Many years ago I moved to Hong Kong to study. I met a Chinese student and married him six months after we met. Several years later, we moved far away. When I first moved abroad, I was one person. When I moved away, I was another.
So when I returned to Hong Kong many years later for my first visit back, I knew I wasn’t the same person I was when I was 19 when I moved to Hong Kong or even 27 when I returned to the US. I write about my first return back to Hong Kong 14 years after leaving in How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia (Signal 8 Press, 2014). It wasn’t easy and I found I couldn’t be alone on that trip.
I had been so independent when I moved to Hong Kong. I lived there twice, so was 19 and 23 when I moved there. Halfway into my 24th year, I was married and my time wasn’t my own anymore. I naturally thought when I returned to Hong Kong years later that I would pick up where I’d left off before my failed marriage began. In other words, I thought I’d feel more like my 19 year old self when I wasn’t tied down to someone else’s schedule. This is what defines my 19-20 year old self:
- I moved to Hong Kong alone, not knowing a soul.
- I spent most weekends alone, studying in my room when my roommates went home to their families.
- I explored and got to know Hong Kong on my own, only sometimes venturing out with friends.
- I had no one to answer to but myself.
But when I started returning to Hong Kong, I couldn’t do any of the above. I’ve contacted everyone I know there, usually seeing a dozen or two friends per trip. Even when I travel with friends or family, I still feel the need to see my friends there. Yes, they’re very special to me and, yes, I can’t imagine traveling all the way to Hong Kong and not seeing them. But I’ve also had this sense that I can’t be alone.
On my last trip to Hong Kong, I wondered about this. It was my fifth visit back in as many years and I wanted to understand why I didn’t feel comfortable being alone. What had changed since my carefree days of independence in my late teens and early twenties? I thought about that and came up with these:
- When I left Hong Kong, I left a job with a wonderful boss and lovely friends I’d made in the two years I worked at the Open University of Hong Kong.
- When I left Hong Kong, I was pregnant with my first child and had to think about him with everything I ate and everywhere I went.
- When I left Hong Kong, I had just spent four years living with a roommate or a husband or both and would never live by myself again.
- When I left Hong Kong, I left behind my college roommates from when I was 19-20.
I’d thought for a long time that I couldn’t be alone because too many unhappy things from my first marriage came up when I returned. But I got over those years ago. So it had to be something else. I can see now that when I return, I’m more my 23-27 year old self than my 19-20 year old self. It was what I was used to when I last lived in Hong Kong.
On this last trip, I unexpectedly found myself with a free day apart from lunch and dinner plans with friends. So I took some deep breaths and told myself I could either hide in my apartment until lunchtime or go out and enjoy the day.
I chose the latter and never looked back.