equivocality — Jeff Ngan's collection of thoughts, experiences, and projects, inspired by pretty much everything
20 Mar 09

A Different Kind of Understanding

The doc­tor told us she has another 5–6 months. Her colon is so enlarged from the tumor that it’s thicker than her spine, and the pro­ce­dure was just a tem­po­rary solu­tion to pre­vent fur­ther blockages.

How strange it is to “know” how much time there is left. I guess that’s why they call it a dead­line. I had already assumed that this would going to be the last time I could see her, but that won’t make it any eas­ier when I have to leave.

I’m grate­ful to the peo­ple who have been send­ing me their regards. It’s a nice com­fort. One of the best pieces of advice came from Charlotte, who told me to “not leave any­thing at all unsaid to her…leave no ques­tions unan­swered, and to not with­hold any affec­tion you feel for her”.

I had come to Hong Kong with the inten­tion of telling my grandma how impor­tant she was to me. Finding the right words in Chinese to express exactly what I wanted to say.

But try­ing to speak with her has made me real­ize that she doesn’t care about any of that. She’s a very prac­ti­cal woman, almost to the point of tact­less­ness. For almost her entire life, mar­ried at 14 and as a sin­gle par­ent of seven kids, she’s had no time for words or feelings.

I’m here, and that’s how she under­stands how I feel.

20 Mar 09

Government House

Going up the stairs to the Government House

Thumbnail: Garden path
Thumbnail: Side of garden
Thumbnail: People sitting by the fountain
Thumbnail: Chinese scouts
Thumbnail: Different levels in Government House
Thumbnail: People and flowers
Thumbnail: Photographing flowers
Thumbnail: Trees and buildings
Thumbnail: Sidewalk view

I went to visit Government House, which is the offi­cial res­i­dence of the Governor of Hong Kong1. The gov­er­nors were all Caucasian, aside from when the Japanese invaded, since they were appointed by the British gov­ern­ment. Now they’re all Chinese, and they don’t live here any­more, as a sym­bol of China’s new pres­ence and to lessen the impact of old British legacy.

It was a chance oppor­tu­nity, because it’s only open to the pub­lic twice a year. Which pretty much means that it’s packed, even by Hong Kong stan­dards. People seemed to really enjoy see­ing the expan­sive gar­den and the din­ing rooms where offi­cial func­tions are held. For me, it was a good chance to pho­to­graph locals, and an impor­tant piece of Chinese history.

  1. Now renamed the “Chief Official” after the China takeover in 1997. []
19 Mar 09

Five Year Timestamp

People here say I’ve changed.

Me and grandma

It’s been five years, and my grandma used to describe me all the time as “seun”, a Cantonese word for “pure, clean, unmixed”. But when I arrived last week, she said she wouldn’t rec­og­nize me if she saw me on the street.

They used to say I looked like Leon Lai.

Leon Lai

Yeah, this guy. Now they’ll con­cede that I’m bet­ter look­ing than my dad.

People notice the white hair and say I used to have a baby face. That I’m older. Or more mature.

It’s true that I feel com­pletely dif­fer­ent than the per­son I was five years ago. I tend to reflect and eval­u­ate on a daily basis (which is far too often) so I never get a sense of any long term changes.

But now that I’m in Hong Kong again, and I look back on the per­son I was the last time I was here, I see the changes much more drastically.

It’s reflected in ways that I’m not accus­tomed to notic­ing. Not just in the way I see the world, but from the way I han­dle things. The way I speak with those older than me. My inter­ests in what they have to say. I didn’t even start work­ing yet the last time I visited.

But at the core, I’m still the same per­son. The same morals, the same logic, the same intel­lect. It seems like it’s only the way these core traits man­i­fest them­selves that has changed, most likely from the things I’ve been through.

Five years is a long time to be so blind to these changes.

It’s quite surprising.

16 Mar 09

The Usual Comments And Questions

Pretty much every­one I’ve met so far has said one or more of the fol­low­ing things to me:

You have a lot of white hair. They see it mainly in the sides of my head, where it’s shorter and more obvi­ous. It seems like most peo­ple in my fam­ily dye their hair black, so my grey stands out, even though I’m youngest.

Are you dat­ing any­one? This is usu­ally fol­lowed by, “Are there any girls are after you?”, which is a sort of way of fig­ur­ing out if you want to date, or just don’t have the option.

Is your Tai Chi teacher white? Except instead of white, it’s “guai” or “ghost”. This is the only ques­tion I resent, because I feel like I have to defend the fact that he’s a com­pe­tent teacher, even though he’s a “foreigner”.

