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Going to Hong Kong was a thought-provoking and fascinating experience. It was almost like I was returning home, except I had never called Hong Kong home. Other than a trip when I was 5 and a quick stop over on the way to Cambodia and Thailand, I have no memories of Hong Kong.
The city is home in the sense that my roots lie in Hong Kong. My parents were born there. They grew up there. However, both of them immigrated to Canada in their teens so their identities are very much that of a Canadian. The Hong Kong of today is vastly different from the Hong Kong of their memories I’m sure.
My mom’s school has shut down. The neighborhood where my father grew up is completely different and has been rebuilt. The hospital where my parents were born is long gone (how romantic comedy-like is it that the two of them were born in the same hospital exactly 2 weeks apart and then they met in a completely different country thousands of kilometers away?! Movies dream of this kind of stuff). The city changes at an incredible rate.
Hong Kong felt familiar and yet so completely different. It was like I fit in, but at the same time, I didn’t. I was the awkward puzzle piece that was made a millimetre too big and can’t snap back into the puzzle properly. I was comfortable there, but also felt like an outsider, wandering around on the fringe. In a crowd, I completely blended in, but the moment I opened my mouth, people could tell.
Certainly I spoke the language well enough to get what I wanted and needed. While I’ve been told by many that I don’t have much of an accent when speaking Cantonese, people know immediately that I’m not from there.
From my strange (ahem unnatural) use of words when speaking.
From the way I dress.
Even from the way I walk and carry myself.
They know I’m not a local even if I physically look and sound the part despite how hard I try.
I had set a goal for myself to be able to read a menu before taking off for Hong Kong. Needless to say I had gotten totally distracted in my preparation and didn’t. I had learned the basics at Chinese school so at least I knew what kind of protein I was ordering (no awkward surprises so that’s good), but I couldn’t read all the fancy names. I wonder if I would have had a different experience if I could read the menu and signs all around me.
While I was there, I never quite experienced any culture shock. Everything was familiar to me. Mannerisms. What to expect in restaurants. How to act. What other people would do. It was strange this non culture shock experience. I had half expected to not feel as comfortable as I did.
Growing up in Vancouver, I was surrounded by plenty of different Asian cultures and my family ensured that I followed many southern Chinese traditions. But, ultimately I was in Canada after all and my parents wanted me to get the best of both worlds. I followed Canadian and western traditions. I think like a Canadian. And yet, I never knew how much of that Cantonese culture was instilled in me until I was in Hong Kong. Also, at the same time, because I do think like a Canadian, I could never fully fit in. There are just little nuances that make a big difference.
By the time I left the city, my Cantonese had gotten way better. Immersion is definitely the way to go when trying to practice and master a language. I could see myself living in the city. Not for long, but enough to learn the language properly and to understand the culture more.
I think it is only natural for people to want to know where they come from. One day I’d love to go back for a longer period of time and really discover Hong Kong, but until then, the city has left an impression on me and my journey of discovering who I am.
Have you ever gone to a place where you feel like you belong, but not quite? Have you gone looking for your roots?