My first visit to Poland was a business trip. I was there to recruit doctoral students with the aim of achieving HKBU’s goal of internationalisation.

The University identified the abundance of expertise in science and technology coupled with the developing economies of Eastern Europe as an opportunity for the universities of Hong Kong to attract outstanding young scholars. However, my trip was not that smooth as a result of their protectionist measures; a number of universities denied us direct interviews with their graduate students. In fact, Warsaw was the last destination of my trip, after Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Unlike the other places we visited on this trip, Warsaw hosted an education expo at a convention and exhibition centre where we and other universities of Hong Kong manned exhibition stands. We also delivered a 10-minute presentation. Throughout the day, we attracted around 60 visitors. One of them was Renata, a vibrant shorthaired student from Krakow, Poland’s former capital, who holds a Master of Business Administration degree and has years of experience in marketing. She was interested in the use of sexual imagery and messages in commercials, which so happened to be one of my research areas. We developed a good rapport and in the subsequent three weeks, we exchanged emails from time to time. I gave her some advice on her research proposal. Renata initially planned to look for a doctoral degree programme in the US, but about 10 months after we met, she became our first doctoral student from Poland. 

Renata’s three-year full-time overseas studies were not without glitches. She was not used to life here in a number of aspects. In fact, she had never shared a room with others except during summer camps, and she had to adjust herself to living by the rules of the residence hall. In the second year, she finally moved to Sai Kung and shared a two-bedroom rental flat with a classmate. Her search for accommodation really got her down. 

In terms of study, although she passed the written examination in the second year, she had difficulties with her oral presentation in the second semester. At that time, I was suffering from a serious bout of influenza that lasted half a month. She wasn't clearly know what we expected from her and didn’t elaborate on her research methodology in the proposal in detail, which I thought she would make up for in her oral presentation, but that turned out to be less than satisfactory. Upset and frustrated with her lacklustre performance, she was on the verge of quitting. I advised her to take a week’s rest and let her emotions settle to avoid making a hasty decision. Moreover, I asked two of her classmates to encourage and support her, and I prayed for her too. Eventually, she stayed on and amended her proposal until it met all the requirements. 

In the third year, I set certain time limits for her and checked on her progress every two to three weeks. I gave her timely comments and guidance, and also made an appointment for her oral presentation well in advance with two external examiners. As a result, she graduated within three years. She was the only doctoral student who completed the programme on schedule in that year and landed a very nice job.

Influenced by her, I watched some Polish movies, including The Decalogue, The Double Life of Veronique and The Three Colors Trilogy, which I borrowed from the University library. The Decalogue is a 10-episode movie comprising true crime stories. The first episode is about a father who ignored the severe weather warning and allowed his son to skate on a frozen lake. Tragically, the ice on the lake cracked. His son and some other kids fell through and drowned to death. In the closing scene of the movie, members of the public, holding candles and bouquets, prayed and observed a moment of silence in tribute. When I watched this scene, it reminded me of the tragic Lamma Island shipwreck. The episodes based on the Ten Commandments “you shall not kill” and “you shall not covet” are also thought-provoking. 

For me, the highlight of The Double Life of Veronique was the scene featuring the main square of the Old Town of Krakow. Renata told me it is one of her favourite haunts. She loves this movie so much that she downloaded one of its songs for me. As for The Three Colors Trilogy, it comprises three stories about Poland’s transition into an open economy, with a touch of black humour and tinged with the sadness of separation between the realms of life and death.

Last summer I revisited Poland on a vacation with my family. We met up with Renata’s parents and good friends in Krakow. We travelled on an overnight train from Prague and pulled into the station in Krakow at five in the morning. Through the window, I saw a white birch forest and a deer leaping in the distance. Seeing this sight, I was reminded of scenes depicted in Russian novels. With land so vast, it is little wonder that it has become the target of neighbouring powers’ scramble for concessions.

In Krakow, we booked a one-day tour and visited Zakopane holiday villa. Our tour guide and driver was a doctorate holder in Tourism and also an experienced hiker. However, upon arrival at the country park, we were greeted by a torrential downpour. We only managed to travel for a few minutes before the howling wind and thunderstorm cut short our trip.

We also visited Auschwitz Concentration Camp, a place which was the scene of unimaginable agony. Millions were deprived of dignity and the right to survive during that appalling period in history, revealing the dark side of human nature. Upon our return to Hong Kong, I plucked up my courage to watch The Pianist, a movie on my must-see list.

My third visit to Poland was to attend a regional academic conference of the International Communication Association at Lodz, the second-largest Polish city. At the conference, my horizons were broadened by the Polish scholars’ cutting-edge research. With a name that means “boat”, Lodz is a city of diverse cultures: Polish, Jewish, German and Russian. It was once a post-industrial textile hub with over 1,000 factories at its prime. However, the major industrial undertakings ended up in bankruptcy, leading the city to a frustrating decline.

My previous impression of Poland was that of a country known for Chopin, movies and associated with the horrors of World War II. But since meeting Renata, this country has taken on many more layers and I have been able to view it from an additional perspective – the angle of interpersonal relationships, forming in my mind a three-dimensional Poland.