Hong Kong and the Remnants of Colonialism

Does colonialism still exist in Hong Kong? My 2 recent stories/encounters in Hong Kong.

It has been (at least!) 3 years since I stayed in Hong Kong for more than a month. “What’s changed?” I’m often astounded to realise people are now seeking an outsider’s perspective of home from me… But hay ho I’ve been away for long, long enough to allow me to look at Hong Kong a bit different from how I used to. Today I picked up the post-colonial lens, with my 2 recent encounters/observations in Hong Kong, to make the case of how the western colonial spirit in Hong Kong is far from being a thing of the past.

A view from the Peak in Hong Kong.

Story 1: Short Hike to the Peak

You might have been amazed by unrivalled view from the Peak (a.k.a the Victoria Peak), overlooking the metropolis, all kingdoms of the world under your feet. This is often the first image that pops to my mind when I think about home – I blame the tourism adverts and souvenirs! The hike to the peak is a common route enjoyed by all. European invaders of Hong Kong in the 19th century would concur.

During the long colonial period, the Peak was designated to be an exclusively non-Chinese residential area. However, you could almost convince an unaware tourist that the mandate is still in place in Hong Kong in 2023. There is a very high proportion of non-Chinese people in the Peak area compared with any other areas in Hong Kong (perhaps other than Lan Kwai Fong, where the drinking and clubbing happens). Legal restrictions have transfigured as economical barriers: the most affordable accommodation at the Peak costs in the billions. Apart from luxury flats and houses, you could also find a list of international schools that mostly admit non-Chinese expats kids only. It is like living on stratosphere, no need to learn to read, write or speak Chinese; your social circles never crosses path with the “ordinary” Hong Kong people; you belong to a different class.

I realised this is a source of my unease when someone (in Britain) told me that they have visited Hong Kong. Which side of Hong Kong did they see? Was it the city with the highest number of millionaires by proportion; or the city with the highest level economic inequality in the world? As they enjoyed the horse races at the jockey club, would they recognise gambling was the social device the colonial government introduced to maintain their grips on the people? Were they merely walking in the boots of their fathers, savouring the fruits of their colony; or have they stepped out of the White-only zone, and truly explore this beautiful land? I resort to praise the food every time.

Mark Six, a popular lottery in HK
Accessed from Ken Cheung’s blog on Steemit

Story 2: Short Encounter on the Cable Car

It was a clear and a bright December day. No better day for a cable-car-ride at Ocean Park (a theme park in Hong Kong, watch video below for a virtual cable car ride!). As the cable car climbed the hill, we were greeted by a fellow cable-car rider from another cart down the hill. Most of the time, these are handwaves and hellos that adds a pinch of friendliness and sense of community to the fun-packed trip. Coming towards us that day was a family of 3 – a white, 5-year-old-ish boy standing on his seat shouting, and his seemingly oblivious parents. As the 2 cable cars crossed paths, we recognised what the boy was shouting – a bunch of racial slur directed at Chinese/Asian people. My jaws dropped on the spot, for someone to have the audacity to speak ill of Hong Kong people, in Hong Kong! The young boy likely mean no harm, and it is certainly that he was not targeting us. Heck I would even have to applaud his choice of time and place to do this – such that he would hardly be held accountable. At his young age, he had already learned/or have been taught that he is different – different from the “ordinary” Hong Kong people, that he is no member of Hong Kong people, but a successor of the whip, a higher, better class. The boy is not to be blamed, look around: whiteness remains to be the standard for beauty, a synonym for good reputation, the definition for class. Who should be hold accountable for keeping Hong Kong people the remnants of colonialism?

I love to say to people in the UK that Hong Kong is an ethnically homogenous place – the notion of ethnicity and race is just not in people’s minds. But lest we ignore ethnicity as a building block for meaningful conversations across members of the community, and lest we rule out race as a perpetuating cause for social inequality, and racism as a vehicle for colonialism.

See you soon, Hong Kong, with my very best wishes.

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Are theories over-rated?

A short reflection based on my observations on trends in mental health research. With audio narration.

Listen to the blog here.

