When you love someone from another culture and country, there’s a chance you’ll end up in a long-distance relationship. But what if you thought the long distance was over, only to discover you would have to be divided for another year?
That’s what happened to Shannon Young, an American who fell for a British man while studying abroad in England who she described as “my very own Mr. Darcy, except…talkative—and half Chinese.” But after she moved to Hong Kong to finally be together with him, he suddenly gets transferred to his company’s London office for a year, leaving Shannon all alone. Year of Fire Dragons details the life-changing year she spent in Hong Kong while continuing a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend. It’s a beautifully written story about how far people will go for love — and the unexpected joys that come when things don’t work out as planned.
She writes a blog called “A Kindle in Hong Kong” and is an active member of the Hong Kong Women in Publishing Society. Originally from Arizona, she likes to read, travel and spy on other people’s books on the train.
I asked Shannon about everything from her thoughts on Hong Kong and managing a long-distance relationship to how her family’s ties to the city made her feel more at home there.
What inspired you to write this memoir?
Originally I just wanted to write about Hong Kong. The place itself inspired me, and writing became a way to catalogue and make sense of my experiences. But as I got further into the manuscript I realized I wanted people to actually read it. It became clear that I’d need to include my personal story to appeal to readers because that’s what appealed to me in the travel memoirs I read. Far away locations can be interesting, but a personal story that resonates with the experiences of real people is far more compelling. As I slowly opened up about my own life, it became easier to understand the growing process I was going through at the time. Writing the memoir morphed into a way to make sense of my feelings, perhaps even more than my surroundings, during a pivotal stage in my life.
You followed Ben to Hong Kong so the two of you would finally be together and then, after a month, he leaves you there to take a position in London. You couldn’t afford to chase after him because you had already committed yourself to a job in Hong Kong that would help you pay off your $80,000 student loan debt. Could you share with us some of your hopes and fears that came to mind when you said goodbye to Ben that fateful afternoon in September?
I was probably too optimistic for my own good. I thought the whole experience would be easier than it was, and didn’t realize how much turmoil I would end up feeling over the course of the year. I felt alone and disconnected in those first moments, but not as much as when the months dragged on and being together seemed less and less likely. The chances of the whole thing not working out were much greater than I let myself acknowledge at the time.
One of the love stories in your memoir follows your own relationship with the city of Hong Kong and how it unexpectedly charms you in so many ways. What was the most surprising thing about Hong Kong that you came to cherish?
I didn’t expect to love the energy so much. I’m a fairly reserved, introverted type, and it was surprising how much I loved the opportunity to be on the go and to see all sorts of different people around me every day. Hong Kong is enchanting, and living in such a vibrant city was more stimulating than I expected.
Your own family has an interesting connection to Hong Kong because your grandparents lived there for a period of time and your father was born there. How did your family’s ties to Hong Kong influence how you felt living alone there as well as your feelings about your relationship with Ben?
Hong Kong wasn’t 100% foreign to me, and I think that helped. I grew up hearing stories about Hong Kong and, although I never expected to live here, it had always been on my radar. I still meet people in the US who think Hong Kong is in Japan or who don’t understand the difference between Hong Kong and Mainland China, and that was never an issue for me. During my childhood, my dad used to talk about how much he’d like for us to move to China. He’d studied Mandarin and he had fond memories of his childhood in Asia. The prospect of an international life wasn’t as scary to me as it might be for someone whose family has always lived in the same town. Once I actually moved, it was encouraging to know that other people in my family had done it first. I even had the letters my grandma wrote home while she was living here in the late 1950s, and I’ve included excerpts in Year of Fire Dragons as a counterpoint to my own journey in Hong Kong. As for Ben, his stories about Hong Kong are guaranteed conversation starters around my relatives!
While in Hong Kong, you decide to buy a wedding dress, even though you weren’t certain if or when you would be getting married. You write, “I’d taken enough risks for Ben already. What was one more gamble that everything would work out?” Do you think that this kind of confidence is an example of how long-distance relationships can be a positive experience?
