HKNY Angelica Olstad

How Traveling to Meet My Chinese Family Changed My Perspective on Life (VIDEO)

HKNY from Angelica Olstad on Vimeo.

My trip to Hong Kong was a whirlwind of a week – I visited a side of family I had never known and explored a new city. Except for a visit when I was four, it was my first time meeting my my mother’s side of the family as an adult. Through this trip, I started the process of coming to terms with my identity as a bi-racial, half-Chinese, half white American that does not speak or understand Cantonese, my mother’s tongue.

I grew up not knowing much about my Chinese heritage. To date, my own knowledge had been a combination of distant memories and vague facts – that initial visit to Hong Kong, Chinese classes that I quit (too young to know any better), piano lessons with my Chinese teachers who spoke little to no English, and an inability to say American idioms with fluency or accuracy (which I’ve since learned is a common trait of many first generation Americans who have immigrant parents).

I grew up in in a predominantly white suburb of Colorado where I developed a heightened sensitivity regarding my ethnicity. I was acutely aware of features that distinguished me from most of my peers – almond shaped eyes, pale white skin that freckles in the summer contrasted with jutting sharp cheekbones, dark brown (but not quite black!) asian hair, and a European nose. It’s a distinct combination of two very different races coming together, one that I have come to accept only after a lifetime of learning to identify myself beyond race.

I became particularly aware of my “otherness” when people would continually ask me the question, “Where are you from?” when they actually meant, “What is your ethnicity?”. In my life I’ve searched to find the answer to another question; not to, “Where are you from?” (Colorado) or to, “What is your ethnicity?” (Mixed) but, “Where do I belong?” Hong Kong was a distant concept that was in my periphery but never a real factor in how I shaped my identity.

In my 20s I moved to New York. I wanted to pursue art, become a yoga teacher, and most importantly, I wanted to be surrounded by more diversity. At the time, I had little resources to travel but I knew that if I wanted to have worldly experiences, New York would be my second best bet – a city where the whole world comes together on one little island, where every culture, race, and socioeconomic class is represented. In New York I finally found a home where the question of my race or origin was no longer the first topic of discussion.

When the possibility of travel finally entered my horizons I set my sights on Hong Kong. I grew up mostly knowing only my immediate family – my mom, my dad, my sister, and my paternal grandpa before he passed in my teens. For the most part, that nuclear family structure was all I knew. In Hong Kong, my mother came from a family of six. They had all married and had kids of their own (many of them born after my childhood visit) and were all still living in Hong Kong. I wanted to know who I was, and find out more about my mother who came from this city and the family that shaped her. It took a little bit of time to make it happen but the second I could, I booked the ticket and alerted my family – I was coming to Hong Kong!

As I stepped off the plane, I had a moment of panic realizing that I had no idea what my aunt (my host for the trip) looked like. Luckily, she recognized me and while there was an awkward hug (oops, that should have been a handshake), I felt a sense of comfort and homecoming with this woman whose face slightly resembled that of my mother’s.

On the second night, my uncles, aunts, and respective spouses came out for dinner – they all made it. There were more awkward, overeager hugs from me that were quickly deferred to firm handshakes and after an exchange of gifts (from them, red packets with money as is tradition, and from me, I Love NY t-shirts and keychains) my family and I, a large group of people who I had never known, proceeded to communicate in the only language we could comfortably share: food. While aunts and uncles piled my plate full with Cantonese delicacies, a cousin who I had never met (and who also apologized for his perfectly good English) began bonding as I asked him a series of rapid fire questions, “It’s so nice to meet you! What’s your name? Did you know much about me and my sister? How old are you? What do you do for work? How do you like living in Hong Kong?” As he started telling me more about his life in Hong Kong specifically as a Chinese individual I noticed that he made many references to “our generation vs. our parents’ generation. As an American, it made me think about the Chinese perspective from a different viewpoint.

It became apparent to me that for my cousin, staying close to family was the primary focus of his life. Sure, he still faced similar problems like anyone in their 20s (finding fulfilling work, finding a good housing situation in the increasing rent landscape of Hong Kong, maybe something to buy) but, through all the hardship he knew that he had the support and advice from a strong family unit. A family unit whose lineage of history, wisdom, and ancestry had been passed on for thousands of years. His use of language also reflected this through an emphasis on “we” and “us” vs. more individualistic vernacular of “I” and “me”.

I thought about this idea of having a more “asian” outlook and how different I would be had I grown up there instead of the United States. I loved Hong Kong for its bustling energy and mountainous landscape – a perfect blend of my home state Colorado and my adopted home in New York. Hong Kong is a truly international city. (In fact, I heard a few folks refer to it as the “New York of Asia”). However, it was through my family that I was able to get a local’s perspective of the city. I was overwhelmed by the generosity exhibited by these people who were, more or less, strangers. Through a Whatsapp group chat, they diligently worked together to take turns showing me around the city, host me, and make sure I was well fed for every meal. It was clear that their American niece, who they hadn’t seen for 26 years (practically a stranger) was a high priority.