You’re a hand­some boy. The word for hand­some in Chinese — “leng” — is the same word for pretty when applied to girls. This one is good. I like this one. More peo­ple need to say this to me.

Aren’t you cold? It’s get­ting very hot and some­what muggy, so I’m wear­ing as lit­tle cloth­ing as pos­si­ble. This is in con­trast to every­one else, who are still wear­ing scarves and coats.

Do your tat­toos come off? Although the lit­eral trans­la­tion is more like “Do your tat­toos wipe off?”. Many peo­ple here don’t know how tat­toos work, which is under­stand­able, since they’re so uncom­mon. Related to this is, “Did you draw it your­self?”. This ques­tion sur­prises me, because the char­ac­ter was drawn by arguably the most famous Chinese cal­lig­ra­pher, Yan Zhenqing, and is so beau­ti­ful and per­fect and far beyond some­thing that I could have done myself.

15 Mar 09

Typical Of My Dad

(This hap­pened in Chinese.)

Around the din­ner table, my aunt men­tioned that it was her daughter’s birth­day, and that it hap­pened to be Friday the 13th. My dad said to me, “Isn’t your birth­day on the 13th too?”

“I don’t know”, I said rather loud and sarcastically.

My dad was in trou­ble. All the fam­ily around us real­ized that he doesn’t know my birth­day. So he said a date (and year, as if recit­ing a his­tor­i­cal event) with a hint of uncer­tainty in his voice.

I don’t think he was ever more relieved than when I told him he was right. Not because he got the right date, but because he didn’t seem like such a bad father to every­one else.

14 Mar 09

This City Lets Me Live

Boundary Street Balcony — Sunset

I think it was some point between hail­ing a taxi to meet my Uncle Joe, and the com­fort­ing famil­iar­ity of find­ing myself in one of the same malls I was in five years ago, that it really sunk in.


The con­stant din of traf­fic and peo­ple reminds me of the way New York never sleeps. It pul­sates and breathes, as if it was a body. I won­der how there can be so much life in such a tiny city1. None of my words, pic­tures, or videos could ever do it jus­tice, because it’s the expe­ri­ence that makes it real. The things that can’t be said. Like the way peo­ple treat the elderly. The every day sig­nif­i­cance of food and eat­ing well. The mil­lion sub­tleties of the Chinese culture.

The temp­ta­tion to move here is com­ing on me again, with every street, every sign, every per­son I pass, every day gone by. Maybe the tim­ing is right, where I find myself not only root­less in Ottawa, but with a sense of for­lorn­ness attached to the city as well. I’m begin­ning to won­der; what can I leave behind? What do I want to leave behind?

  1. Half the area of Ottawa, with over seven times the pop­u­la­tion. []
14 Mar 09

Having It Maid

It’s the maid’s day off.

To be hon­est, her brief absence has shown that I already got used to hav­ing her around.

But then again, it’s not hard to get used to such a lux­ury. You wake up and feel like eat­ing some­thing, and she’ll have it ready by the time you’re dressed and fin­ished brush­ing your teeth. She draws your bath water. She irons your clothes while you wait. She picks up the gro­ceries for din­ner when you decide what to eat. Some of the dishes are so com­pli­cated that she begins cook­ing the night before, and has her niece (my aunt and uncle’s maid) come over to help.

Nothing needs to be said when it comes to chores around the house. When a meal is fin­ished, every­one gets up and heads to the liv­ing room. The next time you come back, the dishes are gone and the table wiped clean1. I fold my sheets before leav­ing the house, and when I get back they’re refolded, only neater.

My grand­mother has a his­tory of live-in ser­vants, although there haven’t been any wet nurses, gar­den­ers, or chauf­feurs for a while. Ever since her chil­dren grew up and left the house (or coun­try), she’s only needed one maid at a time. It seems to be a great rela­tion­ship, as there’s a respect that goes both ways; the maid is extremely good at her job, and we treat her like fam­ily. When the last maid died after 30 years of ser­vice, all her funeral arrange­ments were taken care of. In the last years of her life she had gone blind from dia­betes, and was then served her­self. That’s how we found the cur­rent maid, who’s been with my grandma ever since.

One of my favourite rit­u­als2 is the way the maid is given din­ner. After all the food is cooked, the maid lays the dishes out on the din­ner table, but doesn’t take any for her­self. So my grandma will take a plate, pile food onto it, and bring it to her.

