Category Archives: key notes

speak the truth

speak the truth, even if your voice shakes

even if your voice shakes

The meanings of home

you can go wherever you please but it's the insides you cannot leave

One of my best friends from secondary school has recently been blogging a lot on questions of home and what that word means. Having recently returned to Hong Kong to pursue her post-graduate studies after obtaining her BA from the University of Toronto, she is thinking about place, identity and friendship. If you’re interested in discussions on these, I highly encourage you to take a look at what she’s saying; she is an extremely articulate young woman who puts me to shame.

Having said that, I haven’t commented on her posts directly (although we’ve chatted about them) because I’ve been thinking about my own ambiguous relationship with the idea of home, an experience that is quite different, in some respects, to her current challenge of returning on a more permanent basis (for now) to a place from which she has long been absent.

Over the past four years, I have returned regularly to Hong Kong, twice a year for the winter break and for parts of the summer for the first three, and then once a year beginning in fourth year. I expect that to decrease even further in the future as I move around and make my home elsewhere, but I will always go back to Hong Kong to visit my friends and relatives. Go back: a phrase suggesting that is the place I originate from — because that is the place in which I spent all my conscious memories until I was eighteen and moved here for university. Whether I like it or not, my whole existence was in one city for the vast majority of my life, and it affected me in many fundamental ways that even now can’t be properly expressed to someone who isn’t from the same place or culture.

Regardless, I never did feel ‘at home’ in Hong Kong growing up. Not being, strictly speaking, Cantonese, I got a considerable amount of grief from some locals who were less than kind about my not being a sufficiently ‘Chinese’ person, whatever that means. Ironically, while I revel in my own difference in Vancouver, my childhood hurts from Hong Kong still stick like burrs I haven’t yet learned to shake off. If I were to be completely alone in either place, I would choose Vancouver a hundred times over, no question.

But home, for me, isn’t about being alone: it’s about belonging to a people, to a place. It means, more than anything else, having people who love me as an individual and being interwoven in the fabric of their lives. It meant that, despite not being comfortable among strangers in Hong Kong, I adored the friends and family I had in Hong Kong with every passionate atom in my body. With them, I did feel at home, and when I left, I was heartbroken and terrified that I would never again find people to rely on and trust and love that much.

I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to come to Vancouver without a friend in sight; I don’t think I realised how incredibly attached I was to them, or how terrible I was at change (or both). It’s always taken me a painfully long time to open up fully to other people, even as I handle small talk without a worry, so it took me three years to build up a sufficiently strong social support group to feel genuinely happy again. In those three years, I had a couple of friends I felt comfortable enough to speak freely with, but you can’t burden one or two people with your whole life all the time. So I didn’t feel ‘at home’ in Vancouver for a long time, even while I loved this place and the people in general more than I’ve ever cared about Hong Kong.

In those three years, I frequently despaired about my own ineptitude (as I saw it then) in building a new life for myself from scratch. Other people seemed to do it just fine, within months, really, so why did I still feel so out of place three years later? Every time I thought I was doing splendidly in Vancouver (and on the surface, I was doing just fine), I’d go back to Hong Kong and realise how much happier I could be, and that would throw me out of whack when I got back to Vancouver, wondering what I was still not doing right.

And then I felt increasingly out of place in Hong Kong, too.

My first few trips back to Hong Kong were wonderful: this was the place that still felt most like home to me in first and second year, and most of my friends were back there visiting at the same time I was, so we got to see and spend time with each other frequently. Of course, as time wears on, people change, make different plans, carry on with their own lives. The home I missed so much was increasingly a construct of the past, something that existed with people I loved in my memories, who aren’t necessarily the same individuals they are now.

This summer, I went back for five weeks, and my main conclusion is that I was there for too long. My parents work six days a week, I only have three friends left there at the moment, two of whom are working, and I had almost nothing to do because I accidentally left all the homework I planned on doing on a desk in Vancouver. Almost all the things I want to do and enjoy are here in Saltwater City, not Fragrant Harbour (much as I enjoy the shopping and eating there). Here, I have a job, school, many more friends, and several personal projects to work on at any given time: my life is here, now. And as relieved as I am that I’ve inverted my emotions and feel considerably more comfortable here than when I first arrived, it unsettles me that a place that was the definition of home for me for some good twenty years or so is no longer quite that, anymore.

When a best friend in Vancouver said ‘Welcome home!’ this year, I said ‘Yes’ hesitantly because it’s not yet a certain feeling with me, as much as I don’t feel at home anywhere else. It’s the ridiculously clean cut between my life in Hong Kong and my life in Vancouver, the fact that hefty chunks of my past go unrecognised because there is no one to recognise them, that leaves me feeling not quite whole. Four years don’t negate seventeen other ones, after all — but seventeen old ones can’t always continue claiming precedence over four new ones that have wrought significant changes in me.

Now I use ‘home’ in several different ways depending on the day and the situation. I call my residence my home, I call where my brother lives home home (even though neither of these feel like that). I say I’m going home when I’m preparing to fly back to Hong Kong and mean it until I get there. I excitedly tell all my friends that I’m home when I’m back in Vancouver because I want to mean it and sometimes do. There are days when this matters to me and days when it doesn’t.

