A second-generation immigrant in Canada travels to his ancestral homeland of Hong Kong. There, amidst protests and politics, he develops a sense of identity and finds himself far more than just a stranger.
It was over. In 2020, a National Security Law swept through the once clamoring streets of Hong Kong, and now; silence. As a second-generation immigrant in Canada, I remember feeling a pang of sadness which I felt the need to suppress and distance myself from to embrace my identity of the nation I was raised in. Yet, I could not help but care for the city that symbolized home and heritage, as my mind replayed my last visit to Hong Kong.
In the summer of 2019, I made the long 16-hour journey from Toronto to Hong Kong. Canada, the world’s second-largest country, had always seemed small in comparison to the way my family described their home city, and looking down through a birds-eye view of the city from my cramped economy seat, I understood why.
Glass skyscrapers dotted the city skyline, and right in between two spaces of busy urbanization lay a calming harbor of glistening water facilitating an endless stream of polluting boats. Once I landed, the first taste of Hong Kong entered my mouth through the form of a sponge like Bubble Waffle. Bubble Waffles could also be found in Toronto and especially in the Asian diaspora I grew up in, such Hong Kong delicacies could be found in every other plaza; however, this felt different in its familiarity. As I continued to munch down on my Bubble Waffle, a sudden wave of realization hit me. The tastes that formed my upbringing and identity nearly half a world away, originated from one of these unassuming street vendors I was directly facing.
As the baking summer days passed, I grew more accustomed to the city’s normal mundane lifestyle. I accompanied my aunts to the wet markets for fresh meat and vegetables and sought refuge in the air-conditioned malls. With the groceries my family bought, they cooked the same traditional Cantonese dishes that I grew up with in Toronto. I was not on vacation in a five-star hotel or a hippie indie AirBnB on the Kowloon side, but in the multi-generational home, my mother and aunts grew up in. Although I came into the city expecting a “fresh start”, a sense of familiarity traveled with me into every grocery store I went to, or every traditional bakery and dessert shop that my family took me to.
Perhaps my exposure to Hong Kong media when I was a child could be the answer to this mysterious ambiance. Accustomed to seeing the iconic Hong Kong streets in old 80s movies, and constantly hearing the staccato tune of Cantonese on Television, the atmosphere and scene of the city was ingrained into me as a child. When my father took me to visit his old high school, all the stories he told me simply clicked once I saw the old building. This can be said with every aspect of my trip, as the lifestyle was so different from my upbringing, yet strangely familiar and alluring.
Familiarization with geography was another aspect of life that I latched onto. By the halfway point of the trip, I took a daring step of exploration. Waking up impressively early for once, I chose to spend my unheard-of free time indulging in a staple of Hong Kong cuisine, diner-styled breakfast. However, my family was busy on that fateful morning, so I took the decision to head down to the city on my own. I took the curving mountain roads many times, but in the heat of newfound independence, I momentarily lost myself on one of the old and rusting stairs that dotted the city. My expression bled frustration and anxiety, but a nice grandma offered me directions. After a few minutes of struggling and embarrassing conversation, I found my way down to the main town. The noodles I ate that morning were a rewarding experience that I never felt before.
As I continued to explore the crowded streets of Hong Kong, the protests were brewing. Following the announcement of an Extradition Bill between Hong Kong and the mainland, nearly two million people went out onto the streets in protest. While the protests grew increasingly violent with tear-gas and injuries piling up, I tried to maintain an impartial view of a clueless foreigner, but the heavy atmosphere weighed on me. I thought the idea of relating to the protests to be false and unnatural as I was accustomed to believing myself to be different. Not fully Canadian, but neither completely Hong Konger, However, my aunt saw my struggle for identity, and took me to one of the rallies. Pounding rain bounced off the vibrantly colored umbrellas, and for several hours I saw hundreds of thousands of people marching in unison.
For the first time, I saw and experienced a common struggle. Not from the sideline comfort of a dead suburb, or on the Television of my family’s 19th-floor apartment, but in the heart of a city in peril. When I returned home to Toronto, I questioned everything. How truly “authentic” was my trip, and how could I relate to a city I only visited once? Then I ate. In my deep thought, I had already consumed half of my delicious HK-Styled Baked Tomato Pork Chop Rice, and then I looked around. I heard endless conversations in pure Cantonese, and cups of silky smooth milk teas being served to customers at a systematically frenetic pace.
The moment took me back to Hong Kong, and I saw the deep roots that connected me to a city I only experienced a few weeks ago. In Cantonese, the word for “go” is “去” (pronounced “heoi”), and when describing the action of going to destination, this is nearly always the universal term. Not for Hong Kong though. I, alongside my siblings, family and friends use the word “返“ (pronounced “faan”), meaning “return”. 返香港.