A Book Person on Film

Another season of college applications (this time for exchanges for our mandatory gap year), another flurry of college essays. This one was for Yale.

Write about a book, play, movie, piece of art – anything in literature or arts, classic or contemporary – that has affected the way you think.

I was always a book person. So it surprised even me when I knew it had to be a film. The truth is, I cannot narrow down any commentary on my personality to anything less than ten, maybe twenty books. But there is a singular film I immediately name whenever I am asked which one my favourite is.

I grew up in Eurocentric ‘international’ schools, and consequently had exclusively entertained myself with British and American media. I was never remotely interested in local pop music or TV shows, due in part to my shameful incompetence in my ‘mother tongue’. But the primary reason slunk in the beautiful blonde models plastered on our billboards (even though Hong Kong is 90% ethnically Chinese) and the sense of superiority enveloping the small but significant expat population. I had long internalised the ‘fact’ that Western means cool, and Chinese therefore uncool.

That is, until my parents tricked me into watching 3 Idiots with them. When I found out it was a three hour-long Bollywood film, like in an American sitcom, I groaned and rolled my eyes. See, extrapolating the ‘non-Western means uncool’ sentiment means Asian media can never be as worth my time – the scripts are lame, the actors gauche, the cinematography kitsch. But just half an hour in and I had wept for joy and for sorrow, froze with shock and suspense, and was struck dumb by its profundity and breathtaking visuals. This film dropped some fire wisdom, y’all. Go watch it.

When I left the theatre and Googled 3 Idiots on my father’s phone (I still had one of those indestructible Nokias then), I saw that it was already an immense international success. And like in an American romcom, that was the precise moment a life-changing revelation clicked: non-white people can be cool too. Foreign films can be cool, and not just in the francophone arthouse way. Foreign actors are ridiculously talented at singing and dancing and being hilarious and heart-breaking at once. Side note: Notice how I say ‘foreign’ when I am neither American nor British myself? Sure, Indian culture may not be my culture, but the sheer sensation that was this film ignited a desire to get to know my own culture, and to own it.

The second way 3 Idiots reshaped my self-identity may sound clichéd. A film unafraid to show student suicide and suffocating academic pressure, it was the first narrative to chip away at my belief that only my grades are worth measuring. They were the only area that I could see myself empirically excelling in. I had many interests (horse riding, running, music), but at most I was above average. And in the rat race to the best universities for the best jobs for the best life, it had felt futile to be anything but the best.

“Ever since we were young, we believed that life was a race… Man, even to be born, we had to race 300 million sperm.” – 3 Idiots

Because I knew there are countless people much smarter than me, this sense of futility only further dampened my self-esteem. Sure, phenomena like Harry Potter has lines like:

“Harry – you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and – oh Harry – be careful!”

But 3 Idiots pierced the viscous film of un-relatability I had not even noticed was enshrouding my mind. It spoke from a culture similar to my own – one in which education is worshipped as the one sure way to success, and parents are willing to splurge inordinate amounts of money on marginally better schools.

Did 3 Idiots magically snuff out all my doubts? No. But fictitious though it may be, it proved how my empirical performance is not the best predictor of my future success. Do something meaningful, and you are successful. And I am confident that in my pursuit of medicine, I will find many things that are meaningful, and achieve them.

What My Mother Speaks

As Chinese New Year approaches (the best holiday, really, with the optimum permutation of food, family festivities and money), it is inevitable that I would contemplate how much more concrete the ‘Hong Kong’ facet of my identity has become since spending two years abroad. And enclosed within that facet, as the city is plastered with more and more fai chun (auspicious characters and couplets calligraphed onto bright red paper), is the problem of my mother tongue.