Mostly, when people ask, I tell them that I’m from Hong Kong and that I now live in Vancouver. More importantly, there is nowhere else I would rather be. I count myself lucky to live in a place like this, among people who love me. One day, perhaps, I’ll call this place home without hesitation or reservation.

today, tomorrow, 1989

They are on my mind this year more than ever, those students who would have been my age now when they died twenty-two years ago.

Growing up in Hong Kong, I was never sure what to think about that day. Western media simplifies it down to one declaration: they died for democracy. But asking the people who were alive at the time, who were here, who were there, who kept up with everything as events unfolded, is mining a confusion of complexity, a myriad of viewpoints reflecting the uncertainty and the differing opinions of the time. And because the government won’t talk, the only thing I knew was that I didn’t know. For the most part, I still don’t.

I’m not sure what prompted me, but I found myself up until four in the morning last year, reading and searching for answers to something I desperately wanted to comprehend. The internet is not the most reliable source, but then again, what is? Wikipedia is at least a good a starting point as many others, if one cares to take the time and read through all of it. There are still snippets of footage haunting the ‘net. TIME also ran a short article last year that explains and highlights some of the subtleties that typical Western portrayals skip right over. The corruption among petty officials, the economic grievances, the continuing state intervention in daily life.

And then there are the conflicting stories I hear when I ask. About the sympathy and support (including financial) that the students gained from Hong Kong, Taiwan and other overseas Chinese communities. How some student leaders took to leading the high life in rich hotels with the money they received while others went hungry. The filthy conditions the square was in which, being government property, in all likelihood would have incurred the wrath of any country’s government. The divisions, the splits among the students. The hard-line leaders who had lived through the Sino-Japanese war, the civil war, the internal chaos incurred by the Cultural Revolution which had only ended ten years before, military men who knew about sacrificing a few to save the many from descending into turmoil once again. Deals that were made, deals refused. The students who wouldn’t leave. Some of the leaders who chose to escape. The ones who didn’t know they should.

Where does agenda end and truth begin? Is that even the right question? Somewhere in the mess of text and sound are the stories of what happened. I haven’t yet found them.

As I continue my uncertain unearthing this year, I have been reminded more than once how many people suffered and died in the past century alone. They are not remembered. These students are not more special or valuable simply because the world at large sees them standing under the banner of democracy; the others were every bit as important to their families as these students were to theirs. And I do not ever want to think that the others do not bear remembering.

But today and tomorrow, I want to remember these students in particular. As I pay my respects to them, I think of how young they were, how young I am, how much my mother treasures me, how much their mothers grieve for them. How much they all deserve something more than silence.

Comments closed until I decide whether I should have posted this or not.

if i could talk to rocks

My mother is the kind of person who can coax conversation out of a rock. She is chatty, and her chattiness invites an equal response from her ‘chattees’, especially from taxi drivers in Beijing who wax eloquent on the economy, national politics, family concerns, the relationships between you and me.

Listening to their passionate speeches on the myriad complexities of life in one very particular place, I wish I could take up every person who’s ever commented authoritatively on what ‘my’ country should or should not be doing, magically empower them with the understanding of the local language, drop them in a dozen places dotted around China, and have them maybe realise that there is more to everything about the country than is portrayed in foreign media, that maybe the people who live here know best what they want and need, or at least have more reason to know.

I get so tired of certain assumptions that some individuals like to make. The generalisations, the oversimplifications, the holier-than-thou attitudes cultivated by certain cultures that believe themselves the pinnacle of ‘civilisation’. It’s curious how the most opinionated individuals are always the ones who have never been to China, who have never spoken a word of Chinese, who have no interest in simply listening and learning about another person’s way of being without immediately passing judgement if it doesn’t jive with their world, who don’t really know anything worth knowing at all. They quote what they’ve heard on the news and snort if you even dare to disagree for whatever reason (and there are so many), suggesting you’re a product of propaganda if you don’t believe we should all be just like them. To those individuals, tell me: Why do I have to be made to feel less valid so that you can feel better?

I don’t talk about these things publicly half the time because I can’t bear to, not because I don’t care. I’m not argumentative by nature; I don’t want to enter combative debates where I can see how the hierarchy looks before we’ve even begun. Not least, who am I to talk and defend when I don’t even live here, have never lived in the mainland, and chose to leave? What do I know of the hundreds of problems I don’t keep up with in the news, and of the thousands more that I can’t know because I’m not here? But sometimes someone will come up to me and corner me into giving an opinion, and then it’s another round of hopeless defence because they weren’t asking because they wanted to hear any voice but their own.

And really, if I had the power to grant understanding of the Chinese language, I’d use it on myself so I could be a little less lacking in my grammar and my writing, than waste it on someone who doesn’t care. I’d like to know the words to coax my grandmother to speak a little more about the Cultural Revolution which my mother will never speak about, and which my father forbade me to ask, except when she sees her mother. I wish I could dare to ask a little more about the civil war, about the Japanese invasion, everything about the family I’ll never know beyond my own grandparents.

