Two weeks ago, we had the National Day of China. It’s a big thing this year, the 70th birthday of a rebuilt nation. Living in Hong Kong, it’s also a big thing this year, for quite a different reason. I, among all other normal citizens, had to endure a complete lockdown in the midst of the most severe crisis this city has ever seen since the handover 22 years ago.
I’ve never felt so spilt up the way I felt on that day, Oct 1 2019. On one side of the border, where I was born and raised, the whole 1.4 billion population is fanatically celebrating the greatness and unprecedented strength of this country, while on the other side of the border, where I have lived in the past 14 years, people are enveloped in a state of extreme nervousness and busy telling each other “stay safe” to express their care and concern for each other, if any left. Moreover, as a smallest unit being swirled up in this history-making turbulence, I can’t help but feel, for the first time in my life, that being a Chinese, at this moment, means more than ever, not even on a collective level, but on a personal level.
Growing up in China, a country with the reputation of “brainwashing” its people with patriotism education system, I actually never think of myself as patriotic. This is consistent with my natural lack of sense of belonging to anywhere, any group. The idea of functioning as a group, taking pride in being part of a group and looking up unconditionally to the leader of that group is simply nowhere to be found in me. Since little, I already know I can only function as my own proxy. This individualism nature of me, when I tried to trace the source of it, is probably related to my family education when I was little.
A very early memory that I still quite vividly remember was when I was in kindergarten, the schoolmaster was a man very popular and well-respected in our campus and all kids would endearingly call him “Grandpa Jin” as instructed by the teachers. I mentioned this to my father one day on the back of his bicycle when he came to pick me up, telling something like “Grandpa Jin came to see us today in the kindergarten, I was very happy”. To my surprise, my father immediately corrected me in all seriousness, “He is not your grandpa, you shouldn’t call him that.” And just like that, as little as a kindergarten child, sensing from my father’s negative attitude towards a suspected attempt of personality cult, I learned for the first time in my life that, I don’t wanna be part of these campaigns, it’s a silly thing to do. Thinking back, I’m still not sure whether Jin’s popularity was naturally or tactfully developed – in fact, I have nothing against that man but respect, he might indeed have been a great educator, as the founding headmaster of the school where I spent my whole adolescence years – but I never called him Grandpa Jin again, while everyone else continued to do so until the day he passed away two years ago.
At 18, I came to Hong Kong for university. My individualism ideology was further strengthened with the western values that I was immersed in all these years. It felt like one key theme in my twenties was to fight against the traditional Chinese values that are widely rooted in the society and family environment that I came from, but made little sense to me. Most of them involves my identity as a woman, how I wish to live my life as a woman versus how I am expected to live my life as a woman, more precisely, a Chinese woman. I have been deeply enraged by comments from my relatives and my parents’ old time friends, the people who I felt close to in my childhood but more and more estranged as I grew into adulthood. Gradually, spending Chinese New Year holiday at home became more of an unpleasant duty rather than a festive tradition. The difference in our values are becoming more and more unbearable that it saddens me to look back.
For a long time, I desperately wanted to break out of the invisible shackles that I found almost suffocating, my Chinese parents, my Chinese relatives, all the Chinese values that I cannot resonate with, all the injustice and imperfection in the system so powerful that it cultivates a fundamental pessimism in me. I gave up my Chinese Hukou without too much hesitation when I had the chance 7 years ago. When being asked, I always tell people I don’t think I can go back to China, becoz I don’t want to, becoz I’d feel a reversed cultural shock when I’m back. I stopped developing my Chinese friend circle, all my Chinese friends are people I had known for a long time. I thought I’ve heard enough of the stories, perspectives, absurdities, misfortunes, miseries, everything that could possibly happen to a Chinese, I had enough of it all. I didn’t want to hear anymore about any life of any Chinese, which only either made me sad or made me angry or made me wanna scream or made me utterly bored, like my own life to me.
My language preference started to shift without any conscious thinking on it. I started to heavily adopt English as my everyday language. I speak in English, socialize in English, date in English, dream in English, and eventually, I started to write my personal writings in English, however clumsy an effort it may seem. I can’t exactly explain why, or I don’t want to yet touch the heart of the matter. But one thing I know is, to write in an adopted language is, apart from all the extra effort, an even lonelier journey. Lonelier, because I’d be free of all the noises that I wouldn’t be able to block out when I write in Chinese, therefore more real, more sincere, more honest. I could write very well in Chinese. In high school, my essays would be printed and shared as models to the whole grade of students. When I blogged in Chinese, I had much more reactions and praises. With Chinese, I know too well how to get people’s attention, how to be subtly deceptive and play with words, becoz that’s the skill I was well trained to master since day one. There are many people making a living this way, people with the same or higher level of proficiency in Chinese, using it as a tool instead of a genuine approach of expression. The more I realized the manipulative power I could have in Chinese, the less I feel comfortable using it. I wished to be at a safer place with my texts, I started to write in English, in search of that “safe place.” In a strange way, I’m using an adopted language as a safety net to protect me from myself, my Chinese-speaking self.