Research methodology 101 in psychology typically starts by explaining statistical hypothesis testing, how data can be understood in a certain way (model) to draw inference. A theory-based statistical model is the approach in which researchers make meaning out of the constellation of data-points – in a systemic and falsifiable way that differentiates inferences from astrology.

Research is not easy. There are many decisions and assumptions researchers make in the process, e.g., how are concepts defined, how are these concepts measured, what are the relationship between these variables, do they overlap? Researchers design, clean, collect and frame data in a way such that they can tell a story – Data may speak for itself, but the theatre is built by the researchers. It is more than choosing which variables to put into the model, or discover which variables are statistically associated with the predictors. It is about how the confirmation or rejection of the statistical model should be interpreted, in what context, for which populations – and more.

Psychology research methods 101 – Hypothesis
Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels.com

The industrial revolution automated jobs and led to an expansion of productivity; the “artificial intelligence (AI) revolution” appears to share similar aims. The first questions that pop to people’s minds are – “Can we automate this process? If so, how?” The same ideology has been applied to understanding data – there are AI models spring up like mushrooms after rain, with approaches like “covariate auto-selection” that promises to perform as good as (or outperforms) “traditional analysis” – whatever that means.

I am no fan of such practices. This is because I think data analysis is only a small part of the whole scientific process, there are limited ways you can “let the data speak” if the paradigm of data collection, conceptualisation etc. is never challenged. This AI-do-all approach, if deemed to be the best, or even worse, the default practice, will leave little room for users to challenge the premises and assumptions in which the inference are drawn, hence no true empirical theoretical advancements, but post-hoc theory-making. But can you really blame AI data scientist for this?

There is no point in finger-pointing [maybe 1 >:o)]. The problem of weak theory is prevalent in (mental) health research (More discussion here on formal theory: https://eiko-fried.com/on-theory/ – Eiko’s blogs, with a lot of resource on theory, do check them out!). An example that is highly relevant to my work is the use of ethnicity in health research – is it biology? Is it country of origin? Is it migration status? Is it social support and network? What is it’s relation with the covariates? Papers often describe whether their findings fit with previous research, but most of the time stopped at that level, “More research is needed”, and less discussion on theory. It is this tendency of focusing just on inference and less about theory that precipitates AI-based analytical practice to expand.

AI helps make meaning from a pre-specified framework
Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels.com

This phenomenon begs the question, why is theory playing less of a role in mental health research? What is the driver behind this change in scientific practice? I believe a particular emotion – frustration – plays a role. I see this frustration arise from the huge implementation gap, and the insurmountable unmet needs, which is made worse by the replication crisis.

We are said to be in a mental health crisis. The healthcare system is more sensitive to detect mental health problems: they are recognised earlier and more broadly at primary care, but our ability to treat our patients did not improve to the same extent. It takes 17 years to translate health research into practice. IAPT, new waves of psychotherapy, medications… These attempts to improve service provision (by quantity/access) and quality did not match the increasing demands. With record level of demand for mental health support (even before Covid19), the whole community is pressured to provide solutions. The frustration stems from the compassion to the plight of patients.

The same frustration is felt by the funders too: decades of funding to find a pill to eradicate dementia, pilling resource to prioritise “what works”, stronger than ever appetite for interventions. The positioning of researchers in the field is no longer “neutral observer of (natural) phenomenon”, but “proactive driver of change”. The increasing need to demonstrate “impact” is evident of this change of positioning. Measure of impact depends on ability to demonstrate progress. Theory development is often a twisted journey, it intrinsically fares worse than randomised control trials in that regard in the current paradigm.

In conjunction with the replication crisis, where small sample size and poor methods (but not weak theory) were deemed to be the culprit, strength in numbers feels like a pre-requisite to publish in high-impact journals. This shapes the ecosystem of academia. Bigger institutes are in better position to run larger studies, hence sustenance of the self-prophesised loop of impact as the top research institute. There are less options for smaller institutes to compete – to rely on impact-driven evidence making, rather than theory testing or development. Research became more focused on interventions and local adaptations, rather than trying to come up with a grand theory for a disorder.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

