My life as the local foreigner (part 1)

People in Hong Kong have this idea that Chinese people born in America will always identify themselves as American. For me, the distinction of calling myself American was always an opaque decision. Born in the US but raised partially in Hong Kong, the contrast between my two lives and my experiences looking for acceptance in these places made me constantly question who I was well into adulthood. At the age of 23, I thought I had shed my past uncertainty; but the alienation I felt in Shanghai this past year renewed the anxiety of my childhood. Experiencing it all again brought a lot of pain but also gave me new clarity into why I struggled with my identity for so long and eventually solace in being the motley creature that I am today.

My grandmother’s old house in which she babysat me while my parents worked

I was born, 24 years ago, in California to a social worker and a kindergarten teacher from Hong Kong. Instead of starting a new life together in the US, I was brought back to Hong Kong to spend the first six years of my life living in my grandmother’s mountain village. During the fall of my sixth year, I was suddenly sent back alone to the United States to attend kindergarten in the Southern California suburb my maternal aunt and uncle lived. When I arrived, I was one of two pasty-faced, Asian girls in the primarily black and hispanic neighbourhood of Covina. The only other Asian student in the school district was my cousin, but we were hardly on the same boat. Having lived in California her whole life, her appearance and mannerisms were as native as could be. Unlike her, my eyes, my accent, and my freckles were constantly criticized for being alien. Even though I too was born American I was constantly asked, “So where are you from?”

In and around Tuen Mun City Center, where I spent many of my summers as an adolescent

That dreaded question affirmed my loyalty to Hong Kong despite my legal citizenship at the beginning of my American life. Cantonese was my language of choice, and I considered my home to be in Hong Kong. During summer vacations, I did not “go” to Hong Kong, I would “go back” to Hong Kong. My parents, although I was not very close to them, also lived there with no plans to immigrate. Even though I was present physically, I felt little to no connection to a place I had no friends or family willing to support me while I struggled to understand this foreign language and culture. This feeling of alienation lingered until around the end of elementary school.

Fruit seller in Yuen Long

At that time, Southern California was not the haven for East Asians that it is today. Among my estranged relatives and English-speaking friends, I had little chance to practice speaking Cantonese. Phone calls were expensive then as well, and Skype was not yet invented. I had few chances to call my parents and even fewer to connect to my Cantonese culture. When I visited extended family in Hong Kong or elsewhere, they would comment on how I sounded and looked more “American”. To everyone, family or stranger, I was an ABC (American Born Chinese), someone to praise if they could even manage to string together a sentence in Cantonese. An accurate category in which to place me, but it somehow felt wrong to be told my identity was different than the one I had assembled in my own mind. I had always equated my identity directly to hometown because of how often it was stressed as the main difference between my classmates and I, and that idea was hard to shake. Until I started university, I always imagined that I would return to live and work in Hong Kong even though by that point, I had lived there only one-third of my life — a third I do not remember very well. But once I traded the insular, Southern California suburb for the diverse college town of Berkeley, that idea quickly changed.

Long-time residents of the traditional markets in Tuen Mun and Yan Oi

For the first time in my life, I found myself surrounded by people who also grew up struggling to balance two different cultural identities. The term Asian-American replaced ABC in my vocabulary, as if to signal my American side’s growing dominance in the composition of my identity. Not only had I grown to make genuine friends in the US, I had also stopped returning to Hong Kong during my vacations in favour of traveling to other parts of the world. My ability to speak and think fluently in Cantonese continued to suffer as well as my understanding of the culture. Whenever I spoke to people my age in Cantonese, I was told that my accent was crooked and that my slang was outdated. The Asian-American community encouraged me to celebrate the change but still, a part of me mourned the diminution of my parents’ culture in the makeup of my identity. Even though I could say with confidence that I now fit better in American culture, that peninsula city had been so central to how I had always identified myself. The change was expected, no more a surprise than the sun rising in the East, and even though my Cantonese culture did not affect my daily life or even my future plans, I yearned to keep what little I retained. Nonsensical, perhaps, seeing as how unimportant my Cantonese culture was from a rational standpoint, but I was also proud to be a Cantonese person, even if I had to hyphenate the term to make it more accurate. Unexpectedly, two years after graduating from the university that first taught me to celebrate both of my cultures, I was given the chance to further explore this duality as an adult.

The same man who has been sitting underneath an underpass in Tuen Mun City Center since I was a child

In September of last year, one year after working at a design firm, I was given the opportunity to work in Shanghai for six months. Although Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese culture had few similarities, I saw it as a way to explore the part of my identity that was tied to my ancestral, ethnic culture. Even though all of my blood relatives and I identified as being Cantonese, my mother’s side had actually only immigrated to Hong Kong three generations ago during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and my father’s side had spent some time in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Before the two sides finally immigrated and settled in Hong Kong, both were based in Guangzhou for as long as our families’ records were kept.

Familiar sights around Tuen Mun that I had to pass whenever I visited my grandmother after my father moved out of Tuen Mun

Technically, I am more ethnically Chinese than I am Cantonese if factoring in the indigenous peoples of the Hong Kong peninsula and islands (although my family does fit the legal definition of indigenous inhabitants under Hong Kong’s Basic Law). The distinction between (Mainland) Chinese (大陸) and Cantonese (本地) is one mired in political controversy, but as my uncle likes to explain, our culture is Cantonese and our ethnicity is Chinese. Although Hong Kong people put our Cantonese culture first when identifying ourselves, we are still Chinese. My uncle’s explanation made complete sense, but with the erosion of Hong Kong’s distinct culture, a culture that tinted my nostalgic moods, and perhaps my own stubbornness, I rejected the idea of being Chinese. “Would living in China change this aversion I have to Chinese culture?” I wondered.

