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Editorial: People Circulate, Loyalties Divide
by Tammy Lai-Ming Ho
I wrote this in 2011:
In an interview in 2008, I was asked whether my loyalty lay with “Hong Kong’’ or “China’’. I remember finding the question easy to answer: “Hong Kong, China’’. In retrospect the interviewers might have thought that I had delivered a convenient answer, one that neither truly satisfied nor offended. But if I had taken another moment to reflect on the question, I might have considered it odd for them to presume that first, I should be loyal to a place at all and second, that if I were, Hong Kong and China would be the only two possible choices. “Loyalty’’, I think, needs to be earned. What has either place done for me? (I must hasten to add that by asking this question I am also consciously evoking another: What have I done for either place?) What does it mean if one has no emotional attachment to a location, at all? In this globalised world many people drift from place to place, either being forced to or doing so willingly, and some can call none their “home’’. People circulate, loyalties divide.
Much has happened in my city since that was written, and if I were asked the same question about loyalty now, my answer would be different.
For me, a more complex discussion centres on “home”. “Go back to your home” is often an insult directed at the vulnerable who have, for one reason or another, been displaced from their home cities, countries, or cultures. The cruelty of this taunt lies in part in its naivety—that is, the belief that everyone does have a home to return to. Not everyone can afford to be naive, unfortunately. But we do feel the potency of “no one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark” (Warsan Shire)—even if we are safe and privileged, sitting at our laptops and leisurely listening to music. This is because “home” is also a state of mind, a mental space that permits us to stay sane, gives us a feeling of being protected, and offers us the confidence of having freedom to accept life as it is, or else boldly change it.
When I finished my PhD in London, I came back to Hong Kong and went straight into working two jobs. Every night I stayed up late working in my parents’ living room, which I still felt to be “home”. I laid out my teaching notes on the dining table, behind the television—which in those days was still watched. When I could no longer concentrate enough to be effective, I climbed to the upper level of the bunk bed I shared with one of my sisters. In that cramped space I turned on a tiny light and tried to read a little, carpe diem. That bedroom is now almost bare, the bunk bed replaced by a small one for a young child, in case my niece or my nephews need a nap or stay over. The night before my wedding, as per custom, I spent in my parents’ place. I no longer have my own bed there, so I slept on the sofa in the living room, watching The Matrix until, finally, sleep granted me a late visit. Moments like this make us reevaluate home and belonging. I was at home, about to build my own home.
Recently, as part of the Distinguished Writers Series organised by the International Writers’ Workshop at Hong Kong Baptist University, I had a public online conversation with the Nigerian-born British writer Helen Oyeyemi. I mentioned the house as a locus of psychological unease, even turmoil, and how it is a recurring theme in her books, which led to a discussion of how the lockdowns during Covid-19 have forced many people to spend more time in their homes. I read about people being bored at home, nurturing bad habits, or, at the other end of the spectrum, having gained new energy to be productive or reconnect with past friends and hobbies. But what about those people whose homes are literal or emotional confinements, due to size or their spouses?
Our ultimate “home” is, of course, Earth. And we are all prisoners of it, or maybe it is we who hold it captive. I heard technology would mature enough by the 2030s for people to go to Mars. But “no one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark”…