Artefacts of my shifting identities

I am excited to be writing my first piece for the WhoKou project. I guess to give you a proper introduction of myself in my first post, some authenticity would be appreciated. I’ll simply present my various identity documents, and let them speak for me.

My ‘honorary’ One-Child Policy card

“The couple positively respond to the call of the party and the government, to realize the Four Modernizations, only one child for life, examined to conform to the regulations, idiopathic this card.”

My parents obeyed the rules of the One-Child Policy set by the Chinese government – I was born with ‘honour’ as the first and the only child of the family. There was nothing strange about growing up as the only child, because as a kid born in the only-child era, I was surrounded by only-child friends.

And China was changing fast too. Soon we all moved from small houses into tall buildings, and there was not much opportunity or space for friends to mingle. I have a lot of memories of being locked alone at home doing homework, playing with my toys. When I got too bored, I told stories to myself. I would record the stories on a tape and listen to them again and again later. Today, I am so used to being alone, and I still love telling stories.

My Hukou – (household registration book)

“Only the household registration office has the power to make registration on the Household Register. No any other units and individuals are allowed to make any records on it.”

I had no idea how privileged I was to be born with a Beijing hukou until I took my national college entrance exam. With a Beijing hukou and fairly good academic performance, I could easily get into any top university nation-wide, but a student with the same academic achievements from Henan Province might end up with no offer at all.

A hukou is a book issued by the Chinese government to every family, and keeps records including the births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and movements of all family members. But the Hukou System is much more powerful than record-keeping. People’s mobility is strictly restricted by their hukou. A local hukou is preferred when you look for jobs. Depending on where you are located, you might not be able to buy property with a hukou from another province. Unless you pay a lot of money to go to a private school, you are not allowed to have your children educated in a province that is different from your hukou’s, and high school leavers are only allowed to take their college entrance exam in their home provinces. People in big cities are thus privileged to enjoy more resources and, as the capital of China, Beijing offers the best terms. I was, speaking in the language of Apartheid South Africa, the ‘honorary white’ in China in many ways.

But none of that mattered to me anymore when I decided to drop all these Beijing privileges to get Hong Kong citizenship. To do so, I had to give up my Beijing hukou first. On a hot summer’s day in 2014, I went into the police station and told them that I would like to cancel my Beijing hukou.

‘But why?’ The police officer was curious.

‘I’m moving to Hong Kong,’ I said.

She stamped ‘CANCELLED’ in my book and smiled. It’s the bitter smile telling me that you are stupid, you have no idea what you are giving up.

My Hong Kong passport and South African visa

“The bearer of this passport is a Chinese citizen who holds a Hong Kong permanent identity card and has the right of abode in and the right to return to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”

(Handwritten on visa) “Admitted to take up study at the University of Cape Town.”

A Hong Kong passport, with its visa-free and visa-on-arrival access to 152 countries and territories, means FREEDOM to me. During the years when I travelled on my Chinese passport, I had to go through extremely painful visa application processes for almost every country I visited. Since Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of The People’s Republic of China, I can obtain a Hong Kong passport and enjoy its visa-free benefits and technically still be a Chinese citizen who can cross the China/Hong Kong border freely. Friends asked if I felt emotional when I had to give up my Chinese passport together with my Beijing Hukou. ‘Emotional?’ I asked myself. ‘It’s more of a relief’.

My South African student visa opens up a new chapter of my life. I have come to a country where identities, race, rights and freedom are at the core of people’s values and everyday discussions. I work with anthropologists at the University of Cape Town to dig into cultural identities and their formation processes. Issues at home that used to be invisible to me are coming to light from a South African perspective, while what used to be so visible – an essentialized Chinese culture, the boundaries between identities – have become invisible to me.

Now I understand that all these artefacts are simply evidence of my lived experiences, and the identities behind them are powerful imaginations. I seem to have arrived at a familiar question: Who am I?

Stick with WhoKou – I’ll keep you posted when I have an answer to it.

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