“I’m running away as far as I can,” I shouted. I slammed the door and left home, not knowing where I was really going. I took the public bus as far as I could go and made a tour of Kowloon, the northern peninsula section of Hong Kong. A few hours later, tired and hungry with nothing really to do, I headed home. My parents said nothing and we left the matter.
I have forgotten whatever it was that prompted this outburst of teenage arrogance. But the big blow-ups at home usually related to some injustice I felt by being blamed for my two younger brothers’ naughtiness! Or perceived parental injustices towards the domestic help, when they scolded the servants too harshly in my view!
Hong Kong is a really small place and you cannot run too far away. You could take the bus around and around, but you couldn’t cross over into China (the border was strictly closed during my childhood), you couldn’t fly out from the airport without critical documents, and you couldn’t easily get on a boat to go out of the territory. So as a young kid my options were severely limited.
What about you, did you have the option of running away, and did you? How far could you go? And how safe was it to go far away from home?
Or, did you ever even threaten your parents that you would run far away? And how old were you when you stopped saying something like that? I’m going to assume that after you grew up, maybe you actually moved far away from home. Was your move related subconsciously to this childhood instinct to run far away? Just a bit? I have often wondered.
Teenagers especially can have a strange relationship with their parents. I remember a very important school function that I should have been very proud that my parents would attend. But when my parents did come to the school, I kept my distance from them. I’m not sure why, and thinking back, my actions were really strange and disrespectful.
It was something related to pride and arrogance, something about being embarrassed by my parents for no reason, and just being a teenager! There’s something awkward about growing up and something about independence that makes young people do awkward things.
Everyone went far away. It’s also strange, but in our family history, when each generation was growing up, actually everyone did go far away from home. For various reasons, as if they were running away from home!
Going west, far away to Thailand. Even my wife’s parents went far away from their ancestral Hakka village home in southern China, to the southernmost tip of Thailand. As my father-in-law was one of the few western-trained doctors from the Christian Hospital of the village, and even one of the relatively few then in China, a major impetus for the move was likely a Christian call to serve in a needy land.
The family rumor was that the move was related to banditry in the local hills, even kidnappings. I wonder also if the practical reasons for the call included the sense of adventure, plus the great needs specifically of a growing migrant Hakka population in South Thailand.
My mother-in-law was a mission-hospital-trained midwife, so the combination of modern trained doctor and midwife meant they were soon in high demand in the small town of Haadyai, their new home. A country with a totally different language and culture, making it in essence a missionary move.
They never returned to their ancestral home, in part because the solo medical practice was difficult to leave, and in part because of civil war in China, then World War II, and finally the “bamboo curtain” around China that essentially closed off the country to the world.
Going nautically west, far away by slow boat to China. I’ve written about my mother traveling thousands of miles from Seattle, USA to Kunming in Yunnan, China, in the early 1930s, to join her sister who was in medical missions there. Even when I worked in medical missions in Kunming in the 1990s, it was still a small city, so I imagine that in the 1930s it must have been really small, with lots of areas of great poverty. So not only were language and culture a huge problem, the living situation was an obvious major difference from her USA life.
The reason for her shocking move was unclear, since she was never thought to be adventurous. Some thought that, being part of a very small minority in Seattle, maybe there was an element of running far away, in this case to the land of her ancestors?
She never returned to live in Seattle, though in old age she came to live in Cincinnati next door to us. The Midwest was really a strange new place to her, with none of her Seattle childhood friends and family anywhere nearby.
Even the church was very different for her: her home church in Hong Kong was English-speaking, with a number of Americans. But in Cincinnati the church included mostly Mandarin speakers, who tried to speak to her in Mandarin, not realizing that this apparently Chinese older woman spoke only English! Which was really confusing to everyone!
From a small village to a huge city. It turns out that the shortest move was my dad’s move from the ancestral village in Southern China to Hong Kong, to finish high school and to go on to the University of Hong Kong for medical studies. He then continued to live in Hong Kong for essentially the rest of his life.
Even though it was a “short” 150 miles away, I’m sure it was a major culture shock for him to live in the then-British colony, already one of the most sophisticated cities in the East. The locals spoke Cantonese, a language quite different from the village Hakka. And the official language of the city was actually English. But Dad seemed quite adaptable. His English missionary village school indeed must have prepared him well, even for the totally English-speaking university!
