So Long, My Beloved City: Musings of an Exile at Home
My best friend asked me if I still saw Hong Kong as my home, and I said that I still do, in a way. Although a person can have multiple homes, they can only live in one at a time. Right now, my heart is in Abu Dhabi.
During Candidate Weekend, we had to bring an object that reminds us of home. Sitting in a circle, I watched with bated breath as others brought out apples from Armenia or their grandmother’s necklace. Clutching the blue packet in my hands, I wondered how people would react to my definition of home.
When it was finally my turn, I rose from my chair and boldly declared: “This is a pack of letters that loved ones have written to me at various points in life. To me, home isn’t a place but a feeling, a feeling of warmth and comfort when you’re surrounded by people you love. It doesn’t matter where in the world I am. As long as there is love, I am home.”
For the past eighteen years that I had lived in Hong Kong, I had repeatedly rejected the notion of the city being my home due to the fact that I was labeled as a gwei mui or a foreigner for speaking broken Cantonese. That was why I used to anchor my identity in the relationships that I deeply cared about. However, during my gap year, I began to gain appreciation for the place by interacting more with its nature and culture. It made me think that perhaps I do have a significant connection to Hong Kong.
Before I left for Abu Dhabi, a former acquaintance shared a Cantopop song with me. Its title translates to “not going home this lifetime” and illustrates the woes of Hong Kongers who are forced to emigrate due to political persecution as the territory increasingly loses autonomy from the Chinese mainland. While I did echo the lyrics’ sentiments of missing hot bread and soy milk, I didn’t feel particularly strongly about anything else. Perhaps it was because I was willingly leaving, and if anything, the pulls of starting afresh in Abu Dhabi lured me in more than the thoughts of leaving behind loved ones.
After spending exactly a month in Abu Dhabi, I had to take a leave of absence, leaving behind a box of friendships, memories and dreams there. As I trudged through the empty arrival hall of the Hong Kong International Airport in the wee morning hours, I plugged in my earphones and listened to the song once again. It finally hit me as the singer sang about leaving your home country and compared it to severing your body in half.
During my gap year, I built connections with many people at NYU Abu Dhabi eagerly awaiting the start of my incredible undergraduate journey. I made promises to friends who I had yet to meet in person, to run after a ball on the Falcon Field, have picnics on the highline and cry over assignments at 3 a.m. together. These promises were delayed first because of the pandemic and once again postponed, if not left entirely unfulfilled, when I took a leave of absence.
I spent a day at Blacksmith Coffee simultaneously meeting people for the first time while also saying goodbye for a year. I didn’t expect much when I notified others of my imminent departure. I thought only a few close friends that I had been talking to online would show up, but there were many unexpected appearances that warmed my heart. There were avid readers of my Gazelle articles, members of my former cohort who popped in to encourage me and many people who didn’t know me personally but felt a sense of connection simply by being a part of the same NYUAD community.
It both comforted and saddened me to know that I have to part from this community once again: comforting because I knew that when I return, I will be accepted and loved by them, but saddening because I’ll be separated from them for another arduous year.
I had packed my entire life into two suitcases when I moved to Abu Dhabi, ready to plant them in the desert and watch my life take root there. Yet almost immediately after the seeds were sown, they were mercilessly uprooted.
Finding myself in Hong Kong again, shortly after bidding it farewell, nauseous dread crept up my throat as I adjusted to sign boards in English and Cantonese instead of Arabic. When I envisioned going home to Hong Kong, I imagined a voluntary, longing return instead of an exile forced away from my promised land.
It dawned on me that apart from being surrounded by people you love, home is where you want to be. Perhaps this is why many immigrants who have long settled in other parts of the world still yearn to return to their homelands.
When I packed my suitcases and moved to Abu Dhabi, my heart also migrated there. I saw what could’ve been four incredible years brimmed with adventure, learning and lifelong bonds. NYUAD is where I belong and it hurts to be sent back home to a place where I don’t want to be, at least not right now.
My best friend asked me if I still saw Hong Kong as my home, and I said that I still do, in a way. It will always hold a special place in my heart, thanks to all the memories I made there growing up. Although a person can have multiple homes, they can only live in one at a time. And right now, my heart is in Abu Dhabi.
Charlie Fong is Senior News Editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.