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A research of lived experience on commuting by bus in Hong Kong

Lau Wai In, Debbie

 

  1. Hong Kong and Transportation

The people’s daily commute in Hong Kong mostly only takes half an hour to one hour. More than half of the Hong Kong people rely on public transportation for their trips on weekdays (Transport Department, 2011). According to the Transport Department, only around 14 percent of the households had private cars available for their uses. Public transportation shares a big part of daily life for most local people, ranging from children to the elderly. It connects every district of Hong Kong, making the local trips much more convenient. Apart from the heavy reliance on commuting, there is even a particular group of people who share their mania over public transport. In Hong Kong, there are terms called “bus plastic” (baa1 gaau1) and “train plastic” (tit3 gaau1), which commonly describe people who have an unusual and extreme interest in bus and MTR. It raises several questions in my mind. Why do Hong Kong people insist to take public transport in their everyday life? What does public transport mean to Hong Kong people? Are they just a machine or something far more complicated?

 

Conventionally, passengers taking public transportation are seen as a passive subject comparing with walking and cycling, as there are fewer motions while being carried by the vehicles and lack of willingness to pursue their purposes (Scheldeman, 2011, p.129). This kind of perspective is rather applicable to me since I seldom enjoy my trips on public transport. I always choose to walk if my destination is not too far. From my experience, I always feel that the time spent on taking public transport is a waste of time. Because I dislike waiting to be carried to the destination and the feeling that there is nothing I can do to speed up the trip. Therefore, I prefer to use my mobile phone to browse some websites or text with others, to feel that I have completely utilised the time. Therefore, I rarely take the bus as the journey time is usually much longer. However, Samuel who is a friend of mine has a different experience with Hong Kong public transport. He chooses to take the bus whenever he could, and he always shares with me how he sees the trip as an enjoyment. It raises my interest that what makes our experience so different. Do I overlook this lived experience? I believe only by putting my prejudice aside and trying to put myself in Samuel’s shoes would help me understand what I have neglected. Even though there are fewer movements involved in taking public transport, but the experience on our senses could be far complicated than we expected.

 

Most of the current studies on lived experience focus on motions and mobility by using walking and cycling as an example (Cox, 2017; Lan, 2016; Scheldeman, 2011). Despite some notable exceptions as Tomić, Relja, and Popović (2015) and Bissell (2013), the attention paid to the experience of taking public transport is insufficient. Particularly in places like Hong Kong where the local people depend a lot on public transportation for their daily commute, there is a need for us to review how public transportation affects the local people’s daily life and their perspectives. In this study, I chose to conduct a sensory ethnography to record all my observations, feeling, and thoughts during my trips with Samuel. Classen (1997) pointed out that we give meaning to things around us and to make sense of the world (p.402). In this research, I would open-up my senses and situate myself in the same place as Samuel, striving to experience the same feeling as him.

 

  1. Taking the bus

Taking the bus as a resistance against the MTR

Before we start our trip, we had a conversation about the recent Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement in Hong Kong. Samuel is regarded as an activist in this movement since he has been actively participating in it starting from June last year. Similar to other protesters, they believe that taking the bus instead of the MTR is a form of engagement in this movement. Since the MTR company closed the Prince Edward Station and rejected to show the video of the CCTV during the attack on the August 31 last year, the protesters were upset with the irresponsible performance of the company (Leung, 2019). They choose to manifest their dissatisfaction and outrage by rejecting to take MTR, vandalizing the facilities in the stations, and jumping turnstiles (Liang and Mahtani, 2019). Comparingly, the Kowloon Motor Bus (KMB) arranged extra cross-harbour buses for the protester from Police Headquarters in Wan Chai to Mong Kok on June 22, the company explained that their special arrangement was based on the needs of the passengers (The Standard, 2019). Therefore, many of the protesters chose to take the bus over the MTR in expressing the support for the bus company. Samuel agreed that one of the reasons why he insisted to take the bus was because of the 831 attack. He would prepare coins before he takes the bus. He further explained that using the Octopus Card means that the MTR can share the commission fee from each transaction. This kind of anti-MTR protest has lasted for at least half a year. It remains a question mark for them to foresee the end of the protest. For such a long fight it could be, I asked Samuel what kind of things he wants to achieve by taking the bus, he said:

 

I think this is an act of declaring my position. This tells all the Hong Kong-based companies that it will pose a threat to their business if they cannot work for the people. Rejecting to take MTR or simply jumping turnstiles, both can decrease their income and let them know it is the consequences of betraying the Hong Kong people… Some people may say it is impossible to check and balance such a great company, but I think we can still make a difference by starting from some minor actions in our everyday life.

