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”→
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).
My favourite genre has always been fantasy. Before our schoolwork started to actually matter, reading fantasy books took up the vast majority of my time. I recall an English teacher telling my parents that I “eat books for breakfast, lunch and dinner”. But with the impending examinations, I had largely failed to make time to read. It was only when I fell ill last term and could not revise that I picked up Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Before I knew it, I had torn through the entire book, and quickly admonished myself for neglecting to bring Deathly Hallows as well. Stoked by this brief tryst with my first enrapturing novel in a long time, I gradually rediscovered the immense pleasures of losing all sense of space and time – of falling deeply into daring adventures from perspectives sometimes wholly different from my own.
I think the fantasy genre commands so much appeal because of its unique ability to transport us to such extraordinary, enchanting realms. Certainly, you can still travel through time with other books, but nothing offers the same astounding variety of experiences as the fantasy genre. You can take your pick from worlds as bizarre as Pratchett’s Discworld and as plausible as Riordan’s and Rowling’s secret supernatural societies. Besides two books, a memoir and an epistolary novel chosen by Emma Watson for her feminist book club, every book that I have recently read belongs to the fantasy genre.
Having devoured so many of these books has had its fair share of lasting impacts, yet I have only just begun to consider how much they have shaped my personality and priorities. Another question that was posed by an American college was: what matters to you, and why? And my instinctive answer had been my family and friends. Of course, a multitude of other things, both corporeal and abstract, matter to me. But if I were to assume that the prompt was asking for the metaphorical capstone of my pyramid of importances, my loved ones easily take the top spot. In my admissions essay, I had briefly mentioned my love for fantasy books. But on further reflection, I see just how much I had taken their influence for granted.
In Percy Jackson, the titular character’s fatal ‘flaw’ is that he cares too much about his loved ones (hence, threatening to harm them can give antagonists critical leverage). Yet despite its negative label, Riordan’s portrayal of the trait establishes it as an admirable strength rather than a weakness. And in Harry Potter, the ability to love is hailed as the most powerful magic, greater than any potion or incantation. But why are fantasy books especially apt vessels for these messages? The fact that in Harry’s world, even in the midst of unimaginably frightening events, love is the linchpin of Voldemort’s downfall, is especially telling. The idea that something common to everyone – wizards and muggles alike – is, in fact, more powerful than all of the impossible feats we encounter in the entire series, truly demonstrates just how important our families and friends are. It is the exaltation of these ‘mundane’ emotions in fantastical scenarios that underlines their incredible importance.
Many other aspects of how I compose myself can also be attributed to fantasy books. In addition to an unfailing love for our family and friends, when following Frodo’s perilous journey across Middle-earth, or the multiple wars that the Pevensies must fight, or even Harry’s countless emotional and physical battles against an incompetent government, relentless bullying, numerous counts of ostracisation, and Voldemort himself, we learn the arts of perseverance, loyalty, unwavering courage to stand up to not only our enemies but also our friends, and holding fast to what is true and right. In the final book of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, even the youngest readers understand how the dishonesty of one and the ignorance of many can lead to the undoing of an entire kingdom. In Deathly Hallows, it is gravely clear how a thirst for power can lead even someone as wise and respected as Dumbledore astray.
The heroes and heroines of these books were my role models, much more so than most people I knew in real life. They instilled in me the belief that such a capacity for love and kindness, alongside strength of character, is the most important quality than one can ever hope to possess – more important than learnedness or sociability, which were undoubtedly primary concerns of the typical teenager.
A particular favourite:
“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!”
Quite relevant in societies like Hong Kong, where life-size posters of academic tutors are plastered to the sides of double-decker buses.
Maybe I was biased, having never been a master of the social graces. In fact, I used to be so introverted I would hide in my room and pretend to be absent whenever visitors came to my family’s apartment. And so, I instead took pride in my determination to be quietly brave and kind and generous.
Indeed, you can argue that you can learn these life lessons through simple observations of the world around you. Or you may well have been taught by wise and loving parents. But, at least from my perspective, no methods can ever be as simultaneously entertaining and educational as spending hours in the warm embrace of exquisitely spun pages and letting one’s imagination run completely free.
Two or three weeks ago, I consented to show my college essays to a friend. I only applied to two American universities, so my collection is quite limited. Nonetheless, he still managed to make a respectable handful of observations. One prompt was: what historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? And he immediately asked me why all three events1 mentioned in my response had happened on boats or in the sea. His question kept resurfacing in my mind, because I hadn’t known how to answer – I didn’t notice this connection myself. Just a week after he had asked me, I unearthed a scented candle that I had bought almost a year ago. It is supposed to encapsulate the clear Caribbean shallows. Even more recently, I was dithering over whether to buy a sea salt perfume or a mandarin one, and eventually chose the former. When I told my friend, he laughed. Do you have some Freudian subconscious attachment to the sea? But although it was meant in jest, as he looked around his room, he also noticed tchotchkes that would suggest a tendency towards naval pursuits. And yet, as we considered the possibility of an actual attachment, the edges of both of our impressions of the sea were tinged with fear – of drowning, of the cold, unforgiving depths. So we wondered:
Why does the sea hold such a paradoxical mixture of allure and fear?
The seaside has traditionally been synonymous with endless supplies of freedom, glamorous vacations and luxurious sunshine, at least in Western literature. But the depths, although still breeding fascination in the braver few, usually inspire fear. Could it simply be the dangers of drowning and strange creatures that push us away? Is it just the shadowy line between the shallow and the deep (or the far away from shore) that causes such conflicting emotions? Or is there something more fundamental, fuelled by the dual nature of water itself?
Four years ago, my English class watched Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Many of us pointed out the recurring motif of water, especially in the defining moments of the titular characters’ romance. (They first meet on opposite sides of a fish tank, the balcony scene ends with an underwater kiss, and Romeo ominously falls into the pool when he leaves after consummating their marriage.) When someone asked our teacher why water is so important (Isn’t fire a better embodiment of love and passion?), he smiled. “Ah, because water gives life, but can also drown us.” Even today, I am periodically reminded of his comment – from analysing Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice to reflecting on my trivial preference for sea salt perfumes. Do we unconsciously consider the sea to epitomise the cycle of life and death? Are our inconsistent emotions the consequence of this perplexing juxtaposition?
Perhaps these questions are taking too introspective a step into what is probably a superficial phenomenon. As a young(er) child, I was obsessed with mermaids, sirens and other lore surrounding the vast seas. I printed colouring pages of The Little Mermaid, and read any book mentioning mythical sea creatures. The idea of a secret world, kissing yet so distinctly separate from our own, as familiar as it is unfamiliar, nourished my thirst for something beyond the ordinary. But not too far beyond, like Narnia or Middle-earth. I wanted something almost believable – a world within our world. The mythical creatures aside, it may very well be this partial familiarity that generates so much collective interest in and fear of this 70% of our planet’s surface. While the land also boasts a dizzying amount to study, to comprehend, the sea whispers the additional allure (and repulsion) of a sense of foreignness. And humans, being the greatest extremophiles on our planet (as a Medicine professor at Cambridge once declared), always seek to conquer territories designed to keep us out.
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.