Against my own (and my family and friends’) expectations, I enrolled in a Hong Kong university four months ago. Since my early childhood, initially for no other reason than a romanticised Great Britain constructed from The Five Find-Outers and Harry Potter, I had always envisioned myself studying in the halls of some centuries-old English institution for my university career. It was only when I reached the wholly surprising conclusion that yes, I do want to be a doctor, and yes, I want to be a doctor in Hong Kong, that I grudgingly admitted Hong Kong is the most practical choice. Continue reading “What My Mother Speaks”

Moi, en français

J’ai lu récemment un paragraphe du blogue d’une vieille camarade de classe, dans lequel elle a discuté de ses personnages différents quand elle emploie les langues différentes. C’est un phénomène scientifique – nous adoptons des personnalités, des manières distinctes avec les langues différentes. Et sa réflexion m’a incité à réfléchir quelle sorte de personne je suis quand je parle le français, une matière que j’étudiais avec assiduité pendant sept ans.

Contrairement au cantonais ou même le chinois, je n’ai pas fait apparaître d’une image immédiate. Y auraient-il des différences nettes de ma conduite? D’impressions les autres développeraient de moi? Alors, l’idée me vint soudain que pendant ces sept ans, je parlais le français rarement à l’extérieur de la classe. Sans occasions d’examiner mon ‘caractère français’, ce n’est pas étonnant que je n’aie pas une image plus claire. Néanmoins, je remarque des changements subtils quand même. D’abord, je deviens plus aventureuse avec mes choix des divertissements (français, bien sûr) – je suis attirée par les films d’art et d’essai (normalement, je me sens intimidée), je mets de côté les productions amusantes mais bêtifiantes, je fais attention sciemment à la technique cinématographique, le montage et la réalisation… Non seulement je suis bien plus sensible aux films, j’apprécie les émissions et romans plus aussi. Je les considère comme des œuvres d’art et non pas des simples distractions. Oui, peut-être ces pensées découlent du cliché de la France cultivée et artistique. Mais comme j’ai écrit dans mon dernier paragraphe français, quand on acquiert une nouvelle langue, on s’informe sur la culture et les normes sociales aussi.

Deuxièmement, je fais l’effort d’être poétique. Pour les étrangers comme moi, le français semble vraiment musical à cause des rimes internes abondants et les élisions et liaisons. La juxtaposition des bruits gutturals et légers créent un son chantant aussi. Par conséquent, chaque fois que je dis ou j’écris, je fais attention à la ‘mélodie’ de mes phrases. Je me demande comment les syllabes s’alignent pour modeler les rythmes. Ce qu’il y a bien, c’est qu’on peut dire n’importe quoi pour sembler lyrique – un autre cliché, mais c’est vrai! De plus, j’ai tendance à employer les expressions et les gestes plus exagérés. Il y a un élément particulièrement brûlant quand les Français allongent les voyelles et mettent les accents toniques sur les derniers syllabes. D’une certaine manière, l’intonation ondoyante m’encourage à adopter un langage du corps plus expressif.

Et en dernier lieu, bien que je devienne douce (parce que mon vocabulaire est relativement limité), je deviens quelque peu idéaliste aussi. Peut-être que c’est en raison de mon appréciation augmentée pour les arts, ou l’élégance de la mélodie ondoyante, ou le fait que le français est ma langue enfantine tout de même. Quoique je l’étudiasse pendant sept ans, j’apprenais le chinois (mon autre langue étrangère) depuis deux fois plus de temps. Et peut-être c’est parce que d’habitude, je suis seulement exposée aux problèmes discutables et questions mondiales par les sources en anglais. La crise des réfugiés à Calais? Le BBC, le CNN, The Economist… Je suis Le Figaro et Le Monde, mais je n’ai toujours pas cliqué sur les gros titres (plutôt que de faire défiler distraitement). Encore une résolution pour la nouvelle année!

Pour conclure, il semble que beaucoup d’aspects de ma personnalité devienne plus prononcés (j’ai utilisé le mot ‘plus’ dix fois dans ce paragraphe jusqu’ici). Peut-être (j’utilise ‘peut-être’ beaucoup aussi, mais ces réflexions sont toujours spéculatives) c’est parce que lorsque j’ai commencé à apprendre le français, je m’étais battu lamentablement pour apprendre le chinois depuis neuf ou dix ans. Par contre, j’ai saisi le français vraiment rapidement, et j’ai obtenu les notes meilleures de ma classe. C’était pas surprenant que je suis légèrement plus hardie quand je suis en mode français. Bon, je réfléchir quelle sorte de personne je suis quand je parle mes autres langues?

