Last Monday dawned clear, bright and very hot. It was my 48th birthday, but as I sipped my early morning tea in the study, I had no idea just how overheated the day would eventually become.
A few hours later, I took a group out on an historical lecture excursion around the Pacific war sites at Shing Mun, in the hills above Tsuen Wan. Some intimation of later events portended, when several ladies immediately commented, in negative terms, on the previous day’s Post Magazine column. Then it all came out … Last week, my column explored various personality issues faced by some members of an earlier generation of expatriate children in Hong Kong, now longsince grown to adulthood. Within it, stereotypical observations were made regarding a numerically significant minority of what are often referred to as “third culture kids”. These interpretations clearly touched an extremely raw nerve, and many readers, unfortunately, took what was intended to be general social-history commentary as a very contemporary, direct personal parallel, either to themselves (as adult “expat brats”) or their children.
From Ireland and New Zealand to Thailand and the United States, responses poured in. Comments ranged from mortified outrage to full and frank agreement. The level of reaction astonished me; in over 15 years of writing historical themed columns for this newspaper, when I have regularly written about Hong Kong’s manifold contemporary problems in uncompromising terms, nothing else has ever – ever – generated such a barrage.
And I wasn’t the only one taken aback; Post Magazine editor Mark Footer wrote to me as the controversy unfurled that “… as (arguably) an ‘expat brat’ myself, I saw enough truth in your column to have been surprised at the attention it has attracted.” On Tuesday, it featured on an RTHK Radio 3 Backchat panel debate; due to prior commitments, I was unfortunately unable to attend.
Questions came thick and fast.
Was I myself an “expat brat”? No – I’m not. Did I have “expat brats” of my own that I somehow struggled to deal with? No – I don’t. And how could I possibly have any idea what I was writing about, anyway?
Well – I’ve lived in Hong Kong for nearly 30 years. Throughout that period, I have observed, close-up, enough distinct individuals to form a broad composite picture of certain definite character “types”.
Stereotypes evolve because, like it or not, enough archetypes – including the classic adult “expat brat” – really do exist.
Before long, literature came to the rescue, and the whole episode swiftly reminded me of another teapot typhoon. As with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Hong Kong bears comparison to Prospero’s Isle, an enchanted, beautiful place, but with an unmistakably dark side. King Prospero’s two retainers, Ariel and Caliban, epitomise this conundrum. Beautiful, sunnynatured Ariel embodies all that is good. Ugly, misshapen Caliban thinks he’s another Ariel until, by unhappy chance, he sees himself in a mirror. Confronted with the unflattering truth, Caliban flies into a destructive rage and lashes out at the object that reflected his ultimate self. I feel for Caliban’s looking-glass … Directly due to their early environment, “third culture kids” have unmistakable, well documented characteristics that continue into adulthood. Along with the negative traits exhibited by a significant minority, many aspects are overwhelmingly positive, as numerous respondents made clear.
In his poem The Two-Sided Man, Rudyard Kipling, a famously successful adult “expat brat”, summed up the cultural empathy that eventually coalesced in his creative personality. All the varied incidents – good, bad and somewhere in between – that he experienced as a “third culture kid” growing up between England and India ultimately created the person he was content to be.
I would go without shirt or shoe, Friend, tobacco or bread.
Sooner than lose for a minute the two separate sides of my head.
Most well-adjusted adult “third culture kids” would agree.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong