All posts filed under: Essays

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 …

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 …

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 …

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 …

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 …

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 …

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 …