By Nicola Nightingale
Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This new series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a British woman in Hong Kong and a French woman in the UK.
Do you need that security blanket known as “belonging”? Does the place you choose to live and call home have a significant impact on who you are?
I am a British citizen but have lived in Hong Kong since the end of 1989 when a friend and fellow journalist persuaded me to try my luck here.
It is my home but, in a sense, Hong Kong defines me by what I am not. There are well over 7m people here and more than 90 per cent of them are ethnic Chinese. I am not Chinese.
My Hong Kong identity card, like every permanent ID here, has the letter “A”, which shows I have the right of abode, plus the letter “O”, which indicates I was born elsewhere. “O” means that if I leave I must return every three years to renew that right. Those with ID cards that have “A” and “***” do not have to do so — they have re-entry permits. They are Chinese. I am not Chinese. The situation is salutary, putting me, quite rightly, in my place.
Many decades ago white westerners in Hong Kong were dubbed gweilos, meaning ghost men, or gweipors for ghost women, by the territory’s Chinese community. It was insulting, it was racist — and it was meant to be. Like all good colonialists, the Brits annexed the term, tamed it, tied a ribbon in its hair and adopted it as their own. Today, expats still use the term to refer to themselves and there is even a craft beer company founded by westerners called Gweilo Beer.
However, there are other ways of pointing out difference. On the annual July 1 pro-democracy march last year, a possibly self-appointed pro-Beijing troublemaker shouted at me in English: “You’re not Chinese.” Hardly a revelation, you might say, since I’m a grey-haired, white westerner. But the point she was making, I think, was that I am not relevant.
So perhaps I am a real gweipor after all; I haunt the place rather than inhabit it.
Photographs: Inga Beckmann/What the Fox Studio; UIG via Getty Images; AFP/Getty Images