Researchers do not have to choose binarily between “theory” and “intervention”, there are plenty of middle-ground between the two. In fact, they go hand in hand to the development of any field. An “intervention”-leaning environment amplifies the need for researchers to understand and clarify “context” – how accumulated evidence can be applied to the situation at hand. I don’t think we are very well trained in this regard (yet), it hasn’t been the focus in the past, nor included in the curriculum. Approaches such as realist evaluation, rapid qualitative reviews etc. arise to address this gap. A “theory”-leaning environment, on the other hand, emphasis on understanding the nature of a phenomenon. For example, the biopsychosocial framework encourages multidisciplinary treatment, which hopefully the restructured integrated care systems are in better position to provide. Another example, where digital based mental health intervention apps taking many different approaches failed to live up to their expectations, perhaps rekindling the positioning and theory of such interventions is the bridge to success. Theory serve as a foundation for knowledge to be generated, decisions justified, and help the field explore alternative explanation of “reality”.

What’s next? It is for us, members of the scientific community to live out the direction of our field. We need to be pragmatic to come up with solutions to address the huge mental health needs, but we need to continue to be observant, patient, and preserve space for new theories and alternative framework of understanding of mental health to be developed and tested.

No Milestones Too Small

celebrating a mini-milestone of my PhD today!

PhD can be a lonely journey – celebration of things big and small can help us recount what we have done so far, and help us put things into perspectives. I am recording this today so that future me will be thankful!

Today I am celebrating that I have finished scrapping/recording number of citation of over 4000 papers!! This serves as part of a bibliographical review that I am doing to understand how ethnicity is described and theorised in literature. I tried to write a small tool in Python (https://josephd.uk/2022/08/11/first-python-tool/) to automate this process, but later decided it is not worth the risk & time to auto-scrap from Google! This meant I will have to do this the old-fashioned way: Manual Searches!

This meant that for the past 3 months I have spent several hours every weekend doing one simple task – ctrl+c, ctrl+v, type number, repeat. Whilst my pinky is aching a bit (from pressing ctrl too hard, and too frequently), there is a strong sense of accomplishment when all 4000+ rows are filled! I split the 4000+ records into batches of 50rows per file, such that I can easily stop & restart whenever I wish. This also helps distract me from the startling size of the task, and allow me to focus on the 50 in front of me.

I found myself spending way more time than expected to complete this, mainly because I was distracted by – you guessed it – the papers themselves! I have yet to decipher what a “perfect” academic paper title should read like, but I am certainly drawn to read quite a bit of them as I copy-and-pasted them. This is very much a blessing in disguise!

The next task is further screening and data extraction from these papers. I hope these findings can be shared with PPIe groups that I am intending to organise (if I get that mini-grant!). Future me, know that you are contributing to something that is meaningful to you – which is the least ambitious, the minimally sufficient motivation for any work!

Officially Enrolled – New beginning

anti-cv of my PhD application history, and some reflections on failure

First term in my Psychology undergraduate course, we were introduced to BF Skinner’s operant conditioning. It relies on a simple premise that behaviours that are rewarded will be reinforced; vice versa, behaviours that are punished will be diminished. Lab mice shall soon learn to jumping through hoops while reciting pi.

“Every failure is a step to success” William Whewell’s motivational speech did not distinct “failures” from “mistakes”. I do think there is a fine line between those 2 – mistakes doesn’t always lead to failures, failures doesn’t require any mistakes [mistakes are neither necessary nor sufficient for failures]. There is a role for uncertainty, for luck, for other unseen circumstances that have led to the (un)desirable outcome. Whilst this should not be exaggerated to an extent that the individual blindly believes a predeterminism that requires luck and nothing else, reserving ones humility and respect for the uncontrollable helps separate ourselves from the lab mice – to not be taken back (too much) by the all too common “punishments” in life.

No different from any other keen beans in my cohort, I started worrying & applying for jobs and PhD half way through my MSc. July 2019 also marks the beginning of my failures of PhD applications. In the 2.5 year window, I have been invited to 10+ final interviews, written 5 full PhD proposals on different topics:

  • self-harm and apathy
  • cash-transfer and depression in LMIC
  • natural language processing in clinical records
  • Ethnic density and psychiatric illnesses
  • Universal Credit and mental health problems [data linkage]

