After years of imploring my mother to take me with her to China, I could barely believe that I was finally on an airplane beside her. It felt like the beginning of those cheesy ‘return to the motherland’ stories that so many first-generation immigrants write when they finally visit their parents’ country for the first time, and I too was prepared to document everything with my camera for posterity’s sake.
Previously when people asked if I had ever been to China, I could only say that I had been once to shoot a documentary on porcelain producers with my college professor. But even then it had been to a different part of China than my mother’s hometown in the south, and I could only fumble over the basics of Mandarin while my white American professor stunned locals by speaking fluently.
As I approached my thirtieth birthday, it seemed more and more absurd that I had never been to my mother’s hometown. I had no idea what it looked like, much less where it was on a map. My sisters had visited when they were children and were infinitely more proficient than me in both Cantonese (which is spoken in the south and in Hong Kong), and Mandarin, the official language. I’d always wondered if my Chinese language skills wouldn’t be so awful if I had visited China as a child too.
After take-off and some excited chatter with my mother, I nestled into my seat to try and get some rest on the eight-hour flight from Melbourne to Hong Kong. A hand emerged from behind my seat and slammed my window screen shut. Snapped out of my drowse, I took a few deep breaths to calm myself and tried very hard to practise compassionate thinking about the person behind me.
After ten years of living abroad I was adjusting to my recent move back home to Australia, and still learning to tone it down. My time in the United States, and in New York City especially, had done wonders getting me out of my shell—just not always in a good way, if you don’t like being labelled the crazy lady for yelling at perverts and racists on the street. Confrontation is simply a way of life in New York. Women can count on being cat-called and harassed in English, Spanish or just plain old leering anywhere they walk. The city is also so crowded, staking out personal space feels like a daily existential struggle, and over there this sort of behaviour simply would not fly.
I took another deep breath, feeling just a little satisfied with my newfound ability to not respond. I re-nestled into my seat and reclined, determined to ignore the minor transgression and get some shut-eye when a series of heavy blows landed on the back of my seat.
Incredulous, I turned around to address the man behind me, politely asking him whether he wanted to swap seats with me so my reclining wouldn’t get in his way. He stuck his chin out, glared at me and enunciated carefully, “I’ll remember you,” a beautifully constructed, deadly, dread-inducing insult in Cantonese.
His reaction took me by surprise, but helped me realise that I needed back-up. When a Cantonese-speaking flight attendant came over to speak to him he retorted that he wasn’t doing anything, and she left. This went on. He would stop hitting my seat when the flight attendant arrived and start punching it again as soon as she left.
In between my calls for assistance, his wife remarked that just because wealthy Chinese people could now speak English and afford to send their children to study abroad, they thought they ruled the world. “Well, I know how to understand English too!”
It all made sense. The couple was from Hong Kong, and must have picked up on my mother’s unmistakably mainland dialect when they heard us speaking. Even though Cantonese is spoken throughout southern China and Hong Kong, there are also numerous regional dialects and local languages spoken throughout the mainland. The couple had us pegged as being from the mainland, and they weren’t about to let it go. The wife droned on and on about the mainland Chinese and their wealth, and how they thought they could do whatever they wanted now because they were rich.
Even in the midst of the woman’s misguided invectives, the situation felt absurdly comical. My mother had endured so much suffering under Communist China that she had been desperate enough to take the opportunity to immigrate nearly forty years ago to Australia—a country she knew nothing about, and whose language she couldn’t speak. It wasn’t China, and that had been enough.
It seemed futile to try and correct the woman with our family history. I, for one, wouldn’t have known where to start. Instead, my mother and I sat in silence, absorbing the woman’s words.
On the one hand, I could understand where she was coming from. In 1997, after 150 years of British colonial rule, during which Hong Kongers enjoyed a certain degree of democracy and unbridled capitalism, Hong Kong was handed back to China. Since then, tensions between the mainland Chinese and Kong Kongers have escalated significantly, with little recourse for Hong Kongers to complain.
Previously, under British administration, the finer points of British etiquette inculcated in Hong Kongers a cultural and linguistic identity distinct from their mainland counterparts, who had been urged by Mao during the Cultural Revolution to do away with bourgeois mannerisms. When travel restrictions between China and Hong Kong eased post-1997, Hong Kongers felt besieged by hordes of wealthy and ill-mannered mainlanders.
