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I Was My Mother's Guide When She Returned To Hong Kong

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born and raised

"It's a totally brand new city. I don't recognize anything," my mom says, gazing wide-eyed out of the decades-old tram and into the chaotic streets of Hong Kong. "I never used to take the ding ding. It's so slow," she complains as the tram operator rings the bell twice to alert pedestrians nearby -- emitting a characteristic sound that gives the tram its Cantonese nickname. "But actually it's kind of nice. You can take your time to see the scenery around you."

It's been 33 years since she moved from Hong Kong to Toronto and four months since I did the opposite. This is how I became my mother's tour guide in her own hometown.

hong kong

The crowded streets that are familiar to me are now unrecognizable to her. I guide her through the modern subway system, which was constructed after her departure, and advise her on the best bus routes to take when she meets up with her old school friends. We walk together through Central, the city's financial district, among 70-story skyscrapers and modern steel structures that my mother has never seen before. I introduce her to some of the great local restaurants I've discovered; she uses her Cantonese fluency to order dishes that aren't on the English menu.

Together, we are the ultimate Hongkonger.

My mom comments on how much my Cantonese has improved while we devour her expertly-ordered meal. This food that I'm enjoying and the language I'm eagerly practicing is in stark contrast to the attitudes of my youth.

I credit my childhood apathy towards my mother's culture to the whitewashed Toronto suburb I grew up in, where I was one of three Chinese kids in an elementary school of 300. I wanted nothing more than to be just like my white Canadian peers with their Wonder Bread sandwiches and after-school ballet classes. Instead I was forced into weekly piano lessons, which I loathed, and fed traditional Chinese meals of steamed meat and stir-fried vegetables over heaping bowls of rice that I thought were bland.

Witnessing her children stuck between two cultures must have been frustrating for my mother too.

My mother put me in Chinese school on the weekends to learn her native tongue, but replacing my Saturday morning cartoons with rote repetition of stroke order and Chinese characters instilled in me a repulsion of the language. Whenever she spoke to me in Cantonese, I'd understand perfectly but reply back in English.

There's a Cantonese slang phrase to describe people like me: jook sing. The term originates from the knot in a reed of bamboo that prevents water from flowing from one end to the other. "You look at bamboo. It looks like it should be all hollow, but actually there are parts where it's closed inside," my mom explains. "That's like you. You look like you're Chinese but you're not really Chinese because you do not understand the language and the culture."

It's meant to be derogatory, and it works. My mother and relatives would tease me, my sister and my cousins for being jook sing when we spoke our accented Cantonese or used our chopsticks incorrectly.

Witnessing her children stuck between two cultures must have been frustrating for my mother too. While she moved to Canada to live and raise kids in a western environment, with western values and beliefs, she didn't know what the norms were. She had only her own childhood experience to draw from.

children of immigrants

Growing up in poverty, she adopted an eat-or-be-eaten attitude as the second eldest of six siblings. She witnessed how her father's strong work ethic brought him from low-level garment seamster to factory foreman and, later, top-level manager. My mother was taught by strict Catholic nuns at an all-girls high school, which undoubtedly influenced her own parenting style. The chaotic city life and incredible academic, societal and economic pressures of Hong Kong are what eventually pushed my mom out of the city.

This blog is an excerpt. You can read the rest on Narratively. A version of this piece also appeared on Salon and Wilson Quarterly.

Born And Raised is an ongoing series by The Huffington Post Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada. We want to hear your stories -- join the conversation on Twitter at #BornandRaised or send us an email at

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