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Shape-Shifting

At the end of last year, I went to see author Sreedhevi Iyer speak about her short story collection at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. A member of the audience asked Iyer, an Indian-Malaysian-Australian writer, if she felt she behaved differently according to the different countries or cultures she was active in. She said that she found herself unconsciously adapting a lot, and wanted to focus on consciously ‘un-adapting’ more.

While Iyer went on to give specific, personal examples, this general notion of auto-pilot adapting is a sentiment familiar to most people of mixed race. Adjusting is defined as: ‘becoming adjusted to new conditions’. But for those who belong to more than one race, adapting is a way of life, a survival strategy, not a temporary spell during which you acclimatise. Being mixed-race is not a condition, after all (although looking at the racial micro-aggressions — and maxi-aggressions — hurled at many mixed-race people, perhaps lots of folk think otherwise).

I’ve spent the majority of my life adapting. Nobody told me to, per se. I was not verbally instructed to wear the identity of the majority. But non-verbally, absolutely. Derogatory gestures, off-the-cuff comments and simply living alongside ‘the norm’ made it clear that I wasn’t the same. It seemed considerably less dangerous to be the same than to be different, so I, as Iyer later put it, performed myself. I was good, too.

But I had neglected the fact that it had to come to an end. That, what was was in my head was not reflected in the shape of my eyes, my surname or my DNA. It’s like wearing trousers and telling everyone that you’re wearing shorts, just like them. It wasn’t that my friendships weren’t genuine, that my interests didn’t mirror those of my peers, or even that the Britishness within me hadn’t grown organically, but I too eagerly struggled and shifted my body and words into unfamiliar shapes and held my breath, all for the mighty prize of fitting in. Soon, much like Iyer said, all of this became unconscious. Default.

There’s no mixed-race individual I know who, at some point in their life, has not embraced feeling like a mere thread in society’s tapestry, aspired to be the background brushstroke of a painting, inconspicuous and uninteresting. It’s devastating that this is the case for a lot of mixed-race children. It’s only now that I see how grateful and proud I should have felt, especially being a mixed-race child in Britain, not in spite of it.

It’s easy to counter that we want to be treated the same way as everyone else, not spotlighted like exotic breeds at a dog show. But if we (and I only speak on behalf of myself and those who have echoed these sentiments) had been acknowledged and celebrated as children, if that was the societal norm, the desperation to be entirely homogeneous wouldn’t have ruled our lives in any more prominent a way than it does for most teenagers, traversing the socially-treacherous marshes of puberty. We wouldn’t have felt like we had to publicly commit to one racial identity or like we were stuck in No Man’s Land. We wouldn’t have heard, many times over, that we ‘should go back to our country’, whichever one that was. Ultimately, our difference would not have been a strike against us.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not easy to consciously un-adapt. I am currently, perhaps compensatorily, eager to be a Hong Konger. But when I catch myself twisting or scrunching into any kind of mould in a (vain) attempt to validate my identity or put those around me at ease, I remember that my identity has never been, clear-cut, nor will it ever be. Writer Nicole Sprinkle once wrote of her mixed-race daughter, ‘My child doesn’t look quite like me (Caucasian) or her father (Colombian); she’s something new for both families.’ Something new. Maybe, in the future, something new won’t need to shape-shift, but instead, will be able to exist as the exact, undefined shape they are – and exhale.

Originally published on Medium

More Than A Name

In the winter of 2014, my sister and I took a photo of my dad posing under a street sign. We were visiting Hong Kong and, after alighting the ferry on Hong Kong Island, we found ourselves stepping onto ‘Man Kwong Street’. It was one of the most brilliant things I had ever seen. It had my name in it. After a lifetime of carrying a frequently unpronounceable, misspelt, nowhere-to-be-seen surname in England, there it was, common as muck on a street sign.

It was only when I moved to Hong Kong that I realised that the novelty I’d experienced back then had occurred simply because I’d only seen my name on a sign that one time. A few months after moving here, I no longer delighted in seeing my name on street signs, nor above shops, or bus stops, or the numerous other places I spotted it. Locking eyes with a Kwong Wah tool shop or a Chee Kwong restaurant caused a slew of guilt and embarrassment to slope down through my chest like hot treacle from a spoon.

