Discovering My Place In Hong Kong

For a rare moment, it’s just my mom and I walking the morning streets near Times Square (Hong Kong, not New York). A light fog lingers in the crisp air, still unspoiled and untouched from the day’s soon-to-come humidity. As we walk to the my Gong Gong and Pau Pau’s flat with suitcases in hand, we pass by young schoolgirls, all wearing identical plaid uniform sets and linking arms as they walk down the street, their cell phone charms dangling out of their hands. My mother and I ascend stairs to cross a bridge that is raised above a sea of traffic — an interesting city development tactic to prevent the slow of traffic due to pedestrians. Just as we are halfway through the bridge my mother says, “Tsee-Man! Take a picture of me on this bridge.”

“Why?” I ask. It seemed like one of thousands of bridges in Hong Kong.

“I used to cross this bridge to go to school every day when I was a little girl” she responds with a beaming nostalgic smile.

I slide open my camera as I watch my mother approach the skirts of the bridge. If this were a movie, this would have been the part where the traditional city noises cease, leaving me to hear a peaceful piano melody as she turns around to pose for a picture. I capture the shot, her hand resting on the railing as if she were recollecting her childhood on the bridge. Memories that I had no idea existed. Memories I had never thought to ask about.

As I look at her, I imagine her wearing a plaid uniform of her own, linking arms with her childhood partners-in-crime. Her dreams probably didn’t include moving to America at age 16, marrying an American, and abandoning her dreams of becoming an artist and fashion designer in exchange of becoming a computer engineer in Silicon Valley. She still sketches from time to time.

The image in my head overpowers what I see in front of me: a mousy middle-aged woman with her thin-framed glasses.

M y Gong Gong and Pau Pau’s flat, located in the district of Tin Hau on Hong Kong Island, feels familiarly foreign. My mother and I stand in the foyer — if you could even say it existed in such a tiny place — and I proceed to carefully place my purse on the glass dining room table three paces in front of me, as if my clumsy American movements might upset the flat’s feng shui. My black suitcase attracts unwanted attention from the pristine white and pastel color scheme; I can hear my mother in my head nagging and preaching the importance of a “clean house, clear mind.” Now I can finally imagine where she learned those lessons.

My Gong Gong slowly shuffles in his white slippers toward us, moving deliberately with his hands folded neatly behind his back. His head is tilted slightly upward as his glasses rest comfortably at the lower bridge of his nose. He is closely followed by my Pau Pau, dressed in her floral pajamas with matching slippers. Her grey roots peek just underneath her professionally dyed hair. They exchange hugs and Cantonese greetings with my mother, who then turns to me indicating it’s my turn. All I manage is a broken Mandarin greeting of “Ni Hao! Hao Jiu Bu Jian” Hello! Long time no see!

We remove our shoes and put on our own pairs of slippers. I anxiously venture inside. I see glass tables that easily reveal the hiding spot of a speck of dust, crinkled Chinese newspapers which I decipher solely through headlining pictures, an automatic tea dispenser in pastel pink, two immaculate white couches arranged to mirror each other in perfect symmetry, an air conditioning box — a trademark of Hong Kong flats — poking out of the living room window, weathered pictures of my mother as a young teenager in her pre-America days, newer glossy pictures of my Gong Gong and Pau Pau on a cruise to Macau, and a knock-off calligraphy tapestry no doubt duplicated from some important dynasty.

I gingerly sit my post-16-hour-flight-body on the edge of one of the white couches, so pure that it would quickly detect traces of dirt in its guests. My mother, Gong Gong, and Pau Pau sit on the couch more comfortably across from me as they proceed to converse in what sounds to me like gibberish but what I know to be Cantonese. I sit in silence, unable to participate and forced to stare at the Chinese stock market TV show I also cannot understand, just to pointlessly seem occupied and unbothered that I don’t know what they are talking about around me. I tune out their voices, yet the Chinese value of respect for elders forces me to sit and listen.

I can’t communicate well with my grandparents; thankfully, my Gong Gong is fairly good at English, yet since I was young, I have never been able to proceed beyond answers to basic questions like “How is school?” and “Do you have a boyfriend?” without requiring my mother there as a translator.

I sometimes feel like a stranger even though I am in the presence of my own blood.

The blast of air conditioning ruffles my hair as I exit my Gong Gong and Pau Pau’s building, the humidity instantly sticking to my skin.

Red taxis rush by, construction cranes obstruct my view of other buildings, honking Mercedes-Benz, guzzling Isuzu white trucks, towering double decker buses roll by looking as if they might pummel smaller cars with every turn they take. The city is forever painted with stone grey and muted pastel tones against the lush jungle greens of the tropical climate.

Two flights of escalators later and I have descended to the underground tunnels of Hong Kong’s MTR subway system. Squeaky clean orange tiles line every wall, setting a vivacious tone for morning commuters and tourists alike. I dig into my wallet and pull out my Octopus card and with a quick beep, I feel like a local and enter past the turnstiles. I attempt to stop and read the directing signs atop the crowds, but my Pau Pau hurries me and leads us through the tunnels with confidence. I follow her lead.