What’s more, many entrepreneurial mainlanders engaged in parallel trading by buying cheaper goods in Hong Kong and reselling them just across the border, while tens of thousands of pregnant women from the mainland gave birth in Hong Kong hospitals so their “anchor babies” could obtain Hong Kong residency, and consequently access better government services and education.
Videos capturing mainlanders letting their children urinate in public spaces or eating on the Hong Kong public transit system went viral. Peking University Professor Kong Qingdong further inflamed tensions by calling Hong Kongers “bastards” and “running dogs for British imperialists” on national Chinese television. In his tirade, Professor Kong expanded his critique of Hong Kongers to include those resisting the imposition of Mandarin, arguing that “Mandarin speakers don’t have the responsibility and necessity to speak the other dialects … but everybody has the responsibility to speak Mandarin.”
Even within the mainland, the Chinese government’s ambitious attempts to homogenise language and culture have been well-documented. Although the debate is far from settled, classifying Cantonese as simply a regional dialect of Mandarin, as opposed to a distinct language, reasserts the political and cultural superiority of a centralised, Beijing-approved Chinese identity.
Given the struggles for linguistic self-determination of Cantonese speakers in both southern China and Hong Kong, the hostility of this Hong Kong couple took me by surprise. It spoke volumes that even our common linguistic—and arguably cultural—marginalisation could not measure up to the Hong Kong resentment of mainland China and its inhabitants.
After several rounds of the flight attendant coming and going, I finally called for the inflight supervisor. A burly white Australian man approached to suss out the situation, and asked me if I spoke Chinese. Worried that he would ask me to interact directly with the man in my mediocre Cantonese, I looked him squarely in the face and said “No”.
We were on an English-speaking airline, after all, and while it felt awfully neo-colonial to appeal to a white man’s authority for help in dealing with a Hong Konger who wasn’t fluent in English, I needed help ending the harassment.
The supervisor ultimately resorted to threatening the couple with sanctions. If they didn’t move seats they would be placed on a Qantas no-fly list and there would be a police escort meeting them at the airport. Finally, they buckled, and quietly gathered their belongings to shuffle to the back of the plane.
As the supervisor left to attend to his other duties, I couldn’t control myself any longer. I turned around to address them for the first time in Cantonese and wished them a nice flight. Once I had sat back into my seat, my mother and I looked at each other and began giggling uncontrollably at the absurdity of the situation. The rest of the trip was thankfully confrontation-free and as cheesy as I had hoped for it to be, as my mother reunited in town after town with old neighbours and classmates.
But the incident on the plane kept me thinking about Hong Kong’s struggle for sovereignty. July 1, 2017 marked the twentieth anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong back to China. On its eve, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded to concerns about the undermining of Sino-British Joint Declaration, which had set out provisions to preserve Hong Kongers’ way of life and autonomy until 2047. His blunt response was that “the arrangements … are now history and of no practical significance, nor are they binding on the Chinese central government’s administration”.
The troubling statement is perhaps no surprise to those who have been paying attention, especially when China has already openly used heavy-handed tactics to counter dissent in Hong Kong. In response to Chinese intervention in Hong Kong’s governance and civil liberties, however, Hong Kongers have persistently fought back. Between the 2014 Umbrella Revolution and 2016 Fishball Revolution, in 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers were abducted and taken into custody in mainland China over the circulation of materials critical of the Communist Party’s leadership. They were later paraded in front of television cameras to read out written confessions. One of the booksellers, though, Lam Wing-kee, later retracted his statement at a press conference in Hong Kong and recounted the five months of solitary confinement he endured. Mr Lam dismissed suggestions that he relocate to Taiwan and open a book store there. Instead Mr Lam told reporters, “I want to tell the whole world: Hong Kongers will not bow down to brute force”—in Cantonese, of course.
Diana Tung is a first-generation Chinese-Australian interested in examining the issues of gender, race, culture, and politics from an anthropological lens. Her writing has appeared in Overland and McSweeneys.
Diana was the recipient of the first Scissors Paper Pen mentorship, with mentor Ashley Thomson (founder of Homer). This piece was developed as a part of the mentorship. The mentorship is supported by artsACT. For updates on future mentorships, follow Scissors Paper Pen on Facebook.