A Mixed-Culture Girl Goes “Home” This Christmas


“Seeing our families this Christmas involves crossing one ocean and two borders. It involves exchanging currency, bottling toiletries in travel-size vials, applying for a visa and buying gifts from Duty Free.”

A meal with noodles, meat, veggies and a drink costs less than CDN$3.

Fresh fish costs about the same price, and you can choose a live one and watch it being halved, squirming for the last seconds of its life, right before your eyes.

Drivers stick to the left side of the road. Pedestrians pause before they cross because here, people yield to cars instead of the other way around.


It’s winter 2011 and I’m back in the place of my birth–Hong Kong.

When I was born, the area in Hong Kong in which I lived was a center of light industry, booming with textile factories–the kind in which my grandmother worked the night shift. Today, the same area is a forest of shopping malls and office and residential towers.

As a young child, I followed my grandmother to the fresh markets to find just-cut vegetables and choose our pick of chicken or fish to be butchered alive. This winter, I have the joy of reliving those moments as I mince around the wet market floor in my Converse sneakers, experiencing the same sights and sounds from childhood, but from a slightly taller viewpoint.

My husband is with me on this trip. After the visit to the market in the morning, we tunneled through the crowded halls of shopping centres.

Fitting in

My husband and I are both ethnically Chinese and fit in well in the sea of dark-haired heads. He, however, is from mainland China and speaks Mandarin instead of the Hong Kong dialect, Cantonese. I, on the other hand, am raised in Canada by Hong Kong parents; so I speak Cantonese but, culturally, I am still half a foreigner in Hong Kong.

In most of the stores we enter, we are approached by eager sales persons.

“有D乜嘢可以幫您呀?” (“Can I help you with anything?”)

“Sorry, I don’t do Cantonese,” replies my husband. The clerk quickly switches to English, and later changes to Mandarin, which is closer to Cantonese and more comfortable for her.

At a store selling suits, the clerk, my husband and I share a mixed dialogue of two languages and one dialect. That multi-lingual conversation reflects the city of Hong Kong and its mixed heritage of British and Chinese rule. That dialogue also reflects something about me.

Hong Kong and I

Hong Kong was a British colony from the mid-1800s until 1997 when it was ceded back to China. In its politics, economy and lifestyle, Hong Kong has been heavily shaped by the West. You can see this, for example, in its food culture: a typical Hong Kong-style breakfast can include toast, fried eggs and ham with milk tea. In its heritage, Hong Kong is a part of China; however, having been outside of Chinese rule for the better half of the past century, Hong Kong was excluded from the revolutionary cultural and political changes that re-shaped China, resulting in a distinct Hong Kong identity that sets it apart from its native China.

Raised by the British yet not British; from China yet not Chinese. Hong Kong is its own cultural species, as am I.

My own upbringing is a mixed conversation. I was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Canada, but frequently returned to Hong Kong throughout my childhood. After I entered university in Canada, my parents permanently relocated back to Hong Kong, while I later graduated and settled in Vancouver. My family and I cross oceans yearly to see one another.

I also dated and eventually married my now husband, who is from mainland China, bringing yet a third culture into the family.

Christmas across cultures

For my husband and I, seeing our families this Christmas involves crossing one ocean and two borders. It involves exchanging currency, bottling toiletries in travel-size vials, applying for a visa, and buying gifts from Duty Free. It involves changing worlds in less than 24 hours.

On Monday morning of this week, I left Canada. Seven back-to-back movies and three box-tray meals later, I arrived in Hong Kong. Upon landing, my iPhone greeted me with a series of commercial text messages. “Welcome!” my iPhone told me me. “You are now roaming.”

Over the next few weeks, I will be in at least three more Chinese cities. I will be roaming in stores and restaurants where people will assume I am local and then feel confused when I respond slowly or miss the standard protocols.

Someone from a mid-sized city will ask me, “Are you Korean?”

“I’m from Canada,” I’ll say.

“No, you’re not!” she’ll say, squinting at my skin colour.

“I’m from Hong Kong,” I’ll say, trying again.

She will look at me more believably, and politely lie, “Your Mandarin is good.”

This Christmas, I will re-learn the culture of my heritage: practicing Chinese dialogue with those who don’t speak enough English for me to get lazy and stop trying; making dumplings from scratch when the only things I’ve ever done with flour is bake cupcakes and cookies; waking up early to follow the ladies of the house to the markets when normally at that hour I would be checking email while drinking coffee.

I am looking forward to developing my Chinese side and carving yet another face to my mixed-culture identity.


How about you?

  • Do have a mixed-culture experience?
  • How have your cultural experiences shaped your identity?
  • What are your dreams about crossing or integrating cultures?


Photo credit: ixtlan, Esther Weng

Winnie Lui

Winnie Lui

The wave of Asian immigration in the 1990s brought Winnie to Canada on a little red-mast junk. To fulfill her family’s dream of running a business in Hong Kong and giving the children a Western education, Winnie’s father commuted home to Canada during Christmas and Chinese New Year, and Winnie herself spent her childhood between the two continents and among many different schools and neighbourhoods. Her growing up experience has become a mosaic of cultures, languages, and perspectives.
Winnie Lui
Winnie Lui