I Am A Hongkonger
by Jennifer Anne Eagleton
Here’s the fax.
Does it say I have the job?
Yes, it does. You do have the job.
It was June 1997.
I saw a job advertisement on the noticeboard of the Department of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney. It was for an editorial assistant at a journal of Chinese literature in translation at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It was for a new graduate in Chinese studies.
It’s October. I had finally arrived in a new city embarking on a completely new career, knowing no one. I had never seen or talked to my new boss before.
I had only ever visited Hong Kong briefly—just as a transit stop on my way to and from China, first as a tourist, then as a language student. I hardly ever thought about Hong Kong. But as 1 July 1997 drew near I began to watch the city’s transition from being colony to a special administrative region of China with increasing interest.
Now I too was transitioning to a new career, new culture, perhaps a new identity. It was exciting and also a bit scary. I couldn’t believe I had the opportunity to start a new life in this fast-paced, complex place. And I have never lost that sense of excitement living in this energetic city.
Still, there was a lot to learn.
Years ago, there was an American TV series about beings from another planet who settled on Earth and how they got on with their Earthling neighbours.
The series was called Alien Nation—two words as a homonym of one: “Alienation”—meaning that feeling you get when you have no connection with the people around you or that you are not part of the group.
At Chinese University, I occupied a strange interim space, being neither professor nor student nor admin staff. My colleagues were all nice enough; it was just me, feeling like I should knew what was expected, but didn’t.
Approaching the department’s professors to give me their reviews of articles for publication in our journal felt awkward—I had to think of “polite” and indirect ways to appeal to their “face” so they would get them done on time.
Status is important in Chinese culture. Coming from Australia where it’s “easy goin’ mate” and where we often rebel against those we consider “tall poppies”, this was hard to get used to.
I wanted to sit with a visiting academic at lunch at a conference run by my department at Chinese University. However, I had to sit at the “office” table with the other non-faculty staff.
But people tried to help save face for me too. I had had an essential oil burner on my desk. A colleague approached me and said that another colleague was sensitive to the smell.
I took the hint and put the thing out.
Work did not provide me with a sense of community outside office hours, so I searched for one in my interests.
I became involved in the Hong Kong Women in Publishing Society, a regular hiking group, and worked as a volunteer teacher of refugees.
I did “belong” to these, but I had trouble with how someone like me in Hong Kong were collectively described by other “white people” and local Chinese society.
I know what I am not.
Many people would describe an expat as someone who lives in a place other than their native country. But in Hong Kong it almost always means someone with a high-paying job, who lives on The Peak or in Mid-Levels, frequents Lan Kwai Fong and goes on boozy summer junk trips. I dislike LKF with a passion and am not partial to boozy summer junk trips.
I am not an expat.
I live in the eastern New Territories and, as a part-time and freelance worker, my income is unstable. Still, some locals think people like me have money to burn—and they are shocked when I tell them what I actually earn.
On one occasion, I had dinner with a group of largely local high-flying marketing and lawyer types in SoHo; I felt they lived in another universe, as I struggled to find a common topic with them, apart from expensive restaurant meals and designer clothing.
I fit the criteria of being a white “ghost”. I hate this term, even though other European residents use this in a joking manner among themselves. It again emphasises the “otherness” of a group of people. I don’t want to be an “other”.
I am not a “gweilo”.
I also fit the dictionary definition of “a person born in or coming from a country other than one’s own”.
But I don’t feel “foreign” in the sense that I have studied China and Hong Kong in many ways: culturally, historically, politically and geographically.
I have felt chuffed when a local was surprised that I knew classical Chinese poetry or some obscure fact about ancient Chinese history. Or that I can even read Chinese.
Hongkongers are also not shy about making their opinions heard…Once I shouted “Why don’t you want Hong Kong to elect their own leader?” at a runner taking part in a race for a political cause that I did not agree with. He shouted back with the riposte of “What would you know?” As a “foreigner”, how could I possibly know what was good for Hong Kong?
“Foreigner” did not quite fit me either.
I struggled with a term for myself.
But I do feel part of this city….
Time moved on and I began a PhD on how Hong Kong talks about itself as one part of “one country, two systems”, and I learned more about the unique situation and identity Hong Kong occupies as a former colony.
Like me, Hong Kong struggles to find a new identity.
I felt strongly about some disturbing things occurring in the city, particularly since 2007. Perhaps I feel strongly about these things as they concern how the city perceives itself.
So I felt I had to take part in the frequent protests urging for change, so Hong Kong would be better and more equitable.
Often, I am one of the few non-Chinese residents to take part in these protests.
Year after year, I take part. I stand out, not understanding why many long-term residents of Hong Kong do not identify with matters near and dear to Hongkongers’ hearts.
To be part of the crowd, the beating heart of the city with fellow citizens as they came out to express what they wanted for the city felt great – and I saw another side to Hong Kong people that made we want to do more for them in what little way I could. They stepped up so I wanted to step out too.
Despite being accepted into these gatherings, given water, fans, food, I still felt a little self-conscious that I got singled out for vox pops by TV or radio crews because of the colour of my skin.
Why do I care?
Despite not always feeling like I “fitted in”, I care for the city and that is all that matters.
It is September 28, 2015.
A crowd has gathered on a sunny afternoon to commemorate an anniversary, one year since the start of the “Umbrella Movement”.
I stood facing the “Lennon Wall”—remembering when it had an expanse of rainbow-hued Post-it notes as far as the eye could see.
I recalled the note that I had put up a year earlier: “Keep Hong Kong free and prosperous.” Boldly, I had signed my name.
I was thinking of my 18 years in the city and my “journey” up to this point. I felt invested in this adopted city of mine.
I did feel like a Hongkonger, a Belonger.
I did not notice a stranger approach.
I felt soft arms wrap around my shoulders.
Then a squeeze.
I was being hugged.
“Thank you,” a voice behind me said.
I realised it’s not so much how others see me that is the issue, rather, it is about how I see myself.
I am a Hongkonger, a Belonger.
How to cite: Eagleton, Jennifer Anne. “I Am A Hongkonger.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 20 Sept. 2020, hkprotesting.com/2020/09/20/hongkonger/.
Photograph © Oliver Farry.
Jennifer Anne Eagleton, a Hong Kong resident since October 1997, is a committee member of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation and a Civic Party member. She has been a close observer of Hong Kong politics since her arrival in the city. She was an adviser to the University of Hong Kong’s “Designing Democracy Hong Kong” project (2011-2013), and in 2012 completed a PhD on how Hong Kong talks about democracy using metaphor. Jennifer has written a number of language-related articles for Hong Kong Free Press HKFP and is currently compiling a book combining Hong Kong culture, photography, and political metaphor. A previous president of the Hong Kong Women in Publishing Society, Jennifer is also a part-time tutor of stylistics/discourse analysis at OUHK as well as a freelance writer, researcher, and editor on cultural topics. In her spare time she collects Hong Kong political pamphlets and artefacts.