The first time an article I wrote that got picked up by a major publication with some name recognition, my uncle wrote this to me:
"Who would have thought that the grandchild of humble Hong Kong farmers would have her writing read by people all over America? That people would know her name? Who would have thought that our family would get to this point? Very proud of you, niece."
Those words have stuck with me every single day that I write. Every single time that I pack up my laptop and leave my cozy apartment to sit in a comfortable coffee shop where I can afford one or two cups of coffee, maybe some tofu skin rolls for lunch, and write about my "adventures" in this city, I think about those words.
I look at the world I inhabit in Hong Kong, one of comfort and safety, support and opportunity, and there are times I want to weep with gratitude. My Hong Kong is not my entire family's Hong Kong. My Hong Kong is, in many ways, the Hong Kong they wanted for.
While I've always had an awareness of the two sides that make up my Hong Kong heritage — Eurasian society and Chinese working class — nothing quite prepared me for the wash of emotion and realization that recently visiting my mom's old neighborhood would bring forth.
Though my dad's side of Eurasian privilege is the world that is usually more dominant in my "expat experience" — due in no small part to Hong Kong's history as a British territory and the "status" of being mixed-race and English-speaking — it is my mom's "humble beginnings" that continue to draw me in and resonate with me.
Since arriving in Hong Kong, it's been my goal to explore more of where my mom came from. Unlike my dad, her family's name and their legacy is not stamped on street signs, on libraries, on the names of foundations. Sometimes I wonder if my dad's ancestors would think their "Hong Kong Girl" (a nickname a Chinese classmate once gave to me) was "slumming it" — living outside of "society" life, having worked greasy, menial jobs since I was a teenager, maintaining a current job (or several jobs) that offers no glamour or prestige.
This is not to say that my dad's family was unkind or shallow (my grandmother was compassionate and generous to everyone, almost to a fault), but my grandparents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents were simply Eurasian People of Note. Most were born into a kind of life that I don't understand. You can find them in history books with names that begin with "Sir" and "Lady."
In many ways they are mythic to me, almost like the people of fairytales. I am fiercely proud of my Eurasian heritage, but I sometimes wonder if I'm a little too "rough around the edges" for them.
On the other hand, I wonder if my mom's ancestors would look with surprise, maybe astonishment, at the person I am. A woman who shares their blood, many of their experiences, but who speaks English without judgment from other English-speakers, has a choice in her profession, and who walks confidently in the company of both Chinese and westerners.
I don't say this with ego or with condescension, but it is a truth that my mom's family was more concerned with putting food on the table, making a better life for their children than they did themselves, and hoping that at least one of their offspring would be better than their circumstances. Though my life is "humble" by many people's standards today (either in the US or Hong Kong), I'm beginning to understand that I don't really know the meaning of the word.
So with a visiting friend in tow for emotional support, we decided to spend an afternoon walking around what was once my mom's childhood neighborhood. Though the area has long been "cleaned up", and hipster bars that would look right at home in Brooklyn have popped up on a few street corners, the bones of the neighborhood are still there, poking out at odd angles from beneath the veneer.
Those are my mom's bones, and to some extent my bones.
My friend and I started on a side street near the base of a steep uphill climb from the main road. Walking down that quiet street, we passed the brightly colored flats that my mom often mentioned from her childhood. They are historic houses now, in the midst of preservation, but my mom remembers them as tenements.
Against high rise apartments and gleaming new condos leaned squat, stained buildings. On the ground floors were stationery shops, mechanical repair shops, auto repair shops. At the dead end of one street was a pile of tires and an old black dog who who barked at us seemingly out of habit, then lost interest.
I thought of my mom as a little girl. Did big dogs bark at her? Did they frighten her? Did she make friends with them? My mom can make friends with anyone, man or beast.
We ducked down one little street and I remembered my mom mentioning the name of the street as where my grandmother would send her for dry goods "to heave up the hill." My mom is tiny now, she was even tinier then. My heart ached for my small child-mom. I felt like if I squinted hard enough I could catch a glimpse of that young ghost, maybe lend her a hand (not that she would have taken it).
The little street was now quiet, rather sanitary, with one small "old Hong Kong" themed bar glowing in the late afternoon gloom. A guy played an acoustic guitar at a table on the patio while two woman smoked cigarettes and bobbed their heads to his singing. I think it might have been a Bruce Springsteen song.
In this place, this pocket of old Hong Kong being gobbled up by new buildings and "appealing nostalgia," I saw people around my mom's age now, waiting in their shops for customers, sweeping their sidewalks. Did they share these streets with my mom when they were kids?
And more than that, did they just see me as another tourist ogling their home? Just another person on "urban safari" in Hong Kong? I have never felt so close to, yet far away from my family's culture. I felt a bit like an intruder.
A knot formed in my chest and a sense of sorrow came over me. It's through no fault of my own that I was born into a different life, a life my mom fought hard for me to have. But by distancing herself from the life she didn't want for her daughter, was it at the cost of my mom's past? Like the streets of my mom's old neighborhood, has her past been smoothed out and repaved? Will I ever know what lies beneath?
The reality that I can never truly understand where my mom came from hit me hard. I am indeed a tourist to her life at times. I wonder if it's lonely for her?
As we walked up and up the sloping streets, passing a temple with incense smoke wafting out of its open doorways, I thought of my mom in her school uniform making her way down to the harbor before dawn.
As a young girl she found herself with the opportunity to study at one of Hong Kong's most prestigious girls' schools. But unlike many of her wealthier classmates, her family did not have the money to put her in a car, let alone a bus, to get her to the school across the harbor.
So my mom would wake up before the sun, and walk down from her family's flat high up on the hill, cut through the sailors, merchants, and prostitutes starting up or finishing their day, and catch the ferry to Kowloon side. Her ferry disembarked mere blocks from my where my apartment is now.
She'd then continue her walk all the way down the main road in my neighborhood — the same road I walk halfway down to catch my train — to start her day at her fancy school. Then she'd do the whole journey in reverse at the end of the day.
While some girls' trip to school was only a short drive, my mom's walk took hours — sometimes in the pouring rain, sometimes in the sweltering heat and humidity.
As I climbed up slippery stone steps and walked past shops where men peered at me from the dark, I thought of my mom choosing not to be nervous, afraid, or even tired. She's still like that now.
My mom still talks about "little luxuries" from those days — when the English girls on the ferry would walk with her part of the way, when she had a little extra change in her pocket so she could be assured a bun or some rice and soy sauce for lunch.
Little luxuries. My life is full of little luxuries. The cup of coffee I buy a few times a week, the hot snacks I get from my favorite food cart, the little rice puffs I get whenever I feel like it from the cake shop by my subway stop — it was a startling realization that the places where I got those little luxuries lined the street that my mom walked to get to school. A version of those very shops may have existed in my mom's time.
In another time, did a small, thin girl with very long black hair and smiling eyes walk down my street and sniff the air wishing that she had some extra money for a sweet bun?
Did she wonder about her future? Her daughter's future? Would she have any idea that her daughter's life would be so different than hers?
Would it make her sad?
I admit that I am a little sad, maybe for both of us. I am the child of two vastly different worlds, but like the new buildings eating up my old neighborhood, I sometimes fear that my "expat-Eurasian" self will eat up my mom's "humble beginnings." It's not necessarily a choice, it is the strong tide of the world I live in.
But with that in mind, I choose to hold on tight to the other side of who I am, the daughter of the little girl who took the long walk to a better life everyday.
Whatever "point" life takes me to, whoever I become, I will always be the grandchild of humble Hong Kong farmers.