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World Story of Hong Kong 06

2018/8/26 — 18:10

This was my third time returning to Hong Kong since I migrated and 15 years had passed since my previous visit …… Out of my three trips so far, this time was the longest in duration and the most emotional. I burst into tears at the boarding area several times. Perhaps my itinery was a bit too tight. Perhaps I am just getting older and nostalgic. If only I could have one more day to take another glance at the city that made me who I am. Just one more day.

 【文:June Wong(an Overseas Hongkonger)】

A Safe Return---- Not to be Taken for Granted

(1) In Canada, one can frequently cross paths with people from around the world. Even in Richmond, a city on the west coast with a dominant settlement of Chinese-speaking immigrants from a wide political and cultural spectrum.
It was November 2016 when I first met Muni in the local public library. She was accompanied by her mother and eldest sister, in their black veils from top to bottom. I was to help Muni study Mathematics for her final two years of high school. On most days, Muni wears a black jacket, a patterned headscarf, jeans and Toms sneakers. Two years on, She has chosen to pursue programming in her next chapter in life. I was glad that I did not kill her interest in Mathematics. 

As I watched her write, I noticed she has a darker complexion than the other Muslim teenagers I met. I forgot exactly how I probed, perhaps somewhat brought up the war-torn country Yemen. I was sure I saw faces and skin tones similar to Muni on the news. 

“Somali.” She revealed her family's partial identity. She is Canadian-born and speaks two dialects, Maxatiri and Maay*. As a Shiiate minority, she prays three times daily. The first verse at dawn. Second and third at noon. Fourth and fifth when the sun sets.

One time we sat near a poster showcasing library events in celebration of Black History Month. That just made a perfect occasion for me to verify a novel way the Africans used to distinguish the origins of other Africans.

“Hey! I heard that in Africa, people can tell which part of the continent you are from, say, Sudan or South Africa, just by appearance?” 
“Yes. It's easy!” Muni said matter-of-factly. No coding language or mathematical induction involved here whatsoever. 
“North Africans have lighter skins. People from West Africa, such as Mali, are the darkest.” 
“What about East Africans?” 
“Oval faces and high foreheads!”

On another occasion I ventured a little further to ask her whether the dress wore by a Rohingya woman on a video was a niqab. 

“I guess so?” She was half-verifying with a tone of disapproval, then added, “We don't do this.” I could somewhat relate how it is like to be annoyed by those on the other end of your own cultural spectrum, yet unable to distance yourself from it.

During Christmas break, I asked her to recommend a few Somali restaurants in town. Food is the easiest way to get in touch with any diaspora population. Yes, I keep using Christmas as a reference point in time out of habit despite many of those I interact with do not observe Christmas. 

“Unfortunately there aren't any in Vancouver.” Muni texted back. "There are many in Toronto and Minnesota. If you do happen to go to a Somali restaurants, always order the Shah--a tea full of spices." 

However, when we met again in the new year, all we could hear was that Somalia was among the countries in Africa being threatened by food shortage caused by drought, poor infrastructure and unrelenting clan wars. This had alarmed the international community as the famine in Somalia killed 260000 people in 2011. 

Muni and I were discussing the news in the comfort of a library work area, feeling helpless. 

“Yeah....but what can you do?” She shrugged. It turned out that the Somali diaspora population worldwide stepped in, raising money, supplying and delivering basic necessities to those living through the crisis. We knew very well that while this act was life-saving, it was only a bandage solution.

The Somalis diaspora around the world is approximately 2 million, of which 150000 are in Canada. Many arrived after civil war broke out in 1991. 
1991 was also the year I immigrated to Canada, along with many Hong Kongers. I was Muni's age when I departed the old Kai Tak airport with my family on a one-way flight. 

(2) When I landed in Vancouver, there was quite a presence of Asian immigrants, including an established Vietnamese community. Over the years, I studied university and entered adulthood. There was always a classmate or a colleague who came from Vietnam at each place I studied or worked.
I was nearly one year old when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. The Communists gained full control of Vietnam thereafter. For the next one and a half decades, I kept watching, on Hong Kong mainstream media, the Vietnamese boat people arrived and taken to camps. Hong Kong was designated a first port of asylum, alongside many other places in SE Asia, where registered refugees applied for resettlement, with USA, Canada and Australia being the most popular destinations.

The Vietnamese exodus coincided with the last two decades of British colonial rule in Hong Kong. When Hong Kong's return to China became certain in the early 1980s, feeling of uncertainty brewed among the population, who witnessed this tiny city emerged as one of the four dragons in the region at the end of the Cold War. Soon after, Hong Kong started its own exodus. The Vietnamese and the Somalis were fleeing war, poverty or political persecution. For Hong Kong, it was more a crisis in confidence. 

So right here in Canada, our paths crossed.

A few years ago, I met several Vietnamese Canadians who were willing to recount their life stories in Vietnam and their escapes, in fragments. Deeply intrigued by their first hand accounts, it took me a month to gather enough courage to get started, then spent the next few years to mend as many broken pieces as I could. Those who transited in Hong Kong picked up some Cantonese words and mentioned places I was not familiar with. Through checking the locations of the former refugee camps and reviewing the struggles faced by both refugees and Hong Kong as a host, I rekindled my relationship with Hong Kong in ways I never imagined.

In 2017, a book came to fruition with the help of a publisher based in Taiwan. I flew to Hong Kong, spent two weeks to see relatives, meet new people, and see my newly published work displayed in stores for the first time in my life. 

(3) This was my third time returning to Hong Kong since I migrated and 15 years had passed since my previous visit. Would I be seen as half-foreign by the locals? I wondered. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interact with a few young journalists. Perhaps out of intuition, or an intent to attract readership, I was identified in their feature articles as a “Hong Konger” or “Hong Kong author”, instead of “Chinese-Canadian”, “Canadian-Chinese” or other such hyphenated labels commonly used. I am not blaming anyone here. The Sino-Vietnamese in Canada have been viewing me as “Hong Konger” while I often call them “Vietnamese-Chinese”, despite we all became Canadian citizens decades ago. We live with these labels and realize we could not get too serious about them. 

While on my own in Hong Kong, I grasped every opportunity to see the harbour. On the airport express, at Tsim Sha Tsui pier, and across the harbour near the Maritime Museum in Central. I smelled the salty sea, watched the tour boats rocking, listened to the rhythm of gentle waves hitting the Star Ferries and imagined how the sea far away must have roared, as described by the Vietnamese who fought the waves as high as a 10-storey building decades ago. 

Two weeks passed faster than I could realize. Out of my three trips so far, this time was the longest in duration and the most emotional. I burst into tears at the boarding area several times. Perhaps my itinery was a bit too tight. Perhaps I am just getting older and nostalgic. If only I could have one more day to take another glance at the city that made me who I am. Just one more day. 

Unless one is politically active or blacklisted, a Hong Kong or Vietnamese emigre can now revisit Hong Kong or Vietnam safely at freewill. However, for the Somalis, there is no peace in sight. Muni has travelled with her family to Europe and US, but never set foot on the lands of the Somalis, or any other country in Africa. As of June 2018, Canada advises against all travel to Somalia. Just when I realized how fortunate I am, the thought of Muni's safe visit to the land of their ancestors remains to be a dream in the foreseeable future, took me further to an unexplainable state of empathy and longing.

[June, 2018]

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