Updated: Apr 25, 2020
I walked for miles during my two and a half week stay. Ye Ye’s flat was on Hong Kong Island, a few MTR stops from the most Western tip. Many mornings I left the flat after breakfast, headed east toward Central, getting lost in the sounds of the city. The double-decker trams, an iconic piece of Hong Kong’s visual history, ding dinged as they came to a stop. Air hissed from bus doors as they opened, crosswalks ticked and electronic beeps peppered my audio track. City dwellers tapped their Octopus transit cards onto the sensors, deducting their fare. I got lost in the crowds as I walked too, feeling the whoosh of the air conditioning as I walked by the automatic doors of Watson’s and the Starbucks that wasn’t here the last time I’d visited in 2012. As I continued on Des Voeux Road, the main thoroughfare on this side of the island, I came upon the historically rich dried seafood stalls of Sheung Wan where a sharp, salty aroma permeated the air. Stall after stall, vendors were selling dried scallops, dried shrimp, herbs, fungus and a multitude of different items floating in murky water sealed in glass jars.
In January of 2014, I was battling a bout of depression sprung from my miscarriage. Fighting the darkness for over three months, I finally surrendered to the need to focus on healing myself. Initially opposed to the medication route, I wanted to heal holistically and naturally. I took one month off work to kick start this endeavor and journeyed across the Pacific. Hong Kong, a frequent destination of my childhood, made the most sense as I desperately searched for a sense of refuge, somewhere I could not so readily be reminded of my infinite sadness. Despite the visits to Hong Kong becoming less and less frequent as I aged, the sense of comfort I felt when thinking of the dreamy Pearl of the Orient never faded.
Memories flooded my mind while I made my way around Hong Kong. I think about visiting my Grandparents’ gravesite, but the long MTR trek coupled with a taxi ride in addition to navigating my way to the headstone is more than my broken Cantonese can handle. The last time I paid my respects was in 2010 when we buried Ye Ye. The entire family flew into Hong Kong, all of Dad’s siblings and their children. We spent a long evening before the funeral folding paper money into Chinese ingot shapes from pieces of paper with gold and silver paint swaths. Stuffed into paper bags, these ingots would be burned for Ye Ye’s use in the afterlife. Arriving at the funeral home the next day, robed in traditional white garb, we received the still-living friends that trickled in to pay their respects. We burned more incense sticks than I count, bowing each time. The paper bags of ingots, differentiated by each family member’s name, were burned along with paper cell phones, a car, and dollar bills, preparing Ye Ye for a more than comfortable afterlife. Real estate is at a premium in Hong Kong, we all know this. But no one talked about the fact that Nai Nai would be exhumed, her bones put into a pot while we watched, the only way Ye Ye’s coffin would have enough space to be lowered into the ground. I still remember the hilly terrain of the cemetery and the narrow stairs descending to Ye Ye and Nai Nai’s plot. It was a precarious, nearly impossible and taxing job for the workmen to bring the coffin down to its resting place on the uncharacteristically hot May day. Oppressed by the thick, humid air and sun beating down, all of us were having difficulty breathing.
I’m reminded of happier times when my Grandparents were still alive. I was so young when Nai Nai passed that most of my memories of her coincide with food. In the mornings, we would head south on Whitty Street, the side street just outside of the tall high-rise they lived in. We would turn right onto Queen’s Road West to see the Shek Tong Tsui Market on our left side. Fresh veggies and meats footsteps away and at our disposal, such a dynamically different way to live than we were used to. At night, we’d return to the flat on foot having stepped off a red, blue or green tram and pass the unmistakable smell of burnt roasting chestnuts and sweet egg puffs. Back then, looser regulations allowed for vendors to populate street corners. In the flat, Nai Nai spent much of her time in the narrow kitchen that could barely hold two people, making our American galley kitchen look fit for royalty. Dishes like watercress soup with pork spare ribs and Chinese almonds, handmade noodles dropped into a fish soup base and simple stir-fried Asian greens accompanied by white rice filled the table. Burned into my memory is a particular blue crab dinner where newspaper was laid out on the dining table as we pounded and picked through the shells with our hands. My personal favorite, a tradition Dad still upholds, were dumplings filled with pork, leek, and shrimp. We would gather around the floured table, wrapping dumplings as a family while the two turtles my grandparents owned would amble around the flat.
On one of my first days in the city, Aunt Miranda and Uncle Patrick took me to Repulse Bay where I captured a particularly serene photo of a figure in a boat flanked by rocks. The scene elicited a sense of calm I was desperately searching for. I did not leave Hong Kong with this sense of calm. It’s not plausible to think that a two-week trip could upend the unyielding sadness that had blanketed my existence for the last four months. I flew over seven thousand miles to start a process of healing and opening myself up to what that might mean. I found that perspective was the biggest unlock, equally as important was gratitude. Depression has this way of dragging you down, making you feel like all the air has been sucked out and there’s no room for light. It is a constant battle that doesn’t logically make sense. I remember the ache of wanting to feel better, to be better, of not wanting to cry any longer, but my thoughts and my body would not comply. A month or so after my return, despite my efforts aimed at holistically healing, I turned to medication. I did all the work I could do on my own and accepted that it was not enough. What my family would think weighed heavily on me. It was the single largest driving factor of holding off on medication for so long. Mental health, the entire ordeal I was going through, was unchartered territory for us. I had not grown up knowing what it was like to openly discuss my feelings. I felt shame that I could not overcome this battle on my own. Finally broaching the subject, I cried when I discussed it with Mom, driving home on the 605 with tears blurring my vision. I knew I could not sustain the on-going pain any longer. I can only describe my family's support as quiet and unwavering. We are an Asian American family not acclimated to addressing this depth of emotion head-on. But there was no question of supporting the path to recovery, whatever it may look like. I finally felt I had the green light to pursue the next phase of my healing. It was the best thing I could have done for myself.