All My Mixed-Up Feelings About Celebrating Independence as an American in Hong Kong

What is rosy nostalgia for me may be something entirely different and considerably less rosy for my parents.
Publish date:
July 4, 2016
living abroad, America, Chinese American, Independence Day, Immigrants, Hong Kong

When I was a kid, I loved the 4th of July. I absolutely loved it. It was right up there with Christmas and Halloween.

July was when the days were long and sunny in Seattle, my preteen days spent playing "whales and mermaids" at the local pool. Afterwards, sprawled in front of the TV watching Nick at Nite (Mr. Ed was how I envisioned my adulthood — you know, talking-horse BFF), my skin all taut, tingly, and extra-warm after a day in the sun. Life was simple; "anxiety" was a non-word.

As far as I was concerned I was the best Louise that ever Louised, "swimming pool nachos" were the height of culinary excellence, and there was a strong chance that — if I put my mind to it — I could grow up to be a part-time Appaloosa horse. And "ghost scientist veterinarian."

As the 4th neared, my dad and I would go to one of those roadside fireworks shacks that hardly exist anymore in major cities. This was definitely one of my Top 5 Highlights of the Year.

Walking up to the fireworks shack, Dad and I would peruse the different spangly packages, comparing how many Pagodas (my favorite) and sparklers were included in each long, tall, plastic-wrapped box. While I longed for the HUGE packages with rocket-looking fireworks and thick, ribboned, multi-colored sparklers, I was afraid Dad would go bankrupt — a word I learned from my accountant father, a word I lived in complete fear of – if we indulged in such an extravagance.

As long as there was one Pagoda firework in the box, I was happy as a Ghost Scientist Veterinarian Appaloosa Horse.

On the evening of the 4th we'd go to my uncle's house down the street, where my cousin-sisters (for a while we grew up in the same house, and spent practically everyday together being parented by a rotating cast of mothers-fathers-aunts-uncles) and I would torture each other until it was time to eat barbecued chicken and hotdogs. We were SO AMERICAN; so gleefully American.

Then, as dusk fell over Seattle, it was fireworks time. As soon as the sun began setting I'd start pestering my dad about fireworks. "Soon? Soon? Maybe we should get ready?"

My dad was endlessly patient. I now recognize that as the spark of boyishness that remains in him despite his current 60-something years. He loved fireworks as much as I did, my excitement was fed by his excitement.

Then we'd start. On a quiet side street, my dad and uncle would set up the fireworks one by one. First a few simple ones that would sputter and spark red, white, and blue. Then a "snake" that when lit would silently burn, creating a long, black, slithering coil of ash. The snake was my second favorite.

Then the pagoda!

You'd light it, and it would SPECTACULARLY spin, spewing yellow sparks and flames. Sometimes it would hop around. Then just when you thought it was done, the flat, octagonal-shaped cardboard disk would pop up into a three-story pagoda. It would glow for a moment as the last embers died down. Dad would check it to make sure it was not still burning, and then give it to me.

It was my 4th of July prize. I loved how it smelled of burnt things and sulphur, and how each level had tiny little windows that you could look through to see the burnt-up "guts" of the firework.

As the evening wound down, the kids would all get sparklers and we'd chase each other around. I remember my mom sitting in a lawn chair, looking at a sparkler in the dark, gently waving it back and forth in front of her face. She was softly singing "America the Beautiful."

Now, decades later, I'm an American observing the 4th of July in Hong Kong, the place of my parents' and aunts' and uncles' birth. The place they left to live in America, to raise American children. Children who fought over the last hot dog, dueled with sparklers, and counted the days, hours, and minutes until they got their American Independence Day Pagoda.

What went through their heads as they watched their children, who answered in English to their Cantonese reprimands, celebrate the only country they had ever known? A country in many ways still so foreign and difficult to my parents?

America was my country. Did America feel like my parents' country at the time?

At the time six years, seven years, eight years was a lifetime to me, a lifetime of American fluency. But six years was only six years to my parents.

