Lessons From Moving to New York

As an immigrant from Hong Kong, moving to America made me realize the multitude of problems that I never knew existed in the island.

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I distinctly remember walking through a playground near my new home in New York and seeing snow for the first time. Its soft icy touch amazed my seven-year-old mind. I scratched my skin constantly the first few weeks after I arrived in New York, my body adapting to the cold, dry weather so unlike the humid Hong Kong air. Every scratch reminded me of the sheer distance between the country I left and my new home. Snow was not the only novelty I experienced—life in America forced me to change my idyllic view of Hong Kong and revealed how disconnected the life I lived there was.

Hong Kong to me was a calm and tranquil city of large houses and massive malls. I lived in a small but comfortable apartment in the mountains with a view of the South China Sea, and the only sounds I heard were the occasional car traveling by the road and birds chirping outside my window. Because my father was relocated to Hong Kong by the company he worked for, my family was isolated from the local people in a few ways. Since neither of my parents were from Hong Kong, I did not speak Cantonese, leaving me linguistically isolated from the local population. I was also geographically isolated. I attended an international school for fellow children of expatriates from countries all over the world such as England, Germany, Korea, and America. Most of my friends lived in large houses outside the city. Along with school, I would go to the same few malls, clubs, and sports complexes, since Hong Kong proper is very small, with most of the island being mountainous forest. My experience inevitably led to me not being aware of the lives of most who lived in the same city as I did. It never really came to my mind that a whole fifth of the population lived below the poverty line—I just lived my life day by day. I only realized that my experience was one of privilege when I moved to America.

I noticed a few differences upon arriving in New York. One huge difference was my new school. Suddenly, our recess area was a simple yard, not a large playground as it was in my school back in Hong Kong. The people I met came from a more diverse set of backgrounds and locations than in Hong Kong, where all my friends came from similar situations as I did. This diversity opened me up to more cultures and perspectives. I also now rode on the unhygienic MTA subway system and no longer had a car to comfortably drive me places.

I slowly realized I had lived in a bubble when I lived in Hong Kong, shielded from many of the problems in the city. One day, I saw a video about Hong Kong’s cage homes and how the limited land in the city has created horrible conditions for many people. Around 210,000 residents live in tiny, subdivided apartments, with their rooms being so small that they were dubbed “cage homes.” Soon after that day, major protests known as the Umbrella Revolution began, and it became a major global issue and the first thing one heard associated with “Hong Kong.” Though the protests appeared solely as backlash to China’s new law that challenged Hong Kong’s democracy, the underlying causes involved socioeconomic factors. Though rent has gone up in housing, wages have stagnated, with the city having the longest working hours. Many middle-class citizens felt as though there was very little progress in addressing the wealth disparity and lack of affordable housing. In fact, Hong Kong has a few family-owned companies based on real estate wealth which control almost everything from retail stores, restaurants, and bus services to telecom and utilities. Because of such concentration of wealth, social mobility has become harder to achieve, and people eventually took to occupying the central area of the city where most of the big corporations and government buildings are located to express their frustration in an attempt to enact change. I had been shielded from these socioeconomic issues and struggles of the populace while living there.

Sometimes, we need to take a step back from our lives and reflect on our position in society. It is incredibly important to be aware of our surroundings and how our communities are affected by them. In Hong Kong, I was quite literally geographically isolated from the local communities, and now that I live in New York, I understand the importance of interconnectedness and coexistence.