 

He admits that sometimes the fare of the bus is much higher than the MTR, especially for the cross-harbour buses. Still, he thinks it is worthy for him to take the bus.

 

The First Trip

When I first informed Samuel about my research, he was so excited about it. He told me that he had never tried to cross the harbour by the Eastern Harbour Crossing. He wanted to take an unfamiliar route from Kwun Tong to Causeway Bay. We gathered at the Kwun Tong Station at noon. I was late for about 15 minutes as it took so much time to change lines from the Island line to Kwun Tong Line. I was a little bit embarrassed as Samuel has waited for me at the station alone. Even though the weather was hot and stuffy on that day, Samuel still looked uplifted. He gave me a bottle of cold tea to cool down. He brought a stuffed backpack, I guessed he has prepared ahead for this bus trip. I followed him to the bus stop closed to the MTR station.

 

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(Photo retrieved from https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E9%81%8E%E6%B5%B7%E9%
9A%A7%E9%81%93%E5%B7%B4%E5%A3%AB619%E7%B7%9A)

 

The KMB mobile app showed that there was still five minutes before the bus 619 arrived, so we sat at the chair under shelter. The temperature was extremely high outside with the sun shone fiercely. I wore long jeans that I could feel the sweat has glued the pants with my thighs. Even though there is a shelter above us, I did not feel any cooler. Usually, I prefer to check on my phone when I am waiting, but I dared not to move anymore as the heat was intolerable. I looked at Samuel. He was quietly playing Candy Crush on his phone as if the hotness did not affect him. I asked him “Don’t you feel hot?”. He said, “Yes”, but it is interesting that he did not seem to be bothered by it. I try to look around the building and the people around, to less focused on my sweat. Eight people were waiting in the queue. I did not expect quite many people would still choose to wait under the sun when the MTR station was just nearby. I wondered the reason why they would insist to take the bus. The five minutes took longer than I expected. I asked Samuel whether the bus was coming. He said, “I guess the bus has delayed a little bit. It should be over five minutes now”. I became impatient as the waiting seemed to be endless. At that moment, I reassured that I did not like taking the bus. Samuel saw how annoyed I was, he said, “ I guess you like taking the MTR is because there is air-con everywhere in the MTR stations on Hong Kong Island”. I thought it was true, as I could not stand with hotness. About one minute later, the bus slowly slid in. I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to reload my Octopus Card. I asked Samuel if he could lend me the money. He searched his bag and gave me some coins.

 

After we threw the coins into the box, we automatically went upstairs as if it was a hidden rule. The environment was super cool and comfortable. I could feel my sweat was dried immediately. All the impatience and annoyance went right away. There were so many people upstairs, around thirty to forty people. All the window seats were already occupied. Samuel sat in an aisle seat in the middle row and I sat at the back of him. The first thought that came to my mind once we sat was that the environment was so quiet. I could only hear the low humming voice of the bus engine. The atmosphere was peaceful and relaxing. Samuel took off the backpack and put it on his thighs. He took out his book and read it right away. I have noticed that there were mostly middle-aged men on the bus, the others were few young adults. Most of them were sleeping and some were using their mobile phones, just like the lady who sat next to me.

 

The bus went very steady, I could not notice it was running at a high speed if I did not pay extra attention. When I looked out from the window, the sky was clear and the sun shed light on the bus. Even though Samuel was enjoying his book, he looked around from time to time. When he saw something outside that aroused his interest, he kept on moving his head so that he made sure he could see it. As Samuel had a strong figure with broad shoulders, he could not perfectly fit into a single seat. He put his left shoulder and left leg outside the seat. He still looked relaxed despite the limited space. Since the seat was cushioned, I felt all the muscles were resting.

