On moving back to the “homeland”

Toronto summers are incredible — but every winter when the temperature hits -20, I ask my parents why they left our tropical homeland of Trinidad. Of course I know their reasons, but I have sometimes wondered what it would be like to return “home.”

My friend Tiffany knows. Born and raised in the USA, she’s moved back to live and work in Hong Kong, the homeland her parents left. This is Tiffany’s story, of connecting with her cultural heritage, reconciling her parents memories with her own experiences of a place, and exploring her hyphenated identity as an Asian-American.

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Tiffany at the Great Wall of China. Photo credit: Sophia Rivamonte Kissin

1) What’s your family’s story? What brought them to America, and what took you back to the country your parents left?

My family is originally from Hong Kong. My father came to the United States during the 1970s on a PhD scholarship; he was accepted to study mechanical engineering and physics in a university in Southern Illinois. My mother and my brother both followed a few months later. My family seldom speaks of their time spent in Illinois, although the few stories they’ve told me share the themes of freedom, overt racism and incredibly large garden vegetables.

After my father completed graduate school, my family bounced around to a few more cities in the Midwest before settling down in the suburbs of the city where I would be born: Detroit, Michigan. I had a happy childhood: birthday parties at the roller rink, Friday night horror film fests, and summer trips to Disney World. As I grew older, I began to think more about my identity and wanted to learn more about my Chinese heritage —seventeen years in a predominantly white town left me feeling a bit distant from this side of myself. My mother shared the same fear many immigrant parents have: of children forgetting their cultural heritage and in turn, weakening familial identity and the parent-child bond; this fueled my desire to explore my Chinese culture.

I visited Hong Kong for the first time in 2008; I studied there for a semester and had an incredible time. After a year of working and living at home in Detroit after college graduation, I had saved up enough money and courage to leave my small town behind and go back East. Graduating during a recession, I was part of a cohort of college grads who were underemployed and underpaid; like my parents before me, I sought opportunities in a new land — but this time I was closing a loop. There was a graduate program in Shanghai that I was interested in, and as I had never been to mainland China, I decided to go. I naively thought this experience would be as easy and carefree as my Hong Kong exchange semester, but I was wrong. I moved to Hong Kong in 2014 after spending a couple of years living in China.

2) What was it like living in China? And now that you’re back in Hong Kong, how does it feel to have returned to your roots?

The privileges I enjoyed as an exchange student in Hong Kong didn’t apply to me while I was living in mainland China. My ability to speak Cantonese (albeit with a thick American accent) allowed me into social spaces otherwise unavailable to non-Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong; I felt welcomed, included and connected. However in mainland China, I found that many locals expected me to speak fluent Mandarin (my skills are at the conversational level). Interactions were met with confusion at best and with contempt at the worst — that I was ethnically Chinese and couldn’t speak “my” language.

I especially noticed the difference in treatment when I was out with my non-Chinese (mainly white) friends. There was zero expectation of them speaking the language and attempts were always met with praise. In China, whiteness can serve as cultural shorthand to ‘Americanness’ and both come with privileges. Even though I am also American, I was not identified as such because of my Chinese ethnicity. I also wasn’t “Chinese enough” to be Chinese. The uncertainty of my visa status and the overall social expectations placed on me were emotionally exhausting –- after two years, I decided to leave. Because I wasn’t ready to go back to the States, I decided to try my luck in Hong Kong this time. I knew Hong Kong would be much easier for me for two important reasons: my legal status to work in Hong Kong and my ability to speak Cantonese.

Returning to Hong Kong allowed me to explore my Chinese identity in a way I couldn’t in the States, and also allowed me to embrace this identity in a way I couldn’t in mainland China.

3) Have you experienced any “culture shock” or was the life/cultural transition of moving to Hong Kong a smooth one?

Moving to Hong Kong was actually an easy transition, mainly due to my ability to speak Cantonese. Hong Kong prides itself on being a “global” and “world-class” city. Fiber-optic internet, direct flights to over 140 cities around the world, malls that close at 10:00 p.m. — it’s really easy living in Hong Kong. There’s a saying that as long as you are willing to pay for it, Hong Kong will sell it.

What has been difficult to adjust to are the values and social norms of the city. Advertisements are often a reflection of what a society values, and Hong Kong is a city that places a high value on appearance. From the seats of the bus, to the sides of buildings, there is no part of the city where you can escape the clutch of consumerism. Luxury brands are plastered alongside advertisements for Botox, breast augmentation and weight loss clinics. Furthermore, matters that are considered personal, like weight gain or skin imperfections, are deemed appropriate topics for small talk. It’s not uncommon for people to comment on my freckles, with reactions ranging from surprise to offers of “helpful” home remedies to remove my “blemishes.” There have also been inquiries about whether I am mixed race (I am not).

I continue to negotiate my identity in Hong Kong, but now it’s more about what a woman should look like and aspire to, versus the cultural connection and acceptance I was seeking in the States.

4) Has moving back caused a shift in your perceptions of your own culture?

My mother would always lament how terrible the Cantonese food was in the Midwest. We would have to drive four hours from Detroit to Toronto to satisfy my mother’s cravings (and visit family). And when in Toronto, she would comment that Toronto’s dim sum could not compare to that of Hong Kong. When I arrived in Hong Kong, I had very high expectations of the culinary scene; the reality I experienced was a mixed bag. Anxiety over the 1997 handover created a mass exodus of talent to Canada and the States, with many people from creative industries and the culinary world leaving the city; a number of Hong Kong’s greatest dim sum chefs are now based in Toronto and Vancouver. To make matters worse, rising rents stifle creativity in the current Hong Kong culinary scene, and act as high barriers to entry for new talent.

This is not to say that Hong Kong doesn’t have great food —far from it. But the world my mother painted vastly differs from the reality I live. I enjoy Hong Kong cuisine, but I don’t know if it’s as good as the nostalgic recollections imprinted in my psyche —I don’t know that anything could be. Political and economic shifts have changed Hong Kong —it’s not the place it was in my mother’s memories.

5) Has moving back to China challenged your sense of identity?

My time spent in mainland China and Hong Kong has been a constant negotiation of expectation, acceptance and reality. These experiences have challenged my identity as a hyphenated American and made me realize that I relate most easily with other hyphenated Americans (Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, etc.), as my values are a blend of both my Hong Kong Chinese and American identities.

You can follow Tiffany’s Hong Kong exploits and exploration on Instagram at @xiuuxiuu.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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