Young Hongkongers explore Kowloon's markets. Photo: iStock / Getty
Young Hongkongers explore Kowloon's markets. Photo: iStock / Getty

By any definition, I am a Hongkonger. I identify as being from the city and it’s my home. And yet I am somehow “in between” cultures. Let me explain.

There are people who qualify as “third culture kids”: people who have spent their formative years away from their parents’ cultures but who don’t identify, particularly, with the culture of the place they’ve grown up in. This is a very Hong Kong phenomenon.

But then there are others, like me: Hongkongers who’ve spent a large chunk of their formative years being educated abroad, and – for one reason or another – have decided to come back to where our roots lie.

We are supposed to belong to – and identify with – the culture of Hong Kong. And yet we don’t quite fit into the typical Hongkonger narrative, or the mold of what a Hongkonger is expected to be.

We may have been raised by traditional Chinese families, but we’ve spent so long soaking up the thoughts, the beliefs and the customs of an entirely different culture and living a whole other way of life, that we end up feeling neither here nor there.

I grew up in Hong Kong. I am fluent in Cantonese as well as English, and the majority of my family live in the city. But like many other young people who fall into this category, I was privileged enough to spend a large part of my childhood and adolescence abroad. Our parents hoped for us to have a better education than they did, and broader horizons than we would otherwise have been able to achieve in Hong Kong – not to mention greater opportunities in the world once we came of age.

Being asked to choose between (cultural) lenses can be disorientating. Photo: Anthony Wallace / AFP

This trajectory was in the works even before I came to be: I was born overseas, in a small town in the Greater Toronto Area. My parents decided against staying in Canada, however, and after we moved back to their native Hong Kong, I attended a local primary school. Then, from age 11, I spent a decade being educated in the UK, before coming back to Hong Kong.

This homecoming should have been a smooth transition. But, even several years later, I sometimes find myself feeling disorientated.

I suppose it’s a very first-world problem. “Look at us fragile Hong Kong millennials, who got to live overseas. Woe is me.”

Yes, I will admit it is often an advantage. We have an ability to straddle cultures because we feel a connection with two vastly different ones. We have an innate understanding of both sides. As our parents had hoped, we are afforded far greater opportunities: whether it be in our careers or our personal networks.

But it starts to get confusing — at times frustrating — when we find ourselves confronted with the imperative of choosing.

For all that these frustrations exist, I’ve never felt that I don’t belong to my hometown – even though, sometimes, other people have different ideas

I know that I am expected to act, or think, a certain way by more traditional members of my family. Such expectation covers matters as trifling as drinking hot water (reason: it’s better for you), to the need to agree with everything an elder person says even if you disagree (reason: filial piety).

Among friends, such things can actually be a source of solidarity. People who have similar life experiences tend to have a similar outlook, and I find comfort in the fact that whenever I bring up an incident, or talk about my frustrations, friends with similar backgrounds just get it.

And for all that these frustrations exist, I’ve never felt that I don’t belong to my hometown – even though, sometimes, other people have different ideas. Take the guy who told me I’m not a “real Hongkonger” because I was born elsewhere; or another at an old-school dim sum restaurant who told my mother that we should take his place in the queue, because “your children should learn more about their own culture and have pride in being Hongkongers.”

Let him enjoy his moment of feigned generosity. We’re proud enough, thanks. After all, what really defines a “typical” Hongkonger? That’s a whole other column, at least.

Andrea Lo

Andrea Lo is a journalist based in Hong Kong, writing about lifestyle and cultural topics. Her work has been published by CNN, Discovery and Tasting Kitchen, among others.

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