I know that the early years in America were very lonely, very disheartening for my mom. Far away from anything that made sense to her, from any familiarity, where people picked at her accented English, my mom ached for Hong Kong at times. What mixed feelings broke her heart as every year she watched her child grow ever more American (by the glow of a paper pagoda) and ever less interested in anything Chinese?

Though moving to Hong Kong had been a dream of mine for a long time in my adulthood, if I'm being totally honest, a part of me moved here for my parents. Call it "first generation guilt," but a part of me felt I owed it to them to gain even a modicum of understanding about their home, the place where they became the people who became my parents.

And here I am, I'm observing the 4th of July here in Hong Kong. By "observing" I mean my husband and I are going to eat American food tonight and watch a hot dog eating competition at a local American bar. Truth be told, like many western holidays in Hong Kong, it's an excuse for westerners to drink.

And yes, my thoughts are with my country, but really they are with my parents. I'm celebrating the good memories from so long ago, and I'm celebrating what my parents went through to give me an American life. It's not lost on me that my American life has made it possible on so many levels for me to have a comfortable Hong Kong life.

However, my thoughts on "being American" are not the only ones that are floating around my brain. This past Friday was July 1st in Hong Kong, or Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day.

What does that mouthful mean?

Simply, it means that on July 1, 19 years ago, Hong Kong was handed over to China after over 150 years of British control. On July 1, 1997 Hong Kong began 50 years of autonomy, holding on to its own political system and free-market economy. As a Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong and China are "one country, two systems."

This is part of the reason why most Hong Kongers will be quick to correct you when you say something like, "Oh, so you live in China!"

No. We live in Hong Kong.

The July 1 national holiday is a controversial day in Hong Kong. While it is nationally "regarded" as the day Hong Kong went back to her "motherland," thousands protest every year. Pro-democracy activists bring their fight for "full, unfettered democracy" to the streets, marching to the Central Government Offices.

On one hand, Hong Kong has thrived when many expected it to languish after the handover. On the other hand, Hong Kong is constantly fighting for the rights of Hong Kongers, the interests of Hong Kongers versus the interests of Beijing. Beneath the glimmering, prosperous veneer of this city, there are turbulent times.

And again my thoughts turn to my parents.

I remember the day in 1997 that Hong Kong was handed over to China. Actually it was night for my family and me in Texas — we left Seattle in 1992.

Sitting in my parents' bedroom, the TV turned to some news station, we watched the Union Jack get lowered and the flag of the People's Republic of China rise. My mom cried, my dad just stood watching in silence. While I didn't quite understand at the time the significance of what I was watching, I felt it in my bones.

While many could argue that this was finally the end of British colonial control of Hong Kong, it was also the end of the only Hong Kong my family had ever known. My parents had grown up and lived in a Hong Kong where they were basically free to do as they pleased, but now the future seemed uncertain.

Would Hong Kong become communist? Would the Hong Kong that my parents loved be erased? Could Hong Kong stand on its own?

There was fear, and there was uncertainty in that room that night. Even then, I wondered if my mom felt like she was losing her home for a second time?

Times have now changed. Hong Kong has soldiered on, and my parents as well as many other Hong Kongers' (here and abroad) fears have abated — for now. Still others continue the fight for a true Hong Kong democracy.

I am an American abroad in her parents' homeland. "Independence" is a complicated word today. Hong Kong struggles to contend with what that word means for its people. What is rosy nostalgia for me may be something entirely different, and considerably less rosy, for my parents.

But the image I can't get out of my head is my mom waving that sparkler in front her face in the twilight, singing to herself.

"America... America... God shed His grace on thee..."

What future did she see in that light? Did America seem any brighter in that moment? What wishes did she make?

I have a feeling my happiness was tied up in one of those wishes. At least in that regard, I can say that one of her wishes came true. I just hope that my mom's — my parents' — American life became something much brighter, more sustaining, than a sparkler flickering in the dark.

I hope all their wishes came true.