Les Mondes entiers

Il y a deux choses que vous ne devriez jamais abandonner: l’instrument et la langue. – Une élève de terminale de mon premier lycée

De toute évidence, j’ai déjà raté le premier lorsque j’ai arrêté de jouer du piano et de la cithare chinoise avant que je sois allée en Angleterre. Et à cause de ma paresse, il se peut que je perde le second aussi. Si vous regardez la page Currently ou mon Goodreads, vous remarquerez que le même livre français avait figuré dans la partie ‘reading’ pendant cinq mois. Donc, ce paragraphe est une tentative de préserver mon aptitude s’effaçante. Notez le mot “s’effaçante” – je m’excuse pour mes fautes nombreuses. Si vous parlez le français, corrigez-moi s’il vous plaît!

J’ai découvert mon amour pour les langues quand j’avais environ sept ou huit ans. J’aimais beaucoup un anime (après coup, l’émission était vraiment hérissante, mais l’intrigue banale plaisais aux écolières jeunes) et j’ai supplié ma mère de me laisser avoir des leçons de japonais. Bien que j’aie commencé cet hobby en raison d’un réflexe soudain, je m’ai rendue compte que je possède un intérêt réel pour l’apprentissage des singularités et des nuances des langues différentes. On peut comprendre les attitudes d’une culture étrangère dans une mesure qu’est impossible d’atteindre avec des autres façons. On peut interpréter leurs médias et publications directement. Et on peut s’entretenir avec les autres qui étions issus des milieux très divers. Contrairement aux autres matières, les langues m’offrent des mondes entiers (🎧 Ce rêve bleu). C’est éculé, mais cette profusion d’opportunités semblait incroyablement séduisante.

Malheureusement, comme la musique, la langue est insaisissable. Sans entraînement continuel, son aisance dégrade rapidement. Il est nécessaire qu’on se plonge dans les œuvres du pays – une tâche intimidante et quelquefois usante. Après tout, de nos jours digitals, il est facile de chercher les sous-titres et les traducteurs intégrés. Pourquoi doit-on utiliser toujours tellement de temps et d’effort? De même, nous savons que les conversations avec les personnes originaires sont l’exercise le plus utile, mais d’habitude, nous sommes trop gênés. L’acquisition d’une langue est un art qui a besoin d’assiduité continue.

Et mon progrès personnel? Ma compréhension du japonais est pratiquement inexistante. Mon vocabulaire latin aussi. En plus de mes langues maternelles (l’anglais, le chinois et le cantonais), ma seule activité linguistique restante est le français. Ce fait me propulse dans l’auto-apprentissage proactif, et la rédaction de cette réflexion. Alors, quelles sont mes prochaines mesures? Bon, il est probablement une sage idée de finir le roman susdit. (Je lis encore le premier chapitre, c’est honteux.) En outre, je prévois de publier au moins un paragraphe français chaque mois. Ainsi, je peux garantir que je rafraîchirai mes compétences régulièrement. Gaspiller encore tant d’ans que je consacrais à étudier une autre langue, quel dommage!

On Diversity

Yet another post stolen from a college essay. Two days ago, a university emailed me a stack of essay prompts and forms to complete – just four days before my IB results will be released. Somewhat irritated (alright, very irritated), I thought: Couldn’t they just wait until then? I might not make my offer anyway. Unfortunately, the essays were due this morning, and I was (and am) still in Taiwan without a laptop. I had to resort to using my cousin’s yesterday evening, which refused to run its only word-processing software. Thankfully, our hotel has a working Internet connection, so I dutifully copied the fonts and formats of the forms on Google Drive.