Guilt in this area of my life was not a new sensation. The primary reason I moved the 6,000 miles was because I was riddled with a life’s worth of the stuff. I hadn’t engaged with this hugely important part of my life, and now I was paying the price, both in my inability to communicate with my family, and in my own frequent, emotional fisticuffs about being so distant from this essential part of me. In the summer before I relocated, I had managed to transform this guilt into a productive solution: learn, speak, go to Hong Kong and do it, be part of this family, this community.

I wasn’t aware, however, that ‘doing it’ involved daily confrontations with my guilty conscience. Soon, it wasn’t just guilt, either. Other equally unpleasant feelings under the self-reproach umbrella — special shout-out to failure and embarrassment — were added to the mix like thickening agents, all of these components coagulating in my bloodstream whenever I caught a glimpse of my surname.

Seeing my name was a reminder that I wasn’t living up to it. This didn’t seem to matter in the UK, where I spoke the common language and lived a typical, native-British life. But here, it mattered. Not to anyone else, so used to expatriates and English vocabulary, but to me. I didn’t have the same tongue as the rest of the Kwongs in my extended family, let alone the rest of the Kwongs in Hong Kong. The tongue I was supposed to have. I inherited my seemingly ubiquitous name from people I wouldn’t even be able to communicate with. I was so proud of it, but I couldn’t recite the Cantonese idioms my grandparents liked or retell the jokes my uncles lobbed at each other.

As with a lot of unpleasant feelings, my guilt had one redeeming feature. It pushed me. Whenever it coursed around my heart (usually following a run-in with the letters of my name on a sign), I didn’t shut my eyes. I didn’t want to continue feeling this way, so I refused to dilute it or pretend it wasn’t what it was. I’d always known what I’d had to do — learn the language and be involved — but the frequent reminders in side streets and bus terminals gave my motivation extra fuel.

It is progressing. Over a year has passed, and as time goes on — and my commitment to the language and the place gets stronger — the guilt upon seeing my name is being joined by a moment, a millisecond, of familiarity and ease. Fleeting, but present nonetheless. My hope? To truly see myself reflected in my name one day. One day.

Originally published on Medium

Language Swap

In Hong Kong, as a learner of the native language, I spend a large portion of my time attempting to listen to (read: eavesdrop) and converse with locals in Cantonese. My goal is to, one day, be able to think in the language, rather than go through the rigmarole of making slow mental translations and then carefully laying out each word like I’m taking an oath. While nowhere near fully developed, this new tongue is gradually taking some kind of shape.

Yet, I was still dumbfounded in April when I arrived at a hotel in Bali and thanked the driver in Cantonese. The words flew, unbridled, out of my mouth with the exact casualness that I yearn for when I’m forcing out broken statements in my daily Hong Kong life. Just like that, no conscious connecting of synapses required. In that moment, pride (admittedly polluted with the faint waft of smugness) emanated from my every pore.

Mini triumph celebrated, I had no choice but to sedate the Cantonese if I was to remember that I was, in fact, in Bali. Shamefully (and, I like to think, unusually for me), I had not learnt any Indonesian or Balinese before arriving. Luckily for my inconsideration, it seemed that everyone in Bali spoke English, the — sometimes-begrudged — sole ruler of my body and brain, and so it was on this that I cruised through my holiday.

When I returned to Hong Kong, I had completely misplaced my Cantonese tongue. It was weak and pre-pubescent, and I had been granted the freedom, the obligation, to turn off the linguistic processor and let my tongue visit the shapes and sounds it knew best, sans guilt. As I greeted local vendors, I perambulated the same language trail I had traversed in Bali, as if my brain simply refused to give up this luxury of ease. As if I had never used Cantonese in Hong Kong in the first place.

Having grown accustomed to absorbing vocabulary on a full-time basis through my efforts to learn Cantonese (and as a general collector of foreign words), it seemed my brain was keen to take in any new sounds. Ten days later, I ventured to Myanmar. En route, I learnt ‘hello’ (minga lar ba) and ‘thank you’ (che zu ba) in Burmese, and, while the phonemes regularly became entangled, so novel were they to my mouth, I was hooked. I found myself employing these exotic sounds on a more-than-hourly basis, cooing and calling to people like lovable, village girl Belle in provincial France (only, I was juddering around Bagan on an e-bike, ‘sweaty’ my most salient feature).

