Ex / Re / Patriate by Ysabelle Cheung

Ex / Re / Patriate

Eighteen expats in Hong Kong. Their Whatsapp group chat is a string of emojis: wine glass wine glass wine glass. Flags. The last photograph sent: a blurred image of a woman hand-shovelling jello shots into another’s mouth at 6am.

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Two expats (a novel). One murders the other. Plot twist: They’re married and into hardcore BDSM.

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Four expats. European. Trying to make their dinner reservation. “Can you take the other road?” — but there is no other road. There is only this road, and it is crawling with partygoers. The taxi driver growls, his English isn’t good, and he feels the eight eyes razoring into his skull. He palms the gear stick — diu diu diu — and guts the street of people like a knife. It’s a story the expats will tell at dinner parties over imported cold cuts. Later, at home, the taxi driver’s daughter reminds him of the English: the other road is blocked.

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One expat. American. At parties, he inserts himself into conversations on race and counters with minor anecdotes of his feeling vulnerable; his pale silvery whiteness being the thing he cannot rid himself of, the insult of the term “gweilo”. “I am not a ghost,” he says, “You all don’t understand. We have it just as bad. We’re all discriminated against here, in Asia.”

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One expat in Hong Kong. From England. Chinese parents. Relearning, unlearning. She considers the “ex” — the expel, the exodus. The lunge over colonized land. The spat the spat the spat.

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Twelve expats. Someone’s birthday. Dinner. When the bill comes and a discount is not applied, there is an uproar. “I’m so sorry, that discount ended last year,” the manager explains. Times are tough. No one is eating out these days. Sorry. Sorry. The table screams, red-faced and ham-fisted. There is a long pool of spilled complimentary prosecco, gold and translucent.

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One expat, from England, Chinese parents. She overhears her American colleague: “We have it just as bad.” She looks up his number on her phone, writes out a message. DO YOU REALLY HAVE IT JUST AS BAD.

It is a message she never sends.

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Ten expats. They go on a hike. One feeds a monkey and almost gets his hand bitten off. So many photos! Hilarious!

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Fifteen expats. An Anglophone literary group. The same cursed fragments every week. Fragrant Harbor (twelve times). Glittering skyline (twenty-three times). Skyscrapers (thirty times). Barren rock (eight times). Mao (five times). Li Bai (twice). Zhuangzhi (seventeen times). Confucianism (four times). East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West. East meets West.

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One expat. (From England, Chinese parents.) She reads stories written by others like herself, who are inching their way back to the land their parents left so many years ago.

Where is home? One asks. What is diaspora identity? Are we part of the problem? She Googles: Colonization. Decolonization. Orientalism. Code-switching. English.

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Seven expats. One starts a magazine. Not one of his friends tell him how problematic it is to date the pretty young Chinese women he works with and underpays. They share his stories on social media. “So proud of X!”

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Thirty expats in Hong Kong. Junk party! 

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The expat from England with Chinese parents looks at her passport, her Hong Kong ID card. The British passport is the color of unfired clay. It is deceptively comforting.

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Four expats. They go to the horse races. The live music honks loudly as the poor horses run desperately down the tracks. The beer is drawn cold by the Nepalese boys carrying buckets of ice, cutting through the fat of the night air.

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Innumerable expats. In a tent at a music festival. A musician starts to plink on his electric keyboard. Someone yells out TimmeeeeEEEEEeeeeee, a warbling noise. Others join in. Soon everyone is drunkenly shouting “Timmeeeeeeeeee.” No one can hear the song at all. 

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The England-born-Chinese-parented-expat doesn’t even realize she’s writing down a list of everything she finds offensive about these expats (her colleagues, her friends, her friends’ friends, people she follows online, although she doesn’t know why) until she looks at the notebook and sees in between numbers for the insurance company and the AC technician these bitter, venomous hate poems.

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One expat, overheard at happy hour: “It’s so hard to buy good fresh vegetables in Hong Kong.”

Two blocks over, a wet market starts closing for the day. It is June, so the water spinach — wrapped in bundles with bits of old cloth — is perfect. Grandmas and helpers walk out with trolleys hugging this sweet tender leaf.

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The England-born-Chinese-parented-expat looks up the Instagram page of this woman who claimed there is a scarcity of fresh vegetables. There are tiny bowls of kale, avocadoes, almond milk, wingtips of airplanes and sweatshop fabrics.

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The spat the spat the spat.

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Rage, so much rage. This expat writes down things she hates about them, about herself. Colonization. Privilege. Entitlement. The ability to move. She writes down: expat. She crosses out “ex”. But then what is “pat”? She looks at it. Pat. To touch quickly. To flutter a hand on a shoulder, a back, a knee, a comforting gesture. A pat on the back. A pat on the head. A superficial, condescending gesture. Meaningless. Something that feels nice; but then does not linger, does not seek the cloths of your skin, your flesh, your light, your warmth, your blood.

Ysabelle Cheung is a writer based in Hong Kong. Her fiction has appeared in Catapult, and her cultural criticism in Literary Hub, Asymptote, the Los Angeles Review of Books and Artforum. 

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Next: The Blood Remains by Sakena Jwan Washington

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