All three essay prompts were maddeningly vague (we only had to choose one). For some friends, this was probably a godsend. But for me, already nonplussed at the idea of actually having to think during my vacation, I was only even more annoyed. In the end, at some hour long past midnight, utterly defeated by the word limits of one of the forms, I simply gunned for the topic that I had already rehashed countless times in my US applications: cultural diversity. At least this university opted for a slightly less conventional direction, asking for both the values and the problems of a highly diverse community, all presented in a specific encounter. It may seem blatantly obvious to inhabitants of cosmopolitan cities that multicultural, multilingual populations face unique challenges, but in the essays that I had had to write so far, a purely positive spin was always expected.

In any case, the encounter that immediately sprang into my mind had occurred during my final year at my English boarding school. On an otherwise unremarkable winter evening, a close friend suddenly exclaimed, “I wish I could visit China!” Without much thought, I automatically replied, “Then go.” “I can’t, they eat dogs there.” Granted, she had never set foot on Asian soil in her entire life. And people do still eat dogs in very few isolated rural regions, despite many residents living in considerably less impoverished conditions. (The practice of eating dogs is a relatively universal characteristic of areas suffering from famines; historically, it has been recorded on all continents, including the Western cultures that condemn it so vehemently today.) It is also true that the Western and international media focus on communities where dog eating does persist, because commenting on the vast majority of the Chinese people’s nonexistent interest for dog meat would not make particularly gripping news.

Nonetheless, I was still caught off guard. I had thought that in such an international environment – our school prides itself on actively accepting 80 strong cohorts representing over 40 nationalities each for every incoming Sixth Form class – everyone would recognise this stereotype as largely just that, a stereotype. Admittedly, I know relatively little about my friend’s own culture beyond the events commonly taught in History and significant enough to appear in the international news. But I like to think that any misconceptions I may have are never founded on something so widely recognised as a ridiculous stereotype that it is now the punchline of countless clichéd memes.

What shocked me even more, however, was when I tried to tell her that no, dog eating is not rampant in China and she retorted, “How would you know? You’re from Hong Kong, not China.” While I appreciate her recognition that Hong Kong and China are not interchangeable, I still felt that as a Chinese national, I was much more likely to have the better understanding of the dog eating situation on the mainland than someone who identifies as a European and who had only ever travelled within western Europe.

So what are the values and problems of highly diverse communities? Let me begin by acknowledging that despite the singular incident mentioned above, I personally experienced overwhelmingly more benefits than problems. Still, spending 24 hours a day with students from backgrounds very different from my own inevitably led to clashes – cultural, dispositional, political… While it was a springboard for lively debates, congregating so many cultures also highlighted unfair stereotypes and inaccurate preconceptions. Almost every cliché that I had heard of was thrown at me during my first term in England. “How is your English so good? You must have grown up in America.” In good humour, I would reply, “Your nation did only colonise us for 150 years.” Another one: “[A friend’s name] is hot for an Asian.” Complete strangers would approach me in the library asking mathematics questions, without even bothering to introduce themselves or ask me what subjects I take. Every interaction enlightens us about another nuance of our cultures’ influences on our behaviours, but they also create opportunities for miscommunication. Such is the dual nature of diversity. And this was only considering a community that spoke a unifying language fluently – in this case, English.

But having discussed both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, it becomes apparent that the ‘bad’ are just stepping stones to the ‘good’. Every (usually unconsciously) microaggressive comment is another opportunity to clarify. Every argument against your nation and culture is another chance to refute, reflect, even be proven wrong. And when understanding cannot be reached, at least we become acutely aware of the pitfalls that we should avoid next time, or the prejudices that we subscribe to too steadfastly. When there is deliberate racism, it builds our resolve. As we navigate the labyrinth of political correctness, we become extraordinarily prepared for our futures as global citizens. And so, while I know I sound terribly cheesy, I still conclude that a diverse community is the best community of all.

Hong Kong, Literally

View from my living room window.