Four days later, I returned home. To the local fruit seller, I said, ‘che zu ba’. I had left Myanmar, but my words seemed to be somewhere along the flight path, taking a lengthy and convoluted route home.

It seemed that my personal exchange rate of linguistic currencies had fluctuated in importance according to time and location, which, along with my somewhat porous brain, resulted in a jumble of words streaming out of my mouth, like a patient spewing involuntary nonsense after coming round from anaesthesia. What had once felt infuriatingly arid was now aflush with languages.

There’s something mystical about the way foreign languages punctuate our daily lives, unannounced. I can search and rummage, and, in desperation, mentally empty out all of the words I’ve learnt, seeking the one that will complete the conversation I’m having, to no avail. Then, like a cruel trick, the very same word can surface accidentally in another country, or through the ink of my pen, unprompted.

I’m still fascinated by my inadvertent criss-crossing of geographical and linguistic borders, but I truly hope that, while back on home soil, I’ll be able to stay solely on the Cantonese path for the long haul.

Originally published on Medium

Inked Identity

When I was 18, I got my first tattoo. Perched on my left hip, where the fleshiness of the tummy starts to flatten over the pelvic muscle, is the Chinese character that means the word ‘half’. As in, half-Chinese. Get it? I had thought about getting this, what I deemed to be very clever, sign of my identity for around a year, and was certain that it would be important for the rest of my life, something I could never regret. My logic came from the simple fact that, unlike a boyfriend or a seemingly poignant song lyric, it represented something that would never change — my being half-Chinese.

I was wrong. It didn’t represent my being half-Chinese, but rather how I perceived being half-Chinese at the time. I don’t regret the ink — it’s a thought-provoking reminder of how quickly and drastically we change — but it does not resonate with the current me. I might be, by blood, 50 percent Chinese, but what I didn’t know back then, as I reclined statue-still on the black, leather chair, was that this was just an amount, and my half-Chinese-ness contributed enormously — far more than 50 percent — to my entire being, including my feelings of both confusion and completeness. There was nothing half about it.

In hindsight, this had always been the case but I don’t think I wanted to see it. My identity wasn’t reflected in a perfect Venn diagram; there weren’t two separate contrasting sections coming together equally via their commonalities. There was no harmonious intersection or seamlessly-blended concoction at my core. But that’s what I needed to believe. In actual fact, there seemed to be no amicable mingling at all, instead, mismatched, incompatible ideas in a state of constant emotional anaphylaxis as they tried to share the same space.

Any kind of foresight to see that these inner allergic reactions probably meant the tattoo would come to be a poor choice would’ve been great. Alas, I was 18, and desperate not only for a tattoo, but for a sense of identity. The irony is that this ink led me in the opposite direction, far from where my identity actually resided.

For most of my life, it seemed that the main USP of being mixed race was its formidable ability to make its inhabitants feel unbalanced. This idea was echoed by other mixed race women I spoke to while doing research for a magazine feature; the stark disparity between your knowledge of both cultures, the unexplainable bias that doesn’t just lean you towards one side, but purposefully away from the other, the black cloud hovering over just one race.

Now, when I look down at my hip, the thick, green-black ink flicking and crossing in the way only Asian radicals do, I realise that my disconnect with the tattoo is not borne out of the idea that I am no longer conflicted. Feeling comfortable in my identity is still very much a work in progress. But the tattoo says something that I no longer believe to be true. This notion of half. To a certain extent, it’s up to me. I can adapt my lifestyle to sway entirely one way or the other. My DNA does not have margins that dictate how Chinese or British I would like to my life to be.

Beyond this idea, I am slowly accepting the truth; that if you were to cut me down the middle and open me up, you would not find two neat, symmetrical, accordant compartments, identical in size and weight, sat obediently beneath the skin — and perhaps that isn’t a problem at all.

