The Many Lives of Nicole Chan

By Elizabeth Utley

For Nicole Chan, growing up in Malaysia passed quietly. Banal as the blur of pastel houses sliding by her car window every school day, life in one of Kuala Lumpur’s many suburbs was an exhausting exercise in repetition. Sometimes, she wished she could float away to another place.

“When I was a kid I loved watching James and the Giant Peach,” Chan recalls with a grin. “He escaped his house and would fly on his peach to do amazing things.”

Leaving her dull lessons and sleepy suburban reality behind, Chan inserted herself into the show’s final scene: landing on the Empire State building roof with James and his peach. For her, New York was the place where everyone belonged. As she explains to me, “no matter how bad life was, once you got to that city your life would magically improve.”

Today a 21-year old economics and finance student at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), Chan is grounded by work and responsibility. “I’m settling,” she admits, ruefully shaking her head. Overdue bills, next-month’s rent, and final exams crowd her mind, leaving no time to fantasize about faraway cities.

But nowadays, even if Chan could transport herself anywhere, New York is the last place she would wish to be.

Spinning in her wheeled chair, the bleached tips of Nicole Chan’s hair are momentarily weightless. They fall back onto her shoulders as she turns to face me. Wearing a zebra-striped miniskirt, military jacket and matching boots, Chan looks like a 3rd-year econ student gone rogue. But then, she has always been different.

“It was always about defying norms,” declares Chan, pausing to savor the memory. “When I was six, I wanted to be Christina Aguilera. Not a pop star, but Christina herself.” For young Nicole, this must have seemed perfectly reasonable. With an excellent memory and eye for detail honed from hours of puzzle-solving, she could conjure up the roaring crowds and bright lights from her idol’s music videos.

This early taste of American pop culture was only the beginning. “I had a very Western upbringing,” says Chan. After flying with James on his peach, she lived in Beverley Hills through 90210 and went back to New York in How I Met Your Mother.

While her daydreaming transported her into any number of foreign TV shows and movies, the rest of Chan’s life was stagnant. “It was fairly monotonous, and living in the suburbs, everyone knew everyone’s business.” She advanced in school with the same classmates from kindergarten, and despite living on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Chan felt all the claustrophobia of a small village.

“There were so many Asian traditions,” says Chan. With mixed Chinese and Malay heritage, “I felt like I didn’t belong.”

Lacking ties to her homeland, Chan felt as if she could be anywhere she wanted. But there was only one place on her mind: New York. “NY has weird characters and people, it’s brimming full of life,” she explains, gesturing energetically around us.

Nicole Chan, who had always stood apart from her friends and neighbors, had finally found a place she felt she belonged.

University held the promise of escape. If everything went as she hoped, Chan would be celebrating her 19th birthday in New York. “I really wanted to go,” she remembers fondly, and had studied hard to take her SATs. But caught up with applying for British universities, several key deadlines in the US passed. It was too late.

It was Chan’s mother who suggested she apply to HKU, although Chan sees it differently: “I was psychologically trapped.” Hoping to cage her flighty daughter, Chan’s mother believed that after a year in Hong Kong, Nicole would be too comfortable to switch universities.

“I didn’t like Hong Kong my entire first year. Actually, I hated it,” Chan divulges. Casting her eyes to the side, she continues: “I associate cities with the people in my life there, and I didn’t have anyone in Hong Kong.”

While her family is ethnically Chinese, they have lived in Malaysia since Chan’s grandparents immigrated decades ago. “When I arrived in Hong Kong, I suddenly felt very Malaysian,” laughs Chan. She has no living relatives in China, and without a family support system, her first year at HKU was the hardest.

At that time, more than ever before, the idea of New York grew in Chan’s mind. “I wanted the opposite of Hong Kong, and that is what NY represented to me,” she says. “I would go there, and everything would be rosy and perfect.”

Looking back, Chan has very little self-pity. “I was running away,” she explains bluntly.

Motivated by her disappointing first year at HKU, Chan applied and was accepted into an English summer learning program at Columbia University in New York. She envisioned an Eat, Pray, Love experience of personal transformation, returning home in August as a brand new person.

What actually happened might more aptly be titled Eat, Study, Sleep — and that’s eating sidewalk stall sandwiches, not Italian pasta. Nor was she preoccupied with steamy love interests à la Julia Roberts. “I spent a lot of time alone,” she acknowledges, “walking to class and back alone, eating alone.”

“I discovered that even in New York, there were issues. It had nothing to do with the place, it was more about myself.” As she speaks, Chan rolls her eyes at this clichéd fact, but doesn’t deny it.

For Chan, this realization was earned the hard way. “Once I got to New York, I stopped putting the city on a pedestal. […] It wasn’t the experience I thought it would be.”

With the spell of New York broken, she decided to focus on the one thing that appears in all of her daydreams: herself. Instead of searching for her imaginary perfect world, Chan would have to step out of her head and into reality.

Almost two years have passed, and Nicole Chan is back in Hong Kong. She has adapted to life in Hong Kong as a Chinese Malaysian, and is making the most of it. “I use Malay with my friends when I want to gossip,” Chan explains, raising her eyebrows mischievously.

But her nonchalant attitude conceals a difficult period of self-reflection that defined her stay in New York. “Instead of thinking that my circumstances were to blame, I needed to change my mindset,” she says.

“Nowadays, I am more realistic,” confesses Chan. “There are bills to pay, and I need to feed myself.” Instead of picturing herself working in an exotic, cosmopolitan hub, practicality comes first. “I want a job that might interest me, but more importantly covers my costs,” she says.

When asked about plans for the future, Chan is vague. “I don’t have any specific aspirations,” she begins, later adding, “when things don’t turn out how you want, it can be a let-down.”

After our interview ends, we say goodbye and I watch Chan walk off. Her 4’10” frame is dwarfed by people passing, and she tilts sharply to the left under the weight of her book bag. Her usually brisk pace is slowed by heavy textbooks and notebooks as she makes her way to class.

And yet, I can imagine her going somewhere else entirely. Tossing aside her homework ballast, she looked like she might just float off into the sky, with hair flapping and military jacket ballooning around her; rising high above University Street to join James and his peach again.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.