My mom ended up joined me on my last day there. On a special trip with one of her sisters we visited the temple where my grandfather’s ashes were stored. We paid our respects at the altar and visited his tomb. For the first time, I saw the face of my grandfather, a man who worked two jobs selling chickens on a street market, a man who once only had two days of vacation in a year, and who died too early leaving a wife and six children to fend for themselves, a man whose story I never knew, my grandfather. It was a powerful moment, one that I will never forget.

In American culture we’re told to be great. We’re often told that happiness comes in the form of self-serving pursuits – to pursue greater education, to pursue fantastic lives and to acquire material markers of success through our careers, homes, cars, clothes and so on. We relocate to pursue college degrees, jobs, or relationships hundreds of miles away from our homes and our families only to visit once or maybe twice a year for holidays. The American dream was built on the ideals of independence, manifest destiny, innovation, and unequivocal freedom. In this framework, new is better and each generation is expected to outperform the one preceding it. For better or for worse, we are told that if we want greatness, all we have to do is reach out and grab it. It is both a magnificent and equally overwhelming ideology to grasp, one that can leave many individuals wondering how to go forward in a constantly changing world.

In Hong Kong, while listening to family members speak in a language I didn’t understand, I began thinking about this eastern way of thinking, where new generations are given a structural foundation of time honored lessons to build their lives on. I began thinking about two divergent but equally important viewpoints where one looks to the new and the other looks to the past for guidance. And for the first time in my life, I felt a deep sadness that I couldn’t share this language and perhaps so much more with my family.

My mother suddenly made a lot more sense to me. Growing up, I never completely understood her and I used to wish she was more like other “American moms” (if anything, I was looking for a way out of those piano lessons). In Hong Kong, I came to realize that she was simply trying to pass on the values that had been passed on to her – she came from a different part of the world and a different culture, one I had simply never known. Through her, I represent a different part of the world and a different culture where my identity is a sum of all these parts known and unknown. I realized that my question, “Where do I belong?”, is actually better answered with the question, “With who do I belong?”

To be honest, the jury’s still out. Back in New York, I’ve settled into my life and my community of friends that I now consider to be like family. However, there is an unshakeable desire go back to Hong Kong and spend more time with the family who made me feel so loved and accepted. I want to continue traveling, meet new people, observe other families, and other ways of life.

As a mixed race individual, the concept of identity through family has never been clear cut for me; I have family that looks different than me, speaks a different language than me, and are even unknown to me. My identity is American but is also defined by other labels such as Chinese-American, bi-racial, ethnic, a minority, and so on. As a mixed race individual I have learned how to create identity through my relationship to surrounding people and environments. I have never felt that I could strongly relate to either group, always ticking off “other” in a race box. For me, the issue of race has become a search of identity through self-acceptance and a greater understanding that I don’t fit into any category. My race is undefined by many traditional standards and the topic feels more relevant than ever in a modern society where through technology, the world feels like it’s closing in. Travel gave me a deeper insight on the complexities of this big melting pot of a country we call the United States of America. It helped me realize that while I may have family in other parts of the world I am uniquely American, just like so many other descendants of immigrants born and raised in this country.

Of course, there is no simple way to address issues that are so complex and deeply nuanced. I can only say that a trip to Hong Kong, to meet a family I have never known, helped me start asking questions about how I as an individual can contribute to the conversation of race and identity in the United States. In a time where we now have a whole breadth of history at our fingertips and the entire world to draw from – it’s possible that in this context, we can make better sense of each other from a wider view.

So, perhaps the answer to my question, “With who do I belong?” is not the U.S., my family, or even Hong Kong, but is quite simply, “Everyone”.

Addendum

Of course, no article about traveling to Hong Kong would be complete without a quick guide to the city. Take the Star Ferry to Kowloon and take a picture of the Hong Kong skyline. Get lost in the back alley markets before they disappear. Visit the trendy art galleries in Tai Ping Shan. Grab a drink with the expats in Soho which is just a hop, skip and a stone’s throw away from the bustling streets of Central. Take a day trip to Stanley Park and enjoy the oceanside walkway. Visit the temples of Nan Lian Garden, free to the public and funded by the people of Hong Kong. Go shopping in the boutique stores of Mongkok – have cash. Take a cab up to The Peak and soak in the mystical sights of the mountainous city skyline, walk down and get lost in the meerkat zoo on the way down. Eat noodles for breakfast and drink Hong Kong tea.

 

About the Author:

Angelica is an experiential storyteller through travel, music, and events. She is the founder of Pop Up Yoga NYC and her upcoming debut EP “Versions” will be out 2018. She loves coffee, yoga, and plants of all kind. Learn more about her upcoming adventures here.

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