Arriving unromantically sweaty at the Shek Lap Kwok International Airport, the self-proclaimed cultural/architectural/technological "gem" of Hong Kong, I stepped into the painstakingly modern interior of the terminal. My mother led my brother and I through the convenient multilingual-if badly syntaxed-directional signs that smothered every possible wall space. I dragged my suitcase, precariously full of unusable objects and articles of thick winter clothing I had, for some unconceivable reason at the moment of packing, deemed important, up the iridescent glass escalators, which was straining under the weight of many more others like me, an army with our foreign-yet-familiar possessions, vacuum-packed into tasteful Italian luggage.
Since I started high school (which provided me with a wider range of social groups to connect with in comparison to the much smaller and socially- selective grade school I came from), I had never associated with the Chinese community (except to perform plays and dances in highly eroticised/Westernized festivals) or even with individual Chinese. The close group of friends that I had developed was the epitome of Canadian multiculturalism, consisting of a Sri Lankan, an Irish, an African- American, a Macedonian and a Pole, but never another Chinese/Korean/Japanese/Taiwanese/etc girl.
I had never dated Asians either: most of the boyfriends I had up to the trip were Hispanics, African-Americans or Italians. I never knew why I had a proclivity against Asians despite the fact that I am obviously of Asian heritage. Most Asians I talked to briefly during classes had a strong sense of race preservation and went out of their way to get to form Asian-only communities while I had never felt an inclination to even get to know my "own" culture better. I devoted myself to contact sports like rugby and lacrosse, which were stereotypically not games that Asians would risk playing, with their smaller frames, and took pride in my growing ability to speak English and French. By the time I was 12, I had forgotten how to speak Chinese.
I suppose that the only reason/excuse that I have was that, over the span of junior high school, Asian classmates had brutalized me so viciously that, for a period of time, in a self-defeating reaction, I refused to talk or eat and went on the predictable teenage-angst acts of self-mutilation. Truthfully, the fact that they were Asians was not exceptional- my grade school was of Catholic-faith and located in an area that was primarily inhabited by the Chinese or Italians- and in all likelihood, the pain I suffered was not the result of race issues but the result of immaturity on both sides. But, because of these incidents, I had learned to associate Asians with social unpleasantness.
I didn't know what to expect from this trip, having to be forced to "deal" with for a long period of time, a city full of people that I had systemically avoided for three years. In my mind, I had already set up derogatory stereotypes of the people I would have to meet or reacquaint myself with: the Dragon-Bitch (and the Dragon-Bitches-to-be's), the Diminutive Pushover, the Heartless Business Tycoon, the Opium Druggie. I presumed that these stereotypes were the only potential of my race.
Before the trip, I looked at dog-eared pictures to memorize the Chinese titles that I must call my relatives by. To my utter delight, I bear no physical resemblance to any of "them", even the loathed women, except for the requisite long black hair, which I rebelliously decided to cut with a kitchen knife, Mulan-style. Even the stereotypical Chinese/Asian golden skin was not a shared feature. I noticed that my third aunt, with her chemically-induced white skin similar to the anaemic paleness of my concubine/ arsenic-druggie grandmother, had the mark of the beauty that wealth provides while my own mother's skin was tinted the colour of fresh clay. So even physically, I had separated myself from "them".
I had relatives, which I would greet, not by their given names but only by their titles, that were waiting for me at the end of the glass escalator tunnels, ready to take me into their arms and carry me back into their world, which I considered to be, only by coincidence, mine for the duration. They were only my shield, my passport, and my excuse back into the world my family ran away from during my childhood. With an indignant look on my face (that I am still embarrassed about), I stepped outside the commercialized safety of the airport and greeted the city I grew up in.
The first thing I realized was that the geography of the city had changed. Most the skyscrapers that now dotted the Hong Kong skyline was still unimagined and unneeded at my departure from the city eleven years ago. My relatives all spoke of the buildings as if they, with their uncanny cleanness and foreign Libeskind-styled architecture, symbolized the texture and strength of Hong Kong. My first Uncle-by-marriage, a contractor, recounted in excruciating detail how he contributed to the building of the Victoria Bridge by bartering down the price of European glass (or was it pipes?); my fourth uncle, a lab assistant, happily told me how the hospital he worked at received and nursed injured construction workers during the building process of a convention centre that I thought looked embarrassingly like the Sydney Opera House.
In my "learned" and unimpressed state-of-mind-and lack of knowledge about cityscape dynamics, I did not believe the indulgence of the new and very impressive landmarks were needed. I saw the happiness of my numbered relatives as irrelevant and saw the projects as unauthentic to the Chinese culture: the Victoria Bridge was made of European-made products. the making of the convention centre was accident ridden. Even at that age, I hated to think of how I looked to them: Ungraceful, messy hair, bad skin, ungrateful, snobby, and dour... I was insufficient in so many ways. I was smart enough to know that they knew that I was trying to avoid being questioned about my life, thus opening myself to criticism. I instinctively hated the self-consciousness that they instilled in me.
Embarrassed with my embarrassment, I didn't say much when they asked about my world. I let my mother talk for me, answering the polite questions with even more polite answers that even I could only remember because of the underlying stinging insults.