Originally published on Medium

Libraries

I’ve always been irked by the reputation libraries have been stamped with in England. Many of my friends view libraries as merely functional spaces, monopolised by grandmas, children, and those ‘stuck-in-the-past’ folk (a.k.a those who reject shelling out for books and postage on Amazon). They see their local library in the same way they see a toilet — just useful, and for one thing only (or two, if you’re being hilarious).

This viewpoint is alien in Hong Kong.

I should’ve known. After all, bookshops in Hong Kong are places of excitement, activity, even revelry, if you can believe it. All sorts of people pass through their doors, instead of the doors of the many other exciting venues Hong Kong has to offer. This cross-section of customers reflects Hong Kong’s diverse population; from young couples to middle-aged business men, local millennials to 30-something Westerners you’d normally find littering the streets, intoxicated, on Friday nights. This ragtag collective browse the spines at all and any times of the day, from screen-free lunch breaks to post-dinner aisle-strolls, seeking some kind of intellectual dessert.

Central Public Library is the biggest and most revered library in Hong Kong. Even its architecture is special: the arch-shaped doorway on the front of the building represents the ‘Gate to Knowledge’. On a warm day last September, walking up the grand steps — inscribed with famous, inspirational quotes — and through the airy lobby, I began a relationship much deeper than one of mere book-borrowing.

While the ‘happening’ vibe of bookstores couldn’t be found there (even regular-decibel speech was reprimanded), the seemingly-endless resources, the ample  space, and, as a result, its popularity, was like nothing I had ever known, even in bookish London. People queued outside the front doors with itchy feet and frequent watch-checks, like bargain-hunters on Black Friday. When the doors opened, everyone migrated from their orderly queueing lines into singular molecules, darting into open spaces towards the right section or sought-after reading spot.

After becoming acquainted with the general fiction and non-fiction floors, I discovered the language learning centre — a room enabling people to listen to audiobooks in a myriad of languages, like the Love Actually set-up I’d failed to find in London — then, the daily newspapers and periodicals from around the world, the magazines organised by genre, and the old documents, accessible through a clunky, grey, magnifying computer that looked to be straight out of the 1980s. Alongside the endless reading material, there were computers, desks and seats of various styles and squishiness.

My mania reached its peak when I ventured beyond the sixth floor. Up on Eighth lay the reference section. Things I’d never showed any interest in suddenly seemed imperative to my daily life, things I would, must, read.

‘What is it about libraries?’ A friend asked one day, after I’d disclosed my — by now, relatively predictable— whereabouts.

The only answer I could offer was that being in that environment, surrounded by things to read, things I wanted to hold and collect and absorb, kindled all of my favourite (and interestingly, oxymoronic) feelings simultaneously: excited, calm, comfortable, inspired, at peace.

Schroeder believed that if a place evoked feelings or thoughts, then it was meaningful enough for ‘place attachment’ to occur. Within the first four weeks of my relationship with the library, I was definitely attached, if not wholly obsessed. It’s reassuring to know, though, that in Hong Kong, with its library lines and bookshop crowds, I’m not the only one.

Originally published on Medium

Search For My Tongue

I’m in year 10 poetry class, and we’re discussing Sujata Bhatt’s Search For My Tongue. In it, she details her fear of losing the ability to speak in her native language, and struggles to see how the two languages she knows can co-exist in her brain. Just as we reach the part about the poet dreaming in her mother tongue, our teacher, Mrs Garcia, looks up from her book and asks if any of us can speak a second language. A group of hands make swift draughts in the air. She zigzags between them, smiling and nodding enthusiastically as they answer. German, Punjabi, French. I do not raise my hand, because I can only speak English. She calls my name anyway.

“Don’t you speak another language?” She asks, the question more a declaration than an interrogative.

I shake my head.

“Where are your parents from?” She tries.

I tell her my dad is from Hong Kong. She nods in relief, her question now justified.

“But you don’t speak another language?” She pushes, her thin wire-framed glasses inching down the bridge of her nose.

My quiet, fidgety classmates seem just as bothered by this conversation as I am.

I shake my head again.

“That’s such a shame!” She booms, in the loud, theatrical way she seemed to round off every conversation, clapping her hands together in the air.

