Monthly Archives: September 2009

我在香港出生,但我在加拿大长大。 But wait, there’s more–

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?)

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Maybe I’m just a snooty Hong Konger

After an afternoon of wandering along Shanghai’s famous shopping street (南京西路) and in and out of no less than five malls, I’ve realized why mainlanders are obsessed with going to Hong Kong to shop. There’s simply nothing to buy here. I know one day and the length of four metro stations might not yield a rigorous enough sample of shops, but go into (almost) any Hong Kong mall with an open mind and a couple hundred in cash and you’ll most likely come out with more than a bottle of 乌龙茶 (Oolong tea) and a box of (Watsons, might I add) side-sealed facial puffs. Where are the everyman malls? Or is it simply that in China, malls are only for the rich? I could get better deals in Canada, sales tax notwithstanding.

Also, what is with people’s 服务态度? This country obviously missed Hong Kong’s giant ad campaign about the necessity of good service. Trying to return a rice cooker (because the pan interior had no measuring lines) at Carrefour today was a nightmare. (Carrefour is SH’s upscale Walmart, with signs all over the place telling you that you can get a refund with your receipt “If you change your mind within 7 days of purchase”. How generous.)

First I was met with (in Mandarin, of course):
“What’s wrong with the rice cooker?”
“Nothing, I bought the wrong one.”
“You can’t return it if it doesn’t have any problems.” (Note that I returned a wok earlier this week with no questions asked.)
“It doesn’t have numbers.” (I didn’t know how to say measuring lines.)

She ignored me for a while, until I asked her again if I could return it. With an exasperated sigh, she said something into a walkie-talkie and five minutes later this guy showed up.

“What’s wrong with it?”
“It doesn’t have numbers. I don’t want it anymore.” (i.e. I changed my freaking mind.)
I pointed at the picture on the box, and drew lines with my finger.
“Oh. You can’t get a refund.”
“How come? The sign says [stumbling in Mandarin now] you can return it for whatever reason.”
[With a sneer] “Are you Chinese?”
At this point I could no longer stand communicating in a language I hadn’t mastered, so I told him what it says on the sign, in English.
“I don’t know what you just said.”
“Is there anyone here who speaks English?”


Then I was led downstairs to the appliances section, where three salespeople who didn’t speak English were standing around. The dude briefly described my situation, and they opened up the box–“Have you used it?” “No, I haven’t used it”–and asked me why I wanted to return it. I asked them what the big deal was. One of them, inspecting its contents, told me I could exchange it for another one, pointing to a rice cooker double the price of the old one. At that point I was so irritated that they’d wasted all this time that I told them I don’t want to buy another one now, I just don’t want this one. The woman then got really angry, shoved the box into my hands, and told me that if I return this don’t ever come back to buy another one, and that I have to bring it upstairs myself to get a refund.

Bring it upstairs to get a refund? That’s precisely what I tried to do in the first place. And yeah, don’t expect me to ever come back for appliances (though I might send Sean, hah).

I don’t want to think any less of this city, or to be constantly judging it, but I’m sick of being constantly pushed around like I’m the one who’s being ridiculous.

Sorry, Shanghai, but you have a long way to go.

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Excuse me while I scrub off the rust,

hunt for words that have long seeped from my active vocabulary to my passive, and relearn how to write for an audience–if indeed I will have one. My prior attempt at blogging, during my 2006 New York City Summer in which I foolishly hoped to follow in James Boswell’s London footsteps (minus the mistresses and gonorrhea), met a fate similar to that of an opened, disregarded soda. I am optimistic that this time will be different, that I will write aplenty, because:

1) For now, I am back to a student without a job (though looking for one!), which means I am once again in dire need of meaningful means of procrastination;
2) the long-forgotten part of my brain that guards my verbal creativity has finally delivered an ultimatum;
3) Shanghai is fascinating, bewildering, horrific, and thus inspiring; and
4) until I figure out how to regain access to Facebook, most people who want to know what I’m up to without resorting to the formality of electronic mail will have to visit me here. And, yes, here, in what seems like China’s version of myspace, coz I can’t access anything else. (At least there is the promise of at least one reader, the Chinese with the power to block my page if I happen to write anything mildly volatile.)

Trying to develop my writing in English while studying Chinese in an immersion environment is going to be interesting. I’ve been here for just two weeks and have already caught myself thinking in Mandarin every now and then (还可以 is such a delectable phrase), probably just because I am forced to communicate in the language wherever I go. I lost my Chinese while learning English as a child, and now fear the return of subtractive bilingualism, or some permutation of it, all loathsome creatures. In any case, this is one more reason I need to keep this blog–my English degree cost my parents too much.

I know my efforts at humour/wit often come out a mixture of cheese and corn, but please bear with me. Comments–both positive and constructively negative–are always welcome, though as a creep who likes to read blogs without leaving a trace, I will understand if you do the same.

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