But I don’t think I have the right — I’ve never gone through anything remotely like what my parents or grandparents did and can’t understand. No doubt this is the reason why they rarely speak to me directly about the past, and what little I know is gleaned from listening in on their conversations with one another. I don’t have the right to ask my grandmother to tell me how she never saw her mother again after the family was split up in the midst of the civil war, my mother to recount whatever griefs she endured. Impersonal history as this may be to others, I can’t force my loved ones to relive their pains to relieve my curiosity.

All I can do is wait for their conversations to begin. Then, I listen.

notes from fragrant harbour (ii)


I look up from where I’ve been journalling on a bench on the observatory deck of one of the Peak’s shopping centres, as if I haven’t been listening to everything they’ve been saying all along. In part, I haven’t been listening to the details — partly because I can’t understand that much Shanghainese, and partly because I am just drinking in the sounds — but I suppose it still counts as eavesdropping.

I can’t say I’m sorry, though.

A late middle-aged man is proffering a digital camera at me; a woman around the same age and another man, probably in his sixties, are standing behind him by the railing. Behind them is a stunning view of the Pokfulam Reservoir. It’s the first day it’s stopped raining in days and I took the bus up here to get away from the cooped up feeling of being indoors for too many days in a row. They are all smiling at me and I take the camera and do a couple of shots of them.

As I hand the camera back, they ask me, quite naturally, where I’m from. In Canada, I’ve noticed people can take offence to the question, but here, it’s as common a question that passes between strangers as any other, one of the standard queries in the repertoire. Certainly, it’s asked with more sincerity than ‘How are you?’ and no one dashes off without waiting for an equally insincere response.

Or maybe they also want to know because I’m speaking Mandarin without the strong Cantonese accent typical of many Hong Kong residents who have only just started learning the language within the last fourteen years since the handover.

I laugh a little awkwardly, not knowing, as I usually don’t, how exactly to answer, and answering, as I usually do, with where my parents are from: my mother is from Beijing and my father is from Shanghai. It’s the quickest way I can think of to explain all the languages I can then be assumed to speak — and the ones I can’t. Because here, there are many more layers of language and birthplace and living space to explain; many more questions that are asked — that people know to ask — than in Vancouver, one of which is whether I can speak Shanghainese. It is, after all, my father’s first language and following patrilineal tradition, the one I ought to speak best. I laugh again and say one of the few Shanghainese phrases I’ve finally managed to master: ‘Shanghainese is really hard.’ It’s a mistake, I realise, because they think I’m joking and are now pouring out a steady flow of Shanghainese to which I have to shake my head in response, and we switch back into Mandarin — Putonghua, ‘the common language’. Common now because it has become standardised as the lingua franca within the mainland, the language used in educational curricula, in business, in law.

For all that the Han constitute 92% of the Chinese population, the language diversity is intense. There are at least seven different language families within the overarching Chinese umbrella, all fairly unintelligible to one another unless you’ve had practice and experience listening to them. To me, they are as similar and as different as Romance languages are to one another. Having a standardised language has done wonders in quickening communication across otherwise largely divided peoples.

Standardising a language is a double-edged sword, though: alternative accents are scorned, dialects disappear, languages are lost. The different accents and dialects I used to hear in news reports on Chinese channels are hardly present in younger generations of Chinese people. My friends from the mainland, especially the ones who spent most of their lives there, sound quite similar — a testament to the educational system, I suppose.

The Bund, Shanghai

When in Shanghai for the first time last year, I thought, with great eagerness, that here I would hear as much Shanghainese spoken as Cantonese is in Hong Kong. However, I forgot that Cantonese is the official language in Hong Kong and Shanghainese is not an official language at all. Everyone spoke perfectly good Mandarin, without a hint of the Shanghainese pronunciation that my mother used to rage at and instructed me strictly not to pick up from my dad. The only times I heard a snatch of Shanghainese was when a couple of old folks were conversing with their middle-aged offspring. The grandchildren seemed to understand, but didn’t converse in, the old people’s language, preferring to respond in Mandarin and in conversation with each other. In another fifty years, I wonder how many people will be left to speak the language at all?

And while there is nothing seriously wrong with having a common language, it does not feel seriously right, either, to come at the expense of all the others.

I admit it, I’m greedy: I want to keep all the languages we have now; I don’t want over 90% of the world’s languages to be extinct in another half to whole century, or whatever the statistic is. I don’t want to lose all the beautiful sounds that we can’t even imagine until we hear them, all the ingenius phrases people around the world have come up with to express how they feel, think, are. Our different understandings of the world. The skill of learning, from sheer necessity, to listen to one another speak, to discover similarities, to share difference. Of being able to tell, from enough careful hearing, the language and history to which a person belongs. Perhaps it is a freedom, that one can be increasingly anonymous and untraceable in a globalising world, but it is also the sound of severing connection, and I grieve over the impossibility of what I wish.