Jayhawks Around the World – Jeff Coey (Hong Kong)

Village in Hong Kong
Jeff Coey and his family live in a village at the foot of the Pat Sin Leng range in the New Territories. “Not a place that most people associate with Hong Kong,” Coey said.

Where are you now? How long have you been there?
My family and I have been in Hong Kong for the past 15 years, moving here right after the handover of sovereignty to the PRC. Before that I lived in Taipei and Jakarta, having spent most of my adult life in Asia.  I did return to the states to get an M.B.A. at the University of Wisconsin to complement the B.A. from KU.

What’s your job title and the name of your company or organization?
After working in business for 30 years, most of it on the road with regional responsibilities, I enjoy life closer to home now as a lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication. Most classes I work with the MA students in business communications related subjects.  As a businessman in my old life, I enjoyed the “education” aspects of the job:  briefing an agency, hiring and training new employees, reporting to my principals.  So teaching comes naturally to me, and it is a real joy to work with some bright students and great colleagues.

KU degreees?
B.A. (1978) in Chinese

Jeff Coey
Coey has lived most of his adult life in Asia. He has lived in Hong Kong for the past 15 years, and has also lived in Taiwan and Indonesia.

What do you do?
Well, my war stories of the past 25 years are not going to be too much use to students who look forward to the next quarter century.  So instead I challenge students to take up abstract notions and conceptual models that practitioners have found useful and apply them to real world cases, or even made up cases.  Many of these abstract tools should retain their usefulness in different situations.  And where they don’t, we try to explain why they don’t, given all the changes in the media scene recently, and given the differences in political and regulatory systems.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
The broader topics retain general relevance, and our curriculum changes but slowly.  Lucky that the passing parade of our media landscape lately is a wonder to behold.  There is new grist for our mill every day of the week.  It’s a challenge trying to stay on top of the issues themselves, as well as the continuous change seen in the world of media.   And for our classmates coming from the more stunted media environment of mainland China, Hong Kong affords an open window on the world; I feel privileged to share with my students the view out that window.

What do you enjoy most about where you live?
Hong Kong (or specifically the far Northeastern New Territories of Hong Kong) has become home, and maybe one is closest to home without being able to enumerate the reasons why.  But I can say that being a perpetual foreigner comes with advantages and disadvantages in any location.  In Hong Kong, there is a general tolerance for outsiders and for multi-cultural households.  I can’t say that pluralism is celebrated here, but neither is it rejected.  It’s simply a matter of Hong Kong doing well for many years by offering its functionality to a great variety of people from various places on various missions.  This plasticity, transparency and pragmatism make up a distinct Hong Kong advantage even after the handover, and there is “a Hong Kong” to meet most any individual’s need.  In my case, Hong Kong is a great perch to view the tumultuous changes we see in economies, in politics, and in the media.  It affords freedom of information, yes.  But it also allows a certain perspective that I find difficult to maintain when I return to the states, swept up as we can be in the maelstrom of the U.S. media scene.   Out here in Hong Kong’s backyard, life feels dynamic yet quiet.

This is Coey’s backyard, where the vegetation includes papaya trees.

What are the biggest differences between where you live now and living in Lawrence, Kansas?
How about typhoons, children’s rugby and dim sum?  OK, making a living in Hong Kong feels more pressured since renting or buying a residence is an onerous burden.  On the other hand, taxes and insurance are reasonable, and one can rely on public transportation, obviating the need for a car and all that it entails.  But economics aside, the weather here is very different, and I miss the four seasons.  Here it’s either rainy cold or rainy hot, and it’s humid all the time.  There’s nothing like a Midwestern autumn or spring.

How has your degree from the KU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences helped you?
I use not so much what was learned, per se, as much as the learning to learn.  Maybe a school of life that educated Eric Hoffer– as he put it, when times change the learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.  It was 1976 when four of us took a junior year abroad arranged by Prof. Wallace Johnson, and up to today, I’ve enjoyed personal and professional relationships with Chinese people in Taiwan, Hong Kong, the mainland, and also with many overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia.  I’m so glad that Wally gave us that push to Taipei way back then.  I have learned a lot from my Chinese friends.  I started as a student over here, and remain so at heart.

And today the achievements of mainland Chinese economy are awe-inspiring in their breadth– it’s no wonder that the state and the citizenry are very proud of that record in national development.  But I do wish that our mainland friends might appreciate on a deeper level that there are a number of roads toward comity and development in greater China, and there are examples to study, as well enterprises to run and flags to plant.

I think maybe there is a handicap under which most great nations suffer—self-absorbed, big-country hubris is a frightful sight whether it’s exercised from the east or the west.  But in my opinion we don’t face an east-west rift as much as sets of vested elites, each in their vastly different nations, working their will in distinctive ways to dominate policy and maintain their prerogatives.  It’s an extraordinary pattern, when you think of such different systems enduring a similar state of paralysis in the face of a clear need for reform.

Favorite place in the world?
I did love to travel, and I suppose Indonesia was my favorite place to explore.  But right now my favorite place is at home with my family and a cup of tea.

I think the half century process of the world becoming ever smaller has reached a turning point.  Even if we have yet to achieve global understanding and harmony, it is certainly not for lack of available knowledge.  Much of the differences among nations have been arbitraged away and new growth models are needed.  And while travel and study abroad is worthy, I would not advise a young person to necessarily take up an international life, as I did.  The challenges of the future are likely to be more geographically intensive, close to home and with people in one’s immediate circle.  Or at least, that’s my best guess now.

Favorite KU memory?
Does KU still have registration for classes at Allen Field House?  At the start of every semester I took my well-thumbed copy of the catalog to go round and round the walkways to the various “shops” run by the departments, and do my “shopping”.  KU was a marketplace of ideas, each department vying with the other, and the students and teachers who manned the booths were bound to bring in the warm bodies and fill seats.  I tried to recruit for my department as well, but Chinese in the mid-seventies was about as popular as Sanskrit.  We all were real freaks in those days, and Lawrence and KU was a freak friendly zone!  I have too many favorite classes to mention, but Alphoso Verdu’s philosophy classes and Western Civ (both semesters) were highlights.  I owe a lot to the profs at what we called OL&L (Oriental Languages and Literatures) for giving me wise guidance and the occasional push.  I fondly remember my great teachers– and lunch at the Red Lyon, evenings at the Free State with my friends.  Maybe the props have changed, yet the scene stays familiar, I’m sure.