  1. Admittedly, this was the hard­est thing for me to get used to. Something in me would keep scream­ing, “PUT THE DISHES IN THE SINK”. []
  2. And as a Taoist, I’m gen­er­ally deri­sive of rit­u­als. []
13 Mar 09

Hong Kong: Markets

12 Mar 09

Protected: Questioning Effort

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12 Mar 09

Hong Kong Humidity

Difference in Hong Kong and Ottawa weather

One of the notable dif­fer­ences here is the humid­ity. The pages of my book are begin­ning to wrin­kle. Towels don’t dry when they’re hung on a line. Even though it’s 20°C out­side, it feels more like 15°C because it’s so damp. Humidity is some­thing that Hong Kong is known for, as it’s sur­rounded by water and filled with tall build­ings. It makes me won­der how peo­ple deal with mold in their houses.

Ironically, it “rained” two days in a row, but the rain was so weak that I had to ask oth­ers if they felt the droplets. Very dif­fer­ent from Ottawa, where rain­fall goes beyond obvi­ous, and can last for days on end.

11 Mar 09

Being Strong For My Grandmother

The can­cer has spread to her bones and sev­eral major organs now. We asked the doc­tor not to tell her, but we can’t do any­thing against his moral oblig­a­tion to inform the patient. Either way, she doesn’t know how seri­ous it is, whether it’s from shock and denial, or mem­ory loss.

But she’s awake, and aware, and feel­ing no pain, which is good enough for me. The most we can do now is to try to make the rest of her life as enjoy­able as possible.

She thinks she’s going to be fine. Keeps telling me that she’ll take me to a nearby park when she’s bet­ter. As much as it hurts me to know this won’t be pos­si­ble any­more, it’s reliev­ing to know she’s so obliv­i­ous. We don’t let our­selves cry around her, for fear that she may real­ize how bad it is.

Her face is more sal­low, her fin­gers and legs ema­ci­ated, but she still has her thick, black hair1. Aside from a dis­tended stom­ach, it’s hard to tell that she has such a grim prognosis.

But by far the hard­est part is hav­ing to cod­dle her like a child to take her med­ica­tion. Telling her she’s a good girl if she swal­lows her pills and reward­ing her with ice-cream. That we’re only strict because we care about her. It tears me in half when she gives such a painful look of dis­taste with every pill we hand her, 18 a day.

She used to be so strong. Now we have to be strong for her.

  1. I used to have even more”, she tells me. []
11 Mar 09

Relationship Advice From Chinese People

My fam­ily always ask me if I’m dat­ing any­one right now. They assume I pre­fer Caucasian girls. I tell them I don’t mind either way (the other side of “either” being Chinese girls). That’s when they warn me about main­land girls. Chinese main­lan­ders are com­monly viewed by Hong Kong peo­ple as being low-class, crude, and provin­cial. It’s said that even if a girl from there is pretty, they lose all attrac­tive­ness as soon as she opens her mouth. On top of that, they’re gold-diggers, just look­ing for a way to get money or a green card.

They tell me I’ll be fine as long as I don’t marry a main­land girl.

My grandma used to tell me to find a Chinese girl, because Chinese girls treat their men bet­ter, or to find some­one who loves me more than I love them. She’s filled with all sorts of funny apho­risms, like “Women are to be loved, not hit.”

09 Mar 09

This City Lets Me Feel

I’ve been stand­ing on the bal­cony of the fourth floor apart­ment, watch­ing peo­ple walk around in the mid­dle of the night. If there’s one thing that’s always defined Hong Kong to me, it’s the con­stant traf­fic you hear when you’re sleep­ing, mostly light buses run­ning on diesel, and taxis. Across the street, the rooms of the St. Theresa’s Hospital are light­ing up one by one. The sun hasn’t crested yet, but the streets are becom­ing busier by the minute as the sky bright­ens in notice­able degrees.

Boundary street balcony — sunrise

Practicing Tai Chi usu­ally helps me sleep and cen­ter myself, but today it’s only a reminder of how painfully sore my hip sock­ets are from run­ning around air­ports with all my lug­gage. You never truly appre­ci­ate the short form until you try prac­tice in a Hong Kong apartment.

I’ve been up for hours now, and I’m exhausted but wide awake. It’s the jet lag, the med­ica­tion, a rest­less mind, or all three.

Those who know me know that I’ve always felt that Hong Kong is my home­land, even though I wasn’t born here. But for some rea­son, it hasn’t sunk in that I’m here yet.

I guess I’ve been going through some hard times. I never really thought about it until some­one brought it to my atten­tion. The heart­break, the col­i­tis, the grand­mother, the dis­il­lu­sion­ment. Somewhat major things, I sup­pose, that weren’t in the front of my mind. Maybe I haven’t been let­ting myself think about them. Or maybe they’ve been affect­ing me with­out real­iz­ing it.

The writ­ten word appears to be the only reli­able thing I have left. My friends are all away. Everyone’s asleep, and I’ve been cry­ing. I’ve been cry­ing in the heart of this beau­ti­ful city.

This city brings my guard down. This city lets me feel.

09 Mar 09

Death And Turbulence

For some rea­son, I’m always seated by the wings of planes. It suits me fine, as I like to watch the dance of flaps as the pilots check their instru­ments and con­trols. It makes me think of how beau­ti­ful flight is, of what an accom­plish­ment of human­ity it is to get this giant con­trap­tion off the ground.

The cap­tain issues a word of cau­tion over the loud­speaker in his generic voice about cinch­ing up our seat belts because it’s going to be bumpy until we reach 20000 feet. Leaving at 1pm and arriv­ing at five in the after­noon, it remains day­light for the entire flight, as we’re chas­ing the sun around the hemisphere.

Flight infor­ma­tion flashes in pairs on the TV screens:

Ground speed: 857k/h. Time to des­ti­na­tion: 14h 12m.
Altitude: 8000km. Distance to des­ti­na­tion: 15289km.

The man next to me reads People mag­a­zine to take his mind off the sud­den drops in alti­tude. He clutches his ster­num every time the plane dips sud­denly, and fum­bles around for the vomit bag. Eventually, he set­tles his head on the upright tray.

Every shake and sud­den move­ment is a reminder of your mortality.

I used to be scared of tur­bu­lence. Now I can’t tell if I’m used to it, or the fact that I’m going to die some day.

05 Mar 09

Sensitive To Sensitivity

I almost walked out of Tai Chi class the other night.

Someone asked me if I was going to “pass out again”, because I got light-headed the class before and had to leave early, most likely due to a side-effect of the new med­ica­tion I’m on, though I was far from pass­ing out.

I was flat-out offended, and began expe­ri­enc­ing what my ther­a­pist explained are “auto­matic thoughts” — irra­tional thoughts that affect mood neg­a­tively. I had to step back from the sit­u­a­tion, put the words out of my head, and calm myself down. If not, I would have over­re­acted, and prob­a­bly regret­ted it. But I couldn’t fig­ure out why I was so upset. After all, I’m far from one who gets offended easily.

Was I being pub­licly emas­cu­lated? Was I being judged with­out con­sid­er­a­tion of all the facts? Was my com­mit­ment to attend prac­tice after not eat­ing for two days being belit­tled? Was it the tone? Was it because I couldn’t speak back and defend myself, for fear of pol­lut­ing the sanc­tity of the class1 with my per­sonal pol­i­tics? Probably a bit of each.

I tend to have sim­i­larly bad reac­tions to peo­ple being sur­prised that I don’t know some­thing. It feels like I’m being judged, as if they pre­sume to know who I am. Even though it’s sup­posed to be a com­pli­ment, it’s a back-handed one, like say­ing “I thought you were smarter than that”. John used to be espe­cially guilty of this2, but he suc­cess­fully cor­rected the behav­iour years ago. It took a psy­chol­o­gist to point it out to him, and adverse reac­tions from sev­eral peo­ple, includ­ing me.

I know I’ve already come a long way. I’m not so sen­si­tive about my weight (for a guy) any more. I stopped car­ing what peo­ple think when I know the truth. But this inci­dent made me real­ize that I still har­bor a sen­si­tiv­ity to cer­tain things. I still have some grow­ing up to do. Still have to real­ize that peo­ple say things with­out think­ing, or don’t mean what they say, or that I may even take innocu­ous things the wrong way. Even though I feel that I had a right to be offended, I still don’t want to be.

And the fact that I was offended just makes me more upset.

  1. I approach my work with the same kind of reser­va­tion and detach­ment to remain pro­fes­sional. After all, these are sit­u­a­tions in which we can’t choose the peo­ple we work with, so there’s noth­ing to do but accept and any unpleas­ant­ness. []
  2. And quite self-aware of it. As a per­son obliv­i­ous to pop-culture, he loved to hold it over peo­ple when he knew some­thing they didn’t. []