I AM AN AMERICAN EXPAT LIVING IN HONG KONG. Just talk to me for 10 seconds and you can figure that out. Even before opening my mouth I’ve been told I “behave” like an American — my body language, the way I take up space, the way I dress.
But while it’s obvious I’m an expat, it’s not so obvious that Hong Kong is a huge part of my past. I was born in Hong Kong, I hold permanent residency here, and though I immigrated to the US as a child, I spent a large part of my childhood with Kowloon as my playground. While I would never be so bold as to call myself a true “local”, a large part of who I am came to be because of my relationship with this place.
I admit I spend a lot of time with other Western expats in Hong Kong. We share a language and a cultural shorthand that can be a comfort when I’m feeling small and alone in this enormous city. But while my fellow expats mostly moved here for jobs or as part of “seeing the world”, I moved here in order to reconnect with my past.
My great grandfather was one of the pioneers who built modern Hong Kong. His name, though largely forgotten amongst people around my age, still adorns streets, libraries, is mentioned in history books. Each district that my expat friends and I walk through are more than just areas to find great food, bars, or markets for me — they are the places my parents lived and worked in when they were my age. Now and then I’ll pass a building with a familiar name, or a street that tickles my memory, and I’m reminded of being a little girl holding my grandmother’s hand as we went to “yum cha” (dim sum) or pay our respects to an older, grander relative.
It is this nostalgia, this closeness to Hong Kong buried beneath decades of American upbringing, that creates something of a disconnect between myself and other expats I meet. I mean no disrespect to these expats (I’m most certainly part of their ranks), but their Hong Kong is not my Hong Kong, and to expect such is not in keeping with the global spirit of this city. However, when conversations occasionally turn to talk of how “the Chinese” behave, or loud disparagement of local customs that are bizarre to Western sensibilities, I can’t help but be irked.
Hong Kong doesn’t need me to defend it, but at the same time I feel a knee-jerk reaction akin to when someone criticizes your sister. I can call her weird, but who are you to call her names?
Yet, I am far from a local. Though I have more of an “instinct” about Hong Kong than most new expats, my knowledge of Hong Kong is nothing compared to that of a born and raised Hong Konger. My Cantonese is heavily accented (at times nearly unintelligible) and rusty at best. The way I speak Cantonese is very representative of my relationship with Hong Kong: I know the basics, I’m privy to some of the “insider” jargon, and while I can comprehend most of what is around me, I can’t always participate in a way that makes any sense.
My local friends and family say that while I’ve “come home”, I keep getting lost. My expat friends don’t understand why I have such an attachment to the little peculiarities that inundate expat life in Hong Kong.
In navigating between the two worlds I feel like pieces of me belong to both, but most of me is caught in the middle. This wasn’t the experience I expected when I decided to move to Hong Kong. To be honest, I naively expected to immediately feel like a local; like my long dormant “Hong Konger DNA” would take over and everything would be natural.
Those daydreams were dashed the first and 50th time a local Hong Kong store clerk barked at me, “What do you want? I can’t understand you!”, and mutter something about American Born Chinese girls under her breath.
But after reeling from a heavy dose of Hong Kong reality, I can’t help but wonder if this feeling of being stuck somewhere in the middle is the Hong Kong I’m really meant to discover. In many ways Hong Kong’s history of being a British territory and it’s hugely multicultural population is in keeping with my Hong Kong-Eurasian heritage. Is having a foot in two cultures really “my” Hong Kong?
While I don’t fully know the answer to this question yet, I do know that accepting that I don’t have to “choose sides” is an important part of my life here. If living abroad has taught me anything, it’s that imposing expectations can be the death of experience.
I get get tongue-tied when bombarded by language in local shops, but I also understand much of the bombardment (and what they are saying about me). I’m often afraid to go to new places in the city, but I also love that rush of excitement that comes with pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Taking a cab sometimes makes my heart race. Hong Kong overwhelms me, but I wouldn’t want to be any place else. I feel like I walk the line between my Hong Kong self and my American self everyday.
In thinking about this duality, I am reminded of a lunch I recently had with my aunt.
Having lived almost the entirety of her life in Hong Kong, my mom’s sister, I played the piano for her when I was a little girl in Kowloon Tong, and I sent her letters from the US as I was growing up. Amidst reminiscing, the conversation turned to why I had decided to come back to Hong Kong.
Sitting back in her chair in the noisy, local Chinese restaurant, my normally chatty, forthright aunt got a dreamy look in her eyes.
“You are a Hong Kong girl, you don’t need to know why you came back. There is no why — Hong Kong is a part of you. You came home. But the US is your home too. You don’t need to explain anything to your home. You’re a different Hong Kong girl. But no less a Hong Kong girl.”
“I don’t always feel like a ‘Hong Kong girl’,” I told my aunt.
“But you’re here aren’t you? Why don’t you feel like a Hong Kong girl? Because you speak bad Cantonese? Because you get lost in Mongkok? Who gets to say? You make your own way.”