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We all have an unsatisfied lease on this earth

HONG KONG (SE): “During my three years working for a human rights agency in Hong Kong, I have discovered that people seem to think that I must be trying to be some kind of saviour of the poor,” Poon Wan-yu told the Sunday Examiner.

Joining the Asian Centre for the Progress of Peoples immediately after graduating in Chinese literature from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the 25-year-old described her work in human rights as not just a job, but a vocation.

“You don’t need to go far away to see how poor people are,” she said. “I believe that if you just open your eyes and look at the things around you, there is plenty of evidence on show, even of the hidden poverty in the city.”

She explained that many of the things that cause poverty may not be what we would call injustice in a strict sense, but you can easily see the effects that things like low wages have on people’s lives.

“When I go into slums, I have an inclination to feel that the people are poor or even judge their situation to be pathetic,” she said.

“But that is just a label I put on them. What I have to do is ask myself what their real needs are. The real question is what can we do, in concrete terms, to enable them to help themselves? We live in the same social structure, so we have to relate to their experience, not judge it,” she reflected.

Poon said that during her student days at Methodist Secondary College she had the opportunity to go on an exposure trip to Thailand. “We went to a brothel area,” she recalled. “I thought a lot about how women sacrifice their bodies.”

She explained, “I had the chance to talk with some of them. I learned that some were doing night work in the brothel, but in the day time they were taking care of their families, something that they had found they were not able to do in what I might call an ordinary job.”

She said that reflecting on what an exposure trip really is, or what she had learned from the experience, she said, “I discovered that all of my eloquent experiences are actually built on a cost paid by others, as we all live in the same society.”

Poon explained that the prostitution industry in Thailand is primarily about tourism. “The tourists are consuming these women,” she went on. “I kept thinking that I am also a tourist, so in a way I am feeding off them too.”

She explained that it was the first time in her life she had an insight into what original sin is about.

“I also came to understand that in my everyday life I buy clothes and other products that people have suffered to make, working long hours in sweat shops for small wages and under unhealthy conditions,” she said.

“It opened my eyes and my heart,” she commented. “It showed me all the labels and prejudices that I was inclined to project onto others in my relationship with them.”

She said she believes that it is easy to feel righteous about being blessed by God. “But every human being has a lease on the earth that has not been satisfied,” Poon said.

“Victims of war and poverty are the obvious ones, but there are other things that are not so visible. It is easy to be angry about these things, but we need stimulation to help us to think what sort of life we want to live and how we want to live it,” she reflected.

Poon explained that she is not a Catholic, but the big lesson that she has learned working for a Catholic human rights agency over the past three years is that just criticising all the time is pretty meaningless in the long run.

“That is not productive,” she reflected. “There is a need to address issues in a concrete and creative manner. We need a spirituality to do this. I have begun attending Mass recently,” she said. “That helps me in doing that.”