 

The bus passed a large construction area of the Ex-Cha Kwo Ling Kaolin Mine. It was a spectacular scene as I seldom see such a huge area of a construction site. It looked like an unknown heritage waited to be discovered by people. Samuel was attracted by the site. He moved all the directions of his head to look at the site carefully. He was like a bird or a new-born baby that was curious about all the things around him. The observation was so detailed that he grasped every second he could see the site, trying to remember all the small parts of it as if he could never see this again. Once we entered the Eastern Harbour Crossing, all we could see were walls and dim lights. The contrast of feelings was so striking. One second ago, we were just enjoying the grand scenery. The sensational feeling was all gone all of a sudden, similar to a sudden shutdown of television. Samuel was back on the book again.

 

68th-criticism-06-02

(Photo retrieved from https://mapio.net/pic/p-81054581/)

 

A woman sat two rows behind me, talking with her friend next to her. Her voice was not very loud. In such a quiet space, her voice appeared to be a large disturbance. I looked around to see how other people feel about this, but they looked like they could not hear anything at all. The east-Asian man sat on the same row with me, he wore a full suit. He was sleeping deeply enough that his face looked very peaceful. Why did he not bother by that woman? Was he too tired? Or he tried to get a rest before his work?

 

Inside the tunnel, my mind was blank. I did not intend to find something to do to pass the time. With silence and cosiness, I recalled the time when I was lying on my bed and daydreaming. When the bus slowly went out of the tunnel, the sunlight gradually filled the bus and entered my eyes. The bus entered the Island Eastern Corridor. The scenery of Victoria Harbour was captivating. The water was shimmering like the stars under the sunlight. Not just Samuel, but everyone awaked could not keep their eyes off from this lived painting. The sea had some magical cleansing effect that I could feel a sense of calmness and contentment in my heart. I was amazed that Hong Kong was such a beautiful place, and wondering how came I did not come to see this every day. When it came to the end of the corridor, the scenery returned to the high-rise buildings. In North Point and Fortress Hill, the bus stopped at some stops. A passenger went upstairs and walked to the back. When he was getting closer to Samuel, Samuel did not move his eyes away from his book. He slowly put his feet back to his seat from the aisle and let the man passed through. His head leaned on the back of his seat while concentrating on his fiction. I could feel that he was so relaxed that he was like sitting on the couch at home. The bus was swaying a little bit when it was traveling in the crowd. But we were not affected by this as we were sitting safely.

 

68th-criticism-06-03

(Photo retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_Eastern_Corridor)

 

The passengers were getting off the bus slowly when we arrived at Causeway Bay. Samuel put his book back into his backpack without a hurry. He asked me what the next stop would be. I was surprised that he did not decide ahead where to get off as if it was like an adventure to him. We got off at the next stop. I was shocked that the trip has taken 40 minutes, but I just felt like 20 minutes! I never expected a bus trip can be so relaxing when I tried to observe the things around me. Samuel was so excited to share with me how great this trip was, and he never knew about the construction area in Cha Kwo Ling before. He walked me to the MTR station and waved goodbye.

 

The Second Trip

Four days later, I joined another bus trip with Samuel again. We took the bus 930 from southern Playground in Wan Chai to Tai Wo Hau Road. It was a route that he would usually take when he went back home after he hung out at Causeway Bay. The bus arrived after one minute. As usual, we went upstairs. Only six people were sitting. Samuel directly headed to the second last row and sat on the window seat. I took a seat behind him. He put his backpack on the seat next to him. He took out a USB phone-charging wire. He plugged into the USB plug at the back of the front seat. I was stunned as I never knew that the City Bus provides this kind of service. He adjusted himself into the most comfortable sitting posture. He bent his knee and leaned his knee onto the front seat. I did the same thing as him. I could feel the tight muscle of my waist was much loosened. It felt safe and protected. I let my brain rested by watching the cars and people passing outside the window. I could evoke the time I looked at the scenery outside the window of my room when I felt my brain stuffed, as both senses of healing were the same.

