Monday, May 15, 2017

Hong Kong: A Homecoming

It is 10 p.m. Over the din of our washing machine's furious spin cycle, I am staring at the street view image of my maternal grandma's apartment in Kowloon on Google maps. My small, battered suitcase is open in the corner of our living room, scattering evidence of a whirlwind, 4-day visit to Hong Kong onto the floor: a business card from Carrianna Chiu Chow Restaurant in Wan Chai; two packs of abalone given to me by my grandma; Hermes toiletries from a brief hotel stay.

I am having difficulty processing it all, which is why I'm staring at this image. The last four days seemed like a dream and yet, they weren't, for memories are stronger than dreams: the sticky humidity that made my dress cling to the backs of my legs as I wandered Victoria Peak with my uncle; my careful pronunciation of "Homantin" to the driver as I crawled into the cool air-conditioned backseat of a Hong Kong red taxi cab; spoonfuls of a cold egg custard dessert savoured on a late Tuesday evening. The trams that signalled with a familiar ding! ding! and a sign plate that changed to Happy Valley - my heart pulling out of my chest every time I saw the name, home to the apartment my father grew up in, the apartment I would never see again; sold to the highest bidder, chopped up and subdivided into individual, smaller flats.

Despite the humidity and the heat, I did not move with the slow, hindered performance that occurs when one is stuck in the fug of a dream. I navigated the corridors of MTR stations as if they were in the London Underground: briskly and purposefully. I pretended to know where I was going - even if I didn't. I studied no one's face, even if they were studying mine and I could feel it.

At restaurants, shops, and hotels, I made use of my rusty Cantonese, substituting certain words for English when I couldn't recall them quickly and giving myself a mental pat-on-the-back when I could. Chestnut cake. May I ask you a question? The metal gate on the left, please. People were patient and kind. They did not smirk or switch to English when I forgot the Cantonese phrase for "cash".

I retraced steps I'd made eleven years ago in Times Square, at Admiralty station, in Yau Ma Tei. Like a neglected Tamagotchi, discovered years after cleaning out a shoebox of childhood memories, Hong Kong was alive and breathing, just the way I had left it. Vibrant, noisy, and bustling, with densely positioned skyscrapers jutting out from beneath the Peak like stalagmites, pale and strange in the smoggy haze. I blew my nose and soot appeared on the tissue.

It's now 11:00 p.m. in London. My laundry's done. A buzz from my phone illuminates a WhatsApp message from my grandma: 'You've arrived?' it reads in Chinese. 'Are you tire?' asks the next sentence in English. I return a photo of myself waving.

"Your eyes look tired," comes the reply. "Get some rest! Take care!"

I hang my wet laundry and lull myself to a swift sleep, dreaming of Hong Kong that night; the one I remembered as a child merging with the version I visited last week. In my dream, I returned to the place I once belonged and reclaimed it for myself. I pressed the buzzer of a fifth floor flat in Causeway Bay and crossed the wooden floor in bare feet, entering a small room where my paternal grandma's ancestral tablet laid. I clasped a joss stick in my hands while tears blurred my vision and told her that I was here; that I was back. I told her I missed her; I thanked her for making me brave.

But this is a memory - not a dream.

I will forever orbit these three continents; I will watch my plane's journey on the in-flight entertainment system as it moves from London to Seattle, from Seattle to Hong Kong. Because in that moment, in the strange flat converted into a Buddhist temple, against a backdrop of prayers, recitations and chants, I understood why I had chosen London - or why it had chosen me. My heart - pulled in opposite directions, one east and the other west - was always destined to remain firmly planted in the middle.

This was my homecoming. And at once, I understood.

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