When I left home I didn’t expect to find the same love and care that I had in Hong Kong, but honestly, I’ve found that everyone I’ve met here is just as thoughtful and warm.” Making the long journey from Hong Kong to New Haven, Peter faces the challenges of managing the differences between the two cities daily. Back home, he mentions that being as openly warm with your friends is not a cultural norm.

“If someone back in Hong Kong were to give hugs like people do here, it would be looked down upon culturally. That isn’t to say that people back home aren’t friendly, it’s just the way things work.” Culturally, Hong Kong has deviated from its Chinese roots, transcending South East Asian culture in order to represent its western European roots as well.

Given to Britain by China after its defeat in the First Opium War in 1842, Hong Kong and its people constantly struggle with a clash of cultures between east and west. The groups of islands off the coast of mainland China remained a part of the British Empire until 1997, when the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong back to the Chinese – but the transition was not as simple as some expected. While Hong Kong operated under a westernized capitalist system and democratically elected its government, it had to conform to the communist Chinese regime. Instead of incorporating Hong Kong immediately, the UK and China agreed upon the “one country, two systems” plan in which Hong Kong was given fifty years under the British governmental and economic system while it still is incorporated into China. Put simply, Hong Kong is a Chinese city with a drastically different cultural, political, and social system.

Courtesy of Creative Commons
Courtesy of Creative Commons

“There are significant differences between our cultures, though,” Peter tells me. “There are huge differences in the way we see things, in the way we do things – the differences are definitely there. I think that foreigners find the two places to be very different, but technically we’re both China, and telling someone I’m from Hong Kong is just being more specific.” The first time I met Peter, he introduced himself to me and told me he was from Hong Kong, which in my mind was a conscious deviation from describing himself as Chinese.

“The differences between the two places are very subtle and complex. Once you get into those differences you generalize two groups of people and you’ll find yourself wrapped up in so many details – you’d drive yourself crazy.”

Life for Hong Kongers is a constant blending of the two facets of their identity: Hong Kong liberalized culture and traditional Chinese conservatism. For example, Peter himself speaks both fluent Cantonese and Mandarin – the official languages of both Hong Kong and China, respectively – and has traveled to Mainland China with his family on vacation. Since he can remember, Peter has combined both his urban Hong Kong roots with China’s more traditional culture, and now, while at Yale, the dichotomy has become even more apparent.

Courtesy of Peter Wang
Courtesy of Peter Wang

Back on campus, Peter runs across Timothy Dwight’s courtyard several times a day, speeding from class to class, club to club. Splitting his academic schedule between classes like Freshman Organic Chemistry and Cancer Biology, Peter fills the rest of his time with an almost unmanageable extracurricular commitment. Wang avidly attends the Yale Environmental Coalition and participates in the Yale Decarbonzation Challenge, which have both become integral parts of his extracurricular life.

“I find that at Yale if you’re not part of the engine, you’re part of the load.” Peter fiddles with a pile of homework on his lap as we move deeper into our conversation, smiling before answering the next question. Not only does he exemplify the epitome of a driven student, but Wang also continues to push his academic and extracurricular boundaries. Peter’s academic interests are focused around Molecular Biology, which has led him to an interest in Cancer Biology. Leaving his suite at the beginning of the day with a smile and returning after a full day of classes with the same unfazed attitude, Peter’s relentless interest in the work that he does inspires others around him.

With that same smile on his face, Peter mentions, “People here are so motivated and driven – no matter whether with their school work or extracurricular involvements, people push so much.” While this motivation inspires Peter to work his hardest, Peter’s engine is constantly operating at full capacity.

As Peter forges his academic path across Yale, students just like him in Hong Kong are motivated just as much, but for quite a different reason. As 2047 rolls closer to the present, tensions between Hong Kong and Beijing are rising socially and politically. Earlier this year, Chinese authorities began to establish their political power in Hong Kong by forcing candidates of the 2017 elections in Hong Kong to be vetted by Beijing before running. For a city like Hong Kong that has grown accustomed to their limitless democracy, this move by Beijing politicians especially frustrated young Hong Kongers that are pushing to maintain the democratic society that they grew up with.

Thousands of protestors took to the streets of downtown Hong Kong, primarily students, to express their anger over the news from Beijing. This movement of political expression, now known as Occupy Central, brought hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers to the streets to participate in a peaceful protest. After a few days of protests, the local police took action, throwing canisters of tear gas and assaulting the occupiers, which ultimately drew even more local students to the city’s center to express their discontent with local and national officials.

Occupy Central: Courtesy of Creative Commons
Occupy Central: Courtesy of Creative Commons
Occupy Central: Courtesy of Creative Commons
Occupy Central: Courtesy of Creative Commons

As the cliché goes, students are the future of the world, but this case is especially true in Hong Kong. As for Peter’s involvement, he does not consider himself to be very politically inclined.

“I really don’t know too much about politics, but I’ll put it in the words of one of my friends from back home: Hong Kong is a familiar place, but not a familiar scene.”

The motivation that Peter finds inspirational in Yale students is the same motivation that drives Hong Kongers to face the Chinese government. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” Peter continues to comment. Whether or not he is personally participating in the political change back home, Peter still emits the same drive and focus that his peers back home do but here at Yale instead.

Alec Hernández ’18 is in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at