An American in Hong Kong
“Go back to where you came from,” screamed a door-to-door salesman, slamming the door on me and my mother after we told him we didn’t want to buy his cleaning products.
It was decades ago, when I was in elementary school and the number of immigrant families in my neighborhood was increasing. But what I couldn’t reconcile was that I was already where I came from — Northern California. This country was the only place I had ever lived.
My parents were from China and Taiwan, and although I was born in the United States, I constantly had to tell people where I came from to prove that I was not an outsider. Everyday life reminded me that my culture was not the American mainstream.
Mandarin was my first language, because that’s what my parents spoke at home, so I had to suffer through English as a Second Language classes instead of enjoying recess. I attended Chinese class every weekend, as much for cultural enrichment as language skills, missing Saturday morning cartoons.
Since I lived in the Bay Area, all of my friends were Asian. We snacked on dumplings, Pocky and boba, made fun of our parents’ accents and drove souped-up Hondas. The cool kids in my high school scored perfect SATs and played badminton, not football.
So I thought I was very Chinese — until I decided to move to Hong Kong.
Marian Liu at the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade in Kowloon, Hong Kong. (Courtesy of Marian Liu)
Some young Chinese Americans during the U.S. recession decided to emigrate to China, where the economy was booming. The motherland offered opportunities that some of us struggled to find in the United States, including stable, well-paying jobs and a society where our appearance wasn’t labeled “other.”
“China, and Asia in general, was on the rise economically,” said Peter Yu, 49, who grew up in San Jose and moved to Hong Kong in 2008, “literally a couple of months away” from losing his Silicon Valley job.
“The opportunities, dynamism and personal heritage connection there appealed to my constant urge to explore, learn, and grow both professionally and personally,” said Yu in an email. On top of that “I wanted to work in Greater China so I could get my ROI from all of those lost Saturday mornings.”
Ironically, our parents had made the opposite journey in search of economic security. Many objected to our return trip, worried that we were no longer Chinese enough.
Liu’s parents during their visit with her in Hong Kong. (Courtesy of Marian Liu)
But for some, there was an additional draw. As a 2013 China Daily story put it, some immigrants arriving from the United States and other Western countries were in search of “a sense of belonging.”
I left last year to pursue a romantic tale of working as a foreign correspondent. I was finally going “home.”
But when I arrived in Hong Kong, I discovered that I didn’t fit in there, either.
Life was hard. I stuck out. I was yelled at for not understanding the local dialect and glared at for my blue hair. I learned to cope by paying with bigger bills when I couldn’t understand the price, and pointed to other people’s meals when I couldn’t read the menu. I stayed in the more expatriate neighborhoods of Hong Kong or made sure I shopped and ate with a local when I ventured out. Sometimes, it was just easier to stay in.
I spoke conversational Mandarin, not the Hong Kong dialect of Cantonese. When restaurants got my order wrong, they took their frustrations out on me, shouting about how slow I was ordering buns. Since I spoke China’s main dialect, I represented their enemy. I had to go out of my way to explain that I’m American and my parents are from Taiwan — either that or never buy buns there again.
This is in response to the article [6%: The percentage of white women who support beliefs tied to white identity, solidarity and discrimination. Aug. 24 edition] based on the research of George Hawley of the University of Alabama.
I don’t know if I should fall on the floor laughing at the naivete or Mr. Hawley’s statement that “I was not expecting these numbers.” Or if I should strongly question his own selective denial of what has to be obvious. For every white male that is the face of normal, typical, run of the mill, day-to-day, socially normal and acceptable, racism (much less alt-right — like that is really all that different), there is definitely a grandmother and mother, probably a wife and a good chance of a sister(s), and a daughter(s). How do you think these people reproduce, both in the physical sense, or in the mental sense? And to be located in Alabama and be surprised by these findings? Give me a break.
And for a good number of us women of color, especially African Americans, it is why all of this talk about women solidarity, and the push to support women candidates carte blanc[he], has us giving the side eye. Besty DeVos, Melania [Trump], Sarah Huckabee Sanders, just to name a few, is a caution to never to give a blanket pass based on gender. Too many white women have cried and lied for black men to swing from trees and die.
Tell the Hawleys of the world to do their next research on their own set of blinders.
Karen M. Clark-Keys, PhD