In honour of my heritage and the irreplaceable childhood years that I lived in Hong Kong for, I tell people that I’m from Vancouver “slash” Hong Kong. Without a doubt, the time I spent there and my connections to the people there are deeply entwined with my past and my future growth. Consequently, Hong Kong is tied to my identity.
Be that as it may, it seems that Hong Kong won’t have me, as I’ll never pass off as a local in Hong Kong.
In a shoebox-sized shoe store packed in with dozens of others in a multi-floor shopping complex, I picked out two pairs of heels that I quite liked. As a university student looking forward to future internships, work experiences and other settings that have Western business or business-casual as a dress code, I was on the hunt for practical work heels. Here, in this tiny store, I had surprisingly found two that fit the bill: they were of good quality and were not going to blow the student bank account.
The only problem was that I only carried cash since I had no bank account, let alone a credit card in Hong Kong. I reluctantly informed the two sales assistants that I would only take one pair.
“Oh? But the other pair was so nice too,” one of them remarked.
“I know, I’m not carrying enough money at the moment,” I answered, underlining the latter part of my response with tones of regret. My parents were always nagging me about how I carried so little cash with me, and it was now my turn to regret it.
“Aiyah, just use your credit card like all the other returning overseas Chinese do!” advised the second sales assistant, gesturing by motioning of her hands the action of pulling a card up and out of a wallet.
That instantly made me freeze my smile into a thin, cold line as I shook my head and proceeded to pay for my heels.
“So, where are you coming back from?” asked the sales assistant.
“Ah-,” I hesitated, looking up from the shoes I was trying on. “I’m coming back from Canada.” The sales assistant grins and nods in acknowledgement. I return to the task of tying up the shoe laces.
“Actually, how did you know I was from overseas?” I asked the sales assistant, while I studied the brown oxford now on my foot.
She takes a seat on the dark brown bench by me and looks somewhere to upper right of her vision as she ponders. “I would say that it’s because of the way you speak. You can hear the difference. It’s the way you use words and say them.”
My lips press into a slight smile, conveying silent thanks for her answer. “I see, is that how it is?” I ask, rhetorically.
Riding the train, on which I spend a significant amount of time people-watching, I feel out of place. It probably is an imagined sensation, but somehow I feel that my whole person, appearance-wise, is distinctly non-Hongkongese.
From my half-bleached, naturally wavy hair; to my shorts that expose most of my thick thighs that stand atop of rounded calves; to the clutch on top of which I balance my notebook to which I have taken to writing thoughts down in (in English) wherever and whenever; I am pretty much a foreigner with a Chinese face.
In comparison, the local girls my age probably have permed, ruler-straight black hair. They wear lightweight culottes that only look flattering because they end midway down their thin calves, and most definitely are not toting clutches as bags (satchels, totes, backpacks, anything but clutches).
My sense of other-ness is reaffirmed whenever I catch someone look in my direction, particularly when I notice that someone is watching my rapid scribbling of barely legible lines (that almost don’t resemble English) into my notebook. But what counts is that the curls and loops are most definitely not Chinese, and that my speed betrays my distinctly non-local identity.
The thing about identity is that others’ recognition of it appears to play an important in validating it. What’s a Canadian without a Canadian birth certificate, passport or other document confirming Canadian citizenship? What’s a doctor without a medical license to practice?
Try as I may to affirm that a part of me is irrevocably connected and influenced by Hong Kong, I am fighting a futile effort. Those that reside in Hong Kong do not recognize me as part of them, what with my accent, my appearance, and my atypical life experience growing up on two sides of the Pacific.
I remain an outsider to Hong Kong – never local. Hong Kong, with the energy of its seven million inhabitants, slips free through my grasping hands.