This fall, an hour after I landed in Hong Kong for a short visit, I found myself walking along the harbor front in Kowloon. The late summer air was warm and the illuminated skyline across the harbor was as stunning as always. I passed a restaurant with half the diners seated outside. A couple of tall, striking Asian women stood on a stage just inside the open windows, belting out a cover of “It’s a Heartache”.
“No kidding,” I thought to myself.
When you date or marry someone from another culture, it’s inevitable that a city or country that’s a big part of their culture will become associated with them and only them. So what happens when your relationship doesn’t work out and that place you loved so much is suddenly so interlinked with your ex that you can’t bear to think about ever going there again?
That happened to me with Hong Kong and Shanghai, two cities that were a big part of my life before I married a man from mainland China.
In my memoir, Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong (Sourcebooks, 2014), I write about meeting my ex in Hong Kong, a city I fell in love with when I was an exchange student in college three years before I met him. I also traveled to Shanghai with my ex and found it an oasis of familiarity in 1980s and 1990s China even before we met. But when I left Asia to move back to the US in 1998, I felt so jaded and scared that I thought I’d never return to Asia again, especially Hong Kong and Shanghai.
But you should never let anyone dictate where you travel. So after staying away from Hong Kong for 14 years, I finally went back in 2012. Although I still remembered how to get around and was fortunate to meet up with more than a dozen friends, I won’t lie. It wasn’t easy to be back there. I was re-married and my new husband Tom had never been to Hong Kong, so it was great showing him around. But as I wrote in the expat anthology, How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? (Signal 8 Press, 2014), I couldn’t help but be reminded of unpleasant memories from my first marriage, memories of things that happened in Hong Kong.
Tom and I returned to Hong Kong a couple years after that and it was much easier to be back.
I’ve since made two more trips back, including the latest one this fall. Now I don’t even think of my first marriage. It helps to surround yourself with family and friends, if possible.
With Shanghai, I stayed away for a whopping 20 years! I honestly never thought I’d never set foot in China after my divorce, but after those first two trips back to Hong Kong, I realized I could go back. My ex-husband lives in Shanghai and I wasn’t sure how it would play out when I decided to spend a week there in late 2015. I was going with my mother and our good friend, which was necessary. I needed my support system.
I went to Shanghai with a purpose: the World Congress on Art Deco. It was a fabulous week of lectures and tours of decadent architecture and dinners. I was so busy and had so much fun. I was a little nervous meeting my ex for lunch, but brought my mom and our friend along with me and it all turned out so well that I wouldn’t hesitate to return to Shanghai or anywhere in China.
If I can go back to these cities I loved after my failed WWAM relationship, anyone can. Just remember these helpful tips:
- Go with a family member or friend or both
- Make sure you keep yourself occupied and see as many friends as possible
- Go with a purpose like a conference, work event, or friend’s wedding or other big life event
- Reclaim your favorite places on your own terms
And the most important thing to remember is that any hesitation in returning to a beloved city or country is in your head alone. Your ex isn’t thinking about this and chances are it would never cross his or her mind that you’d stay away due to your break-up.