“Freedom” is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. It’s a great buzzword and motivator, a noble concept sprinkled liberally throughout speeches and debates, although no-one seems to know precisely what it means anymore. Living in Hong Kong, I straddle the fine line between great personal freedom, and the very real possibility of it one day being stripped from me. For most teenagers, to “come of age” implies the realization of our freedoms and the occasional exploitation of them. But for me, it has also been to reconcile the many different kinds of freedom around me: the freedom I am perceived to have, the freedom of people just across the border in China, and most importantly, the beautiful paradox of how one can choose to be free.
I first began to question the notion of ‘freedom’ as a 15 year old with a burgeoning interest in history, human rights, and activism. When I attended the Tiananmen Square Massacre vigil for the first time, I was shocked by the disparity of permissions around me. Surrounded by football fields of people, we were campaigning for rights that couldn’t even be mentioned a mere 50 kilometers north of us. It struck me as laughably absurd (for in China, the nouveau rich possess hundreds of designer handbags but not the right to free speech), but also unbearably real – even in Hong Kong, I won’t be able to vote for our Chief Executive when I turn 18. It seems like a hugely anticlimactic culmination of youth, that the truth is I wield no actual power or freedom at all.
And as my interest in human rights shifted towards a more personal, vested interest in feminism and LGBT issues, I felt increasingly alienated by peers and family members who regarded activism as frivolous, unnecessary, and overly idealistic. But it’s true that for many people in the safe bubble of economic prosperity, personal luxuries outweigh any fight or struggle for those esoteric concepts of “freedom” or “democracy”. And such superficial freedoms – the freedom to earn money, be comfortable, and watch TV (although nothing subversive) – keep masking people’s need for a true sense of liberty.
That’s how I’ve come to realize that freedom can be both a blessing and a trap. It’s far too easy for the prosperous to sink so deep into the comfort and routine of everyday life, that they forget how to care and feel. And it’s far too common for the educated to judge based on ideals and principles, rather than what’s right in front of them. Despite the rhetoric that comes along with the word, I believe that “true freedom” begins with the mere awareness and realization of our containment: that just understanding our limitations, be they physical, intellectual, or political, is our first step to escaping them.
In his speech This Is Water, David Foster Wallace says that the greatest freedom “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to care about other people and sacrifice for them in myriad petty, unsexy ways everyday”. I have since taken the philosophy of This is Water as my personal mantra. I am incredibly lucky to have been born into relative economical and political security, but it is the way I choose to harness that freedom, education, and awareness that truly defines me. The everyday choice to simply think and care is the greatest freedom of all, and the conscious decision to fight for that freedom – to actively learn, explore, and protest against mindless acceptance, is the most important part.