My Trip to Hong Kong Changed My Life

As a child of immigrants, I really thought about my parents lives --their very FULL lives -- before me. And what they gave up.

I'm not sure, but I think I was holding my breath from the moment I exited the airplane to the moment I stepped through the arrival gate.

I thought maybe I was romanticizing sense memories. The feel of the air, the smells, the sounds. More than once I've been disappointed when my memories were far more vivid than than they were in reality.

I guess I really was holding my breath, because stepping onto the gray, dotted carpet of Hong Kong International Airport, I remember gulping in the air.

"OH MY GOD," I turned to my husband, mouth agape, not sure if I was going to laugh, cry, or barf, "It smells like Hong Kong!"

My memories were spot on. Even in the airport, that singular smell of exhaust, food, and recycled air cut with the faint but ever present scent of sweat and humidity tickled a part of my brain that I hadn't touched in a long while.

The air conditioner was blasting in the airport, but that familiar clammy feeling clung to my arms and hands. The air always did feel thicker there.

Dozens of thoughts ricocheted around in my head, all landing at the same, confusing place: I feel like I'm home.

Kick off your shoes-where everybody knows your name-food tastes better, HOME.

But, Hong Kong is not technically my home. I mean, I was born there, but left as a baby before I could form any memories of the place. I spent a big chunk of my childhood summers at my grandma's house on Kowloon side, but always returned in the fall to my home in America.

I was always a visitor. A long term visitor, but a visitor. My last visit was 17 years ago. I was the "American cousin." The only American Hung.

Even my half sister spent most of her life in Hong Kong at my mother's side. While both she and my mom gave up their Hong Kong citizenship (back then, British citizenship) long ago to have lives, careers, and families in the US, there is an entire part of them, their formative years, that belongs to Hong Kong. Though I hear stories, and I've visited some places, I'm always a tourist to their memories.

But I didn't feel quite like a tourist when I visited Hong Kong this time. Of course, I didn't feel like a local either. I found myself caught between feeling like this was my city, a place that somehow my gut knew better than my brain, and feeling like a total foreigner.

When wandering the crowded city streets of Central or Tsim Sha Tsui, frustration would occasionally wash over me; completely irrational frustration.

Everything felt so familiar and strangely relevant, but I could barely tell you street names. I'd hear the name of a place or building and it would spark the fragment of a memory, but I'd be unable to grasp any details.

This all makes perfect sense. I've never paid rent on an apartment in Hong Kong. I've never had a real life in Hong Kong. For all intents and purposes, I am a tourist. A tourist with a Hong Kong ID card waiting to be claimed at City Hall, but a map-carrying tourist nonetheless.

But I felt like I SHOULD know the streets and buildings and places. Like what I imagine a phantom limb to be like, I kept reaching for knowledge or understanding I thought should be there, even expected to be there, but was not. And it stung a little.

Don't get me wrong, there is not part of me that is ungrateful for the life I've lead and am leading. I am a Chinese American woman raised in Seattle, Texas, Missouri who has had the privilege of living in Los Angeles, Honolulu, and now Yokohama. My family moved to the US for many reasons, and I am the embodiment of a lot of those reasons. I'm not complaining. But there's always a part of me that wonders, "what if?"

What if I had lived part, or all of my life, in Hong Kong? Would I be sitting here writing to you? Would life have been easier? Harder? Would I be part of a prominent family in Hong Kong, as opposed to part of "the Chinese family" in our Dallas neighborhood? Would I have an English accent? Would I still love television? Cats? Cheese? Would my mother's and father's old haunts be my old haunts? Would we have that shared history?

I'm not going to lie, my curiosity on this trip was piqued. I have felt few things so strongly as the need to find a piece of my Hong Kong self.

So much of my trip felt right in a way that went beyond the mere excitement of being on vacation in a foreign country, beyond nostalgia.

When shuffling through the busy, neon lit streets at dinner time, I'd catch myself getting carried away by it all. Walking in the general direction of my destination, I'd let the crowd sort of herd me around, let the sounds take over. Especially the sound of Cantonese.

It's not the language I feel most comfortable with, and even the sensibilities of Hong Kong Chinese Cantonese speakers don't always jive with my American ways. It was even a source of further frustration on my trip when I would reach for a Cantonese word that I knew was lurking somewhere in my head but was buried under years of neglect.

But hearing the language all around me felt so good. In many ways, it's the sound of home — it makes sense in a visceral way. The only time I hear Cantonese these days is when I'm with my family. And while my command of the language is merely okay (I can understand nearly fluently, but speaking is challenging), just the tones and inflection of Cantonese, so different from Japanese, were comforting.

I guess what I'm getting at is that through all this talk of smells and frustration and sounds, is that Hong Kong has a hold on me I can't explain, and don't fully understand. I can't get it out of my head. "Going home" is the only phrase that seems to properly encapsulate the experience.

I hesitate a little to say it, but I think my trip to Hong Kong was life-changing. The way I see my life is different. I gained a perspective I did not expect. As a child of immigrants, I really thought about my parents lives -- their very FULL lives -- before me. And what they gave up.

When walking down a street, your mind on the next dim sum restaurant you might hit up, and you realize that this is the street your mother's first adult apartment was on, or this is the route your dad used to take to work when he was your age, the gap between their youth and yours closes significantly.

In this trip, Hong Kong became more than just the place my parents reminisce about, the place I hid from giant flying cockroaches at my grandma's house. It became an important part of my family. A family, I realized, I know far too little about.

I don't know how or when Hong Kong will be a part of my life again. But I know, somehow, it has be. I owe it to my past, to make Hong Kong a part of my future.