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Cranbrook and Hong Kong: A Small Tale of Neighbours, Place and Viruses

Bob Jones

For work related reasons we’ve lived both in Hong Kong and in Cranbrook over the years. We’ve made the 12-hour flight from here to Hong Kong more times that I care to number, but we’ve lived in both places long enough to feel ‘at home’ when we get there. Although there’s ‘home’ and then there’s— ‘home.’ Cranbrook’s home for us.

Yet we experience emotional and geographic whiplash every time we depart Canadian Rockies International Airport and arrive at Hong Kong’s International Airport several long hours later, although to be honest, the moniker ‘international’ used for both airports seems a bit misleading to me. HKIA sees about 500,000 flights per year and YXC about 4,500 flights per year, which is about 12 flights per day compared to HKIA with its 1,400 flights per day.

So, like the term ‘home,’ ‘international’ is also relative.

But our souls have found a home in both cities. We find places and faces we know and love and in which we find meaning and identity.

Yet our souls, unlike our bodies, do not transplant easily. Our souls take a while to catch up to our bodies. Physically recovering from jet lag takes a few days — souls, not so much. I think our souls are like barnacles: they need to attach themselves to thrive. They require an anchoring to people and to place.

However you define soul, it’s not free-floating. To live ‘soullessly’ then is to live without connections and attachments to either people or place — none of us are ‘global citizens.’

But to the subject of neighbours and place: Hong Kong has a population of about 7 1/2 million folk, and that’s about 6,650 people living in each square kilometre as opposed to Cranbrook with its 21,000 population, which has 5.5 souls per square kilometre. So essentially, you’ve got about 6,500 more neighbors in Hong Kong in that square kilometre you happen to inhabit.

So, if one takes ‘neighbour-love’ as a universal moral mandate that’s a lot of neighbours to love.

That’s why, when in Hong Kong, you get a cold you immediately mask-up as an act of social responsibility to these neighbours you commute or work with. You’re not hiding something, you’re being protective of others. And we know we don’t choose our neighbours, which as we also know inevitably leads to problems. As G.K. Chesterton said about neighbours: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they’re the same people.” We get it.

Which brings me to the subject of viruses and our neighbour. When we first moved to Hong Kong we just missed the 2003 SARS outbreak which killed 300 people in Hong Kong, arriving a few months later, and subsequently the COVID-19 virus of 2019, having departed a few weeks earlier this past December. Not good planning, just good luck.

We have a good friend and doctor in Hong Kong who almost died of SARS as he was working at the hospital where the SARS ‘index patient’ was admitted. Several of his medical colleagues were not as fortunate.

So, Hong Kong is well aware of the dangers of viruses and contagion and how close neighbours can increase the social tension and the need to take care of one another.

Now where am I going with this? We’ve been in Asia long enough to know that indeed there are obvious cultural differences between Cranbrook and Hong Kong. But what binds us is our humanity—that English word related to ‘humus,’ ‘human,’ and ‘humility.’ It’s a lowly word, literally a word that ‘grounds’ us. We’re all formed from that same lump of clay.

So, when I hear a certain head of state south of the border go out of his way to deliberately identify the Covid-19 virus as ‘foreign’ or ‘Chinese’ or ‘from China’ it bothers me a lot ,and most of us know what he’s doing. The subtext of these statements is if these Chinese weren’t around we wouldn’t have these viruses infecting the morally and culturally superior ‘us’ — Americans.

And then only, after a social media backlash, does this same head of state have to publicly clarify that the corona virus is not the fault of the Asian-American community who unsurprisingly, had been abused verbally and physically. Why would anyone ever have to make that kind of clarification?

Well, we like the idea of the ‘dangerous other’ — the stranger, who carries strange ways (and maybe strange diseases), because the ‘other’ can be blamed can make me look ‘right.’ And so, we blame, the oldest ethical and relational response in the book (literally).

Original blame goes like this: ‘The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.’

Psychologists call this double-inclusive blame. First the woman and then God himself. Adam blamed Eve for giving him the fruit, as if he was force-fed with a pureed fruit smoothie. He also reminded God that it was actually Him who gave him [Adam] the woman in the first place. ‘

But love of neighbour turns the ‘blame game’ on its head, from shifting responsibility to assuming it. Now most of us probably know that the command to ‘love your neighbour’ is most memorably found not in a philosophy text, but in a folk tale told by Jesus of Nazareth to a group of smug, nationalistic and religious people whose understanding of neighbour was ‘one of us.’ But as the story unfolds it turns out that the neighbor is not one of ‘us,’ but shockingly one of ‘them’ — in this case the distrusted, ‘ethnic’ Samaritan. And it is the Samaritan, the ‘dangerous other,’ who, at the risk of his own life and resources takes care of one of the very ones who hate him, a traveler left for dead on the side of the road. Yet he provides him medicine, bandages and a bed, he essentially saves his life.

But the punch line of the ‘Good Samaritan’ story is a question that Jesus raises at the end: ‘Who do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?” The answer rightly given, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” Be a neighbour is the point, not finger pointing.

Bob Jones is Spiritual Care Chaplain, East Kootenay Regional Hospital

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