Three weeks of exams later, I can finally set foot on the glistening stretch of freedom laid out before me. As I recuperate from a 12-hour flight in my home city, my mind (now feeling strangely idle) wanders back to my favourite conversation starter – the nomenclature of Hong Kong places. All locals are familiar with the sometimes comical district and street names, most of which were transliterated (as opposed to translated). Sadly, this means that the English etymologies of countless places have withered away – most severely so for the non-Chinese-speaking demographics and constant streams of tourists. Admittedly, over 90% of our current population are ethnically Chinese. But I still believe that because English is our region’s second official language, and because it is no doubt visitors’ main gateway to appreciating an integral aspect of our diverse heritage, English names should reflect the meanings of their Cantonese counterparts.

Take Kowloon (九龍), which literally translates as Nine Dragons. Choosing to name it according to how it sounds instead of what it means was a terrible missed opportunity. Like all traditional tales, the origin of this majestic name differs slightly depending on who you ask. But the common backbone follows the young Emperor Bing1, who had fled to Hong Kong from the Mongols. When he had arrived, he named the area Eight Dragons (八龍) after eight tall surrounding mountains. (It is an ancient Chinese myth that every mountain houses a sleeping dragon.) However, a courtier had wittily suggested that he name it Nine Dragons instead, since the Emperor was there. (Chinese dragons are symbols of the Emperor, and ‘dragon’ and ‘Emperor’ were sometimes used interchangeably.) Not only would translating the name properly have exponentially increased Kowloon’s ‘coolness’, so to speak, but it would also have made an interesting morsel of Chinese folklore and history that much more prominent.

For other places, it just makes more sense. We have Mong Kok (旺角), home to tourists’ favourite suffocatingly jam-packed open-air markets, aptly called Busy or Prosperous Corner. And of course, Lok Ma Chau (落馬洲), which can be translated as Get-off-your-horse Area. Is it because it is next to China and it is high time you got off and turned back or presented yourself to customs officials? Sure, this version is a mouthful, but English-speaking nations are just as guilty of similarly verbose place names (see Cottonshopeburnfoot, England). We also have Tsing Yi (青衣), which translates as Grue2 Clothing, interesting mainly because ‘grue’ is unique to Chinese culture. Finally, even Hong Kong itself can be translated as Fragrant Harbour, apparently because the historical trade in sandalwood and incense lined the harbour with a pleasant aroma.

But names guard much more than ephemeral flashes of interest or humour. They embody deep-rooted identities, tying us firmly to our histories and cultures. Nine Dragons highlights a centuries-old myth and Emperor Bing’s fleeting reign, while the Cantonese name of Stanley (赤柱) simultaneously underlines the infamous activities of Cheung Po Tsai, a notorious pirate, and an ancient cotton tree, which had been a landmark of the town. The Cantonese name of Aberdeen (香港仔) translates as Little Hong Kong, drawing attention to its historical role as the first point of contact between British sailors and local fishermen. Of course, this does not exclusively apply to places – names are just as pertinent to the identities of people.

Until my middle teenage years, my cultural identity was far from concrete. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I was content with a fabricated identity wholly dishonest with myself. Although I am ethnically Chinese, I have attended British and international schools since I was a kindergartener, and have continually been exposed to Eurocentric perspectives and values. The omnipresence of Western media in Hong Kong and the many advertisements that imply caucasian women are the ideal definition of beauty only added to the strong influence of Western cultures on my self-perception. In fact, I became embarrassed by my traditional Chinese upbringing – why must I speak Cantonese at home? Why are my parents so unfashionable and unsophisticated?

Until my late primary school years, choosing the English name Christy was a major source of pride – it was almost unique in my international schools. But when I started to interact more and more frequently with students from local schools, I found out that it was, in fact, extremely popular among local girls. If I were to walk into a local school and shout “Christy”, I would be perfectly unsurprised to see a dozen girls turn around. But I was less perturbed by the general commonness of my name than by its commonness among the local Chinese because I had equated ‘non-Western’ with the opposites of ‘cool’ and ‘attractive’. In an almost pathetically desperate attempt to correct this, I had told my Year 5 classmates that my name is actually short for Christasia, an ungainly, Frankensteinic lump of sound inspired by Grand Duchess Anastasia, because what can be less Chinese than an European princess enrobed in romanticised mystery?

