If I thought answering the question “where are you from?” was somewhat bothersome during my five years in the US, I should’ve had a little foresight about how I would tackle this question once I finally left. ‘Cause it’s just gotten a whole lot more complicated, not least because I’ve just moved to a country that doesn’t recognize dual citizenship.
A couple months ago, in the States, I could’ve gotten away with a quick (and in English, of course) I was born in Hong Kong, moved to Canada when I was little, and went back to Hong Kong for high school, from which any person with some common sense would gather that I then came to America for university and have been there since. Or I’d start with the Hong Kong bit, to which they would then ask why my English is so good, to which I would in turn hit them with the Canada part.
In Vancouver and Hong Kong, whose residents have observed or experienced this pattern of migration for the last twenty years or so, such a brief explanation is also usually sufficient. Those who are interested in the details will ask; those who aren’t will typically just accept it. Even on vacations in HK during my college years, most locals could immediately tell I’d just come back from studying in some English-speaking country (the Cantonese version of 啊，你从外国回来), and forgive, at least superficially, my accented Cantonese, non-skinniness, dress style, and so forth.
This is not to say I never felt out of place in these places–I did. Much as I appreciate having friends around the world, having experienced immigration, and being a so-called “global citizen”, I have often wished that I could have a place in the world with which I were intimately familiar, where I could feel complete belonging. Nonetheless, I always ultimately viewed my having grown up in an international context to be a good thing. I was proud of my Canadian passport, because in spite of all my cultural, linguistic, and social identity issues, I was at least certain of my nationality. I knew what to write on the forms. Being a Canadian citizen seemed to give me easy access to (most of) the rest of the world. (The US work visa ordeal is another story, best left for another day/lifetime).
This changed, of course, coming into China, a nation that believes that a person should be loyal only to one country. As I realized when my school sent me materials for my visa application (visa? But I’m a Hong Kong person!), writing “Canadian” on my application form was the wrong thing to do; being Canadian no longer gave me the upper hand in the situation. Refusing to waste time and money on a visa, I entered China as a HK person and, long and frustrating story short, was able to switch my student identity to “HK, China”, and got a 15% tuition discount to boot.
Nationality problem solved for now. But back to the inevitable question, now phrased as (please forgive/correct poor grammar from here onwards): 你是什么地方的人？ 你从哪里来的？ Most of my classmates are able to answer this without batting an eye. After nearly two weeks of trying to strike a balance between the accurate and the concise (and being able to answer without stumbling in Mandarin), I’ve settled on what I wrote in the title of this post, that I was born in HK but grew up in Canada–the latter mainly to explain why I’m here studying Chinese/why my Chinese sucks, depending on who I’m talking to.
But this balance is a troubling compromise, because it leaves out my return to Hong Kong (and studying in an international school) as well as my recent years in the States, which, ironically, is both the place where I felt most comfortable identity-wise and the main object of my current homesickness. By omitting these two critical facts, I feel like I am somehow cheating myself out of my own life history, but who has time for a lengthy and convoluted response to such a supposedly simple question? Besides, I currently lack the language skills to explain how my time in the States was significant in any way apart from giving me a college degree.
All this is to say that I am experiencing an identity crisis like never before. But maybe most of this frustration stems from the language barrier, my current linguistic handicap. Since our identity is shaped by how we think others see us (sorry, Cooley, if I’ve butchered the concept you’re most famous for), being unable to fully explain myself to others is causing self-doubt about how to identify myself. If this is true, this crisis will pass with time, and my thoughts will gradually move away from the self-indulged.
(The saddest change coming from the States to China is probably how, instead surprising of the average local with my amazing English (if I may say so myself, heh), I am constantly puzzling–or, as in the case of the Carrefour employee in the previous post, inciting the disgust of–locals here with my vastly inferior Chinese. Ironically, the source of both these phenomena can be attributed to my childhood years in Canada. Why oh why didn’t I work harder in Chinese school?)