Every few summers, I find myself roaming Hong Kong alone, left to my own musings and observations, free from the distractions of my parents. This is the unexplored yet oddly familiar homeland, the country of my parents’ birth, where I feel both connected with and disconnected from everything around me. It is as though the memories of the moments I spend here have been lying dormant in my mind, waiting years for me to find them. I ride buses and trains that run through the city like blood through my veins. On the crowded streets, locals sell ginger remedies and pickled fish that emit pungent scents I can almost smell through the windows. The glass doubles as a mirror, and when my eyes shift focus, I see my face reflected in the buzzing streets and malls outside.
10:30 AM: I step off the double-decker MTR autobus into the sea’s salty perfume, a smell that I know will linger on my clothing for the rest of the day. Huge letters spelling out “Welcome to Stanley” loom in the distance. The vast ocean splays out before me in countless shades of blue. The sea contains a hidden world of its own, oblivious to the lives of the humans who have left empty bottles of Pocari Sweat and Tsingtao on the sandy shores. I stare at the bobbing buoys and rowboats long enough to realize that they belong to real people—individuals who use these boats day in and day out to make a living, to support their families. Suddenly, I feel that I am intruding upon someone’s personal property, as if I were rummaging through my grandmother’s bedroom dresser drawers. I grip the wooden railing that separates me from the water, and the wind whips my hair. In the intensity of this moment, I realize that I am both a product of and a visitor to this country, a half-tourist returning to a part of the past, my past. At the sea’s edge, I find myself at a crossroads, trying to fill a void within me, a void whose shape I do not know.
To avoid existential breakdown, I take refuge in the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. I visited the museum once on an earlier trip, skipping past the seafaring simulation video games and wooden models of old explorer ships before begging my parents to go to lunch. Perhaps now though, the artifacts from centuries past will quell my restlessness. The prerecorded cry of seagulls explodes out the loudspeakers, ringing through the empty, temperature-controlled room. I walk past boxes labeled “Patna Opium” and displays of silk and rice in large burlap bags.
I stroll, scanning the displays and exhibits, until something catches my eye. Behind a glass pane, a passport is carefully pinned to the felt wall. A stained black-and-white photograph of a middle-aged Chinese man is stapled to the weathered page; I barely notice the circular stamp near the corner of the picture, for its blue ink has faded, rendering its English message illegible. Although I am a fluent speaker of Cantonese, I have not learned to read or write the language, so to decipher the passport’s Chinese characters, I depend on the translations written on the wall: NAME. NATIONALITY. COUNTRY OF BIRTH. NOTICE OF IMMIGRATION.
Standing alone, I think about this man, and I think about my own parents and brother, who flew to the United States more than two decades ago when my father’s job transferred him to New York. They were forced to give up everything in their old lives, but not, I realize, everything their old lives stood for. Their new neighborhoods did not take away their traditional lai see gifts each Chinese New Year or their Buddha statues; rather, the relocation gave my parents an even stronger desire to hold onto their traditions and to pass them to me.
I imagine the thoughts of the passport’s owner as he immigrated to the West: his fear of failure, his apprehension of social rejection, his unease about his ultimate fate. Did he eventually find a place for himself in his new society as my family did? Did the sea, his means of transportation, deliver him a fair and deserving future, just as sixteen critical hours suspended in the sky did for my parents?
The ocean remains in my mind as I continue through the museum and finally walk out the doors, re-entering the present day and turning to face the coast again. While the noontime sunlight shimmers in the swaying waves before me, nameless masses walk through the streets on the other side of Hong Kong, my parents and my brother among them. They too have returned to their origins, resuming their daily routines with a muscle memory acquired from years past. My watch tells me that it is time for me to meet up with them again. My muscles, too, remember the way.
Age 17, Grade 12