In my freshman year, I made my “first break” in journalism with a column in my school newspaper, which was about the cultural differences of a Hong Konger new to America. The first column, “Handshakes”, was about the sense of discomfort I felt in this greeting, a formal gesture that does not always carry genuine warmth. In the editorial meeting before the column was published, my column was lauded before the editorial board as an exemplary article.
I had mixed feelings. While this was not a piece of writing that I was particularly proud of, educated in a Cantonese speaking local school in Hong Kong and still stuttering over grammatical mistakes in my freshman classes, I never imagined that my writing would gain recognition among these future journalists, who will work in nationally renowned newspapers.
The column went downhill after “Handshakes”, as I wrote about political subjects such as China, Hong Kong, and the architecture of colonial Myanmar, which I felt affinity for in my travels as a postcolonial subject. The editors liked my column less, rightfully, because a Features column was supposed to entertain with ingeniously conceived hooks like “Handshakes”, not be a punching bag for my pessimistic political views or a depository for historical baggage that have no immediate relation to American politics or society. As the school year progressed, my American roommate, a girl who liked to throw pregame parties in her room and who sometimes “sexiled” me, started column called “N.A.R.P” which stood for “non-athletic regular person”. As my roommate’s column gained considerable popularity, my editors suggested that I should write about student-relatable topics and cloak my content with sleight-of-hand metaphors, attracting readers with these literary flourishes as I did with “Handshakes”.
My column was killed after I wrote my last entry on the Umbrella Revolution. I pulled the trigger when I got mad at my editor for doubting me that the education curriculum in Hong Kong did not include Hong Kong history. After my last column was published, they discontinued it for the above stated reasons and because it was too ‘political and philosophical’.
I do guess that issues from home, especially those involving the Umbrella Revolution, were difficult for me to relate to others. On the blurry morning of my birthday, I remember flipping open my laptop—as my near centenarian professor rambled on about Marx and Nietzsche—to be showered with footage of police violence. I gaped with horror as the police struck fatal blows on the backs of student protesters and remembered that some of my friends in Hong Kong were among them. Sure, they were just videos and images, and I am safe, far beyond the reach of political disruptions of my country in the sanctuary of an elite liberal arts college in Vermont. But that week, not only did me and my peers from Hong Kong fail to muster the concentration to do any of our readings, I also quarreled with my pro-mainland family, many of whom took part in organizing the anti-British riots in 1967. One evening during the course of that week, I finally broke down, lulled into my anxieties again as I waited for my readings to be printed in the library.
I walked outside of the library and squatted at a dark corner, so no one would see me as I wept. As I called home, my Filipino helper who raised me since I was born picked up:
“Chi Chi, are you okay?”
I mumbled something, as I swallowed my tears and tried to sound coherent. She handed the phone to my dad.
“Joy, are you okay?” My dad asked as he picked up the phone. He seemed to have heard me crying. I asked how everything was back home, and confided to them my anxieties that I will one day not be able to go home anymore. My mom told me that everything was fine, what the media depicted was exaggerated, and that it was only normal to feel anxious when I wasn’t at home to see what was actually happening.
I guess everything is fine. The sun still rises every day. I am still alive and well, and so are the people I care about. While pessimistic Hong Kong intellectuals are moving away from Hong Kong, and while news from home sometimes makes my heart skip beats, I have learned that it is more important to be in touch with the community around me, instead of insisting on my tragic visions, which may be exaggerated and which I fail to communicate. In Wong Kar Wai’s latest, underappreciated film, “The Grandmaster” which is about the fates of martial arts masters in the past, war-ridden century, Gong Er, whose art faced extinction, had said, “save a breath, light a fire; there are people where there is light. Never forget, for someone will echo your thoughts one day.”
I think the secret to extending the lifeline of Hong Kong lies not only in political struggle, but also in making ourselves good communicators by tailoring our message to another culture, whose ways of communication may be different from ours. I guess I see the point of handshakes now – while a handshake may not promise genuine warmth, it signifies the willingness to cooperate and to build mutual understanding. Instead of engaging explicitly in political agitation, I wish to keep my mission alive by seeking an outlet for my voice elsewhere, where my light could be kept alight to remind Hongkongers, wherever they are in the future, that there is still a Hongkonger somewhere too.