    I applied to multiple funders such as MRC, ESRC, Wellcome Trust, Alan Turing Institute, NIHR… and many other DTP schemes. Failures after failures. I polished my cv, practiced my interview skills, brush up my twitter profile, present at conferences, write blogs and podcasts… But my “PhD Applications” folder failed to escape their destiny – rename, (rejected). After all the failures, nothing seem to be helping my case. I felt stuck – as my internal locus of control urges me to tackle my “mistakes” to deal with these “failures”. What more can I do? Am I just attending these PhD interviews such that the panel can say the diversity requirements are fulfilled? Perhaps I am just not good enough. The cost of living away from my hometown and family is high, why must I stay in the UK? These are questions I interrogate myself with, as Covid rampages across the world.
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…because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Romans 5:3-4

I learned to be patient, only because I cannot proceed. I am no any more persevering than anyone. I am privileged to be supported by great colleagues and friends, privileged that my family encourages what I do, privileged that I am passionate about the health and suffering of others, that this passion helps me to be curious, and curiosity brings motivation.

I am grateful for my current duo role as a research assistant and a part-time student. This helps immensely on the financial situation. This is better value than any previous studentships that I have applied! On top of that, I can now appreciate how my previous failures have bought me time to understand academia loads more than when I first graduated. It could be that William Whewell is eventually correct. A mistake is not necessary nor sufficient for us to learn from – a failure can serve the same purpose. Fresh into my role, I have welcomed my first rejected mini-grant application. But now I am much more ready to face it, taste it, and learn from it.

“15th October, 2022 – This is to confirm Joseph Lam is currently enrolled as a MPhil student at UCL.”

To happy learning!

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2 barriers to motivation

2 factors that affected my motivation at work: some reflections

Started writing this blog on the 3-month mark of my role. Lack of Motivation has very seldom been a problem for me. Transitioning into my current job, I did struggle with this a bit, especially when I am working from home, with an unstable internet connection and accompanied by a novice flute player downstairs.

I am grateful to be able to be inspired by my mentors and colleagues that has allowed me to reflect on how I work. Here are my 2 barriers to motivation.

1. (In)Ability to Contribute

I’ve received absolutely great support from my supervisors and colleagues. I did not feel like I was dropped into a completely new place with no one to seek help from. People are welcoming, I get to meet new people every now and then. Yet there are still times when I have not felt like a part of the group. The working style in my previous role was quite different from my current one. My previous team is rather spontaneous, we are constantly chasing deadlines, constantly speaking and collaborating with each another. My current role is more structured, things are moving in a slower pace, and it is not very often we get to tackle a problem together. This change of pace and team dynamics mean that sometimes I feel out of place.

In a conversation with my mentor, she noticed that I appear to put a lot of my emphasis on my ability to contribute to the team. Upon further reflection, I think that is very true. I am eager to give, but not just to take. But with my limited expertise and knowledge, I felt like I am in no place to give. And I hope this is not based on mindless patriarchal desire for people to listen to me, but to position myself as a valued member of the group and community, instead of a recipient of charity and welfare. My double-identity as a staff and a student also plays into this. I was heading to a blind alley with this train of thought, and it sometimes then stripped my focus away.

My mentor spotted a gap in my way of thinking. Contribution doesn’t always have to be about knowledge and expertise There are all kinds of contributions. Being kind, active on Teams chats, willingness to listen, responsive to emails, sharing my own perspectives and stories, smile… There are many ways how my presence could help make the team better. That helped me remember that me, as a person, has much more to offer than a domain specific knowledge. I care about equality and inclusion, I care about workers’ rights, I am eager to rise people up. These all shall anchor me as a valued member of the community. Motivation follows.

2. Stress to Represent

We talk about gender/ethnic/any representation a lot in our society. Being the “one” in group appears to be magical – it’s the fundamental step of a building fairer world. That is all good.

But there is a, perhaps, unintended consequence that comes with the above narrative. People from minoritised groups are always under a stress to represent. This stress comes from multiple directions:

a) Am I representing my ethnic group well enough? Will my inadequacy hinder my groups’ already small chances to progress in life? There is this constant worry that it is not enough to be just as good as everyone else. One have to do well in every part of life: always dress smart, be professional, don’t make mistakes and stay on the safe side… And that is not always “me”.

b) Is how I am representing “ME” a product of conformity with social expectations of who I should be? Should a HongKong/Chinese person always be good at Maths, a little bit timid in social interactions, be a diligent worker, bad a driving… It is not about the positive or negative conations of these impressions, but rather questioning, is how I was perceived by others truly comes from me, or is it a implicitly implied characteristics that I should have in order to be socially accepted as a person coming from that particular cultural group.

