Image for post
Image for post
From “The Great Canton and Hong Kong Proverbs” by Ah To

My intercultural marriage is never dull, but parts of it are mired in translation.

My husband was born and raised in Hong Kong, educated in London and the USA, and spent most of his adult life in America. He is multilingual: Cantonese, Mandarin, a couple of dialects from his grandparents, English, and a smattering of French, German, and Korean (mostly food words — he loves to eat). I grew up in a white, suburban town in the USA. I speak English and a little high school Spanish. …


A story is supposed to unfurl and take us somewhere unexpected, but my father used to flip to the end of whatever book he picked up and read the ending first. “You ruin the surprise!” I protested. His response was always the same: “If I know how it ends, then I’ll know if I want to read the book.” I’m a former bookseller and college literature teacher, a writer and book lover. His reading quirk wasn’t nearly as offensive as people buying books by size and color (I’d had those customers in my bookstore), but it still seemed wrong to my mind. …


Sometimes my memoir writing seems like a chain of encounters with ditched selves who keep showing up. Of course, it is me who sent out the invitations. Me who set the table and prepared the food. Why then do I find myself wanting to hide in the broom closet or under the bed when they come knocking? Even when they arrive carrying flowers, I’m afraid they plan to break the dishes and poison the punch.

The Houston astrologer who did my chart when I was in my late thirties pointed out two knots in my cosmic web. She said — based on my Sagittarius rising sign, my birth to a pair of Sagittarian parents, and my marriages to two men born ten days apart in a particularly fortuitous December — that I had some “serious Sagittarius shit” going on. Sizing up my chart as a whole, she then pronounced that my life task was, like that of the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz, to get me some courage. …


I recently started a memoir about a painful time period when I learned a lot, made some pretty embarrassing choices, and did a few things of which I am not proud. The more I plumb my memories and muck around in that part of my past, the more details bubble up and the harder it is to put a lid on the writing at the end of the day. I could see that I needed a strategy to keep the then from consuming my now.

In a recent online conversation with other memoirists, I asked how they navigate their daily lives while they are in the process of dipping into painful past memories. Several experienced and accomplished writers responded with interesting suggestions. Some give themselves or the writing a time out by taking a walk. Some said they take extra good care of themselves by eating and sleeping well. Some said they nurture their inner child(ren). I thanked them all for their suggestions but couldn’t help but wonder — what if that inner child is a defiant hooligan or an annoying crybaby? What if the memories slip into your dreams? …


Image for post
Image for post
Memory fragments: foundations of former “boat people” houses on island of Cheung Chau, Hong Kong.

In the process of writing my memoir, I have discovered that my memory is a funhouse full of trap-doors, hidden passageways, wavy mirrors, and locked doors. For example, last night I went out to dinner with three women I met during my husband’s sabbatical year in Hong Kong ten years ago, the period central to my just completed memoir. When I asked one of the women where she lived, she looked at me strangely and said it was the same place in Discovery Bay that I had visited last time. No doubt my blank expression was a dead giveaway that I had zero memory of that visit. According to her account, later verified by my husband, on that visit we met her son and admired the view from her rooftop, stopped in at the flat of a colleague, showed off our substandard sublet, and went out to eat in a western restaurant near the pier. Her son, who was six at the time, still remembers that my husband ordered and devoured an enormous hamburger that arrived at the table impaled on a large knife. I, on the other hand, have only one clear memory of that evening (I am taking their word that these events all happened on the same evening). I recall the colleague telling us that he had painted his dining room fourteen times to get it the right shade of green. Why did my brain select that one detail as important? Did it store or discard the rest? …


Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Inna Leysk in Unsplash

Dear Ex # 1,

You probably think I hate you, but you’d be surprised. Even though you slept with half the women in our small town, abandoned me for months at a time, and squandered every penny and job opportunity that came your way, I’m more grateful than you might imagine. After all, between us we created the daughter you left me to raise alone. Her inquisitive mind, wicked sense of humor, and boundless heart were my lodestar. Your loss, my gain.

I was eighteen years old and you were twenty-three when you introduced me to your homeland in the Ozarks. …


Image for post
Image for post

In Hong Kong, I am what is known as a “trailing spouse.” What this means is that my husband is the one with the job that brought us here, and I am the tagalong “dependent,” my official label. His entry was sponsored by his employer, and mine was sponsored by my husband. So that I do not have to exit and re-enter the country every three months to refresh my visa, we applied for my Hong Kong ID card soon after I arrived. My husband was born here, so he already has one (with three stars) as well as a US passport. To get my ID, the two of us visited the immigration office where we signed the requisite paperwork — me to request permission to stay and him to be my guarantor. A bit like having to have a parent’s signature when you are underage and not earning your keep. …


Image for post
Image for post

We have a laundry room in our spacious Hong Kong flat. That reveals two things already that most Hong Kong flats lack: spaciousness and a whole room for doing laundry.

Our flat on the CUHK campus was designed for faculty with families. The campus itself ranges over the tree-covered sides of a mountain in the former farmland of the New Territories — a far cry from the cramped quarters of Hong Kong Island — so there is building space to space. According to campus rumor, the idea behind providing ample living and dining areas was that faculty could host student gatherings in their homes, nurturing a sense of community within the colleges. …


Image for post
Image for post

I’ve been thinking a lot about culture shock of late. A good chunk of my upcoming memoir is about overcoming the culture shock of being immersed in a Chinese family. Most of the experiences I write about happened ten years ago when I relocated from Hawaii to Hong Kong for a year, so when I moved to Hong Kong this year, I considered culture shock a thing of my past. For the most part that has been true, but I still have moments when it pops up and surprises me. Push me into a Park’n’Shop on a Saturday when the aisles are impassible and they are loop-playing that robotic song I hate or put me out in the heat and humidity for a few hours in a crowded street market and crank up the volume on the hawkers’ microphones. Leave me too long at a gathering where all the English speakers have either gone home or gotten tired of translating. …

About

Heather Diamond

Heather Diamond lives in Hong Kong and writes memoir and creative non-fiction.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store