First published in Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest 28, no. 6 (August 18-September 7, 2015): 15.
White mist rises from the cardboard cup, the warmth of the coffee trickling to her palms through the khaki-grey tissue. Her hands inch their way to her lips, bringing the cup with them but then just as slowly bring themselves down.
Indecipherable conversations pass her by; idly she catches snippets of Cantonese, quick speech with hanging syllables, Mandarin, clipped yet flowing.
Usually she’ll amuse herself, picking out the different pronunciations between the two. Usually this activity amuses her, makes her feel less of an outsider but not today.
She stuffs her earphones in her ears, raising the volume, Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway” blocking any outside sounds. Blankly, she stares down at the pitch black drink, its steam fogging up her glasses, blocking her red swollen eyes.
“You live in Hong Kong? Why don’t you speak Cantonese!”
“Oh, you’re a Filipino…but you’re not a domestic helper?”
“You look like a local but your English is so good.”
“…..Oh, I am sorry. Bye bye.”
Once upon a time, she would have exuberantly declare that Hong Kong is her home. She would proclaim that she loves Hong Kong and she belongs here.
The happy conversations about Hong Kong with the taxi drivers. Her building’s guards’ smiles when she greeted them, “Jóusàhn” or when she gave them red packets for Chinese New Year. Playing the cymbals for the Lion Dance. Riding the sampan, loving every rolling moment.
Her indignation when someone says that Hong Kong is a part of China. The warm feeling from taking a bite of shao mia off the small wooden stake, dipped in soy sauce from the street vender in Causeway Bay, the quiet of the Central library, the weekend market in Victoria Park, Sunday afternoons on the IFC’s roof, chatting with the domestic helpers enjoying their day off.
“Hong Kong will always be my home. It’s where I belong.”
Was that really only three years ago? That deep certainty, naïve and wrong as it had been, had been a comforting anchor. When did her conviction start to falter? When did Hong Kong start feeling like a stranger? Or was it she who has become a stranger to Hong Kong? Or had she been estranged from the start and was too blind to know it?
When she was about 12, she got her first inkling that she was not a true Hong Konger. Her classmate told her class what someone had said about her when she was waiting for the school bus.
“She said, ‘Don’t be like her. Don’t be English.’” ‘Them’ referring to international school students. Her.
Her hands clasp the cup tighter, a thin stream of hot coffee washing down her hand. She puts it down, carefully, ignoring the burning on her fingers.
Now that she really thought about it, that wasn’t the first time. When she was in kindergarten, her classmates spoke another language (Cantonese, she knows now) to each other.
She had tried to mimic them but while her speech sounded vaguely like them, it was nothing but gibberish. She stayed in her little corner, in the very back. She wasn’t one of them. She still isn’t.
A particularly loud stream of Cantonese defeats the loud volume of her iPod. She raises the volume to the highest decibel, the lyrics of Tokio Hotel’s ‘Strange’ mocking her.
Breathing through her nose, she turns away from the stream of people, and surveys the sea and buildings spread over the railing.
Was she less of a Hong Konger because her Cantonese was so limited? Was she less of a Hong Konger because she attended an international school? Was she less of a Hong Konger because her skin is not the same? Was she less of a Hong Konger because she spoke English without an accent?
Was she less of a Hong Konger because her parents were not born here? Was she less of a Hong Konger because her parents do not speak Cantonese? Was she less of a Hong Konger because she wasn’t born here?
Had Hong Kong been her home at all?
Her eyes becomes damp, her mouth tilts down. A faint struggling gasp rises up as she gropes for her coffee. Shadows are settling. Leisurely steps give way to hurry.
The 5:20 boat to Discovery Bay casts off and begins to bob its way to the other side. Cold air brushes her fingers as she finally closes her hand over the cardboard cup.
She brings the cup to her lips.
(This story won this writer first place in the Hong Kong University story writing contest in 2015.)