 

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(Photo retrieved from https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fhongkongfp.com%2F2017%2F06%2F22%2Fhkfp-lens-wi-fi-usb-slots-seats-designed-asians-tour-hong-kongs-new-kmb-buses%2F&psig=AOvVaw0tT17Sq_sdLy-ht3POY_iJ&ust=1605542908432000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCJDRp8j3h
O0CFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD)

 

More than 20 passengers went upstairs. The seats and space suddenly became limited. I took my belongings with me and sat next to Samuel to return the seats to other passengers. Samuel grabbed his backpack on the seat and put it in front of his chest. I asked him when he developed this fondness for the bus. He shared with me that quite a number of his family members worked as a bus driver in the bus company, thus there was always a map book in his house. It was the time that he developed his interest in the Hong Kong roads. I remembered I have had a similar map book at home back to the time when there was no such thing as Google Maps. It was fun to observe the names and lines on the map as I was too young to read them. Since the location of his house and the university were both distant from the MTR station, the bus would always be his choice.

 

I asked him why he would sit at the back of the carriage. I would usually take the middle one as it was closer to the staircase. It would be easier to take off the bus. “People are all facing the front. If I sit on the front row, the noise at the back would be very disturbing.” His frowned eyebrows raised high. “There was a time when a man sat right behind me, and he talked so loud. I turned my head and stared at him angrily. He was so embarrassed that he immediately told the person on his phone that he would call him back later. Ha-ha…” He was so satisfied with the moment that he could fight against people who broke the silence and maintained order on the bus. Every time I find somebody disturbing on the bus, I never dare to confront him. I would only be grumbling inside.

 

“I usually directly put my backpack on top of the seat, so they would know that I don’t want him to sit next to me. You know, other people do this too. When there are too many people upstairs, I would return the seat. But I would try my best to keep a distance from the person who sits next to me and not to touch his shoulder. Each seat is our own space. You would not want to invade other’s personal space.”

 

He further talked about how he felt his personal space being intruded by his grandparents at home. “They said they wanted to help me tidy up. But I don’t like my stuff being touched. This is my personal space. Even though there is an air conditioner in the living room, I still prefer not to go out of my room. I don’t want to be seen by them. It feels like being spied.” I nodded my head vigorously as I also felt in the same way. Space not to be seen by others not just meaning to be free from disturbance, but also a sense of security. I looked around the carriage, all the passengers sitting in the same direction. What I could only see were the heads tilted when the bus was turning.

 

“For young ages like us, it is difficult to afford the high rent in Hong Kong. I would want to own a space that I could escape from my family. I could do whatever I love to do without being asked why or being judged. Sometimes, I would rather take a long bus trip. Staying in a bus for a longer time, rather than going home too soon.”

 

I could feel his frustration as the same thought lingers in my head sometimes too.When people say that the young people are the future of Hong Kong, it is ironic that we could not even claim a space on our own. Growing up in an ordinary family, does it mean that we have no future? It always makes me wonder what the reason is to work hard every day. He also connected his working style with his experience on the bus. He described his living style as “downshifting”, as he was always late to work and did his work as slow as possible. He agreed that a bus trip matched the slow pace of his life, as he could “slowly arrive the destination with the most comfortable experience”.

 

I asked him why he loved to take the bus on an unfamiliar route, as I never heard of people who would do this. He related it with his experience of talking with foreigners. “They always say Hong Kong is a fun place. Well, they just go to those tourist spots, like Mong Kok and Causeway Bay. I have been to those places hundreds of times. So what is so fun about Hong Kong? What makes Hong Kong such a good place? I always think of these questions.”

 

He continued to describe how he could re-experience Hong Kong.

 

“Exploring an unfamiliar place on a bus, I can observe Hong Kong closely. I could take a look at the things that make Hong Kong a good place to go. I think Hong Kong has nothing special because I have stayed in a comfort zone for too long. Just like the Japanese, they don’t understand why we Hong Kong people love to go to Japan so much. So I could say that taking on an unfamiliar route on a bus is also a way to explore new things, new people, and new roads. It constructs a completely new understanding of Hong Kong to me.”

