By Vivian Mui

As the plane tipped towards the bright July sun, I felt my body sink into the seat and I leaned over my shoulder to look out the thick plastic window. The familiar landscape of a green and brown grid spread across the horizon and I desperately searched for any landmarks.

By Vivian Mui

As the plane tipped towards the bright July sun, I felt my body sink into the seat and I leaned over my shoulder to look out the thick plastic window. The familiar landscape of a green and brown grid spread across the horizon and I desperately searched for any landmarks.

After a few ballparks, a couple of cloverleaf highways, and a dozen lakes later, I spotted a toothpick-like footbridge, connected over a long metallic river. Having probably crossed that bridge over one hundred times on foot, it is the unmistakable Washington Avenue Bridge that connects the east and west banks of the University of Minnesota.

I wanted to turn to my neighbor for the past 14 hours, wake her up and say, “You’ll never guess what that is!”

Instead, I reached forward, took out my mobile and waited impatiently for the flight attendants to take their seats. Ten minutes later, I turned on my phone and said to my mom at 200-words-per-minute, “Hi Mom, I just landed! When you come pick me up, can you bring some of Dad’s homemade pot stickers PLEASE?”

Don’t get me wrong, I had plenty of pot stickers and dumplings of assorted types over the past year – steamed, fried and boiled in broth – but having been gone for so many months, I missed the goodness of home-cooking. Three thoughts just happened to pop in my head as I landed: Mom, Dad and pot stickers.

“Oh, Mom,” I added. “And don’t forget the sauce.”

*   *   *

In April 2009, I was awarded the Fulbright grant as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) to Hong Kong. At the end of July, I packed my bags, photocopied my passport at least a dozen times and hopped on a plane headed for the other side of the Pacific with 15 other Hong Kong-bound ETAs. Together we would live and teach at The Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd) located in Tai Po, Hong Kong, for one year. Was I scared? Nah. Was I nervous? Maybe. Was I excited? Holy smokes, you betcha.

As a Minnesota native and a classic American-Born Chinese (ABC), meaning I can speak Chinese but I can’t read or write Chinese characters, I had always wanted to live in Hong Kong and to truly experience the city that was my parents’ birthplace and home for over 20 years. When I was a kid, each time my family and I traveled to Hong Kong, I was only allowed a ten-day glimpse of the city, the people, the food, and the culture. The Fulbright grant presented me a year-long passage to experience every bit of life in Hong Kong and for the exceptional purpose of cross-cultural exchange.

And oh my, was my experience ever an exchange of cultures! Right from the get-go, I met my fellow “Fulbrighters” from all over the United States and from a range of academic backgrounds and specialties. We immediately became friends as a cohort and we were each other’s support and comfort when we ached for food from home. This actually happened on several occasions, especially during Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons. But, what I missed most, food-wise, was a personal ramekin of French onion soup with a chewy blanket of melted gruyére on top.

At the college where I taught I met professors from China, England, Canada and Australia. I met local Hong Kong students, Mainland Chinese students and exchange students from Germany, Sweden, France, Denmark, Thailand, Malaysia and even Morocco. I met expatriates (aka “expats”) from even more places across the globe. It seemed to me that everyone was moving to Hong Kong for their own reasons but the best part of it: I was there too.

The work I did as a Fulbright grantee was as diverse as the people I met. In addition to teaching small English language classes at HKIEd, I volunteered at the kindergarten learning center to read books, sing songs, dance and play games with the kids. Over the course of the year, our cohort extended our cross-cultural exchange initiative and had us travel to China on two volunteer excursions. Our first “China Attachment” was to Baise, a small city in the Guangxi Province. Then, on our second attachment, we went to Qingyang in the Gansu Province. During both attachments, not only did we volunteer at their respective universities but we also toured neighboring areas, went sightseeing, visited primary schools, hosted cultural exchange events to share our American cultures with the local students, and ate, and ate and ate. Never had I tasted such delicious and fresh hand-pulled noodles as the “la mian” in China. I must have had almost thirty bowls of this “la mian” in a span of ten days! Honestly, no exaggeration.

As a person of Chinese descent, I thought that it would be easy for me to pass as a local Chinese person during our attachments but this was not the case. Whenever I introduced myself to a new class, the students would hear my English fluency and become perplexed and curious at my cultural identity.

“Are you really American,” the classes would ask.

“Yes, I am,” I answered

“But you look Chinese,” the confused class would ask.

“Well, I am Chinese, too,” I answered.

Looking even more doubtful and hesitant, the class would persist to ask questions like “But, you say you are American. How can that be?”

“My ancestors and my parents were born in China and Hong Kong. But my parents immigrated to the U.S. and so I was born the U.S. which makes me a Chinese-American,” I would explain.

“Ohhh…,” the class would acknowledge as they finally understood the connection.

I also had many revelations like this while living in Hong Kong, many of which are nuances of the local culture and Cantonese slang.

During the first couple of weeks in Hong Kong, I had to reduce my self-proclaimed “advanced” level of fluency in spoken Cantonese to a modest “intermediate” level. After many awkward silences, stammers and corrections, I am proud to say that I was able to rightfully regain my fluency by the end of the year.

I am thankful to have been surrounded by so many local students on campus, who were all so noble to explain things to me whenever I had questions such as where buses 306, 271, 275 and 26 would take me or what does a tropical cyclone warning level “eight” signify? I learned basically a level eight means go to the nearest 7-Eleven and buy as much junk food as you can because you could be locked in for a few days. My personal favorite question I asked was where can I get a tasty French onion soup?

Living in Hong Kong and traveling in between China was the ultimate opportunity of a lifetime which I adored every moment of my Fulbright experience. I want to encourage everyone to travel. Just go! Forget about language barriers (just nod and smile, and be kind), forget about the underground veins of the metro system (maps are everywhere), forget about the weather (bring a compact umbrella), and forget about weight-gain (seriously, forget about it)!

I am certain that, like my fellow Fulbright scholars around the world, I have been forever changed and inspired by this adventure to visit so many beautiful and fascinating places, meet amazing people and experience societies so rich with culture and global vitality. The most valuable thing I learned was to embrace every culture and experience with patience, compassion and understanding.

*   *   *

As my mom steered the van away from the curb, jam-packed with four very oversized suitcases, she reached in between our seats and grabbed a small and familiar container with a red plastic lid. Instantly, I could smell the pot stickers and my grin stretched wide enough to reveal all of my molars.

“Your favorite pot stickers…sauce and everything,” Mom said.

Welcome home.


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