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Finding Space

Recently, I witnessed a couple arguing quietly and gesticulating wildly across a table in a busy food court. Strangely, my first thought was, they need this space.

Physical space in Hong Kong is a coveted prize that can never be won. It’s no secret that it’s one of the most densely populated places in the world. We know that its density negatively impacts people’s mental health, two-thirds of the city’s 800,000 public housing flats are smaller than 430 sq ft and well-designed ‘nano-flats’ are growing increasingly popular.

While this is hardly a favourable USP for the city, the lack of space is the reason that, in terms of everyday amenities, Hong Kong is wonderfully Hong Kong. Through necessicity, we improvise — and often with glorious results. Here, things are never where you think they will be (but looking up is a good shout). There’s no reason why a cafe cannot be a make-shift hole-in-the-wall kitchen and a few plastic chairs down a dark, wet alleyway. Nor why doctor’s surgeries cannot be situated in residential buildings, sandwiched between the homes of old couples and young families, or why a new, raved-about restaurant cannot be 10 floors up in a slither of crumbling brick.

The same goes for more prestigious institutions, such as religious bodies. We have a decent amount of traditional Western churches, but, due to a lack of land, newer churches are composite complexes in busy parts of town. And if you don’t have any kind of bricks and mortar? Praying is still no problem, as proven by the many tiny Buddhist shrines perched on cobbled steps or sat outside shop fronts.

Hong Kong’s density also means that we’re adept at understanding space on personal and psychological levels, too. Even though the couple’s battle in the food court may have seemed inappropriate, I could relate. On the rare occasions my partner and I have a heated debate, we go to the roof to find resolution. The smallness of our home (looking into our neighbour’s home) seems to trap negative feelings and force us to sit in their sourness, all the while refusing entry to anything dressed like compromise or perspective. Finding a new space, looking over the choppy sea, illuminated by city lights, however, everything changes.

Of course, there are many people in desperate situations who are being denied the basic physical space they need, and this is an on-going Hong Kong issue. Clamping down on people buying apartments and leaving them unoccupied, and providing affordable housing to the most vulnerable is vital. But, even for those who aren’t living in ideal quarters, Hong Kong’s other spaces can alleviate compact living.

I use, and view, space in ways that I didn’t before. I get cabin fever after too long spent inside (in the London suburbs, having a ‘duvet’ weekend felt cosy; in Hong Kong, it feels stifling), so I look to other spaces for that same sense of restoration, such as bookshops, libraries, mountains. In many ways, they feel as familiar as my own home. I appreciate their existence (including their generous opening/closing times) and their physical space more than I might if my own dwellings were bigger or I lived in a sparsely populated place. Hong Kongers see the spaces available and allot them new purposes; they play chess in the park outside their homes, relax and watch TV in cafes, stretch on rooftops.

Thanks to our (necessary) spatial awareness, we even use small, ‘stressful’ spaces to our advantage. I can twist to fit perfectly into the Tetris puzzle of a busy MTR carriage, or slink between staggered slow walkers and barely make a draught.

In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton says, ‘Home can be an airport or a library, a garden or a motorway diner.’

I’ve realised that home, on this small island, is no longer just the place I sleep. It’s also so many other spaces that I rely on. We might not have much room over here in our flat, but, luckily, it’s not our only home.

Originally published on In HK, Medium

Save Our Streets

Anyone who has put foot to pavement in any of Hong Kong’s busiest areas knows that it is entirely its own experience. A bevy of collisions await you and, to conquer the pavement, you must navigate them all, from the umbrella-duck to the squeeze-by. You must exercise your patience behind the elderly and then contort your torso as you slip seamlessly past the mobile phone attached to the person in front. And then you must prepare your senses. The smell of bubbling noodle soup dancing a surprisingly harmonious pas de deux with spicy corkscrews of smoke emanating from burning incense sticks stood erect in a side-street shrine. The prickle of humidity on your skin, slow-cooked beads of sweat sliding to the soundtrack of the second; a distorted singing voice through a static-y microphone, cackles between old friends. These are the things that Hong Kong is made of.

In April, a report titled ‘Managing Vibrant Streets’ called on the government to take control of Hong Kong streets. It followed Carrie Lam’s promise that the government would improve daily life for pedestrians, from air quality to traffic jams. The report, published by group Civic Exchange, proposed that the government should manage the streets while retaining Hong Kong’s lively street life, and covered everything from hawkers to physical landscape.

Enforcing policy is no bad thing. After all, we don’t want litter peppering our pavements or factory smog filling our lungs. We disagree with disturbances at unsociable hours or irresponsible decibel levels. We appreciate the ability to get from one place to another with little trauma. Managing space in a more practical way makes sense. But there is romance to be found in the very grievances that people seem to be so eager to remove.

No matter how long you have lived in Hong Kong, walking the streets is never a meaningless sleepwalk from A to B. It’s possible that long-time residents don’t look for anything anymore, or disinterested parties just see a start and a finish. But that’s where they’re going wrong. To observe the chaos is to observe the reflection of society; the man who laughs when your closing umbrella sprays him with water; the shop cats who nestle, camouflaged, among the shipment boxes; the throngs of middle-aged gamers occupying a new Pokemon Go zone; topless men and loaded trolleys that won’t slow down; schoolgirls linking arms like daisy chains you don’t have the heart to break; mini amps wired up to optimistic buskers.

On a recent Hong Kong episode of travel show Parts Unknown, a local dai pai dong owner revealed that there are only 28 open-air street food stalls left; an iota of the hundreds that once punctuated daily life. The reason? Health and hygiene standards. Cleanliness, and perhaps the appearance of cleanliness on a greater scale. The show’s host interviewed Hong Kongers working in in different industries who all echoed the same sentiment: Hong Kong is moving towards the clean, shiny and new.

Perhaps it’s sentimentality speaking, but I do not want to find myself lamenting what was. I want to bask in what we have, not mourn for it. What I once understood to be malaise is now indubitably the feeling of fear. Fear that in ‘managing’ Hong Kong’s streets, the city will become a faceless facsimile of what it used to be. A city that has selected artists performing inside the very specific dimensions of regulation, delivery-people expelled to certain streets to do their work, eateries requiring bricks and mortar and every certificate in the book. No smells to linger in your nostrils, minimal sounds to be heard beyond the click-clack of shoes, and the sights to be of the very ordinary kind. A perfectly managed city.

It’s incumbent for any major city to stipulate rules and boundaries for the wellbeing of the people, and we must take a closer look at the issues that plague our streets. So yes, ensure street performers aren’t being disrespectful and work on air quality. But let’s not attempt to sanitise Hong Kong’s inherent, unapologetic Hong Kong-ness in search for some idea of ‘betterness’. Trust me, you won’t find it.

Originally published on In HK, Medium

When You’re Biracial But Not Bilingual

As a mixed-race person, I can just about find myself on Google. I see myself in articles and the odd documentary episode (still not enough, but that’s a bigger conversation). But as a mixed-race person who cannot speak both languages attached to both of my cultures, I’m nowhere to be found.

This is fairly disheartening for someone who, upon lamenting her painfully slow acquisition of Cantonese, is looking for reassurance; a consolatory pat on the knee or knowing nod of the head. Recently, I searched for ‘mixed race but not bilingual’, hoping for a five-page thread or the quotes of a prominent author who once faced the same situation. All that came up was a load of parenting forums debating how to correctly raise a bilingual child (an almost comedic kick in the face). I typed in variations of the phrase, certain that I had posed the question incorrectly, done something to offend Google’s buzzword algorithm, but the results remained the same. Oblivious.

I have read many (fantastic) books by biracial writers, unpacking the confusing experience of belonging to two starkly different worlds. I have identified with their binary existence, understood their conflicted relationship with seemingly alien customs and the difficulty with which they teeter on the border of two races. But I am soon left out in the cold when they recall speaking in one tongue to their mum and another to their school friends. I have never read about the biracial person who simply does not have full access. Whose landscape is an unbalanced mix of arid and lush at the same time. Who cannot find themselves anywhere on Google.

There’s no blame. I’m not blaming any parties involved in my inability to exhale a language. Because, really, it’s not about language. It’s not about vocabulary and tutors, textbooks and helpful cousins — I have those things. It’s about a missing link. As a linguist on podcast Code Switch once said, people see language as a very strong part of identity. In English, words and, therefore, moments are bountiful. In Chinese, I don’t have the lexicon, ergo minimal memories. I didn’t speak in a secret tongue with my siblings or listen to a grandparent retell the same old story. I can’t hear the long, unapologetic vowels of my aunties and uncles when I close my eyes.

When I was around 7 years old, my teacher asked me to say ‘hello’ in Chinese in front of the class. The blood rushed to my cheeks and I shook my head. I was shy but, more fundamentally, I couldn’t do what she was asking me to. Despite the impatience in her voice, I couldn’t magic up the words I didn’t know, although strangely (or perhaps naturally, given human intolerance for embarrassment), I tried really hard in my head. Eventually, she gave up and moved on. But I didn’t.

This episode, among others, has contributed to a sense of shame about being devoid of something that, according to the raised eyebrows and rising ‘really?’s, should have been part of the package. It’s alienating enough to be different, but to be ill-equipped to be it ‘properly’ is a real blow.

I know many mixed race people who can do just the trick everyone expects of them, bilingual excellence flowing out of their mouths like fresh water, each drop purified with memories and culture. I know many mixed race people who can provide a decent outpouring before running dry. My faucet is faulty, and forces out solitary soupçons, empty of meaning.

Luckily, despite Google’s sparse offerings, I now know that there are others like me. Since seeking reassurance, I’ve met at least three of them. Fellow half-Asians searching for something that is no longer something they fancy, but something they need.

I can’t turn back time, change my situation, recreate special moments punctuated by language. All I can do is keep learning and hope that it leads to some collection of memories I can’t remember yet, just waiting for the right linguistic key to free them.

Originally published on Medium

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