 

I was a little ashamed after listening to his answer. I claimed myself as a Hongkonger, but I never tried to explore my birthplace. He is right that we always complain about how small Hong Kong is, but our understanding of Hong Kong is very limited indeed. I never bother to take a good look at Hong Kong as I only focus on the virtual world on my phone. He emphasized how different it was from reading a map on Google Maps.

 

“I might have heard of that place when I was using Google Map. But it is just a spot formed by some simple lines and colors. Only when I pass by the place on the bus, I would have the feeling of ‘Oh, this is it!’. I can see that some shops are opening. The shop owners are working hard for their living. Only by seeing the real places with my own eyes, I could feel how I am connected with this place we called Hong Kong. This is also the reason why I love to observe the people and building on the bus. Things are changing every day. Many ordinary people are doing their best to make a living, they have their values. Looking at them, I would imagine their background and future. I would wonder what their lives are like. All these faces deserve to be known and remembered.”

 

I have read Samuel’s writings before. They are very down-to-earth. Most of the works are about ordinary people’s daily lives or real experiences. I guessed the reason for his good writing was because he could always observe the unnoticed details of ordinary lives. That has made his stories always moving.

 

He asked me if I would observe my community when I was taking a bus. I tried to recall any special memories, but I could not. The things in my mind were only some fragmented images of the shopping malls and a random street. I frankly told him that I seldom took the bus. Even I did, I rarely observed my community. I guess my face went red as I could feel the heat. I was quite embarrassed as I could not even share a single thing about my community where I have grown up for more than 20 years. I guessed I simply took things for granted. I stared at my phone every time when I was taking the bus. He described his bus trip as a remembrance of incidents in the community.

 

“Every time I pass the Tung Chun Soy and Canning Company, it reminds me a lot of my childhood. I went to Kwai Shing West Estate to stay with my father every weekend. I was a primary school student at that time. My grandmother walked me to the bus stop at Tung Chun and waited until the bus arrived. Later when I grew up, I could walk alone without my grandmother. I think that place witnessed the transition of my childhood to adolescence. One of the reasons I pay attention to the surrounding environment outside the bus is because the buildings always remind me of some important memories. When the bus passes the US Dacos Bowling Centre in Tsuen Wan, I would remember how the police attacked me with tear gas there. Passing the New Territories South Regional Police Headquarters, it reminds me of the young protesters who are suffering in this social movement.”

 

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(Photo retrieved from  https://industrialhistoryhk.org/the-five-treasures-of-the-hk-sauce-industry/ )

 

I could sense that Samuel was getting a little bit emotional when talking about these memories. It recalled that one time when I passed The Legislative Council Complex, there was a sense of bitterness in me as I realized this place would never be meant the same to me after this year. Seeing how Samuel aware of his community, my heart was pounding heavily. I have taken things for granted for all these years. Acknowledging myself as a Hong Kong citizen, but I never take a good look at the places and the people. Without the people contributing themselves to the community, Hong Kong would not be such a wonderful place to live in. During such a meaningful conversation, I did not aware of the time pass. Suddenly Samuel told me that we arrived the destination, so we hurried up and got off the bus.

 

  1. Taking MTR

After we had a dinner at Kwai Chung, we took the MTR to Mong Kok. The Kwai Hing Station was not air-conditioned. The waiting for the train was quite a torture even when it was already at night.

 

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(Photo retrieved from https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fzh.wikipedia.org%2Fzh-
hant%2FFile%3AMTR_Kwai_Hing_Station_Exit_A.jpg&psig=AOvVaw2e2shuMLdnBf14eYEI17f
Y&ust=1605543064205000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=
0CAIQjRxqFwoTCJD4tpL4hO0CFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD)

 

The seats were mostly occupied, so we stood near the door. Samuel took out his mobile phone and played Candy Crush immediately. He was quite impatient as I saw him tapping on the screen aimlessly when the app was loading. I could sense the atmosphere in the car was different from the bus. Even though the people were doing the same thing as talking or using mobile devices, they appeared to be much tired. Maybe because there was no natural light and scenery. Passengers were less energized as surrounded by the advertisement boards and dimness. They were like some lonely individuals waiting to arrive at their destinations.

