“You understand each word within a sentence, but not the sentence itself; or, you understand none of the words and check their meanings, only to realise that you still don’t understand what the sentence means. This is Comp Lit”
Dr. Jason Ho 何家珩 (BA 2003; MPhil 2006; PhD 2011) is one of This is Comp Lit.” the few outspoken academics in Hong Kong who has openly shared about his gay identity. A quick scroll through his Instagram page makes it clear — he proactively and critically comments on cultural, social and political issues. After spending 18 years in Comparative Literature, he now identifies himself as an educator engaging in service-learning, where he continues to make voices — his and that of the marginalised — heard.
FROM “EYE-OPENING” TO “OPENING-UP”
Surprisingly enough, Jason never thought about studying Comparative Literature before entering university. He randomly took a first-year course on gender studies that was then taught by Prof. Maurine Sabine. Her lively lectures on texts like Jane Campion’s The Piano illuminated him, for he never knew gender could be studied using such a provocative approach. “I stumbled across Comparative Literature, and got dragged into a world that is going to change me forever.”
Dr. Esther Cheung’s courses on Hong Kong culture, which relates theories to everyday examples, made a lasting impact on Jason’s own style of teaching years later. The film courses by Prof. Mette Hjort also introduced him to his now beloved film Thelma & Louise. “This film blew my mind. It was so overwhelming to see how oppressed women stand up and revolutionise perceptions about gender roles. The shock came not from the images on screen, but the underlying ideology.”
Studying all these texts have opened up his world, highlighting the possibilities of cultural and political changes. “If texts are in one way or another a reflection of reality, doesn’t that mean there is room for change in this world we are living in?” What’s more important is how he has developed a deeper self-understanding through different texts and theories. “I used to be bothered about my sexuality, but Comparative Literature enables me to let go of those entrapping labels. This also explains why I can stay true to myself and say what I want.”
CREATING A SPACE FOR CHANGE
When Jason started lecturing, he brought to students a change similar to what he had experienced. In “Culture and Queer Theory”, one of his favourite courses with tutor Siu Fung, the course materials and class discussions allowed students to unleash lesbian and gay desires that have been suppressed. “Imagine having a gay lecturer and a genderfluid tutor — what isn’t possible to talk about?” The genuine and safe space created in lectures and tutorials eventually led a few students to acknowledge their desires and embrace their sexualities. Jason finds it heartwarming to empower students to experience a change on an individual level. “I would rather teach courses that impact hundreds and thousands of students than to write a book that reaches ten readers.”
“I’M NOT YOUR TYPICAL PROFESSOR!”
His dismissal of what a typical scholar would care about is also reflected in the way he presents himself. He is actively involved in different kinds of projects and theatrical performances outside academia. “I’m never the nerdy kind of professor, or someone who likes name-dropping. I believe in making theories or abstract ideas accessible to the community.” He took the initiative to
organise interesting talks on a variety of topics, including LGBT community, safe sex, gender issues and stardom. “Compared to academic seminars, these talks are just as important. They can communicate ideas to ‘outsiders’ and
FROM “RECONNECTED” TO “RECONNECTING”
One might not know that the Department’s internship programme is actually an important “by-product” of the 20th anniversary celebration. The occasion reconnected many alumni who already held established positions in their respective fields. “Seeing that Comp Lit has trained so many talents, we started to ask ourselves: why don’t we offer students an internship opportunity to connect what they have learnt with the world outside?”
Jason’s current involvement in service-learning extends this spirit of experiential learning. “What I want to see most is how students develop empathy through service-learning. It’s so important to look at the world from a humanistic perspective, which has become increasingly relevant in today’s society.” In hindsight, Jason recognises how his genuine concern for the underrepresented has stemmed from his identification with the LGBT community. “Though I have now taken up a different position, the cause I hope to work for remains the same. It might be a detour, but I’m still walking along the same path.”
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say Comparative Literature has been life-changing for Jason, both in terms of personal growth and his career. It is also a platform where he encounters all sorts of idiosyncrasies. To Jason, Comp Lit is after all an idiosyncratic discipline. It perplexes and mesmerises you simultaneously.