The first time I was in Hong Kong, I dragged my feet the entire time. I remember a photo of my 13-year-old self wearing an orange rain jacket and pigtails. I look miserable. Maybe it was the humidity that upset me, or I was jet-lagged and wanted to sleep. I still can’t understand why someone that age who had the opportunity to travel to Asia could look so unhappy. I visited Hong Kong for the second time a year ago, just before my study abroad program in Chiang Mai, Thailand began. I was 21 years old. There was less feet-dragging this time, but I was more aware of the disconnect I felt while navigating the city with my parents. This was where they had grown up, but I couldn’t relate to the place. I spoke barely a word of Cantonese and strained my ears to pick up on familiar phrases I could understand. The time came at last for my study abroad. A breath of relief. Thailand: my own experience.
I realized pretty quickly how my upbringing would help me for the next five months. I had never been to Southeast Asia and was about to spend a semester in a new city. But being an Asian-American had exposed me to a culture that I learned to adapt to and learned from. While some people struggled with the Thai food that was served — especially what families gave them during the village homestay — I had been exposed to foods that were thought to be odd in America my entire life and felt comfortable accepting whatever came my way. Interacting with people who do not speak the same language as me had also been familiar to me. While it was sometimes difficult to not be able to speak to my grandparents, there was a level of respect and care I had to learn from an early age. As I couldn’t use words to communicate, my actions would have to speak for me. I realized the deep bonds that came from these kinds of relationships.
For the first time in my life, I actually felt as if my background — where my parents came from, how I was raised — mattered to other people, but most importantly, to myself. While I was abroad, people were able to travel outside of Thailand. A group of students from my program went to Hong Kong. People were interested that my parents were from there and asked me recommendations on what to do, where to stay and how to get by. For once, I felt like people were excited about my background and wanted to know more. And I was able to appreciate how much knowledge I had about a place, the people, the culture — it was a part of me. One girl came back and raved about a “large, yellow bun” that she found delicious. Bo lo bao. Pineapple buns. I used to get them at bakeries in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. “Hong Kong had amazing tarts, they were really sweet.” Dan tat. An outer pastry crust filled with egg custard and then baked.
Studying abroad in Southeast Asia allowed me to connect back to roots I didn’t know I had lost. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia in a predominantly white neighborhood on the Mainline. As a kid, I experienced what almost every Asian-American kid has to go through — bringing something “different” to lunch, getting ridiculed by classmates and then sticking to PB&Js. But there was a level of conformity I slid right into. I never felt as if I had to question what it meant to live in America with both parents being from Hong Kong and what that meant for my own identity. I had a newfound appreciation for how being a child of Asian parents had shaped me and how it allowed me to relate to others in different ways.
On Lunar New Year this year, two of my roommates and I invited other Chinese friends over. We shared stories of our own Chinese American experience — how our parents treated us, what set us apart from other kids, who we decide to be today. It was only last year that I truly appreciated and understood the two halves of me — halves that don’t fit in a perfect way but move in and out of each other, that retreat and come forward continuously. Within the Asian-American experience itself exists its own spectrum that I’m still trying to figure out for myself. It feels like I came late to finding this deep appreciation, and maybe it really took flying all the way to Asia, studying in Southeast Asia and viewing my self in a global perspective to find it. What does the conglomeration of my experiences look like? How do I stand in, and outside of, the boundaries of this singular, massed experience? These are questions that I still want to explore and hopefully won’t take another plane ride to find.
When I came back from Thailand, there were a lot of things I didn’t want to forget. I didn’t want to lose my “just say yes” mentality, which had brought unthought of experiences into my life. I didn’t want to forget what it was like to walk back from the Old City at dusk or eat $1 pad thai on the side of the street. But unlike the moments I knew I would desperately try to hold onto, the understanding I had for myself that had developed over the months was something I carried within me even when I returned.
Gabrielle Leung is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Serendipitous Musings appears every other Friday this semester.