Guilt Tripping Home

It’s not that I don’t want to go back to Hong Kong. It’s that I want to do it on my own terms.

I have some extended family in Hong Kong who have been asking me to go back for a visit. They’ve been asking for a year, ever since I got married here in New York. I’m from a rather conservative Chinese family that still practices rituals: visiting my father’s grave, for instance, or going to a Buddhist temple on certain auspicious days of the year. They also never sweep during the New Year, and never criticize the male of the family, despite some seriously dirty laundry I will not air here. In fact, they believe these things so much they asked me to go back immediately after my wedding– with no honeymoon. Just family time, all the time. Outsiders looking in would think getting married isn’t about the couple being happy, but about a duty to the man’s family. (Incidentally, we went to Paris for our honeymoon and had a lovely time)

I’ve written before that after our honeymoon, my wife took ill with a nerve condition, from which we are finally seeing some recovery. I don’t think she will ever be quite the same, and the doctors don’t have a clue about a diagnosis. But I don’t resent my wife for needing me to hold her up during this time. In fact our relationship has grown deeper because of hardship, and we are still planning our future. The thing I do resent is my family offering a permanent fix to her illness with nothing more than rumor and superstition.

That’s right. From the other side of the planet, there is apparently a magic healer who can fix somebody he’s never seen, who coincidentally needs us to go back to China for an extended visit. Also, in a related issue, the ancestors are for some reason furious at me for getting married and not visiting, which explains my wife’s ill fortune. Clearly this is an excuse to wrangle us back to Hong Kong.

Never mind the financial cost of two round-trip tickets or the difficulty for my wife, who can’t walk very far and doesn’t speak Chinese. In the same breath as a Buddhist mantra, my family will visit one of the ancient gods in the area and not see the irony of practicing totally different beliefs for self-gain. So one can see why I am just a little skeptical of their motives.

My father was adamant about taking me out of Hong Kong in 1990. It was a great place to live, but with 1997 and a transition back to China just a few years away, the city was poised to change dramatically. And after we immigrated, he insisted I go back every year, which meant we were perpetually in debt throughout my childhood.  Leaving was traumatic enough. Imagine oscillating every summer: dealing with a twenty-one hour flight, arriving in the typhoon season with doting relatives and being ripped out of there a couple weeks later to live in abject poverty and a totally different culture. Risking death every time we landed in Kai Tak Airport, with the airplane wings meters from peoples’ houses. Developing asthma from a shitty basement apartment. Never making any friends because we moved so much. To be perfectly fair, that part of my childhood sucked balls.

I’ve always wrestled with why my father felt so strongly about leaving, yet returned year after year. After all, it meant leaving all our blood relatives. It meant abandoning all his friends, and he was a gregarious person. But my father’s odd dichotomy can be explained by his own history. You see, my pops had once been a gang boss.

The details are fuzzy. But, as far as I can gather, my father was once a leader of some reknown. I went back to Hong Kong a few years ago and took a cab with my grandmother. The ornery cabbie was complaining about young drivers these days having no integrity. Out of the blue, he mentioned my father’s name, and how my father had once promised him a favor, and went out of his way to do it. My grandmother and I just sat in the back seat, looking at each other in disbelief. Hong Kong is a huge city. Years after my father died, people were still remembering something my father had once done for a man he had hardly known.

If you go to Tuen Mun in Hong Kong’s new territories, you’ll hear stories of Lo Mai Gai, or lotus-leafed rice ball (he used to deliver lunch). How he beat up some bullies and got fired from his job at the bus company. How he took his infant son to a shady gang negotiation. How full of character and integrity he was in a city infamous for corruption at the time. Later, at my wedding, my father’s old friend told me the whole truth, that there were a lot of people who called my dad “big brother” back in the day. All this for a guy who could never hold down a steady job, who reputedly gambled too much, and for a hobby patched people up with ancient Chinese medicines.

Imagine what that reputation would be for his son.

That would have sucked me right in, as the son of such a prominent leader. People dealt drugs or ran illegal things. Mostly, gangs existed to protect local businesses, and to keep other gangs away. It also established trust. Need a car fixed? I know a mechanic who’s my cousin’s wife’s brother. Why do you think Chinese people have a million specific names for every relative? Trust. And Honor. Back in the day people took their honor from their “big brothers.” That shit means something in a patriarchy. People want the male lineage continued, even at the expense of a kid’s future.

People throw around the words “toxic masculinity” a lot. Well, you ain’t ever seen toxic masculinity until you’ve seen someone get stabbed and run over outside your house. Because that’s what gangs are like in Hong Kong now, without the influence of guys like my dad. Gangs don’t fight bare-knuckled or berate each other for looking feminine. They tuck in with watermelon knives and acid and bike chains, because goddammit that other gang messed with our business. People still died, people still ran from debts. Some gangs were the attack dogs of the politicians in my dad’s time, and it looks like Beijing has just made that worse since 97. Watch any Hong Kong gangland movie and you’ll get a crash course in honor. It kept the idiots in line and the gangs from killing each other. Like dogs, a pecking order was established based on toughness, but that was only a small part. You had to have integrity, which my father drilled into me more than he did anything else. Honoring commitments. Being a good person despite circumstances. Respecting our elders. Superstitions were a huge part of it: put the fear of supernatural retribution into an unsure situation, and you didn’t have to lift a finger for people to fall in line. Sometimes it meant demanding people to behave “like men, not dogs.”

My father had tried to leave Hong Kong more than once. The first time he went to France, figured it wasn’t his speed, and came back. Thereby denying me a fascinating education with liberal French ladies, but there you have it. The next time he piggybacked with my mother’s job offer to America, where we slowly climbed the ladder that was the American dream. We got naturalized. We learned to love diner food. My pops was fond of “HOMEMADE LEMONADE!” which he would squee every so often. He liked the sound of the words, I think. Living in the native land of his favorite Marlboro cigarettes probably had more than a lot to do with the whole thing. And my parents slowly became fixtures of the Chinatown community, which my mother still proudly supports today.

And religiously, my father would go back to Hong Kong every year. He would reconnect with friends, pay his respects to his elders, and go to the Buddhist temple. But we didn’t stay, no matter how much my father loved that city.

I think we stayed in New York because those same things that kept us safe in a Hong Kong were slowly destroying us. The gangs are no longer our gangs. They don’t hold our values. The religions are not our religions, they’re slowly being phased out by mainland influences. Keeping the male in the house as the decision maker is foolish in a city where the highest professional earners are women. And certainly, I could never be a writer and work under Beijing’s government.

So my family tells me my ancestral spirits want me to return. I say to my ancestors: your time is gone. You have to learn to adapt to this new world. If you’re making my wife sick that’s just stopping her from visiting you guys. Respectfully, stop telling us what to do as if we’re children. I have responsibilities in America, and I can’t go back just to soothe your ancestral wrath. America is where there is possibility to grow. No matter how wretched this last year has been, China is worse. And pops, if you’re out there anywhere, you know more than most.

You have to go home on your own terms.


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