This thought coincides with point (a), if I am not demonstrating characteristics that would fit a public understanding of how Chinese people should behave – and these characteristics could be positively or negatively judged upon, how would then my fellow people be perceived?

Represent. Represent. It is counter-intuitive to think that the burden of representation is laid onto 1 person- no single person could fully represent any group, which is intrinsically a combination and emergent identity that no single person can fully grasp. We often set our EDI recruitment goal at a merely the representation level reflected by descriptive demographics. Yet 1 is miles away from demonstrating diversity WITHIN any given group.

Being a One/few-in-many does shape my self-perception. The process and reflection I describe in (2b) above is dynamic. It could well be that over time, that I become more and more similar to the media-portraited image of a Chinese person. It might not be a bad thing either. But perhaps I am not yet ready to represent this label. Perhaps I need to know myself more before I could allow others to learn about my group, and the difference between the two. It would be much appreciated if this process of self-discovering is not needlessly pressured to accelerate, that I won’t have to force to choose the group I am not ready to represent.

I am grateful for my current workspace, that I have the luxury to think about and reflect on these things that interfered with my performance. Some of these, like (1) could be resolved, but other (2) would require a change in societal attitudes towards in-group, towards others, and towards ourselves. I hope this would help motivate you a little bit too 🙂

Week 7-9: First Python-based Tool!

My experience writing a Python tool that scraps number of citations of papers.

I started to pick up the basics of Python in the past few weeks – thanks to a 7-day hotel quarantine and a misaligned jetlag. I have been following Al Sweigart’s free to read book (and £13.99 course on Udemy) – Automate the Boring Stuff with Python. Last week, I’m proud to have written myself a little tool using Python!

Citation Scrapper

Have you ever had a list of papers titles and thought “Hmm.. Wouldn’t be nice if they are sorted by number of citations?” This little gadget is the tool for you! (Yeah I am selling it too much >v<!) “Number of Citation” information is not readily available on Databases (apart from Scopus Web of Science). Fortunately, this information, whilst less reliable, is available on Google Scholar. The tool doesn’t do anything ground-breaking – you feed the program a list of paper titles, it scraps and print the number of citations of those papers on your spreadsheet.

There are existing solutions on the market that achieves this already, such as the Publish or Perish citation tool. I just thought this could be an entry-level task to test myself. “Written” is truly an overstatement – it’s more like copying and adapting codes from GitHub and Stack Overflow. But the sense of accomplishment is real.

Sense of accomplishment is real!
Photo by Temo Berishvili on Pexels.com

One barrier I encountered was that, whilst the codes appear to work quite well independently when I was testing them, they do not seem to be performing consistently. One hour it worked, the next hour it stopped working. The codes were identical, I couldn’t understand how it wasn’t working. I was in hotel quarantine when this problem first appeared, and I was joking to my brother that I must have been blocked by Google – which I later realised was exactly the case!

Turns out, scrapping information from other people’s website may violate their terms and conditions – and could be borderline illegal. Sites like Amazon and Google (and many many others) set up timeouts that automatically blocks IP addresses when they detected a large number of requests (accesses/searches) within a short amount of time. I did not put in a time-out in my original codes, which sends in thousands of searches in minutes. No wonder I was blocked out!

Anyhow, this experience of testing and problem-solving has been fun! I began to understand more about the magic that fuels enthusiasm within the programming/software engineering community. I’m eager to be in a position to contribute to the conversation soon – one day I shall!

To Be Part of the Community!
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Weeks 5/6 – Time Management Tool: Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Matrix

Sharing my experience using the Eisenhower’s Matrix & reflection on “time”.

Former US President Dwight Eisenhower was said to have popularised this time management system. By classifying tasks by it’s importance and urgency, Eisenhower’s Matrix was described as the holy grail to minimise distractions. I am sharing 2 problems I have with the matrix, how it does not fit my workstyle, and some wider reflections on living a highly-structured work/life-style.

