For many people, the simple question of “where are you from?” rarely leads to a straightforward answer. In my case, I often start by saying London, as that’s where I grew up but I haven’t lived there in years.
My passport states that I’m an Australian yet there’s not much of an Antipodean cadence to my accent. With a Malay mother and an Aussie father, I’m a bit of an ethnic mongrel to look at so even that doesn’t help. Throw in an Islamic first name and the fact that the US was the last place I called home, and I find most people who ask that question quickly give up trying to place me.
In Hong Kong, my story is a common one. Having only known a handful of Eurasians in London or New York, there’s absolutely nothing special about being a hybrid offspring of Asia Pacific in this city. I’ve had to stop myself from getting exotic heritage envy when meeting people with such fantastic backgrounds as Thai and Italian or Burmese and Brazilian.
With hoards of post-colonial Brits, Aussies and a surprisingly large number of French, this is a real melting pot of a place. But here, more than anywhere, I’ve noticed the difference between those who want to camouflage themselves into Hong Kong and those who seem to vehemently hold onto ties from home.
While some expats may complain about the cost of living in this city, they’ll laugh if you suggest eating in the more affordable (and delicious) local restaurants. Indeed, entire districts exist where those originally from London or Paris or Sydney can feel like they’re right back at home. From Australian steakhouses that look more suited to airport terminals to faux-English pubs and French bistros, it seems many who move here are happy to reap the benefits of working in a buoyant Asian economy but not so eager to partake in the culture that drives that economy forward.
I understand that home comforts are something to be treasured – I’ve had a bag of PG Tips sent over and I’m still searching for some good Mexican hot sauce to recreate the tacos I miss from the US (any suggestions are welcome). But it’s things like dai pai dong lunches with colleagues, late night karaoke sessions with local bartenders and broken conversations with an old man who makes congee in my neighbourhood that really make Hong Kong feel like home.
A strong sense of origin can be grounding for people but in global cities such as this, I think I’m going to champion being a bit less concerned with where it is you’ve come from.
Aisha Speirs is Hong Kong bureaux chief for Monocle.