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.

The Good Immigrant

When J.K. Rowling deems a book “an important, timely read”, you read it. The Good Immigrant is a beautifully articulate collection of anecdotes and reflections by minority ethnic writers and entertainers in the United Kingdom. Varying in tone from laugh-out-loud hilarious (Nish Kumar is an incredible man) to weary and raw, each piece loudly discredits the increasingly popular assumption that liberal democracies are sheltered within a post-racial, ‘colour-blind’ world. And having been published just three months ago in the year of Leave, Trump and post-imperial nostalgia, this book is a “timely read” indeed.

Even as I was drafting the opening paragraph, I found myself desperately scrambling to find the perfect, most impactful words to convince whoever may read this that a book so overtly focusing on racism is worth their time. That is it not some storm-in-a-teacup (this is a British book, after all) exposé of a cosmopolitan country. And that no, it is certainly not a means of catharsis for ‘race-baiting’ BAME writers blaming white people for all of their problems. My fear of being written off as another petty Asian girl is, in itself, already a strong indicator of just how relevant The Good Immigrant is. Of course, I did feel welcomed (or at least, nonchalantly accepted) during most of my stay in England. Despite having been assaulted in broad daylight on the High Street by a man who subsequently tried to do the same to my Korean and Malaysian friends, most of the people I met did not deliberately make me feel uncomfortable about my ethnicity. But in no way does this suggest that the dialogue on race should be obsolete. Rather, given the current political climate, it is just as, if not more, important than ever before.

Just from my personal experiences, even in a school that proudly declares itself ‘forward-thinking’, ‘liberal’ and ‘international’, a natural Afro was deemed too unprofessional to be part of the uniform code. I was told that whilst Hong Kong girls may be ‘academically talented’, it makes us ‘less emotionally expressive’ (and hence less likely to succeed in interviews for medical schools). Am I making an issue out of nothing? Isn’t being stereotyped as academically talented still a positive stereotype? Isn’t that an asset for people like me? The answer, in short, is no. Positive racism is a ridiculous myth. Like the label ‘model minority’, it is an insult to the systemic prejudice that millions must struggle against. Asians are the ‘model minority’ only because we are quiet and we keep our heads down. Which simply reinforces the idea that our voices deserve to be supporting roles at best. And as Viki Cheung shrewdly pointed out, “in the same mouthful as saying, ‘East Asians are the model minority because they’re quiet and hardworking’, [you imply that] black people are apparently loud and lazy”.1 More evidence that it is absurd to think we benefit from deeply ingrained biases? “Despite being among the highest achievers in [British] schools, Chinese male graduates … can expect to earn 25 per cent less than white male graduates”.2

Besides, actual attitudes towards East Asians are far more complex than just ‘they are all good at mathematics’ or ‘they are sensible and self-reliant’. Often, the UK’s image of an East Asian immigrant combines conflicting views. “In an educational study published by Routledge in 2005, … teachers attributed success to inherently ‘Chinese’ qualities while simultaneously hinting that these qualities were ‘enclosed’, ‘denying children individuality’ and in opposition to Western cultural ideas”.3 So the assumptive premise that we are only subjected to ‘positive’ stereotypes is already false. Not to mention the Tiger Mum and dog-eating caricatures that we still face.

Anyway, back to the book. Every one of the 21 writers offered poignant, poetic and unclichéd windows into their lives as first- and second-generation immigrants in the UK. Though racism is by no means a fun or lighthearted topic, at no point was the book a slow or sterile read. I devoured half of it in a single sitting, and only paused because it was 4 a.m. and my parents were understandably annoyed at the prospect of me showering and waking them up in the early morning (I have this thing where I absolutely must shower before I go to bed, and at that point I had not had my daily shower yet). Although I admit that I am very privileged to live in a city where I am the ethnic majority, my two years in England still made many of the authors’ sentiments incredibly relatable.

And even beyond my brief stint abroad, the fact that the universal experience is largely defined by the white experience nonetheless made the book a pertinent articulation of my identity as part of the global majority. In Darren Chetty’s chapter, he noted how he had “spent almost two decades teaching children … in English primary schools that serve multiracial, multicultural, multifaith communities”, during which “whenever children [were] asked to write a story in school, children of colour [would] write a story featuring characters with ‘traditional’ English names who speak English as a first language”.4 And that was exactly what I had done throughout my childhood as an aspiring writer, despite having been born and raised 9,600km away from England – something that I did not even realise until I watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk a year ago.

So regardless of whether you are currently an immigrant, or whether you live in a predominantly white nation, or whether you are part of a minority group at all, I cannot recommend this book enough. I implore you to keep an open mind, be challenged and to simply enjoy the ride of a great read.

Rating: 5/5


1Beyond ‘Good’ Immigrants by Wei Ming Kam.

2Ibid. Data from Yaojun Li, Fiona Devine, Anthony Heath, ‘Equality Group Inequalities in Education, Earnings and Employment’, Equality and Human Rights Commission, (2008), Executive summary, iii.

3Ibid.

4‘You can’t say that! Stories have to be about White people’ by Darren Chetty.

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

@cloudninekid
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).