The Eisenhower Matrix
created by Lighthouse Visionary Strategies

Problem 1 – Everything is Important!!

I’d hate to think it is only me, but a great fallibility of mine when I started to use the matrix was that everything I thought of seems to be very important! At the beginning of my new role, there’s quite a bit of admin required setting up certain accounts, getting data access, or signing up to the relevant mailing lists etc. It meant that multiple conversations within and across institutes/ departments happened at the same time. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to rank or compare these tasks as they don’t appear to be too important, but I couldn’t do my job if these aren’t completed. On the other hand, I have got a list full of publications I am eager to catch up on the topic. I conflated “important to my job” and “important to satisfy my research interests”, and have been judging the importance of tasks with a fluctuating standard. This soon corrupted my matrix, with some tasks that are popping on and off every 2 days, and some staying on the matrix for eternity! Consequently, the bottom right quadrant – Not Urgent and Not Important – was always empty. I failed to utilise the tool to it’s fullest.

Everything is Important!
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Problem 2 – Poorly Defined “Tasks”

The matrix is meant to be a task-focused tool, and not a progress-tracking tool to help facilitate learning. Continuation on the “never empty” tasks, apart from the misjudged importance, it is also the nature of the tasks that made them so difficult to tick off. An example is : learn Python. It is a key component of my work, highly important, probably quite urgent too [depends on what timescale we’re talking] if I want to have any real progress. But I could never cross off that task and call it done: even after I have completed 20 hours of tutorial videos, worked through a textbook, and coded my first little gadget on Python, I don’t feel confident enough to say that I have “learned Python”. The matrix is not meant for progress tracing, but rather for shortening to-do-lists. Some could argue that it was rather my non-SMART goals that the problem should be attributed to, and I shouldn’t judge the capabilities of the matrix based off that [SMART = Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound]. However, I do think it is not realistic to map out the whole learning process into tiny bits of surrogate markers of achievement. Does the ability to copy-and-paste multiple sections of codes from GitHub mean I am capable of doing a task? How many errors or test and failures are tolerable to develop a new python gadget for a “good” coder? Was it the “coder’s mindset” I should be valuing, or should I be taking examinations to benchmark my progress? The checklist approach to learning did not work for me.

Time Time Time.
Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

Reflections:

We find comfort in structure. We needed the structure guide our attention, to renounce our mastery over time. Time is being broken down to smaller units with higher precision to monitor progress, efficacy and production. We sure are living in a faced-paced world, but it is not just the pace, but the accuracy and rigidity of time has consequentially projected itself as the more appropriate way of living, as the “truth” that is more true than how time is experienced in the past. The passing of time is universal (well, sorry theoretical physicists), but the construct, measurement and experience of time is manufactured and constantly updated by the society, by us. We fabricated this need for speed that in turn necessitates the need for more precise measurement. In cultures where the obsession on time has (yet to) taken over, e.g., in African Culture, their way of living and experiencing time was often remarked pejoratively. Injustice might masks themselves as progress; Greed as philanthropic; Derogation as inclusion.

Despite our emphasis on time, and the structure that comes with it to help us master time, not having spent enough “Quality time” with loved ones was said to be one of the most common regrets on the death bed in modern times. Not all “times” are born equal. Our ability to just relax and enjoy the moment are being chipped away, checkbox by checkbox. The guilt of wasted time spill over and burdens us even more. I am sure the structure has helped a lot in the industrial revolution to get the factories rolling, perhaps it will serve a similar role as AI replace half of the labour force. How do we find quality in our time, befriend time and not to compete with time? Tools like the Eisenhower’s Matrix should help us build this healthy relationship with time, not to see ourselves as the Lords of time. Be humble!

[Finished reading Beyond Measure by James Vincent, whom described the history of measurement of time quite nicely.]

Week 4: Say my Name – Hong Kong Chinese Names in English

Reflect on how Hong Kong Chinese names are misrepresented in the UK

“Chi – Chi – is Chi here?”.. “Here.. (unreluctantly)”

I bet the majority of students from Hong Kong have experienced this – Coming to a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, being called a foreign name that took you days to recognise and internalise. Yup, you are here, away from home.