Advertisements for bakery goods, Revlon lipstick, and Chinese movies line the paths in shiny silver frames that someone definitely polishes for a living. We finally arrive at the Sheung Wan departure terminal; the electronic board hints our train will be here in the next five minutes. The underground tunnels are quiet with the occasional baby cry or automated safety message from a calm Hong Kong woman over the speaker.

I’m out for the afternoon with friends from Berkeley. I had been to Hong Kong before: once when I was three and couldn’t register anything and once during the summer of Eighth grade when the heat was so unbearable, I was forced to stay inside my Gong Gong and Pau Pau’s flat. This is my first international trip as an adult and my first day of the trip with my friends, without the chaperoning of my mother, Gong Gong, and Pau Pau.

We are sitting in a makeshift restaurant (called Dai Pai Dong meaning “big row of tables”) on the cobblestone streets near Central, seated at a table so small it seems only fitting for toddlers and their play toys. Directly in front of us are people we don’t know at all — two businessmen dressed in suits on their lunch break. The small shop chooses to put its customers through a bit of awkwardness in order to run efficiently and crowd in the number of customers at one time. My friends and I pretend we aren’t listening to the businessmen and their conversation.

We sit in rickety stool chairs; the roof over our heads is actually a blue tarp held up haphazardly by steel poles, creating unexpected mood lighting that sets a blue tinge to our faces. The wall behind us is covered with black graffiti, rusted staples, and movie posters with two-year-old release dates. The menu — sticky from saucy stains and peeling plastic — is full of hundreds of menu items, yet the waitresses and food preparers seem to have everything memorized with no confusion or difficulty. I open the menu and flip through the pages before my friend stops me and says, “Get this…. And this.” Soon after, an old wrinkly lady dressed in a flower smock approaches our table. She doesn’t say anything, yet my friend knows to translate our table’s orders to her. She blinks, quickly scrawls the shorthand for the items, collects our menus distractedly as she observes the small line of customers, and leaves. No hello’s or thank you’s. Efficiency.

The shop seems to be run by a collection of old ladies serving guests as their husbands or brothers prepare food. They yell orders over the loud chatter of customers and the roaring fans in the kitchen. The cups are mismatched; some are clear plastic, some are acrylic mugs. Customers don’t linger. Most of them stay for only 15 minutes before they are off to carry out the rest of their day.

The businessmen across from us receive their tong sum fun, macaroni soup with ham. In less than five minutes our orders of classic Hong Kong style milk tea and buttered toast with condensed milk (a common after-school snack) arrive. The humble snack is a perfect golden brown and spreads a fragrant sweet aroma, making the businessmen peer over to our side of the table to see what we ordered. I take a bite into the crunchy toast and unconsciously let a peppy “Mmmmm!” escape my mouth.

We are in and out within 20 minutes. Just quick by-passers along with the hundreds of other customers who have passed through.

I stand in Tsim Sha Tsui looking at Victoria Harbor. Named after Queen Victoria in the 1850s, this harbor once acted as a shelter for the British military fleet. The harbor now stands as a symbol of Hong Kong’s reputation as one of Asia’s most reputable trading centers.

I take in light breaths of air and with every breath, my nostrils fill with the briny smell of the ocean water mixed with the — charming — city stench of stinky bean curd snack carts, burning incense, and lingering stuffiness from the day’s humidity. I lean against a railing staring into the abyss of water that separates Mainland Hong Kong and the Island. The night sky lies as a backdrop for the city’s glistening neon lights, which seem to bleed into the sea seamlessly, leaving you feeling unsure of where buildings end and reflections begin.

My eyes move next to the knife-like structure of the Bank of China building that is coated in angular triangles. At night, the building showcases its jagged edges and geometrical architecture with white lights piping its exterior, almost endlessly to the tip of the building.

As I stand behind the rail inhaling the fresh sea air, I tilt my head to the sky and wonder about the other people, sights, and sounds in the world. I wonder who might be looking at the Great Pyramids of Giza at this very moment, what it must be like to stare up to the Eiffel Tower, or what a person in Machu Picchu could be thinking right now. I had remembered seeing this scene in front of me — the Hong Kong skyline with the Star Ferry chugging along in the harbor — multiple times in movies, pictures, and books. In situations where I am fully detached. And now here it is, right in front of me and I’m now part of a scene that was previously only known to me in two-dimensions.

I picture these once two-dimensional images of the skyline in my head and reconcile those images with the scene in front of me. I’m overwhelmed with a sense of perspective, knowing that worldly treasures exist beyond photographs. Knowing that the world is so big and we are all so small.

I look to my mother, Gong Gong, and Pau Pau; they’re walking around posing for pictures. I wonder if my mother might be reconciling images too — between the old Hong Kong she knew as a little girl and the new reality of returning to a place that was once so familiar.

Written in 2014 for a creative writing class during my junior year after I had returned to Hong Kong for the first time as an adult.

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