My godfather, Sam

From the beginning, there were several factors working against the possibility of Shanghai being a door to me accepting Chinese culture as being a part of my identity. I did not and still do not speak any Mandarin (although I can understand a bit) and knew nothing about the culture post-Cultural Revolution. Social justice and environmental conservation were not topics that could be discussed out in the open, and as a business trip, I had few opportunities to interact at length with people my age. What drove me forward despite these issues was a curiosity of what it would be like to live among an ethnically homogenous population with which I could identify. As a child, often bullied for for being physically different, I yearned to be a part of the majority. I believed that if others could identify with me ethnically, they would accept me culturally as well.

Despite changing locations four times since I was born, the atmosphere around the salon has stayed the same

I had few chances to interact with locals, but when I did, the interactions usually fell into two categories. The first group assumed that I was Korean or Japanese at first glance and did not even try communicating with me in Mandarin. In fact, they avoided me like the plague (English has that effect on East Asians). As relieved as I was to not have to attempt using broken Mandarin, it confused me until a coworker explained to me that I “don’t look Chinese.”

The closest commercial street from my grandmother’s and my childhood home

The second type of local managed to assume that I am ethnically Chinese but was then confronted with a Chinese girl who could not speak Mandarin. For the sake of simplicity and to spare myself the embarrassment, I defaulted to telling strangers that I was Korean. At first, it surprised me that this lie so easily rolled off my tongue, but as the situation repeated itself, I became ever more comfortable with this protective, false identity. No matter where I was, California or Shanghai, I was forced to assume an identity that wasn’t originally my own for the sake of fitting in. I envied the many Chinese people I met who had a single, unchanging culture to which they could identity and find camaraderie. The problem of who they were seemed to have such a simple answer.

Office supply shopkeeper, Mrs. Pang

This past Chinese New Year, I went back to Hong Kong for the first time in 18 years to celebrate the year of the monkey with my family. I had visited Hong Kong on numerous other occasions over the years, but like Thanksgiving in the US, Chinese New Year was one of those rare times during the year when extended families would come together in one place and spend the day together eating too much and exchanging unnecessary gossip. Most of the family members I saw this time were ones I hadn’t seen in at least 6 years. Some of the aunts and uncles mistook me for my uncle’s daughter or weren’t sure whether or not I was already married. Some of the cousins I remembered as kindergarteners were now teenagers, glued to their phones before and after dinner. Even my childhood friend, whom I have known for 20 years, had become an adult with her very own, distinct personality. While language was not an issue at all (save for me trying to explain what landscape architects do), the experience of spending time with family and friends I had not seen in my adolescent years felt the same as introducing myself for the second time to the same person. I wondered for a moment if I was having an out-of-body experience, observing a Yolanta from an alternate universe, one that had never lived in Hong Kong at all. Everyone felt so familiar and yet, so foreign despite our familial ties and shared cultural identity. Even my neighbourhood, tucked far away from the epicenter of the bustling city had changed in my absence into something unfamiliar.

Like many of the families around Tuen Mun, my family has been frequenting Mrs. Pang’s store since before we could walk

My home village was tucked away in the mountains of Tuen Mun, about as far as one could go away from center of Hong Kong. Although change had always come slowly, it did eventually come. My godfather moved his hair salon three times since I left for the US because of the ever-increasing rent, and five-storey behemoths sprung up to replace the humble two-storey shopping centers of my youth. While exploring my old neighbourhood with my uncle, I noticed that some of the more memorable places of my childhood had disappeared. My favourite egg tart shop, just down the street from my old apartment, was replaced a few years ago by (as my uncle described it) a subpar bakery that also happened to bake egg tarts. My favourite snake soup shop closed down years ago along with most shops selling snake-related cuisine in Hong Kong.

Tsing Shan Monastery, offering familiar sights and smells

Some things did stay the same. My childhood best friend still lived in the same apartment as she did when we were children, just one floor above mine. I visited her and her family on the fourth day after the new year. The security guard, who was surely different than the one who worked there over two decades ago, let me into the building without a question. I chatted with him while I waited for her, telling him about how my family had lived in the building 22 years ago. Even though I didn’t know him and even though the only thing connecting us was this apartment building I hadn’t lived in for 18 years, I felt a kind of rare familiarity. Our mundane conversation, spoken in my first language and occupying a space so intimately related to my first memories gave me an unexpected comfort. For the first time since I returned to Hong Kong, I felt that I was home. The unexpected moment caught me by surprise, and it me wonder what the prerequisites were for one to feel as though they totally belonged to a single culture or place.

Lam Tei Reservoir Area, whose entrance is located at the end of my grandmother’s village

Was it language or a memory of a place? Or was shared culture or identity as I had once thought? Perhaps none of these were the correct answer.

My existence was a strange one, and my experience living in these dramatically different places taught me that belonging had nothing to do with the labels with which I struggled. Chinese, Punti, Hakka, Han, Cantonese, American, ABC, or Asian-American — were all components to my identity, a central part of my existence that changed as I matured and was influenced by the people and places around me. Shared culture, language, and collective memory were not certain indicators of acceptance as my experiences taught me, and my multiform identity would not have fit well into any one category anyway. After 18 years of trying to fit into one specific group, I realized that a fluid identity, without sure form, was exactly what I had struggled to find. Acceptance did not come from a strict interpretation of identity but an acceptance of everything that contributed to its form.

Lam Tei Reservoir

Part 1/7 of My life as the local foreigner, a series of photo essays exploring my time working abroad in China. To keep up to date on my latest adventures, follow me on Instagram.