I think so. Looking back I’m still a little surprised I did that. It comes back to me being maybe a little too confident for my own good. On the other hand, long-distance relationships are difficult enough and you have to be hopeful and confident about your prospects in order for them to work. That kind of positive attitude can help carry you through the tougher times. I am lucky it turned out well, and the dress still fit me on my wedding day!
Now that you’ve survived a long-distance relationship, do you have any advice for anyone out there in the same situation? What do you think it takes to make a long-distance relationship successful?
Communication is absolutely the most important part of a relationship, especially a long-distance relationship. You have to be honest with each other about your concerns and feelings. It makes it much easier to trust the other person when you feel you can talk to them about anything, and without trust it won’t work at all. I think it’s also helpful to make plans for the end of the long-distance period, even though my own plans were thwarted a few times.
What do you hope readers come away with from your memoir?
I hope they’ll come away with a sense of optimism from my journey, and a reassurance that even during a tumultuous time like your early twenties, things can turn out better than you ever imagined possible. I also hope they’ll be as enchanted by Hong Kong as I am after reading about my adventures here!
In her post, Shannon writes about her own marriage to a half Chinese (from Hong Kong) and half British man she first met while studying abroad in London. She also shares an excerpt about how they first fell in love from her new memoir Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong (Blacksmith Books), which details that life-changing year she lived in Hong Kong while managing a long-distance relationship with him. It’s a beautifully written story about how far people will go for love — and the unexpected joys life can bring us when things don’t work out as planned.
My husband is half Chinese (from Hong Kong) and half British, and I am an American. Sometimes this means we connect easily, thanks to his Western side. He’s a native English speaker, and we share a common cultural language: American movies, Harry Potter, an independent streak, an appreciation for British humor.
He looks more like his English father, so he can easily pass for a Westerner — until he starts speaking Cantonese. We live in Hong Kong, and it’s always fun when my husband speaks Cantonese to shopkeepers, taxi drivers and acquaintances for the first time. We’ve had countless variations on the scene:
The man at the goldfish market explains something to us in tentative English.
My husband asks a clarifying question in Cantonese.
The goldfish seller stares at my husband’s Western features for a moment, then laughs and unleashes a string of compliments about his fluency.
My husband explains that, yes, he is half English and half Chinese (I understand this part).
The goldfish seller and my husband chat for a few minutes in Cantonese (I don’t understand this part).
Because he seems so Western at first, both culturally and in appearance, my husband’s Chinese side can come as a surprise. He has a strong sense of filial responsibility. He was raised in a Hong Kong family where the only acceptable career choices were doctor, banker or lawyer. He followed the common Hong Kong practice of living with his parents until our marriage (not counting the ten years he spent on his own in the UK). He has an all-consuming passion for good food: he cooks; he talks about restaurants a lot; he has strong opinions about frying pans and the right way to prepare instant noodles. This can be hard to match for an American girl who grew up on Kraft mac’n’cheese and weekly backyard barbecues.
On the other hand, I care more about saving face than he does. He worries that I’m too concerned about being embarrassed. He’s very good at having frank discussions and urging me to talk through problems until they’re resolved. It’s a quality that’s all his own.
Living at the intersection of two cultures has made him the perfect candidate for our multicultural relationship. He is good at compromise — a nonnegotiable part of mixed marriages — and at seeing things from different points of view. I’ve learned a lot from him.
As we settle into our second year of marriage, I wonder which parts of myself I’ll compromise. Will I become a bit more Hong Kong in my thinking? Will he become a bit more American? I suspect it’s both. All couples, whether we’re blending two or three distinct cultures or two families from different parts of town, have to learn how to hold on to the best parts of ourselves as we work to form new families.
More importantly, we have to learn how to speak each other’s languages. People are more than the sum of their cultures. We each have our own special brand of communication. Marriage is all about learning how to speak your partner’s language, no matter where you’re from.
In my new memoir published in Hong Kong this month, I share the story of how I followed my long distance boyfriend to Hong Kong and his company immediately sent him away to London. Over the course of one year I got to know the city on my own terms, which allowed me to better understand his culture — and myself.
Jocelyn has allowed me to share the first chapter of my book below. It is the beginning of our love story, the story that brought me to Hong Kong.
