Growing up in mainland China in the 90s meant I had a routine similar to other children. My days started with brushing my teeth, drinking warm milk, and putting on my school uniform and red scarf — a requirement for all students in order to enter school grounds.
I had plenty of red scarves. It was meant to symbolize the blood of martyrs who died for the country’s independence and to serve as a tie to the communist revolution. Of course, to a six-year-old, the red scarf was simply something that I always seemed to forget at home, and it was a good thing the convenience store next to the school gate sold them for one renminbi each.
One day when I arrived at school, I was greeted by a large banner, front and centre. You couldn’t miss it. On it was a sign counting down the days until July 1, 1997 — welcoming Hong Kong back to the country.
I had no idea what was going on. The class president mentioned something about Macau and I would space out; I had no interest in politics or, for that matter, my homework. Rather, I would look out the window of the classroom, staring at the empty plaza where the morning flag was raised and exercise routines were done.
I just wanted to play outside.
Thinking back, it’s difficult for me to imagine the normality of politicizing children at such a young age, whichever side it may be. I spent my formative years in Canada and I had always remained politically neutral amongst my friends, considering many of them have roots in Hong Kong.
My parents remained politically neutral too. They rarely talked about the government back home. They neither criticized or praised; they wanted to live their lives in peace.
There’s a term amongst the mainland-Chinese immigrant community in Vancouver, B.C., Jiefangqu, which translates to “People’s Liberation Zone.” While often misconstrued, it doesn’t mean they think of Vancouver as part of China, but instead that they are able to be themselves while surrounded by people in similar situations.
Identifying as mainland Chinese has never been easy in this part of Canada, having personally grown up dealing with racism and intraracial discrimination. Amidst the housing crisis, the immigration policy changes, and escalating China-Hong Kong tensions, it’s tough to even be proud to be Chinese some days.
The truth is, I am proud — of my heritage, my ancestral home, and my culture. This is the China that I love, that I call home, and that I often long to return and visit. But I am also uncomfortable — to be associated with the politics of China, with the lack of freedom of speech, and with the police brutality forced upon the people of Hong Kong.
It is growingly difficult to display political apathy in our current world. It is also growingly difficult to pick sides, and I often ask myself if I have to choose one; can I not love both Hong Kong and China?
Our ancestral home has had a complex history, with many versions of China that we know and see. For me, China is where my fondest memories live; it’s where my grandparents who raised me live. It’s where my after-school activities included running around the village with my friends and chasing fowl around the crops. This is the China I choose to associate with.
And this in itself is a privilege. I’m fortunate to navigate around political unrest, yet stay in touch with my culture to the degree I’m comfortable with. I can also stay politically passive to diminish some of the responsibility I have as a fellow Chinese-Canadian. And for that, I apologetically cannot choose a side.
My heart is with those impacted by what’s happening in Hong Kong, and I empathize with those in Hong Kong who want to live their lives in peace.
It’s times like these I wonder if there’s a little girl sitting in her room staring at the streets of Hong Kong, trying to understand the gravity of the situation at such a young age. I wonder if she’s looking out the window, and thinking, “I just want to play outside.”
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