My experience as a Hongkonger shows that anyone can become a refugee
When I was growing up I never imagined that, aged just 15, I would find myself in a black hole that meant I had to leave Hong Kong altogether
Growing up in Hong Kong, at the start of the 21st century, my childhood was a happy one. I learned piano, violin and flute, played badminton and football and studied English. Numbers, though, were the most exciting part of my childhood. I started learning how to use an abacus at three years old and even won some competitions with my skills. While other kids watched Disney cartoons, I was into the financial news.
As for the city itself, it was a food lover’s paradise. I could eat everything from traditional African food in Chungking Mansions to fine French dining in K11 – not to mention some of the finest Japanese sushi and Chinese dim sum. Then there was the countryside. There’s nothing like the feeling of cycling on Bride’s Pool Road in Tai Po, or Castle Peak Road on the coastline between Tsuen Wan and Tuen Mun.
When I was growing up I never imagined that, aged just 15, I would find myself in a black hole that meant I had to leave Hong Kong altogether.
But the Hong Kong I grew up in was changing. After the anti-extradition bill movement in 2019, the National Security Law and Covid-19 rules restricted people's freedom, and many pro-democracy organisations had to be closed down. The shutdown of high-profile news outlets like Apple Daily and The Stand News implied the end of freedom of speech. After 2019 the decisiveness of the fight for freedom, democracy and independence caught me in the whirlpool of politics. I couldn't imagine how I would live in Hong Kong after the social movement started; I thought about Hong Kong and my future.
When the tear gas drifted over Hong Kong island on 12 June 2019, at the beginning of the social movement, I had three plans in my mind. Plan A was the usual plan: I would continue to fight for our future, and work hard at school, with the hope of landing a place studying business at university. Plan B was the least appealing plan: I would be sentenced to jail for my political activity and finish my studies in prison. Finally there was Plan C: join the worldwide diaspora of Hongkongers, without knowing when I could return to my homeland.
In the end it became too difficult for me to stay. Although I’d never travelled further than Singapore or Japan before, I decided to try to start a new life in the UK.
Checking into the airport itself was scary. There were a lot of plain clothes police from the check-in to the gate, and I knew that it was at the security checkpoint that my friends from the social movement were stopped, searched, and arrested. Thankfully I got through. Still I was terrified because I knew the plane would fly over China and Russia. I found it hard to sleep on the overnight flight. But, when the plane landed at Heathrow, I finally felt calm and relaxed.
At present students from Hong Kong have to pay international fees – which can be more than £70,000
Now I’m living in a multicultural community in the North West of England and taking British qualifications with the hope of going to university. Language is the biggest challenge: “Chinglish”, or Hong Kong-style English, and British English are very different. In the first few weeks I found it pretty challenging, when trying to communicate with a native speaker, and I was still translating in my mind. I forced myself to spend three months learning to just use English, even when I was thinking, and this, along with a great English tutor, has made a huge difference.
I am aware that Hongkongers are far luckier than refugees who come from war zones. Still some of the issues that affect asylum seekers and refugees generally affect us too. A Hong Kong teen died by suicide last summer and some asylum seekers have to see the GP regularly to treat their PTSD. I decided to become a Refugee Week Ambassador to spread the message among refugees and asylum seekers from my community that local people are willing to help.
One way that politicians could immediately support Hongkongers trying to rebuild their lives would be to treat young people who have come here seeking sanctuary as domestic students – or at least offer loans to cover the cost of university. At present students from Hong Kong have to pay international fees – which can be more than £70,000. In future I hope to go to university and achieve a degree.
I still miss the mountains in Hong Kong but I plan to dedicate my energy to sharing my culture with the public. Some Hongkongers have already opened Hong Kong-style restaurants and tried their best to recreate Hong Kong food. Healing is the topic of Refugee Week this year. We have to find something good to do and move forward to build a strong diaspora within the Hong Kong community.
Yezi is an ambassador for Refugee Week, a festival celebrating the achievements of refugees through art, culture, and sport. It runs from 20-26 June and you can find more information at www.refugeeweek.org.uk
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