“Yam tho.” It’s pronounced “yomm toe,” except you form the syllables in the back of your throat rather than the front, and you end the words with a tight jaw rather than a loose one.
It means “vagina” in Chinese, and it became my secret weapon. When I can’t get a non-U.S. group to loosen up and participate in a seminar, I have them teach me how to say vagina in the local language, and then a few bold ones and I practice together. By doing this periodically for the length of the seminar, everyone eventually gets involved. So I got good at saying Yam tho, and they got good at saying it as well as at hearing it.
Other than “yam tho,” most of the group of 32 professionals hardly said a word; in fact, some of them looked down when I spoke to them.
I taught The Sexual Intelligence Approach to Therapy, and I worked my butt off. How many different ways can you say “Any questions? Any comments?” and still get silence in return? When I asked “does this material seem relevant to your work?” they still stared at me blankly. Did I mention that I was working my butt off?
Fortunately for me, I have taught in many Asian countries, and so I expected this. But it was still frustrating—all the more so because I had to respond to the silence and blankness with my own big smile and renewed energy.
But that’s the Hong Kong way: respect the authority of the teacher. Don’t talk about your own experience, even if the teacher begs for it. The interesting exception: over a third of the participants came late, straggling in by ones and twos during the first half-hour of the seminar. They apologized perfunctorily.
By the end of the day most participants were at least smiling, and I ended the day by talking about their silence and my informal style of teaching. I discussed how our patients want to show us deference, which can either help or hinder the therapy. And of course therapists have to find a way to show respect to patients—without hindering the therapy as well.
I told the group I understood they wanted to be respectful to me. I said that challenging their own inhibitions would be one way to do it, and that coming on time the next day would be another. They nodded, and the next day, they were all on time. They even spoke during the day. And we talked about it all as a therapeutic issue, which was a first for almost every one of them.
In Hong Kong, most young people live at home until they marry, which makes dating an interesting activity. Almost no one has a car. Pre-marital sex isn’t that common, and so we have the interesting phenomenon of newlywed couples who are sophisticated in every way—except sexually. This is different than virginal couples in, say, Pakistan, who lack sophistication in most ways in addition to sexually.
Will that change with a new generation of young Hong Kongers? It doesn’t appear so. The 79-day Occupy Central event was no Woodstock, no 1969, no anti-Vietnam War movement. Although young people did mobilize together for the first time, there was virtually no lifestyle component to it, certainly nothing involving sex or drugs (or even progressive music). No one is going to suddenly leave their parents’ home and live a new way.
The power of sexuality to transform lives, then, is still a sleeping dragon for young people here. Sexual expression, of course, is the ultimate form of personal autonomy, which is why both authoritarian regimes and organized religion want to control and limit it. Most young Hong Kongers have still not personally experienced sexuality freeing them from the earth’s gravitational pull. They’re not demanding more access to it, and still rarely kiss or hold hands in public.
And so teaching therapists about sexual empowerment and integrity, and how to bring such topics into the therapy room, wasn’t quite so straightforward as it is in the U.S.. Our two-day seminar at Tung Wah College progressed slowly, although the feedback was that it had been profound for many participants.
The following day I lectured about sexuality education design and delivery at the Hong Kong Family Planning Association. I had two primary messages: that we should be teaching young people life skills, which they can then apply to sexual situations and decisions, and that sex education should not be focused on harm reduction but on life enhancement.
Hong Kong’s young adults need that just as much as their eight-year-olds.