In the winter of 2014, my sister and I took a photo of my dad posing under a street sign. We were visiting Hong Kong and, after alighting the ferry on Hong Kong Island, we found ourselves stepping onto ‘Man Kwong Street’. It was one of the most brilliant things I had ever seen. It had my name in it. After a lifetime of carrying a frequently unpronounceable, misspelt, nowhere-to-be-seen surname in England, there it was, common as muck on a street sign.
It was only when I moved to Hong Kong that I realised that the novelty I’d experienced back then had occurred simply because I’d only seen my name on a sign that one time. A few months after moving here, I no longer delighted in seeing my name on street signs, nor above shops, or bus stops, or the numerous other places I spotted it. Locking eyes with a Kwong Wah tool shop or a Chee Kwong restaurant caused a slew of guilt and embarrassment to slope down through my chest like hot treacle from a spoon.
Guilt in this area of my life was not a new sensation. The primary reason I moved the 6,000 miles was because I was riddled with a life’s worth of the stuff. I hadn’t engaged with this hugely important part of my life, and now I was paying the price, both in my inability to communicate with my family, and in my own frequent, emotional fisticuffs about being so distant from this essential part of me. In the summer before I relocated, I had managed to transform this guilt into a productive solution: learn, speak, go to Hong Kong and do it, be part of this family, this community.
I wasn’t aware, however, that ‘doing it’ involved daily confrontations with my guilty conscience. Soon, it wasn’t just guilt, either. Other equally unpleasant feelings under the self-reproach umbrella — special shout-out to failure and embarrassment — were added to the mix like thickening agents, all of these components coagulating in my bloodstream whenever I caught a glimpse of my surname.
Seeing my name was a reminder that I wasn’t living up to it. This didn’t seem to matter in the UK, where I spoke the common language and lived a typical, native-British life. But here, it mattered. Not to anyone else, so used to expatriates and English vocabulary, but to me. I didn’t have the same tongue as the rest of the Kwongs in my extended family, let alone the rest of the Kwongs in Hong Kong. The tongue I was supposed to have. I inherited my seemingly ubiquitous name from people I wouldn’t even be able to communicate with. I was so proud of it, but I couldn’t recite the Cantonese idioms my grandparents liked or retell the jokes my uncles lobbed at each other.
As with a lot of unpleasant feelings, my guilt had one redeeming feature. It pushed me. Whenever it coursed around my heart (usually following a run-in with the letters of my name on a sign), I didn’t shut my eyes. I didn’t want to continue feeling this way, so I refused to dilute it or pretend it wasn’t what it was. I’d always known what I’d had to do — learn the language and be involved — but the frequent reminders in side streets and bus terminals gave my motivation extra fuel.
It is progressing. Over a year has passed, and as time goes on — and my commitment to the language and the place gets stronger — the guilt upon seeing my name is being joined by a moment, a millisecond, of familiarity and ease. Fleeting, but present nonetheless. My hope? To truly see myself reflected in my name one day. One day.