I grew up hearing my mom tell stories of her days at UW. I remember listening intently as she wove tales of protests, riots and tear gas. Even as a teenager who wasn’t supposed to care about anything her mother said, I listened and imagined what it would be like when I was a college student; when I would get out of the Abercrombie and Fitch blandness of the suburbs and have the opportunity to be a part of something I was truly passionate about in a mystical place known as Madison.

Four years after arriving on campus, I realize that what my mom described no longer exists. Instead, this is how I will recant my UW experiences to my children: I once was accidentally a part of a small anti-war protest as I attempted to walk to Memorial Library on a Saturday morning. Aside from little sparks of life around election time, there was political apathy among the general student population. Oh yeah, and I smelled a little bit of tear gas still hanging in the air on an infamous Halloween night.

There is not currently an issue that can unite the student body like Vietnam did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It also seems that our generation, or at least the part of it that resides in Madison, isn’t as passionate about world issues as previous generations.

I will, however, get to experience the unity for a cause and the passion that my mom described; however, it will not happen in Madison. It will happen in Hong Kong.

On Dec. 31, 2003, tens of thousands of eager partiers filled Sha Tin Park and the streets of Hong Kong to welcome the New Year. The scene was not unlike that of Times Square in New York. Twelve hours after the New Year celebrations, crowds spilled back into the streets for a very different reason: to protest the rule of the Chinese government in Beijing. By 6 p.m., the 70,000-plus protesters far outnumbered the merrymakers from the previous evening.

Before I continue, a brief Hong Kong history lesson might be beneficial for some. The country itself is made up of a peninsula of China and a group of islands. The land was ceded to the British after the First and Second Opium Wars. July 1, 1997, a 99-year British lease expired and China regained control of the country. Hong Kong is now a Special Administrative Region of China and, although there have been a few distinct changes in government structure; it operates day to day in much the same way as it did pre-1997, under the premise “One Country, Two Systems.”

The New Year protest and a similarly large protest that occurred in July 2003 stem from the turnover in 1997. As British rule slowly fades from memory, the Chinese government is pushing, and at times overstepping, the limits of what it can and cannot control in Hong Kong.

The passion of Hong Kong citizens flows from the threat to the democratic system they have known and, therein, the threats to what we as Americans consider unalienable rights.

History will show that this is a pivotal time for Hong Kong, China and the region. Undoubtedly, now and over the next few months, seeds are being planted that, in time, will sprout into great changes.

As I pack my bags and ready myself to travel halfway around the world, I cannot help but wonder what I will witness while in Hong Kong. I doubt there will be riots, tear gas and mass chaos, but there will be tens or hundreds of thousands of people uniting to fight a common battle. And I will be there.

As an American citizen, it is not my place to get involved in the protests in Hong Kong. I am not part of their fight to keep democracy. I will be a silent observer of these events, however. I want to see the unity. I want to breathe the excitement in the air. I want to witness history.

I will undoubtedly form many opinions of the situation between Hong Kong and China in the next four months. I will share them freely and with increased intensity as they develop.

And man, will I have great stories to tell my kids.

Laura Rego ([email protected]) is a senior studying marketing and management at the University of Science and Technology in Hong Kong. She is the former advertising director of The Badger Herald.