YEAR OF FIRE DRAGONS
The fire dragon trundled toward me through the crowded street. Smoke curled from the incense protruding from its long, thin body like thousands of spines on some mystical porcupine. Sweat poured down the faces and backs of every spectator. The fire dragon wound back and forth through the streets, faster and faster, dancing to the beat of drums. A wave of cheers rippled through the crowd each time it came near. The drums rattled the high-rises, the dragon danced, and the pavement shuddered under our feet.
This was the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong, a time to celebrate the moon goddess and her flight across the sky.
My flight wasn’t like that of Chang’e, the moon goddess who escaped her lover in a blaze of luminescence. I was flying toward mine. His gravitational field had pulled me across the sea, drawn me to a distant isle of fire dragons and skyscrapers. I’d follow him anywhere—even to Hong Kong. We hadn’t lived in the same country since we’d met, but this was our chance to be together, to build a life in the city where he grew up.
But one month ago, his company sent him to London.
I first met Ben in London, at a fencing club. I was a bookish American student on a semester abroad. He was an opportunity for a real live English romance, my very own Mr. Darcy, except that unlike Darcy, Ben was talkative—and half Chinese.
I’d taken up fencing several years before, attracted by the romance of sword fighting and the fact that it was something unique, historic, literary even. I wasn’t bad, and the sport brought me unexpected confidence. It seemed like a great way for an introvert like me to connect with people at the university in London.
When I pushed open the door to the club, the familiar buzz of the scoring machine and the squeak of athletic shoes on the floor reached my ears. I rocked on the sides of my feet, unsure how to join in. Ben came over immediately, introduced himself, and invited me to fence him. I was relieved at being included and already curious about this open-faced young man whose accent I couldn’t place. He won our first bout by one point; he always said I wouldn’t have dated him if I had been able to beat him.
We fenced a few more bouts, and then sat cross-legged in our matching gear, masks forgotten on the floor. He prodded at my shy shell; he asked me questions, joked about fencing, told me he was from Hong Kong. He had an eloquent vocabulary mixed with an offbeat sense of humor. He didn’t seem to mind when people didn’t get his jokes. He put me at ease, and I found myself stealing glances at him as I adjusted my equipment and met the other fencers. By the time I changed my shoes and left the gym, I was already lecturing myself about reading too much into his attention. I didn’t want to get swept away, blinded by the novelty of an international fling. But it was too late.
For two months, we wandered the streets of London together, kissed on street corners, and took spontaneous trips to Oxford and the coast. He took the time to get to know me, using our shared love of fencing to get me talking. He surprised me with his insight, his persistence. He seemed to understand why I, analytical and introverted, never quite fit into any group. As someone who had grown up shuttling between Hong Kong and London, not quite Chinese and not quite British, he knew what it was like to be an outsider. Ben had a gift for coaxing people to confide in him and trust him. Before long, he got even the most reserved, responsible American girl to give him handfuls of her heart.
When the semester ended, we said goodbye at Heathrow in a flurry of kisses and long-distance promises: “It will just be for a year, maybe two.”
“I can visit you in America.”
“I’ll get a job wherever you live after graduation.” Our confidence in each other was reckless and optimistic, but staying together felt like the only sensible thing to do.
In 2010, thoroughly in love, I moved to Hong Kong to be with him.
It lasted for one glorious month.
Ben left me in Hong Kong on the eve of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Instead of exploring the city with him, I was at the airport saying my goodbyes while the children of Hong Kong flooded the streets and parks with lanterns. Instead of walking beneath the Mid-Autumn moon together, we shared a fierce hug and made a hundred tiny promises. The next day, still reeling from the sheer solitude, I found my way to Tai Hang—to the incense and the drums. The fire dragon loomed, full of possibilities.
It had already grown dark, or as dark as it ever gets in the city, when I emerged from the subway into a night that felt nothing like the end of September. The humidity surrounded me like steam pouring out of a broken dumpling. I made my way along the street. An arch announced the festival in gold foil and tissue paper fringe. I found a spot beside a Chinese family of three or four generations. A group of Mainland girls chattered in shrill Mandarin in front of me. The balconies of a hundred apartments teetered over our heads.
