What It’s Like to 'Go Back to Where You Came From'

After 25 years moving from one country to another, I finally bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong, the place where I was born.

by Sharon Lam
14 December 2018, 8:00am

The author in Singapore in the early 2000s. First school camp ever. 

When the Nelly Furtado 2000 hit "I'm Like a Bird" came out, I was seven years old and living in Singapore. I loved the song, the music video, Nelly Furtado’s style. I felt that “omg same” feeling you get with art sometimes, feeling like she wrote it for me and only me, that no one else would get it except for us.

Singapore was the fourth country I’d lived in at that point, and I’d go on to move a few more times before high school ended. The lyrics “I don’t know where my soul is/I don’t know where my home is” gave me solace whenever someone asked me where I was from. Hong Kong, I guessed, even though I’d never lived there.

I wouldn’t live in Hong Kong until I was 25 — or a few months ago. Before that, I’d been in Wellington, New Zealand, for six years, which is the longest time I’d spent consecutively in one place. My life had come to a grinding halt. It had been a year since I’d graduated from architecture school, and I was still unable to find full-time employment, or anything else to milk a sense of purpose from. While my parents had succeeded in making a life for themselves when they moved with me to Aotearoa/New Zealand all those years ago, it seemed that I could not.

The final trigger to leave was external, and almost definitely an arbitrary overreaction. In Wellington there is a sculpture on the waterfront called the “Water Whirler”, a long metal rod that will at intervals, spin around and spit out water. It was never on anyone’s mind until some guy decided he wanted to swing on it, only to snap it and fall into the sea below. That was when everyone came out of the woodwork, apparently having deeply cared about the sculpture all along, banding together to reprimand his hooligan ways. When asked why he did it, he said he was “bored out of his mind”. To me he was a hero. I felt I understood him completely. For whatever reason, Wellington’s rejection of this guy felt personal, like anyone who felt bored here was in the wrong. And so, I bought a one-way ticket before I got told off for swinging around on public sculptures too.

Wellington, 2015. The sculpture “Water Whirler” is on the right, almost out of frame.

It’s a strange experience to be born in a place, leave immediately, and not live there until 25 later. Strange, but similar movements aren’t uncommon. For Hong Kong emigrants, it’s quite normal to return. Half a million people emigrated between the years of 1984 and 1997 (the years between the Sino-British agreement and Hong Kong’s handover back to China, bookending the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989). However, 300,000 had returned by 2007.

This didn’t mean it didn’t make moving back feel any less strange. Of course I’d moved around before, but Hong Kong felt different. I was already sort of part of the club here, and there was a low-key desperate yearning to feel at peace, to feel like I did belong there. If not the place I and my parents were born, then where else?

Thanks to long summer holidays, Hong Kong wasn’t entirely uncharted territory. It’s a place where I’m often illiterate and the only people I know are unfamiliar extended family members, but it’s also a place I know well enough to scoff at tourist traps and to order yinyurng at chachaatengs. Still, it’s different to Wellington in almost every way possible. So for all intents and purposes, it became the new place I’d project all my escapist hopes upon.

The early days of hauling myself halfway across the world were auto-romanticized. While I did feel like a bit of a reject getting on the plane, getting off I was a new person. All I had done was pay money to sit on my ass in a metal tube for 11 hours, but I already felt the depression-pasta stains peel from my body. I rode the waves of instant gratification with caution. I knew that getting on long haul flights (like buying new notebooks, rearranging furniture, getting a haircut) had a way of tricking one into thinking things would be different now. New language, new air humidity percentage, new currency — these are all too easily interpreted as promises of a better life.

And yet! It seemed to have worked! I couldn’t believe it. Running away isn’t meant to work! According to a 2005 study, I fit the bill of the majority of Hong Kong returnees — aged 20-29, wanting to build a career, university-educated. But after the year-long wasteland that was my employment situation in New Zealand, I still found it unbelievable how quickly I got a job in Hong Kong. Here, my English skills were an advantage rather than a given. Needless to say, knowing Cantonese did not have the same leverage back in New Zealand. Three interviews within a week of landing, accepted an offer the next. Not everyone who’s emigrated can move back and in this moment I felt extra grateful that I could.

Plane about to land somewhere in Asia, sometime in the last decade. Taken at the moment when the pilot tells everyone to lower their window screens as to encourage people to look at the cute little clouds.

Outside of work, I reached milestones of settling into my Hong Kong self. Making my first friend. Making my first friend I only speak Cantonese with and who isn’t my mom. Opening a bank account. Frequenting the local swimming pool. Trying and failing to haggle for fruit.

The longer I spend here, the more I remember that moving from one place to another is defined by subtleties. It’s not the fact that you’re eating Hainanese chicken rice more often than chicken nuggets, but it’s the way the chicken itself tastes different, as does the milk, apples, bread. It’s how you carry more or less things in your bag, the way your skin feels when you wake up, whether you beep your card twice on the bus or just once. These are the things that make up the patina of geographic change.

There are of course, things that I miss about New Zealand. The native plants and animals, the cheese, the boysenberry ice cream. The person I’m closest to is now 9,417 km away, as are all three of my friends. So too are my parents, who will most likely retire there. And there’s plenty to be unhappy with here too, the reasons so many emigrate in the first place. Crowds, pollution, how cemented gender roles are, how high rent is - making moving out impossible for most (including myself, now crashing with my grandparents).

Then there are the political problems. Physical abusers of foreign domestic helpers get away with serving half of their sentence time. Beijing’s increasing influence, with the government openly rejecting targeted journalist visas, banning independence parties, charging protest organizers. The spirit of the Umbrella Movement, which I watched with pride from overseas, seems to have all but vanished.

Tsim Tsa Shui waterfront, Hong Kong in 2013. Desperate to make most of the food, I would always dramatically gain weight during summer holidays (unpictured).

Part of the strangeness of coming back is the guilt of knowing all this, and still feeling better than before I moved. It could be as simple as finally getting a job trumping all else, or it could be something more cultural. For the first time I’m walking daily in streams of people who look like me, and while I still have no idea what people on the phone are saying to me, it’s a satisfying feeling to be navigating work in a language I’d never used outside of family life. There are no more insulting “ni hao” on the street or “go back to where you came from” comments from strangers (jokes on them, I did). Moving back to Hong Kong has meant leaving the diasporic life I’ve lived all along.

I want to say that all diasporic problems don’t exist here, and a lot don’t, but while I feel like I belong here enough, it really is just enough. I feel estranged from the city when I see people wearing huge ass snow jackets the second it dips below 20 degrees, or when no one blinks an eye at people clipping their toenails in on the subway. "I'm Like a Bird" is still a tune and still completely relevant, Nelly Furtado and I are both still like birds. But most of all, I can’t see myself living here forever either.

Moving to the place one was born is in part a return, but in part also just another blip of movement. It’s nice to exercise my other language and walk on the chunk of land I arrived on. But it’s also fine that I wasn’t hit with a feeling of homecoming, that I knew I’d finally arrived at the place I truly belong forever and ever. There is no such place. For now, following whiffs of home’s ever-changing form has led me here. But home was never a static thing to be found. It means different things at different times, especially for immigrants who “never quite arrive at their destination because they never quite leave home," as two researchers once said.

Perhaps all one can do, whether immigrant, emigrant, or neither, is to consider what produces the most “home” for them right now, and to appreciate and grow home in whatever way they can.