14 August 2015

Sarah Howe on Going Home

Posted by Sarah Howe

At the Chinese Visa Centre window I was nervous, clutching my queue number like a talisman or lot. My first effort had been sent back like corrected homework. In the box marked ‘City and Country of Birth’ I had carefully penned ‘HONG KONG’: the wrong answer, it seemed, or rather fifteen years out of date. To save filling in the whole form again, the London official suggested I squeeze in the extra word: ‘HONG KONG, CHINA.’ ‘But try not to make it look like an afterthought,’ he said.

When I was seven, and Hong Kong still a few years off re-joining the motherland, my family got on a plane for England. It was an edgy time, living in the shadow of a countdown. That migration didn’t surprise me or, I think, my Chinese mother. My father had swapped East London for the Far East thirty years earlier, but had always encouraged us to think of England – a country we had scarcely visited – as ‘home’. I had it marked with a toothpick Union Jack on the world map in my childhood bedroom, at the tail end of an Empire, twenty-five floors up. Two decades later, it was Hong Kong that had come to feel like a place in the imagination.

People ask me how much I can remember: surprisingly much, but they’re a child’s memories, without any sense of how places connect up on a map. I remember the banyans hung with tangled, fishing-line hairs that sentried my walk down the hill to the school bus. I remember the frantic carp, live from the wet market, that leapt out of the wok one day to flop round our kitchen floor, chased by my squealing brother. I remember the glass and silver vista of the skyscrapered harbour, remade in neon by night, peered at through the kumquat trees that lined our living room window.

What is the purpose of your visit? The answer can’t be the usual one, ‘to see family’ – my mother grew up an orphan. I have no memory of my Chinese grandmother – that is, the woman who took in, somewhere in Guangdong province, the abandoned girl baby who would become my mother. Within a year of the makeshift adoption, by 1949, the Communists had come to power, and she fled with the child, together with so many others, across the water to Hong Kong. When I was born, the same woman, old by then, took across to the temple a jade bracelet the size of a baby’s wrist for it to be blessed, and to listen to my future. The idea is the loop of milk-green stone should protect the toddling infant from a fall, that it will shatter in her place. I wonder how much the fortune teller got right.

There was another problem with my form. ‘You need to fill in your Chinese name,’ his voice remote through the glass hatch. My first thought was, ‘How do you know I even have one?’ Followed by, ‘Please let me remember how to write it.’ I hadn’t thought about it for a long time, the name I never use, that appears on no certificate, that translated feels like an adorable parody. I had been to China before, but 'Lucky Flower' was going for the first time.

Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe is published by Chatto & Windus. Sarah will be reading from her work at the Bookshop on 18 August, with fellow Chatto Poets Liz Berry and Helen Mort.