“You don’t look Asian.” That was the first jibe a fellow student made on my first day of school in Australia. My teacher had just announced to the class I was a new arrival from Hong Kong and that moment is very reminiscent of that scene from the movie Mean Girls where Lindsay Lohan’s character has just been hit with Mean Girl Amanda Seyfried’s “If you’re from Africa, why are you white?” one-liner.
I don’t look ‘Asian’ (whatever that is supposed to mean; the Asian continent is home to a variety of cultures, countries and ethnic groups that aren’t defined by a single physical characteristic). But I did grow up in Hong Kong. My mother is English with Italian ancestry and was raised in Australia after my grandparents were part of the ‘Ten Pound Pom’ migration scheme of the 1960s, while my father is Indian with Portuguese roots. My overall appearance of olive skin and dark features are objectively Eurasian and ethnically ambiguous, something that Australians tend to struggle with processing, and I’m all too familiar with the other dreaded question: ‘but where are you really from’?
Unlike my mother where moving to Australia was simply moving back home, for me it was moving to an entirely new environment which I had never experienced before beyond childhood holidays to stay with my grandparents. Navigating and challenging the grief of loss of identity and feeling settled in Australia has been something I have only begun to grab by the horns in my 20s, however not without the help of a very patient, very understanding therapist who specialises in the multifaceted field of cross-cultural psychology.
Navigating and challenging the grief of loss of identity and feeling settled in Australia has been something I have only begun to grab by the horns in my 20s
Plus, the solution isn’t quite as simple as returning to my childhood home. Hong Kong’s growing political unrest over the past few years remains a point of tension for anyone residing there. Coronavirus travel ban aside, I don’t feel so inclined to return anytime soon. It would be foolish to presume that the city I grew up in exists in the same capacity that I once knew. This is what makes the disenfranchised grief that so many expatriates or Third Culture Kids experience so convoluted. We can’t just ‘go back to where we came from’, which is something anyone who’s had to leave their home country because of the devastating effects of war or political unrest can tell you.
Grief that comes from moving countries comes tends to be understood as something one should simply “get over” with time. It isn’t treated as the same gravity as the loss of a friend, relative or loved one. But expatriate grief is not static, it is all encompassing and will sneak up on you when you least expect it. I type this as I feel the distinctly nauseating pang of homesickness at watching Lunar New Year celebrations unfold across Australia and around the world. This feeds the beast of struggling with identity and a sense of belonging. You are trapped between two worlds and constantly grapple with where you are most likely to fit in.
Grief that comes from moving countries comes tends to be understood as something one should simply “get over” with time.
I recently had a discussion about the Australian migration struggle with a friend from Iraq who came to Australia as a refugee in 2006 as a result of the war, who gently reminded me that the nostalgia is also felt from reminiscing on times that you remember which can be futile; you can’t get time back. Yet it is also true that a large demographic of global nomads are quietly struggling. In stating all of this, I am grateful for my adult years in Australia. I have been afforded a world class education, healthcare system, career opportunities, and a group of immeasurably wonderful friends who offer sympathetic ears for listening to this plight.
Even though I haven’t lived overseas in years now, I can still feel the warmth of humidity washing over me stepping off the plane at Hong Kong airport, I can still smell bo lo baos fresh out of the oven from that bakery on Caroline Hill Road in Causeway Bay, I can still hear the hustle and bustle of taxicabs and traffic and when I close my eyes I can still see the view from Victoria Peak of skyscrapers towering over the harbour. These are all parts of my being. And while I hold an Australian passport and currently reside here, Hong Kong will always be home for me.