It’s about time we acknowledge the person, not the place.
I have been in and out of 15 houses, 9 schools (colleges and universities included) and 3 countries. As a result, the one question I am confronted with time and time again is: Where are you from?
Here’s the answer:
When asked, I have almost always replied “Hong Kong” because that’s where I was born and raised and that is where my family currently lives. But the tan and olive hues of my nature-given skin tell a different story to the person standing in front of me. As they ponder asking me the question, “where are you REALLY from?”, I have always chosen to relieve them of this confusion, by concluding with — “but my parents are Indian”. The tension disappears for a bit but it doesn’t end there. I have been labelled and seen as ‘an ethnic minority, ‘a non-residential Indian’, ‘an immigrant’ and my favourite ‘a coconut’.
I hold an Indian National Passport and a Hong Kong PR permit, but that’s not the answer people are looking for. Because they’re not asking for it specifically. When people ask ‘where are you from?’, they’re not looking to know about the place you grew up in, or the history behind you or what your real life looks like. They want to know how much power you hold.
Places we call India, the Self Administered Region of Hong Kong and elsewhere are nations. Not to sidetrack or get technical here, but I do consider Hong Kong a nation because there’s a difference between a nation and a country and given the current political climate of the place, I’d say anyone reading this should know the difference. A country is a geographic area that can also be used synonymously or less informally in place of a ‘state’ and a nation, politically is defined by a group of people who share the same culture, language, institutions, and history. Hong Kong checks the box for the latter but the point that I am trying to make here is that it’s all conceptual (This is 6 credits coming to fruition).
So, how is it that as people with a complex biological make-up who have had to beat the social, political and evolutionary odds to be born and to then be living full lives — our identities are constantly reduced to either singular or hyphenated versions of a concept?
In the words of Taiye Selasi — an amazing writer who speaks in favour of locality when introducing herself, emphasises, “How could I come from a nation? How can a human being come from a concept?… I had learned to speak of countries as if they were eternal, singular, naturally occurring things,… In my lifetime, countries had disappeared — Czechoslovakia; appeared — Timor-Leste; failed — Somalia. My parents came from countries that didn’t exist when they were born. To me, a country — this thing that could be born, die, expand, contract — hardly seemed the basis for understanding a human being.”
I find that deeply resonating.
My grandparents were born and raised in Sindh, which was a part of Colonial India, and is now one of the four provinces of Pakistan, a nation that’s only been around 72 years. My only living grandparent, my Nana Ji, is turning 87 this year. He was torn apart from his home, literally overnight at the age of 15 because a group of white men (no shade, just facts) decided to draw a line on a map to divide two distinct groups of people who, at the same time, feared and threatened the other’s identity, culture and religion. Nana Ji will never be able to go back to the land he calls home because it no longer exists.
My mother is the youngest of three sisters and she was born in the winter of 1966. She grew up in the capital city of Bhopal in the heart of India and lived there until she got married to my father in the winter of 1996 and that’s when she moved to the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. My father was born in the city of Baroda in the summer of 1962, the youngest of five. My father spent all his summers in Bombay and then in his 20s he moved to the Philippines, then Taiwan, then China and finally, British Hong Kong by the time he was in his 30s. I was born in the Self Administered Region of Hong Kong, 6 months after the handover in 1997 and lived there for about 11 years and moved to the city where my mother grew up for middle school, then to Bombay (Mumbai) for high school at the age of 13 and then back to Hong Kong at the age of 18 for Uni. I am currently in Amsterdam for a semester abroad.
The part of me that relates to being an Indian is not defined by my parents or the borders that surround it and is most definitely not defined by what you’ve seen in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. The part of me that is Indian is a multi-lingual immigrant and a local who has Mumbai’s western rail line announcement memorised, who can never get an auto, and who loves food, dosa and pasta alike. My parents totally disapprove of my major, which is communications AKA the geology of social sciences. And of course, there’s the only reason, I still have facebook — subtle curry traits. The part of me that’s is Indian also disapproves of the historically ingrained patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia, caste and cultural divide, and the radical nationalism that’s on the rise in India.
I am a Hong Konger, because I am a local, despite my limited canto vocab. I swear by public transport and will probably never need a driver’s license. I have learned to live with limited things in the limited space that I have. The ferry ride from Kowloon to HK Island is a cliche, yet serene. It’s a small city filled with panoramic wonders. It is home to my family and some of my closest friends. What makes me feel uncertain about my future in Hong Kong are the rising property prices, the occasional racism that people who look like me have to face and the lack of transparency when it comes to ‘you know what’. Can I get an amen?
There’s a part of me that’s defined by where I have been and where I am but there’s also the part of me, that is defined by all the places I want to see; the part of me that’s drawn to great stories and story-telling, and the part of me that yearns to connect with another. So, there you go, my identity is complicated, multi-faceted and intertwined with so many wonderful stories spread across three generations of my family, the places I have lived in and the people I have met and befriended along the way.
I am a Human Being, a local of Hong Kong and Mumbai and I am from nowhere, and that’s okay.