Thankfully, two years in England later, I am ever more aware that the one-dimensional caricature of British culture that I had sketched has no bearing on my actual identity. ‘British’ will continue to be my nationality, but it is a grossly inaccurate representation of my cultural affiliations. I am glad that this awareness has also restored my English name to a source of pride, and the fact that it is so recognisably ‘Hong Kong’, as my foreign friends in England have repeatedly pointed out, is yet another tie to the city that I proudly call mine.

1Emperor Bing (1271-1279) was the last emperor of the Song Dynasty.

2青 (often transliterated as ‘qing’) is a colour unique to Chinese culture, and can be roughly conceptualised as a mixture of blue and green. In most cases, it is more green than blue, especially when describing mountains (青山), grass (青草) and vegetables (青菜). It can even be used figuratively; 青春 (literally, ‘green spring’) means youth, comparable to the English usage of ‘green’ to describe a young, inexperienced newcomer. In other cases, it leans towards blue and aqua, such as when describing the sky (青天) and the Azure Dragon (青龍).


In just three weeks, I will be setting off for England for maybe the last time in a long while. And in two additional weeks, I will be sitting my final IB examinations, the occasion for which my entire secondary school life has been leading up to. Considering the breakneck pace at which everything seems to be flying by, I often envision a wave gathering height and momentum, only to break against rugged rocks on an unfamiliar shore. I know I sound terribly hyperbolic, but the murky depths of my uncertain future still cling to me, not least because the admissions decisions of two of my universities will not be made until our results are released.

The closer the examinations are getting, the more I simply withdraw to old pastimes (reading, writing) that had gathered dust since last summer, when internal assessments and the notorious Extended Essay began. The very fact that I am spending a considerable amount of time composing my thoughts for this post is proof of my latest bout of procrastination. I keep catching myself admonishing, is this really the time? What if these wasted hours cause me to lose an offer? But another voice reinforces the well-worn excuse that, like any self-respecting spring, I ought to relax now so that I will be able to effectively stretch myself when it will matter the most. As a dear friend once said to me, she told a professional marathon running sitting next to her on a flight back to Spain, “I’m running a marathon too! But it’s called the IB.”

I came across the Swedish word gökotta a week ago, when I was reflecting on my aspirations for the next stages of my life. It is impossible to translate, but roughly means to wake up early in the morning to hear the first birdsong. Immediately, the lush image of rolling out of a queen-sized bed in an airy lodge, gazing out of wooden windows at the vast expanse of the Tanzanian plains popped into my mind. The crown of the sun is just beginning to lick the horizon, and the clouds are still brushed with the colours of fine-spun candyfloss. This scene was what I had hoped to be experiencing in my early twenties, having settled into a stable, enjoyable career and acquired enough money to regularly travel on my own.

Other deliciously specific words that inspire similarly vivid daydreams flitted through my mind. Petrichor suggests exploring dense rainforests and stunning displays of unbridled vitality. Hygge conjures comfortable evenings in front of a crackling fire, winding down in a swanky high-rise apartment overlooking a sprawling, sleepless metropolis. Less glamorously, however, a word more applicable to my current predicament is probably kummerspeck – excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally translated from German, it means ‘grief bacon’, which actually sounds strangely appealing, like the melancholy lozenges in Because of Winn-Dixie.

I had always imagined my 25-year-old self to be financially independent, hopping from continent to continent and living in a penthouse in some cosmopolitan city or other. Looking back, these grandiose goals fuelled largely by enviable Instagram accounts seem infinitesimally unlikely. Of course, having the freedom and means to choose between universities spread over three continents, and having been in a position where those aspirations seemed to have the slightest possibility of coming true, are privileges that I should never take for granted. I probably sounded entitled, and for that I apologise.

Maybe our fairy-tale scenarios will never come to pass. But just like any other vague ambitions of a young teenager, you soon realise that there are much grander and more meaningful things that you will want to achieve and can definitely work towards – things that will give you much greater rewards a few decades down the line. Besides, who knows what the next step will bring anyway? We can only keep brewing more vorfreude as we look forwards at the road ahead.