Dispatch: Hong Kong

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.