Stripping away the sentiments, I can’t help but be surprised (perhaps I shouldn’t be!) how most of the times (mainly Hong Kong) Chinese names are wrongly represented in English – given the intertwined (colonial) history between Britain and Hong Kong.

These mistakes in naming replicates themselves in educational settings, universities, administrative data and health records. Practically speaking, these mistakes induce higher error rates in records, and hence lower the probability that these information could be used to advise research or public policy – a form of research inequity that perpetuates health inequity in society. If we truly are marching towards an inclusive, more equal society, I do think the first, and the least thing we need to do is to get the names right. Here’s a quick simplified tutorial.

Chinese Name Short Tutorial

In (modern) Chinese, full name (姓名) comprises of a surname (姓) and a forename (名). There is no equivalent of middle name in Chinese.

Surnames typically consist of 1 character, up to 9 characters (only 1 in the Chinese Surname Dictionary)! The 1996 Chinese Surname Dictionary collated 11,936 Surnames, where over 90% of the Chinese population share 120 common surnames (all of them consist of 1 character), and the top 5 surnames (Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, Chen) take up 30% of the population. As for forenames, they usually consists of 1 or 2 characters, with no upper limits on the number of characters. During the infamous Salmon Chaos discount event in Taiwan, a person has changed their legal name to 50-character-long(49 character forename)!

From the national names report in China 2020, over 90% of Chinese full names consists of 3 characters, as proportion of 2-character names dropped to around 6%, and 4-or-above-character names has a total of around 3%.

Problems with English Representation of Chinese Names

Cantonese and Mandarin pronounces the same character differently – hence their English translation differs. Take my surname as an example, 林, is pronounced more closely to “Lam” in Cantonese than “Lin” in Mandarin (e.g., The NBA player Jeremy Lin). This variation of translation tells us a bit more about where individuals come from – that’s good, as long as people consistently report and record them.

A big issue lies with the forenames. Forename translations in China and Taiwan uses Mandarin Pinyin, which is (sort of) an established method to pronounce Mandarin characters. This is not without it’s limitations, for example, some characters like 呂 (Lǚ) could not be represented using English alphabets. There is no accurate alphabetical representation of Cantonese, mostly due to it’s complexity of having 9 tones and 6 modes/pitches, and that a lot of the words do not share a similar pronunciation mechanism with English. The resemblance between Cantonese-English is much lower than that of Mandarin-English.

Another key difference is that, Mandarin-translated English forenames are usually presented as the same word. For example, 鄧小平 is represented as Deng (Surname) Xiaoping (Forename). Cantonese-translated English on the other hand retains the independence of the forename characters. For example, 鄭月娥 is represented as Cheng (Surname) Yuet-ngor (Forename), where the hyphen is sometimes omitted as space. In the current naming registry in the UK, a lot of the times Cantonese-translated English forenames are truncated and treated as a combination of forenames and middle-names. For example, Yuet-Ngor are truncated as “Yuet”, and “Ngor” recognised as their non-existent middle-name.

How is this still happening in the UK today? Have they not consulted any Hong Kong Chinese? This leads to a key barrier to EDI- power dynamics in Public Patient Involvement. There probably are formal or informal checks with Chinese-speaking people to see whether the existing way of representing names are appropriate, however, these issues might not have been dealt with. We have to be mindful of the power dynamics in which these conversation have happened, in the past and in present. A partial sacrifice of the name and humiliation to the ruling, (White) decision-makers to “earn” a moment of shared laughter might seem to be ridiculous, but it makes a lot of sense amongst the exiled, minoritized communities. Heck, lands were occupied and unequal treaties were signed for the same reasons.

This is not a phenomenon unique to Hong Kong Chinese. It is quite common that people change their naming traditions, willingly or non-willingly, when they enter the country, for example, Vietnamese flip their forename and surnames etc. Speaking from experience, I know there are many occasions that my friends tried to correct their tutors on how their names should be called at Universities. Unless they switch to a “proper” western name, some tutors would insist to use the “name that is recorded on the papers”. The less brave would persevere, like many of our predecessors, to be referred to as a foreign name, even foreign to ourselves.

Glad to see the movement on using the preferred pronouns in communications – I hate to say this but it’s always easier to promote when White people is a beneficiary of any social movement. So my plea is, perhaps it’s also time to pay the long due respect to the un-named, attention to the unseen, and voices to the unheard.

