The word “expatriate” sounded romantic to me, like Fitzgerald’s Dr. Diver falling in love with a starlet on a beach in Southern France while his beautiful but frigid wife ignored their children on the next blanket. Or Dickie Greenleaf’s charismatic occupation of Mongibello before he walked in on Mr. Ripley slipping in and out of all his clothes, dancing in front of the mirror. I bet their American accents sounded novel when they lilted with their overseas counterparts, sexy even. Oh, to live somewhere different. Settled, but unfamiliar.
Comfortable, but maybe a bit not.
I had little idea where Hong Kong actually was a year ago. I would wave at a map and point in the general direction of “China,” but any accuracy would be a fluke. Geography is not a strong point; I often tell new acquaintances that I used to think Puerto Rico was in Europe (it sounds like a distant phonetic cousin of Portugal) to lay the groundwork for more blatant and embarrassing mistakes made later on. I lived in Nova Scotia for a year and thought it was an island–it isn’t. So I bought a plastic map of the world at a Vancouver dollar store and tacked it to my wall. I memorized the island’s proximity from other places. I started to give away my things. I got on the plane.
12 Across: English rock group. An American newspaper is delivered to the apartment each morning. One of us goes down to get it before breakfast and divides it into pages over breakfast. Bamboo scaffolding crisscrosses the windows as the outside of the building is renovated. I slice a dragon fruit in half and eat it with a spoon, a habit picked up back home. The ink from the New York Times leaves black smudges on the counter. The crossword gets increasingly harder throughout the week but it is easier to complete with someone who grew up in another continent; responsibilities for our respective cultural references are divied up. Stonehenge, somewhere in between.
Hong Kong is hot. With temperatures flirting with the mid-thirties and the air weighed down with heavy humidity, in the dead of August it was nearly impossible to walk anywhere without arriving soaked in sweat. The weather is temperamental too, one side of the island bakes in sun while the other is beaten with rain and then it rotates. The equatorial proximity makes things unpredictable. I seek solace on air-conditioned buses (boarding them at random, not caring where they were going) and in cool, white art galleries. I make notes. Flipping through my notebook, I read something I wrote down last week: “If one can wisely accumulate time, then everyone can be an artist.” I don’t think those are my words but I wish they were.
When my body gives up in the heat, I sit on the curb and drink soda in a can from 7/Eleven. Eight dollars. I mentally convert every commodity’s price into Canadian dollars before considering a purchase. On the south of the island, we drink cheap beer from giant green bottles. I fell in love in and thus with the swelter. One day I went swimming in a bikini and my belly was pink like a shrimp for a week.
I can’t shake the feeling of being an imposter in Asia. I try to take up as little space on the train as possible in a passive, meaningless act of post-colonial guilt and self doubt. Though my visa and bank account were almost too easy to get, I don’t know how to be here gracefully. It has been eighteen years since Britain ceded control of Hong Kong to China after invading and taking over in a series of unequal treaties in nineteenth century. Social, cultural and economic tensions ran deep while the English colonized and controlled Hong Kong island and surrounding territories. Eastern and western philosophies for living and commerce differed dramatically and as always, the English possessed the military and financial might needed to dominate the native people. The British invaders’ access to and taxing of opium from Bengal left many Chinese citizens addicted to the drug for decades. Chinese people were forbidden to live in certain desirable parts of the island, reserved for wealthy whites. Society was segregated and polarized due to rampant racism which persists today.
Today, many children of expatriate parents born in Hong Kong never learn to read or speak Cantonese. Certain areas of Hong Kong are dominated by white-populated bars and burger joints. Canada, though technically independent from the Empire for nearly 150 years, generates millions of dollars worth of revenue for the makers of magazines with Kate Middleton’s picture on the front. Royal drama, what was served at baby George’s birthday brunch. The Queen is on our coins. We maintain a loyalty to the crown, if only to hold on to any past so our national history is not reduced to a century and a half. So what right do I as a descendant of European colonialists have to be in a country with such a horrible past of exploiting the indigenous population? But of course, I realize, I was before as well. Last week Canadians across the country donned orange shirts to commemorate residential school survivors.
Though technically a separate entity from Mainland China, (Hong Kong is a one-country-two-systems governed Special Administrative Region,) Beijing maintains the right to only allow Mainland-approved candidates to run for office. Tensions over democracy in Hong Kong are high. The first anniversary since the pro-democracy and youth-led Umbrella movement passed last week; blue-clad police officers outnumbering the peaceful demonstrators that lined the streets. I rode seven subway stops to the Canadian Consulate to drop off my absentee voter paperwork. And after filling out fifteen incorrect forms, I finally obtained a library card and check out heavy books about contemporary Chinese art. At home, I wipe the counter clean of ink smudges from the newspaper with reports of the migrant crisis and the countries reluctant to provide refuge for foreigners for fear of losing precious national resources and identity. I fold the paper in half and fill in my North American answers to the crossword. I am learning. Slowly.