 

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(Photo retrieved from https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.scmp.com%2Fcomment%2Fletters%2Farticle%2F1425619%2F
new-line-can-ease-mtr-congestion&psig=AOvVaw3Dc6sSBgkFm7rVhB4kxOvh&ust=
1605543158333000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCIDJ8sD4hO0CF
QAAAAAdAAAAABAP)

 

It felt weird that I did not know where I should be looking at when I was intended not to use my mobile phone. It was difficult to find a personal space that I could feel completely relaxed and comfortable since I always could be seen clearly by others. At the same time, I had to avoid staring at the people too. Without seeing the environment outside the window, I could only rely on the route map on the train to know where my location was at the moment. Most of my attention went to how to poise myself when the train was swaying. With the humming sound of the high-speed train mixed with people’s chitchatting, I could not find any calmness in me there. I kept on checking the route map up there, to leave the boredom as soon as possible. Finally, it took around 15 minutes to arrive at Mong Kok station. I could see Samuel’s face was relieved once he stepped out of the car.

 

  1. Discussion

We make sense of the world through our body’s multisensory system and create a new dimension of culture (余舜德, 2011). By opening up my senses, I have gained a completely new bus trip experience which has changed my understanding of the bus. It could not be achieved by simply asking people their experience on the bus through a questionnaire.  This way could not help to deepen my understanding, as I could not obtain the same experience through words. In this research, I placed myself in the same environment on the bus with my informant Samuel. I was able to experience the same thing as he did. Samuel told me that he took the bus because of the anti-MTR movement, but it did not tell what taking the bus meant to him. Through situating myself in the same place, I was embodied and emplaced myself with what Samuel was experiencing every time on the bus. A correspondence was created, which I was able to achieve the most similar experience with Samuel (Marcoux, 2010). I realize how each seat on the bus provides a uniquely personal space for an individual to enjoy a sense of security and comfort. Being free from other’s vision allows me to put aside the self-consciousness of my behavior. This personal space becomes a comfort zone separating from tension and stress. People could only enjoy this tranquility during their commute before returning to the outside world. It temporarily cuts off our connection with others.

 

I used to feel I was confined in a sealed room, aimlessly sitting and waiting on the bus. Once I am aware of my senses, my body reacts differently and creates a new experience on the bus. Comparing with the disturbing environment on the train, my mind and muscles can take a break while sitting on a cushioned seat on a bus. Not only just discussing with Samuel how is it like taking a bus, but we sit in the same space and observe the things around us. Only by taking a bus, I can take a clear look of what Hong Kong is like. The stunning scenery could never be found when I was in the MTR. I could not describe in black and white how amazed I am by the places in Hong Kong. It is beyond words. It is not the same as watching a moving picture, but a moment of realizing I am here in this place. There is a sense of connection formed. I am always aware of where I am in that moment, instead of simply getting from one place to another place. Such awareness allows me to discover new faces of Hong Kong. Like how Samuel commented on our limited understanding of Hong Kong, we only focus on the destination instead of the trip itself. I always want to arrive in the fastest way to save time. But is the time wasted? No matter how familiar I am with the route, what I could see outside the window would never be the same. What matters is whether we have tried to observe the difference. I only focused on my mobile phone that I abandoned the senses as my gifted abilities. As a member of the community, the least we should do is to observe and remember. Taking a bus would be the best way to remind ourselves what our community is like and what is our relationship with this place. Revisiting our community could refresh our memories and strengthen the bond with this place.

 

Seeing how Samuel tries his best to explore Hong Kong and record the simple life of ordinary people, it reminds me the reason why I am proud to be a Hongkonger. It is not because of Hong Kong as an international metropolis, but as a small place that all the nameless people are giving their best to safeguard their hometown as what it is now. Through sensory ethnography, my body becomes the best instrument to understand how bus constructed our everyday lived experience as a Hong Kong citizen. Putting myself in the same shoes allows me to share the same feeling with others. Even though bodily abilities are the same in each individual, our meanings towards the same experience are not the same (張連海, 2015). Still, we should maximize our body and senses to understand one’s lived experience in celebrating the uniqueness of everyday life.

 

 

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