In the process of pursuing my independence, free spirit and the dignity that I believe I deserve, I had no choice but to renounce myself from so many parts of my Chinese origin and therefore, inevitably grew somewhat distant to China as a whole. I could say, in the past decade, I was being Chinese in a very passive way. If I’d be honest, I was somewhat disturbed by my nationality, not the symbolic meaning of it, but the actual personal pains it put me through. But one cannot choose their heritage, just like one cannot choose their parents.
Over all these years since I left mainland China, I have briefly resided abroad; I had imagined how much freer I’d feel if I wasn’t Chinese; I had wished to live somewhere far from home, New York, London, anywhere, and then that wish had extinguished itself. I remember on the first date with one of my ex-boyfriend who is French, he was telling me about how many places he’d moved in his life like it was a very easy decision. And I told him for me it’s impossible to move like that, I can’t just leave everything behind, and there’d be many factors to consider, such as how to convince my parents. And he immediately said in an almost judgmental tone that “You just have to action on it. If you don’t like Hong Kong, just leave.” I remember feeling sad at that moment, not for how unfree I am with my Chinese mental shackles, but for how impossible it is to make a non-Chinese person to understand that, no matter how intimate we’d become.
In all these years that I’ve lived my life in Hong Kong and kept a delicate distance from mainland China and everything it entails, I have also traveled to enough places and encountered enough people to understand the vastness of the world and moreover, to see the limitations everyone is bound to due to their own personal background, just like my limitation I’m bound to due to my Chinese roots. And it’s through my growing exposure to the outside world, that I’ve learned to be more tolerant and compassionate with my Chinese roots, everyone and everything that used to bring me pain, and are probably still bringing me pain. I stopped hoping a change of place would miraculously change the sense of helpless I was feeling in my twenties. And I stopped thinking “life is elsewhere”. I learned life is always here, wherever I am, and it’s up to me to make myself a better person, and my life a better kind. And I finally made my peace with Hong Kong, a strange little place I couldn’t care much for at the beginning but eventually started to see it as “home”, or something similar to home.
Last weekend I was back in Shenzhen. Out of curiosity, I went to the cinema with my parents to watch the 70th anniversary campaign movie “My People, My Country”, a huge box-office success in China as the enthusiasm of patriotism recently hit a new peak. The movie is made of 7 stories, each marking a memorial moment since the foundation of PRC in 1949. Among them, one story was about the return of Hong Kong in 1997. As usual, I didn’t feel much after watching the whole movie, as I still instinctively resist to feel anything from any sort of propaganda. But the episode of Hong Kong did generate a mixed feeling in me. It also reminded me of a memory I had almost forgotten.
I was ten, alone at home watching TV on the night of the returning ceremony, when both of my high-school-teacher parents were out there with their students in an organized parade to see off the PLA Garrison as they crossed the border from Shenzhen to Hong Kong in the midnight. I couldn’t exactly remember how I felt at that time, probably not too much, only slightly concerned with how exhausted my parents must be having to be out so late while it was heavily raining. I remember watching the ceremony on TV as the actual handover took place. For a 10-year-old, I couldn’t possibly comprehend the meaning of that moment, other than accepting it as a big historic event as I was told. For a 10-year-old, I also couldn’t have guessed how my life would roll out to be so deeply entangled with this strange little place because of that historic moment. For a moment, sitting in the cinema, I felt paralyzed, by an ironic realization of how my personal fate is connected to China, the evolvement and development of China, in a way completely out of my control, and probably out of everyone’s control.
It’s probably the 70th anniversary propaganda, it’s probably the unrest happening in Hong Kong and the absurd localism and uncanny racism that’s quickly taking on, it’s probably both of them adding up at the same time, nevertheless, I can’t help but ponder, in today’s world, what does it mean to be Chinese? While it can easily be argued it’s the best time to be Chinese, I can’t help but feel it more as an unprecedentedly complex and controversial time to be Chinese. It’s becoming more difficult to maintain the fair consciousness of being Chinese when I can easily see people of different biased extremes in my social circles, Chinese patriots, Chinese dissidents, westerners crazy about China, westerners habitually demonizing China, Hong Kongers hysterically denying their Chinese roots.
Being patriot is, in some way, the shortcut of being Chinese. But I’ve been off that route for a long time. Now I can only try to find my own route, the route to being a conscious Chinese. I don’t quite have the solution yet, but I guess, overall, being a better, conscious Chinese wouldn’t be too different from being a better, conscious person.
Amusingly, as I’m writing at this moment, it suddenly strikes me that the complex feeling of being Chinese is in many ways similar to being Gemini, or Virgo, or any other horoscope group. The idea is, you can’t stop people from judging you by this label that you can’t possibly tear off, you can only use your own existence to help shape/change people’s perspective of this label. (but Gemini is of course the best, non-arguably.)
Am I proud of being Chinese, an identity that instantly bundles me with another 1.4 billion people? Honestly, it’s a tough call. If I could choose, I probably wouldn’t choose to be Chinese. But we don’t choose who we are, we can only make who we are. And I know that at the end of the day, being Chinese is not about an outward statement, it is a war against myself, my past, my pain, my memories and my struggles. It is a long and winding journey of departing and returning, a personal story of trying to erase and attempting to retell. There would always be some place that I will never be able to go back, and there would always be some part that I will never be able to let go.