When the Imperial Japanese military invaded Hong Kong during World War II, Dad brought our new family (mother and baby me) back to the safer ancestral village in the hills for a few years. That was really the only time he went back to the village to stay for a while. The “bamboo curtain” around China fell only a few years after the War was over, and his later solo medical practice in Hong Kong restricted most long-distance travel plans.
Going eastward, far away from Thailand. My wife, Esther, grew up in the little town of Haadyai in southern Thailand, which had only three main streets at the time. But as a young 14-year-old teenager, she traveled nearly two thousand miles, far away to the huge city of Hong Kong. I might think that growing up in small-town Thailand with excellent relationships at home and church, why would a young girl want to do that? It kind of stretches my mind to think of that… to a different land speaking an unknown Cantonese language, to live among relatives she had never met before. Even today I would think that’s really very startling!
The historic reason was that the family wanted her to have a proper Chinese education. Chinese language schools had been shut down by the Thai government during a phase of “red scare”, the growing fear that ethnic Chinese populations in Southeast Asia could be tapped by the new and rising “Red China” for potential secret insurrections. There was good Chinese education in Hong Kong, so that was a good impetus for Esther to go.
But Esther had an additional major reason to leave. She was fed up with the obviously corrupt local policemen. Many of them came by to visit, to extort money from successful Chinese business people, and in her dad’s case, even a thriving medical clinic. She just could not stand the extortions, right before her eyes, from misbehaving policeman plopping down in the chairs of the clinic expecting to be well respected! And even fed. Esther was disgusted, and vowed to leave!
Cross-cultural, cross-language transition. After she arrived in Hong Kong, she suddenly realized that the language of Cantonese was indeed very different and very difficult (9 tones); for a while she could not understand a word of what was being spoken in school classes.
Fortunately, in those days kids copied down nearly verbatim notes of their teachers’ presentations, meticulously and precisely. So she could read the Chinese script from her friends’ class notes, and managed to even do well at school!
The hyper-frenetic Hong Kong culture was much different from the quiet hometown she came from. Unlike her parents, however, she did manage to visit her Thailand home quite often, since by then she could easily fly to Bangkok, and then fly or take the train down to her home town.
The farthest nautically eastward run. Ultimately, my wife and I probably went the farthest from home, since we flew 7500 miles, technically eastward, into another new western culture and world. The saving grace initially, especially for my wife, was that we could readily attend a mostly Cantonese-speaking church (in Chicago, ten minutes from home by car), so there was some immediate connection to our Asian background.
In theory, we went to the US for my professional postgraduate training, but actually we left Hong Kong mostly because I was fed up with the hyper-competitive Hong Kong and often brutal academic medical atmosphere. I was going far away from that, though I have wondered whether there was maybe also some other subconscious childhood drive to just be far from home?
And we never returned to live in Asia, in spite of significant professional invitations and options. In fact, I had made a secret childish vow, as the plane lifted off the renowned Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport, “Goodbye, Hong Kong, I’m not ever coming back!!”
So we all went far away. So it’s fair to say that every member of our family had our own story of going far, far away, whether we were possibly running away, or going towards a new dream, a new place of adventure! We were all immigrants in many different, even opposite geographic directions! I could call us all historic “crisscross migrants”, my made-up term.
Closing the loop, coming home. But the beauty is that there can be a final personal closing of the loop. At some point many sort of come home, often to find our roots, either physically or metaphorically. I consider both my ancestral story-telling as well as our ultimate move to Seattle, my mother’s birthplace, and being now very close to our own family, as our poetic homecoming!
Good stories are often complex, and multiple lessons can be learned from them. Many people resonate particularly with the complex ultra-famous story of The Prodigal Son, who ran far away from home, but dramatically closed his story in great homecoming celebration.
His story is actually one of the greatest stories of restoration, but the story is so complex that people down the ages have run away with (or even “steal”) whatever part of the story they identify with. For me, I would like to borrow the story also, for our metaphorical running away from home, which wasn’t really even “prodigal” (sorry, not that exciting), and our return.
I just especially love stories that end dramatically well! In fact I truly wish for everyone to actually have a personal ultimate homecoming story, finally back to the warmest embrace of a long-awaiting loving heavenly Father…