A goal of this blog is to document the places where I lived. I have written about St. Paul’s, Harvard, SF, and I will soon write about my new abode, Chicago. Not until today did it strike me as odd that I never wrote about Hong Kong.
Even though I left at the age of fourteen, it is still home. As I write I can still feel the familiar humid heat. I can see the dazzling neon lights. I can sense the MTR crowd sweltering around me. I can hear the loud chattering at dim sum. I even vaguely recall the hazy, drunken nights I spent in Lan Kwai Fong. These fragments of memory are a familiar reality to me.
But it is not just the familiarity. Hong Kong is both a place where I belong and a place that belongs to me. I perk up with pride whenever I hear someone, perhaps a stranger at a restaurant, mention the efficiency of Hong Kong’s airport or the stunning density of its high-rises. When I look forward to that dreadful 18-hour flight that will bring me back, I think not only of my parents, but also of my hometown and my people.
Hong Kong is my political, cultural, and historical identity. That collective story of immigrants escaping war and prosecution to find refuge in Hong Kong is also my grandparents’ story and therefore my own as well. Each year’s June 4 and July 1 are special days for me. I stand in spirit with those who mourn at the candlelight vigil in Victoria Park and those who march for democracy. These are deeply, deeply personal things.
So Hong Kong is home. I have no doubt about that.
Yet, I could not wait to get away. Hong Kong frustrated me a lot even as a kid -- the materialism, the gossip, the dumb politics, the pollution, and the lack of intellectual stimulation. Above all I hated the narrow-minded practicality. It pervaded conversation, television, tabloid coverage. The parochialism gave me an intense claustrophobia. It made me want to scream, even then: How is it that you do not see that there are big issues and so much more beyond the daily gossip? My parents had showed me enough for me to know that outside world promised so many more interesting things to see, so many more interesting people to meet. When they sent me off to boarding school, I could hardly wait.
That was a decade ago. I have since seen something of the outside world. The United States was a breath of fresh air. A vast stage for creativity and intellectual pursuit. I became an excited adventurer, chasing the newest fads, the latest technologies, and the most obscure music. I discovered entire new worlds in literature and poetry, in scientific understanding. I built friendships across cultures. These adventures energized me.
They also changed me. I learned to navigate airport security and to pack minimally. I learned to hate filling out forms that ask for a permanent address. I learned to strike up conversations with strangers. I learned cultural references. My accent disappeared. I learned about indie bands and great American writers. I began to watch the Daily Show and Mad Men. Partly it was my surroundings that forced me to assimilate. There were so few Chinese kids around at my high school. My friends were white boys and girls. Partly I was just so curious about it all. The cool kids listened to Bob Dylan and Joy Division. But why? I genuinely wanted to know.
As my knowledge of the West waxed, my knowledge of home and China also waned. Now I follow America politics more closely than that from home, and what I do know about China I know not from Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily but from Evan Osnos from the New Yorker. I can gossip about American Idol and Top Gear, but I can’t name a single episode from The Voice of China. At the karaoke I sing the Backstreet Boys rather than Jay Chou. I have no clue what TV shows are playing in Hong Kong. I don’t remember the last time I finished a Chinese novel.
Of course, there is something incongruous about this. I have come to know America better, but my self-image is still that I am a Chinese from Hong Kong. You might call it an identity crisis. The kind that 15 year-olds suffer through. I am 23. So I rarely talk about it. Frankly I’m not even sure I comprehend it.
Since I moved to Chicago, I reconnected with a friend from middle school who also left to study abroad. We hadn’t talked in years. But he was unmistakable. He dressed very differently from our school days, but his mannerisms were the same. What was strange is that we weren’t conversing in Chinese, like we always had. We spoke instead mostly in English.
Our stupid inability to revert to our former selves posed a nagging question. In the past years I have gained much knowledge about the outside world, but what have I lost? What was my Faustian bargain? Consider that today’s Hong Kong is a different animal from the one I knew a decade ago. There’s the growing presence of all things from the Mainland. There’s a new generation of politicians I don’t know about. There’s probably a new set of vocabulary too. Even the furniture in my parent’s home is different. My parent’s home! Dare I still call it my home?
My concept of home is now nine years dated. I have spent more time living elsewhere in the intervening years–in Western academia, on English tech forums. Even this homepage is so much more concrete than that concept of home in my head. Perhaps this is why I never wrote about Hong Kong. It is difficult to face the fact that I have become a stranger to my own home.
When I first left Hong Kong, I thought that homesickness was just fear and loneliness. Fear of the unknown. Lack of friends. Today I know there is more. I have come to know America well and I have made plenty fantastic friends. Yet it is not enough. No one warned me that, even in this age of global interconnectedness, leaving home would actually mean leaving home behind. Or perhaps they did and I just never listened. My parents have always told me that humans need a community, a home. I thought then, cynically and terribly selfishly, this is merely their way to urge me to come back from abroad to alleviate them of loneliness.
Am I merely melodramatic about all this business? I often am. Life continues. One finds work, makes a living, and starts a family. Things work out one way or another. I can find happiness anywhere. And my living here is comfortable. Why struggle with difficult questions?
But, to quote Colum McCann, “I’m not interested in blind optimism.” Rather, like McCann, I am interested in “optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’” The life I want is not the one that Don Draper defaults to as he runs away from his childhood and wartime ghosts. I have been running away from home for long enough already. When confronted with tragedy–and indeed so much of the Hong Kong and Chinese experience is tragic–I want to find light between a rock and a hard place.
Home is something one must build and then rebuild again. Today I picked up two books about China from the library. I am formulating plans to get to know Hong Kong and China better. That inept, lame duck government of Hong Kong is still my government. Those materialistic, parochially minded people are still my people. But it will take a good deal more than just a professed self-image for that to stay true.