Enlightened by the humble maggot

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 April, 1998, 12:00am

It was that first bite I took of a deep-fried maggot while visiting Xian, Shaanxi province, that got me thinking about how different my life could have been if both sets of grandparents had never left the mainland, and if my parents had never left Hong Kong.

Although some people believe hypothetical situations are a waste of time, I disagree, if only because of the sense of appreciation I gain for the power wielded by different types of government, the pros and cons of cultural traditions, and how these and other forces shape each person as a result of where and when they were born.

I must explain that I do not usually eat maggots. The dish was one served among a full course of insects I would not normally eat. But given that my companions and I had told our hosts in Xian last weekend that we wanted to sample local food, that my sense of adventure and concept of food were being questioned, and the consideration that I would not die from this experience, I decided to try the array of so-called delicacies.

The aftertaste, however, left me wondering what life would have been like had I grown up on the mainland.

The thought first crossed my mind when I arrived in Hong Kong two years ago. I lamented the fact that had my parents never left, for instance, I might be flipping breezily through any one of three languages, depending on what the social or professional occasion called for. I might be slimmer because of the type of diet in Hong Kong, or I might speak with a hint of a British accent. Then again, I might have taken to the streets in objection to British colonialism . . . or left Hong Kong like thousands of others in fear of the handover.

Had my grandparents remained on the mainland, the circumstances would have worked against my being born at all, since my parents did not meet there. But had they found their way to each other on the mainland by some intervention of fate, I still might not have come into being: their first child was a son.

Had I been born anyway, minor physical abnormalities I had at birth might not have been repaired, and I might have had to eke out an existence in an orphanage.

Thoughts like these are what come to mind whenever the debate arises over cross-cultural adoption, because I believe it is a combination of chance, luck and personal choice that places anyone in their current position.

For some Chinese brought up in the West, the mainland remains a foreign place, too unpalatable for them to visit. (The thought of using squat toilets is enough to put some people off.) Parents can be less than supportive: curiosity about returning to one's ethnic roots is not always encouraged, as one friend discovered a few years back.

Her father, who is from Uganda, was bewildered as to why she would want to subject herself to circumstances that were less than ideal when she had a life of relative comfort.

I can only imagine the mix of satisfaction and frustration immigrant parents must feel when they see their children taking for granted the privileges they are afforded in their adopted country.

Many children see it differently, however, and believe that returning to their roots is the best way to appreciate those privileges.

What made coming to Hong Kong so easy was that it combines the values and traditions of Chinese culture with the familiar amenities of the West.

It is no secret that not all overseas Chinese feel the same affection for the mainland, partly because the lifestyle, culture and language barrier make it too far removed from what they are comfortable with.