To sit with this pain is all I can do to comfort myself in remembering my love for Hong KongGabriel Lim

I wake up in darkness, nervousness clutching my chest. I look at my phone - 3AM - and around at the barren walls, the eerie quietness of this sleepy town disturbing my slumber. Where am I? How did I get here? Why am I here?

The pieces start to fall back in place - I am in Cambridge, in England. This is my second year of living and studying here. I just swapped from Law to Theology. I recently moved out of college and into a large room in a beautiful townhouse with three other Christians; we have committed ourselves to creating a space to welcome adults with learning disabilities because we believe that God cares deeply for the marginalized. They are all wonderful housemates, but also all white Europeans, all older and at different life stages than myself, and to a large extent, still all strangers.

I close my eyes, wrapping my arms tightly around my knees on the comparatively massive double bed. I hear the rain against the opened window. I feel so small, so alone.

I do not yet possess the words to articulate this grief that I do not yet know how to process.

I want to go back to a time when I did not feel like I had to explain or justify how and why my views and habits are different because I am not of European heritage. I want to go back to a time when I did not feel like I had to constantly think about translating my thoughts into language that used social, cultural, political, intellectual references that I anticipate my interlocutors to understand, for which I always apologize when I anticipate incorrectly. I want to go back to a time when bilingualism was the norm, when I codeswitched without thinking; where I can and am forced to express myself using contradictory phrases in terms of my contradictory birthplace, where the externally contradictory nature of the city itself explained, justified, and normalized my inner contradictions because people and things are understood relationally rather than discreetly.

I want to go back to a time when I saw rice cookers and hot water dispensers on every kitchen counter, where ‘cutlery’ consists of two sticks and a ceramic spoon, where bowls are picked up and slurped out of, where ovens and dishwashers are a mystery. I want to go back to a time when we ate hot soup noodles and drank hot tea even when it was 35C outside, because to do otherwise was even more blasphemous. I want to go back to a time when it was bizarre to eat cake regularly, where it is disgraceful to not finish every scrap of food in front of you rather than respectful to stop eating when you are content.

Ning Sang Jessica Tan

I want to go back to a time when I believed that reconciliation with family and politics were possible if I just worked hard enough to reason out the relationships; to a time when my parents and I had heated arguments over WhatsApp, exchanging Chinese and English articles and reflections over a 15-hour time difference about the pros and cons of democracy, citing sources from conservative and liberal activists, politicians, religious ministers, and intellectuals, from blatantly pro-Beijing propaganda to ignorant pro-democracy Western media. I want to go back to a time when I still trusted local journalism, to a time when my Benedict Andersonian imagined community could have never fathomed the refusal of British human rights activist Benedict Roger’s visitor entry, let alone the expulsion of Financial Times Asia editor Victor Mallet.

I want to go back to a time when there was great enthusiasm among my generation, when I saw a space, a place, a hope for my person to thrive and achieve my full potential within the legal-political sphere of activism amidst the sea of yellow umbrellas. I want to go back to a time when there was no physical, temporal, or linguistic distance between myself and the political ruptures of the city, when I could count on myself to be in the courtroom during the handing down of landmark judgments and then, rain or shine, turn up at Victoria Park on Sunday at 3PM to protest the injustice. I want to go back to a time when I was still inspired by law-in-action, when it felt like the work that I did with human rights solicitors and public law barristers would meaningfully ameliorate the real living and political conditions for people in the city, a time when I still had faith in our independent judiciary and rule of law.

Shammah Koh

I want to go back to a time when October signaled the end of horrendous humidity and typhoons - the beginning of hiking season, when I could share my love for the city’s natural landscape with friends and family, but also safely explore new terrain on my own. I want to go back to a time when, whenever I felt stressed or anxious, I would grab my phone, wallet, some water, and disappear under a veil of anonymity among the city lights, out in the Pacific Ocean, or into the misty mountains, knowing that there would always be phone signal closeby, no matter how far I strayed.

I want to go back to a time when I would stare out the windows of minibuses, palpably feeling the slowing of my heartbeat and the slowing of my thoughts while watching the sun flirt with sand and sea - particularly on the island’s southern coast between Aberdeen tunnel and Stanley market. I want to go back to a time when my eyes were accustomed to looking up each time the train door opened to see if there was an elderly person or pregnant lady who needed a seat, to a time when the specific tone and duration of the Octopus ‘doot’ was more ingrained in my psyche than my 7:15 morning alarm.

I want to go back to a time when I would stare out the windows of minibuses, palpably feeling the slowing of my heartbeat and the slowing of my thoughts while watching the sun flirt with sand and sea.

I want to go back to a time when the term ‘weaving’ was understood more in relation to crowds, traffic and aircon rain rather than elderly women in fiber arts clubs. I want to go back to a time when it was a precarious task to discern whether to address shopkeepers, stewards and strangers by the term ‘sister’, ‘auntie’ or ‘grandma’, relative to the whiteness and style of their hair. I particularly want to go back to a time when everyone had Tempo tissue packs in their bag, to the satisfactory sight of dust sprinkling at the rupture of the heavy-ply napkin torn perfectly in half - never along the industrial creases - handed over to whoever was headed to the public washrooms that never reliably had toilet paper.

Shammah Koh

But these habits, ways of being, ways of associating - they belong to a time that no longer exists, that is certainly not my present, and that I can no longer pretend to be a possibility for my future. My inner reality suddenly demands explanations as lived contradictions rather than as a natural outcome of an upbringing in an absurd and fantastical city, that land which forever holds the secrets of my tender, adolescent heart. This expectation to understand and explain such contradictions from others and to myself is at least one of the reasons for my constant anxiety and increasing depression.

Am I a coward for increasingly choosing emigration over the fight?

For who am I without bearing resemblance to my city, my birthplace, my motherland? How do I exist without this orientation, gravity eastward? Where can I physically go to find peace and rest in this flat greenery, land of my colonisers, my (old) masters? Will they - will I - ever come to see myself as anything more than lesser, than Other?


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What am I losing, who am I becoming as I buy blocks of lactose-free cheddar and put portioned vegan stew into the freezer, when I have whole wheat pasta or bread rather than jasmine rice as my starch, when I cook with chickpeas and Quorn rather than soybeans and tofu, with curry powder and olive oil as often as with soy sauce and sesame oil, when I put a load into the dryer or clear a load from the dishwasher, when I crave earl grey over the Iron Goddess of Mercy, and sometimes even desire sachets of brazenly colored fruit infusions that people here curiously call tea?

What choice did I have, what control over my own body, my own agency, my own becoming do I have, as a pseudo immigrant who has felt very fortunate, but also semi-forced and semi-predestined to follow this ‘privileged’ migratory pattern of simultaneous self-discovery and self-alienation at elite foreign universities? Is the new certainty of my increasing commitment to Cambridge more or less enabling of meeting my emotional needs for safety and security than holding onto that dying flame of the Lion Rock Spirit? Am I a coward for increasingly choosing emigration over the fight?

Shammah Koh

I do not know, indeed I am not sure that I can know. I do not yet possess the words to articulate this grief that I do not yet know how to process. All that I do know is that it really, really hurts - and that to sit with this pain is all I can do to comfort myself in remembering and legitimizing my love for this place that I feel increasingly unable to call home.

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