Chopsticks are moving around me at the speed of light at Tao Heung, a Hong Kong lunch spot. The vibe is generally happy, buzzing, animated and as it usually is the case at dim sum, food is first come first served. I quickly snap up my favorites before anyone else can, listening to my co-workers chit chat.
“Oh no!” someone said. “She picked up the beef tripe, should we tell her?”
“Wow! She uses chopsticks well!” Who were they talking about?
“Do you think she eats chicken feet?”
I glance around the table and 15 pairs of eyes stare back. Oh, they’re talking about me.
I look down at my food, not knowing what to do. This is highly bizarre. I am accustomed to being spoken about as a “foreigner” in countries where I was foreign, but I belong here… don’t I? I am half-Chinese, half-German and have never been anything else. It never occurred to me that this would be an issue to other Chinese.
“You do understand what we are saying right?” someone said, interrupting my thoughts.
I feel like I am kicked in the stomach. I regain my composure and smile, answering the questions, one by one, in Cantonese to reactions of “Woah!” “She knows that word?”
I leave lunch feeling dejected, alienated, lost, confused and very, very angry at the world.
The next few weeks at my job were challenging, I fought every instinct to not hand in my resignation. I kept reminding myself that if I could adapt and survive in a local, family-run Chinese company, everything else in life would be comparatively easier. If I didn’t learn now, then when would I? I began to try localizing myself, engaging myself in Chinese pop, attending karaoke to the shock of my colleagues, doing my best to keep up with the slang, but nothing worked. At the workplace I was still being spoken to as if I didn’t speak the language, alienated by my peers.
Once, I was tasked with organizing my team member’s birthday, and she asked for Pizza Hut to be ordered in. “Hey guys,” I wave the order form in front of my colleagues. “Do you think five pizzas for the 14 of us would be enough?” Incredulous looks were cast upon me. A colleague exclaimed, “Woah! Are you crazy?! That’s so much!” I blink, I was worried 2 – 3 slices per person would have been too little.
“Christina, this is HONG KONG pizza we are talking about, not your GWAI LO [Western person] pizza!” The words were blurted out hotly with such menace, I stood aghast with shock at her words. What did I do wrong? I decide to remain silent. At the party, a few of them wander over to me, “Oh Christina, I don’t know how you could possibly eat more than one slice of pizza, I am SO full already.” I felt like the fat kid on the playground. Why me?
Many a night was spent in tears, calling anyone remotely Cantonese asking what I could possibly do. I wanted so much to be included and accepted. What was I doing wrong? I found my answer in my friend’s God-brother. We were in Causeway bay, hanging out in a cool, neon-lit bar – a smaller dive that locals frequented. He listened to my story and said, “Christina, just tell them you are from Hong Kong.”
And thus, my “Made in Hong Kong” campaign began. I was no longer going to allow for people of my own nationality to alienate me. I decided it was going to be all about branding. I am who I say I am, and if anyone doubts me, reinforce it. I could not wait to test it out.
Walking into the office the next day, I was greeted with “Gwai Mui! [Western girl!]”
I seized the opportunity.
“What? Where? I don’t see a Gwai Mui around?” I looked around animatedly with humour, and he chuckled slightly.
“Me?” I said. “You must be mistaken, I am from Hong Kong, made in Hong Kong, three stars baby!” I purposely adding “three stars” to re-emphasize my permanent residency.
“Really? Three stars?” he says.
I nod enthusiastically, “Born and bred!” He chuckles but doesn’t say anything further. The following week, he addressed me as Christina.
A few weeks into my campaign, a colleague attacked me about what I was eating. I say nothing, focus on my food and ignore her, hoping she will drop it. Suddenly, I hear:
“What’s wrong with you?! She’s told you so many times she is from Hong Kong, MADE IN HONG KONG! Why don’t you get it?” I looked up with amused shock, it was a colleague of mine, one who had heard my “Made In Hong Kong” spiel many times.
I wanted to jump out of the chair and scream, “HALLELUJAH!” What a moment! It was the first time anyone had defended my right to be Chinese! I grin so widely and listen as the rest of the table starts joining in with “Yeah! She’s made in Hong Kong, why do you have be like that?”
Nowadays, acceptance comes much easier. There are still days when my ethnicity is challenged, but I’m a pro at handling that now. I realize now that my “Made in Hong Kong” campaign was a way to fill the insecurity that perhaps I wasn’t Chinese, but that at the end of the day I was Chinese enough.
There is a saying that goes, “It is not who you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you’re not.” I had to believe in my roots for others to believe in them too. Just because I am a TCK does not mean that I am in any way less Chinese than others. Through my self-realization and campaign, I was ultimately accepted as me: A German-Chinese TCK who was made in Hong Kong.
Illustration for Denizen by Lauren Pettapiece.