I am going back to Hong Kong for the first time after four years.
I had lived in Hong Kong until I was 14, when my family moved to Canada. Since we left in 2006, I’ve gone back 2.5 times. The first time was December 2010, after the first semester in university; the second time in the summer of 2012 when I interned at an English magazine. The most recent one in 2014, I didn’t even make it out of the airport: I was transferring flights home to Toronto for my convocation after spending a month in Taipei making a documentary with my friends.
Four years is not a short time but it’s not an especially long time in the grand scheme of things. People complete degrees in that time. Someone could have four kids (or more if you have twins!)
I had different expectations or intentions or things I was excited about the last few trips. The first time was a big deal, after all, it had been FOUR AND A HALF YEARS since I had left. I went through high school without going back at all, meanwhile some of my classmates went back twice a year, or more. Friends in Hong Kong always asked when I was going back. So I was really looking forward to that trip in December. As the story goes: you have been gone for too long, life has moved on without you, people have changed and some less than others, you’re not as close with your friends like you’d hoped when you left.
It was also the first time that Hong Kong was not home in the sense that I had known before.
The following year, my best friend Jaime spent her summer interning at an English magazine in Hong Kong, so I wanted to do it it too. Basically looking for any “exciting” reason to spend two months in Hong Kong, because that’s what cool people were doing. I clearly was running from something. I used lofty excuses to convince my parents and relatives, like how I would gain work experience! and spend quality time with my grandma and grand aunt! But my uncle, the youngest of my mother’s siblings, and whom I was staying with, saw right through my bullshit.
I ended up getting a part-time job serving rotisserie chicken to expats in addition to my part-time unpaid internship. It was the summer where I really wanted to quit school and do anything but school. I did go back to Toronto and finish the next two years. I dreaded it so much at the time, but I guess I didn’t know things were going to change that summer.
Almost two years later, I returned to Hong Kong airport, en route to spend a month in Taipei with friends I’d made after that summer in Hong Kong. And it was my first time passing through the airport like just another traveller, it wasn’t a destination or a departure point (though in a sense it was the departure point, a decade ago).
Because it felt like the appropriate response, I used every opportunity to dramatically announce my jealousy to those who managed to fit a Hong Kong trip after our Taipei stint, when I had to catch a flight to Toronto for my convocation (another guilt tactic I used was, “NONE OF MY BEST FRIENDS WOULD BE HERE FOR MY CONVOCATION.”) I saw the dramatic irony and its significance in the narrative, but I wasn’t losing sleep over it. In the end, I understood that it to be a “too bad it didn’t work out” thing. I guess I felt like I had to have a reaction or a strong feeling about it because, Hong Kong was home.
Last month, I went to New York City to visit Jaime. This was my 6th or 7th trip to NYC, and this is the first time I’ve thought, maybe I should go somewhere else next time. I was never crazy about NYC. Hell, I was never crazy about any cities except for the ones I’ve lived in (and I didn’t even choose them), and crazy here is defined as “I would do anything to move here” crazy love.
I was really into the idea of going to NYC in the summer because all my previous stays were always in the winter. So this time was going to be different! Summer in the park! Iced coffee in hand! Walking around the city without wearing a giant coat! And it only took three days for my existential crisis to hit, “What are you telling me I still have a week here? I feel like I have done everything here? What am I going to do FOR ANOTHER GOD DAMN WEEK?”
I checked Google Calendar and discovered that I had stayed for two weeks in December 2012 and then ten days in December 2014, so the length of my stay wasn’t the true cause of the anxiety. It was the first time where I had no obligations to return to in Toronto: I wasn’t on Christmas holiday from school or vacation from work, because I haven’t been in school for two years and I had left my job at the end of April. I am in that delusional phase between funemployed and freelancing. When you have nowhere you absolutely have to be on a daily basis, you don’t know where you should be and everywhere feels wrong.
My favourite thing about living in Toronto, and I had only realized this after I’ve been away, is how everything I need is in a comfortable distance. I live on the edge of what’s considered the City of Toronto, and getting to the downtown takes me about an hour of commute on a good day. An hour of commute feels long in Hong Kong terms, but it is a commute I’m comfortable with. Every time I go to New York City, I had to remember how spread out everything is, and how getting from Brooklyn into the city always feels longer than it actually is. Perhaps it’s because NYC inspires the FOMO in all of us: when there’s a sense that something is going on around every corner, sitting in the subway feels like a waste of time.
I’m an only child but I grew up with my cousin who lived in the apartment above mine in Hong Kong. There was a time, like all children, when they wanted a sibling. Then my mother would point out that I already have my cousin, who, unlike a real sibling, I don’t have to see when I don’t want to deal with him. And this is how I feel about Toronto. If I wanted the city, the city is just an hour away; if I wanted peace and quiet, I could just stay home.
There are memories and habits and things I lived with in Hong Kong that I never thought twice about until recently. I crashed at a friend’s apartment above a store on a corner of a main street downtown, and overnight there were sirens and in the morning there were gates and doors opening and I heard everything and suddenly I realized I don’t hear any of that at home uptown. I thought about how I didn’t notice its absence until then, not even the month I lived in Taipei, or when I was in Hong Kong. The sound of a city waking up has always been there my entire childhood and I didn’t realize it was missing until last year. Ten years in another country and now the first fourteen years of my life feels like a dream, is this what growing old feels like?
I was watching all these Hong Kong movies: Weeds On Fire《點五步》, Trivisa 《樹大招風》, and Johnnie To’s A Hero Never Dies 《真心英雄》at the New York Asian Film Festival and Port of Call 《踏血尋梅》and Cold War 《寒戰》with my parents at home.
There were all these aerial shots of Hong Kong in Cold War which really impressed my mother and she remarked how beautiful Hong Kong looked and it made me really nostalgic. So the next night I watched Infernal Affairs 《無間道》(which was remade into The Departed) and was just OVERWHELMED by what a masterpiece it was. To start with, I can’t get over how perfectly the film was named in Chinese and English, and then I started getting emotional seeing Edison Chen and Shawn Yue playing the young versions of Andy Lau and Tony Leung’s characters because… how do I briefly explain how differently Edison Chen and Shawn Yue’s career had played out, 14 years later?
For a few hours, I believed these things reminded me how much I’d missed Hong Kong, and that I actually can’t wait to go back. And then I was scared because you miss Hong Kong but you miss the cinematic one. Like yeah I’m ready to step out of the airport and breathe in that sticky air and it would probably “feel like home.” But am I ready for more than cliches and cinema?