Red-faced, I nod limply as she turns her attention back to the poem. I’m not embarrassed because she has singled me out in front of everyone. I am embarrassed because I think it is a shame, too.

Sujata Bhatt’s search for her tongue was entirely different to mine. She already had her tongue, stored away. Even when she felt uncertain or conflicted, it was there. Mine didn’t even exist within me. Instead there was just a framework that needed to be filled. There were moments, much like that one in poetry class, where the wind blew straight through the empty scaffolding and reminded me of what I didn’t have, what I couldn’t do.

In 2016, what Mrs Garcia had really wanted to ask me came out of someone else’s mouth.

I hired a private tutor called Ka Man. She was a student in London, and she was friendly and patient. ‘Why didn’t you learn Cantonese when you were growing up?’ were the first words that she said to me in Cantonese. Luckily, it took me so long to piece together each element of the question that I also had a spare second to formulate an answer that didn’t wake the demons responsible for my ever-present feelings of shame. By that, I mean that I lied.

I did not tell her that I grew up with an old-fashioned, English grandmother. Instead, I told Ka Man that I didn’t want to learn when I was a child. That I wasn’t interested. Even saying those words, the words without even an iota of verisimilitude, made my face feel hot and my chest twinge. The fortune to have been able to choose.

“Oh,” Ka Man said, frowning in confusion.

“Yep!” I replied, animated and facetious — the way I’d learnt to play it.

No one knew how much it wrung me inside.

I am still desperate to find my tongue.

Originally published on Medium

Election

On the evening the 2016 American presidential election results were announced, I went for pizza. The verdict had shocked most of us, and, in a stunned stupor, I enlisted autopilot to make the choices that I suddenly had no conscious interest in. Pizza for dinner was one of them.

Like many others around the world, earlier that day I’d watched a virtual red bar on my friend’s computer screen inch towards a finish line. I’d developed an irrational theory — borne out of fear, as irrationality usually is — that if myfingers typed in the URL and I waited for my screen to load, the results would affect me more than they would behind the shield of my friend’s shoulder. Alas, I was still devastated.

It was said many times leading up to results day that, despite his ‘successful’ campaign, when it came down to it, the notion of Trump becoming the president lacked any kind of weight. It was one big joke that had been taken too far, because, he couldn’t really win it guys, could he? I’d looked on in disbelief as the red bar scooted right, right, right, until it had won the race. Afterwards, my American colleagues quietly ruminated.

In need of consolation, we all clung onto the fact that most of the capital cities had voted for Hillary, and that, had it been just millennials voting, Hillary would’ve won (much like the Brexit vote). These facts consoled us; not everyone is, what we consider to be, backwards. But, thinking about it later that day, it seemed that too many people with authority were. The election results came just days after the Chinese government waded into Hong Kong affairs (when two lawmakers expressed anti-Chinese sentiments during an oath-taking). I’d wondered why Hong Kong and China couldn’t find some kind of political equilibrium, an agreement to civilly exchange nods in the school corridor. The only answer I could conjure up seemed dismally unhelpful: even small countries free of obvious, heavy turmoil were at odds with someone or something.

I remembered the day of the Brexit vote results. How, that morning, I whizzed around South London in a noiseless train carriage that felt more like a deflated bouncy castle, us commuters flattened by the heavy folds of political PVC. I remembered how I gazed out of the window and ended my years-long decision about emigrating somewhere with a better system, whatever and wherever that might be.

After arriving at the pizza place and ordering a slice of margherita, I chose a seat facing the window because I wanted to see the people. I saw them, but they weren’t alone. Through the window, on the painted black wall opposite, wobbly, red spray-painted lines demanded: ‘destroy racism’. This is not some kind of numinous message, I told myself. Still, I knew what I was seeing. America and much of its progress in retrograde, unable to outrun the conveyor belt, which was rolling at considerable speed the opposite way and heading straight for the fiery pit of the past.

As a shallow well of oil spilled and snaked around the contours of my pizza slice, I thought about how lucky I was to be in Hong Kong, even with its own political question marks. Hong Kong is by no means free of the problems that plague many other developed cities and countries. But that night, it felt safe, like a guardian protecting everyone that had found themselves there, and those who were yet to arrive.

Originally published on Medium