Being An Ethnic Minority In Hong Kong
What it felt like to be excluded and how I overcame
I was born and raised in a rural town in the southern part of the Philippines called Davao. It was a place where people began their day to the echoing crows of the roosters, and who slowly at one’s convenience would go about their afternoon.
My grandparents, who I lived with at the time, would save water in plastic jugs of used soda bottles in case of the next unannounced water suspension. The air conditioner was rarely on to save electricity and so I would sit on my couch during a blazing hot afternoon and sulk in drops of sweat.
Despite this, I actually enjoyed living in the Philippines. Like clockwork, I looked forward to when I would hear the jingle of the ice cream truck coming to my street. I waited for the neighbourhood kids to go on my front porch and knock to ask to play. We trapped ants, played with rubber bands, and were trivialised when we found marbles.
Suddenly, the trajectory of life shifted and the next thing I knew, I was packing bags to go to Hong Kong.
I was four years old when I arrived in Asia’s Pearl Harbour. The huge glass panes that make up the walls of the airport where light travelled transcended the idea of hope and promise. The fast pace footsteps of tourists, business travellers, and families both stunned and amazed me because it was very different from the slowness of the Philippines. Though the myriad movement of race, culture, and ethnicity felt so warm and vibrant. My heart was full, my cheeks turned cherry red, and my smile as wide as it can be I thought: I was hopeful for what the future holds.
Growing up, I slowly realised this was not the case.
At the hands of his supervisor, my dad suffered from verbal abuse. While he hit his sales targets, he was “deserving” of a lower paycheque.
During the hotel management training, my mom was often told to do menial tasks compared to her colleagues.
Although my parents were highly educated — both holding college degrees — people would often disregard their calibre.
As we cheerily explained what occurred in our week during our weekend family meal in a restaurant, people would shoot hisses and glares at our directions. Perhaps because we were too loud but I don’t see the difference between the Chinese family across us who were as loud, if not louder.
At a young age, I never fully understood and constantly trapped questions in my head with no way to release them into the world.
Ultimately, I realised that the panes transcending hope and promise were instead occupied with contempt, intolerance and prejudice, and that this was the reality of many other ethnic minorities in Hong Kong.
Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.
I went to a government-funded public school that was saturated mainly of low-income ethnic minorities and was in the centre of a broken and crime-stricken area.
Those feelings of failure were everywhere in the district. It was in the form of parents who couldn’t get ahead financially, of kids who were starting to suspect that their lives would be no different, of families who watched their children be convicted of petty crimes.
We were often the victims of predatory views that whispered to us, non-Chinese descents, we were incapable of succeeding.
While I never understood the concept of inequity, I felt its effects and gradually manifested the idea of failure upon myself.
Even as I walk on the paved roads of bustling Central, Hong Kong’s financial hub, where towering skyscrapers form (a version of) utopia, I am reminded that having a seat at the table in corporate enterprises, living in a lush greenery peninsula that overlooked the oasis of azure or sipping cocktails in vibrant SoHo will always be worlds where people like me didn’t go.
It was because, as an ethnic minority, I face the problems that are not only what Hong Kongers in general face when entering the employment market, but a whole slew of others that are brought on by vulnerability and exclusion that dominates our lives in our formative years.
The path that I ought to walk through has been predominantly set by society. In a system that highlighted my inabilities, presumed the notions around my ethnicity and the primary school I attended — I was destined to join the low-status labour farm.
In fifth grade, my mother saw an opportunity to change this path. I sat for an interview in a quasi-international school.
The interviewer asked me to introduce myself in English. I proceeded to recite my memorised speech and she said “Well done” when I ended.
She then asked me to introduce myself in Chinese and I was stunned. I sheepishly smiled while I panicked internally since I had not anticipated such a task, my abilities were only of less-than elementary level and I absolutely was not able to impromptu string a single sentence together.
My hands fluttered and my voice was shaking. I finished the task weakly with hardly anything to say.
The rejection letter came in the mail and I was, once again, acquainted with the feeling of failure.
My mother, on the other hand, continued to persevere and she landed me a second interview. I felt revitalised when I heard of the news.
I worked furiously. I revised my speeches countless times, and rehearsed it before my parents. I had answers prepared for whatever question they shot my way whether in English or Chinese. I practiced breathing slowly, holding stable eye contact, and concentration on my words.
Low and behold, the day finally arrived and in the second round, I was asked all sorts of questions about my aspirations, dreams, and goals. I placed my hand on the table to steady myself but as I continued though, I became inspired by my own speech.
The Deputy Principal leaned in to catch every word, her spirits rising with mines, my thoughts filled the air until it was my big voice that made the room so small.
An acceptance letter greeted me by the end of the interview and I left the office, grinning from ear to ear. People actually cared to know what I had to say. My confidence soared.
In retrospect it was one of the defining moments of my adolescence. That seemingly unextraordinary day set a lot of subsequent days in motion — days when I would push my limitations, jump a little higher, venture out of my comfort zone and into unfamiliar territory, days when I would fail over and over again only to succeed when I least expected it, days when I would build my dreams from scratch, watch them fall down, then build them back up again, and before I knew it, the days bled into years, and this was my life. I’ll always be indebted to my school principal for that acceptance letter for taking a chance on me and helping me become the person I am today.
I learnt the value of my own voice, and knew that I belonged in the community. I raised my hands in class, and I was enthusiastic to share my ideas and hear others. I became a leader of my peers and was grateful to find that others followed me.
Years later, during a community outreach event, I sat across a brown girl who watched a movie during the whole event and realised that she was a reflection of my younger self, too blind to notice her potential and too deaf to hear her own voice.
This is why I started the Centre for Student Opportunities for students like her to remind us all that we can shake mountains with our minds. How can we possibly hope to change the world if we do not have the confidence to share our ideas?
Every individual has a valuable opinion but it takes drive and confidence to express it.
I am now on my way to (hopefully) becoming one heck of a lawyer as I take my first degree and major in Economics & Statistics with a minor in Computer Science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.