-How is your daughter doing at school?
-Not so well. quite bad at math, I'm afraid
-That's what happens when you let them slip. My daughter on the other hand.
-.. Art -Oh no! Is that all she's good at? You know how all artists turn out!
-Drugs and so casual with their bodies!
-My daughter is becoming an accountant. she's dating a foreigner.
-Your daughter is quite pretty. She'll be fine... Not like this dour. -... She can stand to lose some weight. and fix those eyes. slits like a fox.
In retaliation, I started to attack everything about the Hong Kong lifestyle, trying to stash egos and repair my own with hypocritical, self- righteous ranting that I learned to use and abuse while working with Amnesty International. Despite the last ten years of city renaissance and reconstruction, I still saw the same poverty and compliance of lower standard living that I saw as a child. I reminded them at family get- togethers that my second uncle lived with his family in an apartment the size of my living room or my sixth uncle lived in an even smaller area with his bartender girlfriend.
I pressed at uncomfortable issues until my relatives, eyes staring demurely at the car floor, mumbled an incoherent answer to my question. Sadistically happy with my progress, I'd sweetly bring up the next piece of dirt:
So 4th Aunt-in-Law, is your daughter still anorexic? I heard she refused her rice!
My family always considered my second female cousin, the third niece born a month younger than me, the most beautiful.
Her eyes were large and doe-like, with the alien double-fold that was always bragged about by her mother, my second aunt, and jealously teased and mocked by the rest of the less fortunate females: That girl doesn't look a thing like her father. her face is like a foreigner's. Though I'll never admit it, I envied her also. But she never cared about the whispering that was shielded so flimsily and instead pored over her expensive Japanese magazines in search of more ways to be beautiful and make the others more jealous. She decided that she liked my bored demeanour, lack of threatening physical beauty, and ability to light a cigarette. By then, I had learned to defend myself from the city's culture by following the counter-culture culture and scowling at the "bourgeois" (which I was unwillingly a part of) was becoming second nature. I still let her take me out shopping, buying extravagant clothing from risqué French boutiques, asking if her outfits looked like the ones I saw in Paris.
I didn't know but I was flattered she asked.
She liked to pretend in the Foreigner's Quarter that she was a Japanese tourist, a stranger just like them. I would stand there, unhelpful, while she happily chatted up a handsome Japanese youth with truly exotic eyes, who would, to her dismay, ignore her and ask me about my travels. I wish I had the chance to see Argentina. I've been to Hong Kong a million times! Satisfied, I would laugh with him and at her.
After her anger was washed away under a cloud of redeeming cigarette smoke at the local Bubble Tea and sushi bar, she would tell me about her life here to prove to me that her life is just as exciting, over-privileged and under-appreciated as mine. She would giggle about her newest plaything, whose name, for some reason kept changing to fit in with the names of the Western rock stars/movie stars/hipsters/debutants/smoke brands that I told her about. One day her boyfriend's name would be Bruce Mau, the next day Jarvis Cocker, and a week later DuMaurier Extra Lights. Though she promised many times that I would meet him, I never did, but it was not important.
Later on, I met another Canadian tourist who was, as later described by my mother, very tall, very hairy, very male, and very white. We had met while lost in a more desolate part of the city, trying to find the same, badly mapped, subway station. After deciding it would be best to have some company in this area (both of us looking like obviously confused tourists), we ended up walking back to Central together. He said he liked my highly self-ironical "Canadian Girls Kicks Ass" t-shirt: his sister also had one.
I smiled sweetly, not really paying attention to what he was saying: I couldn't bring myself to care. I played with his homesickness, his need for the Western comfort, and played up my "Canadian-ness" by name-dropping bands and attractions. Under the blinding glare of a neon-signs-happy décor of an over-priced malt shop (approximately five dollars Canadian for a powdery pre-packaged shake), he promptly asked me out for a movie the next day. In my years as a "romantically-active" teen, I had no trouble finding a date but I still left wondering how I, in spite of living in a place largely populated by the Chinese, managed to attract an impressive tall, hairy white boy.
My mother proudly recounted the incident to my female relatives, happy with my so-called "luck". I looked demurely down at the new books I had bought at the museum, pretending not to listen.
-Oh she's not so useless after all. with the drawings
-Maybe that girl will be able to marry a rich white man
-...No working. and jewellery. large house
My second female cousin, the beautiful one, not wanting to be outdone, walked up to me, for the first time unsure of her sexual prowess. What good were her boyfriends in Chai Wan compared to a white Canadian? Little did she know that he lived on a farm in Winnipeg. It was then that I realized that I did not want her to be envious of me. I was not exceptional; I was not different. I was exactly what I feared to be. Someone who was easily made jealous. Someone who was frightened at another's brilliance. Someone who was afraid of criticism. A stereotype I didn't want to be.
All this time, I toyed with people who revealed their needs to me, trying to shield my own. I wasn't making any one important to me happy. Who was I to act this way to any of them?
Sung-Hei, she shyly whispered to me, calling me by name not title.
Does this white boy have a better-looking friend he can introduce me to?