Week 3: Marathon, Not a Sprint

Week 3: PhD thoughts inspired by a recent 5k run.

Last Saturday, my partner and I participated in the 5km Parkrun nearby. We’re all dandy, in other words, untrained. This is the first time we both are able to free ourselves from the shackles of the comfort from our beds on a Saturday morning.

The goal was to finish the run in one piece. We started off on a nice pace, dangling at around 400th place out of 600+ runners. Unlike the last time I joined, there is no muddy piles from rain. Little bits of tailwind accompanied the sunlight to give us an extra boost.

This extra boost came back to haunt us in unexpected ways. We were too used to running on treadmills, and we could not adapt to the natural landscapes. The tailwind must have also pushed us beyond our typical pace. My partner went slightly over her limit as her knees started to complain as we crossed the half-way point. We had to slow down.

As we squirm forward at the speed of rush-hour traffic in London, I started to feel the urge to just dash off and catch up with my pace. I reckon we must be at the tail of the crowd! My inner competitiveness wants to take over, it’s such a nice opportunity to set a personal best! My partner adds fuel to the fire and encourages me to go, “just wait for me at the finish line!”. Indeed, why shouldn’t I think less and run?

As I fall into the conundrum, I see how the situation somehow resembles my PhD journey. What is it that I value in this process? Was it to finish it as fast as I could in record breaking time? Or was it to take my time in learning, doing slow but meaningful science? It’s never either or, but setting a goal and stick with it would help me prioritise what’s truly important to me. At this point, it is to cherish my status as a student, to dive into theoretical puzzles, challenge myself with new skills, connect with people I dare not speaking to, and spend time with the ones I love.

We crossed the finish line together.

Week 2: Getting Real

Week 2 is a philosophical one. More reflection on how this world operates.

Week 2 is much less eventful comparing to week 1. It is likely a more truthful depiction of a typical week in the coming 3 years.

Measure and Routine Practices

Why we do what we do the way we do it?

Several constellations lined up to trigger this train of thought. I recently finished listening to Desperate Remedies: Psychiatry’s Turbulent Quest to Cure Mental Illness by British Sociologist Andrew Scull, whilst starting James Vincent’s first book, Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement. A challenge faced by psychiatrists in the 1970s as they put together DSM III was not a new one. It is a problem of establishing a reliable measure. As the French tried to establish the metre, the Chinese Emperors defining the tunes, and the Egyptians keeping time – to be reliable in what they measure. A proper measurement often relied on a naturally occurring (hence valid) phenomenon to establish it’s reliability, which is relatively easy to do for some of the things, etc. how sundials and waterclocks were used to track time. Mother nature became their guarantor. For other constructs, like friendship, happiness, rights and responsibility, we are less capable to do so, or at least haven’t found a way to reliably doing so yet. How we measure things tell us a lot about our understanding (or the lack) of the phenomenon.

Photo by Moose Photos on Pexels.com

The same applies to the research in health equity. What is being recorded and how they were recorded matters. And these directly influence what is available in our routine administrative data. For example, indicating the poor uptake of psychological therapy in an ethnically diverse catchment area do not simply mean that there is a strong stigma, but perhaps more entrenched distrust in the system, lack of support for people to access services etc. Moreover, alternative support provided by community members, cultural practices and are merely not recorded, and discounted from routine records. From this snap shot understanding of the “evidence” for poor therapy uptake, what could be a proper policy in response? It is impossible to tell just by data, and this is because of how we decided to frame and measure access.

It begs the question, who decides what to measure and how? Under this veil of evidence-based policy making, which people groups are routinely under-represented? I reflected on some of these question in my blog earlier this week (Reflecting on Ethnicity in Research – Challenging the Default). These are the questions I will keep in mind and keep interrogating myself as I carry on with my PhD research.

Learning Python

Starting to experience once again the joy and frustration of learning a new program. Successfully installed relevant packages – celebrates! Failed to reliably call my virtual environment – felt defeated… I have been forking people’s repos on Github but struggling to understand the process… Would appreciate any tips on picking up Python!

Week 2. Solid 6.5/10.