After a cramped thirteen hour flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong, I’m finally in view of the immigration gates that stand as the final hurdle between me and the outside world. In the distance, I can already see people eagerly crowding into the lineup, clutching their passports and entry forms. However, instead of falling into place at the end of that line, I pull out my Hong Kong Identity Card and breeze past everyone to the self-service immigration system.
This method is infinitely more efficient than speaking to a customs officer but it’s only accessible by certain groups of people, such as Chinese citizens or permanent residents of Hong Kong. To the casual outside observer, I probably look a Hong Kong local with the privilege of moving past the line with my identity card but it doesn’t take too much to realize that I am far from what you would consider a local.
I moved to Vancouver from Hong Kong at a young age and despite my regular return visits, my Canadian identity tends to be stronger than my Hong Kong identity. What, you may ask, exactly is a Hong Kong identity? After all Hong Kong is known to be one of the most diverse and multicultural places in Asia so can there really be one distinct identity?
I’ll maintain that there is for the local people who have lived there for the majority of their lives. Similarly to how people will say that practising yoga is such a “Vancouver” thing to do, there are some things that are very “Hong Kong”.
Here is a list of five things that made me realize I’m not a local anymore:
1. The way I talk
Yes, I can speak Cantonese and I often do so even in Canada. But, I do not have the ability to wield colloquialisms like a local. This was particularly apparent when I was talking to people around my own age who pepper their speech with a constant flow of slang I have little to no exposure to. Sometimes the slang makes sense and other times it doesn’t. Imagine trying to explain to someone why “on fleek” means what it does – it’s harder than you think.
Not to mention, my natural instinct to speak English actually had me frequently responding to people completely in English before checking myself and repeating myself in Cantonese. This habit made it fairly easy for people to identify me as someone who didn’t live in Hong Kong.
2. The way I dress
In general, I found that people in Hong Kong tend to dress more conservatively than people in Canada despite the massive variety of clothing available to shop for. I especially felt the effects of this when I was getting myself ready to go out at night. Things that I would not have thought twice about in North America suddenly came under scrutiny as I dithered between different outfits and makeup.
Normally, a low-cut tank and dark lips is hardly something I would balk at wearing but it quickly became apparent that that was not the norm. My friends would comment on the amount of makeup I was wearing even though it didn’t seem that much to me at all. Strangers would ask me where I’m from, automatically assuming I’m not a Hong Konger until I eventually tried toning my look down. Afterwards, I rarely got asked and instead of starting conversations with me in English, people would speak to me in Cantonese first.
3. Resistance to cold
This was probably one of the most obvious indicators that I was not from Hong Kong. When everybody else is wrapped up in jackets and scarves, the one person wearing shorts is bound to draw some sort of attention. Years of living in Canadian winters have trained me to be immune to the relatively balmy weather of Hong Kong. Even in the winter months, never once did the temperature drop to a level at which I felt it necessary to don a jacket. As a result, whenever I left the house, I received many comments about how strong I was to walk around in nothing but a t-shirt.
4. Not liking dessert
I didn’t realize that dessert was a big deal until one night, when several of my friends who had lived in Hong Kong their whole lives asked if I wanted to go for dessert after dinner.
“I’m not really much a sweets person,” I replied. They stared at me in bemusement, unable to grasp such a concept. Apparently, such a thing was unheard of. “All girls in Hong Kong love dessert,” one of them informed me, “You’re really not from Hong Kong, huh?”
I can well believe her, given the great number of dessert spots around every corner and all the pictures I see on Instagram documenting them. I ended up going along with them and even obligingly took a couple pictures of my, frankly delicious, ice cream/bubble waffle hybrid for my Instagram. My friend, upon spying my subpar photo editing skills, commandeered my phone and with a series of deft taps, transformed the image into a dreamy vision of sweets.
“Come on,” she said, “You’re going to have to learn how to make your food look good if you want to be posting about Hong Kong.”
5. My need for personal space
Living in Vancouver, it’s easy to lose perspective on the sheer amount of personal space we’re all lucky to have. Whenever I travel to a place that’s even slightly more densely populated, I begin to feel claustrophobic. When going to Hong Kong, which has a population density of approximately 6600 people per square kilometre – for comparison, the Greater Vancouver area has approximately 800 people per square kilometre – I feel absolutely overwhelmed.
People, like my mother, who have been in Hong Kong their whole lives move through the crowds with ease, somehow slipping like quicksilver between invisible gaps in a seemingly impenetrable wall of oncoming traffic. For someone like me, who is much taller than the average Hong Konger, this is impossible. So I lumber after her disappearing figure, awkwardly trying to turn my body to the flow of people and always inevitably failing to catch up until she deigns to wait for me.
“Walk with aggressive body language,” a friend advised, “People will just move out of your way if you look aggressive.” He then turned from me and barged his way through the rush hour crowds, leaving me in his slipstream. This was equally difficult for me. I’m used to apologizing to others on the streets of Vancouver if I even slightly bump up against them and I was not prepared to go about my daily business elbowing my way through people.
So, there you have it. Five things that made me realize I do not quite count as a local anymore in Hong Kong. However, I am not alone in my experience of foreignness with the place I originally came from. Many other reverse immigrants also go through a little bit of a culture shock when they return, as Andrea Yu details in her article. At the end of the day, I find that people’s opinions of whether or not I am local doesn’t really matter. I am comfortable being in Hong Kong despite my occasional unfamiliarity with it. All I can do is hope that one day I will be able to edit photographs of my food with as much conviction and skill as local Hong Kongers do.