I hadn’t had a chance to ask Ben what the fire dragon would be like before the airport security line swallowed him and carried him away. The fire dragon in my mind looked like a dancing, tuft-eared Pekinese dog, with people standing under a big sheet to form the body, holding up the head. Of course, that’s an image from a lion dance, not a dragon dance, I would soon learn. I was just starting to discover that Hong Kong was full of surprises—and I was ill prepared. I jumped up on my toes and looked for the Pekinese head.
The drums began. “Want me to hoist you up?” An American man stepped close behind me. He was tall, and the scent of stale alcohol mixed with the incense.
“No, thanks,” I said.
“You sure? You want a good view when they bring out the dragon,” he reached for my arms.
“I can see just fine.” I maneuvered away from the man, finding refuge on the other side of the Chinese family. My fingers curled tighter around my purse. Suddenly, I was aware just how alone I was in the crowd, and in the country.
“Why didn’t you just go to London instead of Hong Kong when you found out Ben would be leaving?” my friends had asked me. “You’re already moving across the world for him.” I wondered the same thing myself—now. But this was 2010. I wasn’t in a position to jet around the world after men lightly. I’d graduated from Colgate University with nearly $80,000 in student debt, debt I had taken on before the economy crumbled. Moving without a job was not an option. Employment would be hard to find in London for an English major with limited work experience and no visa. I didn’t have a chance.
Jobs were not easy to come by anywhere in the Western world. My generation faced the worst job market in living memory. My college-educated friends competed tooth-and-nail for part-time barista work, borrowed more money for graduate school, and moved in with their parents. There was a mounting sense of desperation among those of us who had taken out big student loans only to discover there was no work for us in our own country when we graduated.
Asia was another story.
There were rumors going around that this was where the jobs were to be found. Ben had found work in Hong Kong, his hometown. My own sister had recently begun teaching English in South Korea. So, I spent nearly a year applying and interviewing for a job in Hong Kong (and yes, living with my parents while I did it). When a local school emailed and asked me to be their new English teacher, it seemed the long distance part of our international romance, which had lasted two and half years by now, was finally done. I showed up with a work visa and a salary advance, ready to take on the city and the next stage in our relationship. Yet here I was, alone in a crowd as the fire dragon approached.
I couldn’t afford to give up my new job when Ben’s circumstances changed. With a one-way ticket and a monthly student loan payment of $935, I stayed in Hong Kong.
The drums pounded. A row of children appeared, carrying lanterns that bobbed above the crowds. Their glow mixed with the lights from the apartment buildings looming over our heads. My arms brushed an elbow on one side, a woman’s handbag on the other.
Ben had been lucky, really, to be sent to London. It was a one-year placement at a law firm with the prospect of a permanent contract afterwards. All I had to do was spend this year in Hong Kong looking for an opportunity in London where we could be reunited once again. “It’ll be for one more year, and then we’ll be together,” we promised each other as we set up our web cams. “We already know we can handle the whole long distance thing.” We plotted our reunion in a whirl of emails and long distance calls. “It’ll just be this year,” we said, “and then that’s it. No more long distance.”
Of course, the other thing people asked was, “What if you don’t get along when you finally do live in the same country?” That was a question I couldn’t answer.
As I stood in the Mid-Autumn crowd, little did I know that my move to Hong Kong would bring about our longest separation ever, a separation that would bring me face to face with the reality of the risk I had taken.
The pounding of the drums intensified. The people around me drew closer together, choking what little breeze there was. Finally, the fire dragon appeared, followed by more children carrying lanterns. I was surprised when I saw what it was really like. It had an elaborate head, made from branches twisted into impossible shapes and filled with a thicket of incense. The thin body was over 200 feet long and muscular bearers danced beneath its undulating shape. The people around me cheered as the dragon’s head passed us and then turned back on itself, leaving behind a million tiny trails of smoke. I felt a growing sense of excitement as the fire dragon whirled and darted through the streets. Its wiry, crackling body defied my expectations. It was fast. It was wild. I pushed forward so I could see better. I was a part of the crowd. I didn’t feel like a foreign girl, alone, in an interrupted romance. This was an adventure! I could do this; I could live in Hong Kong, alone. Ben and I would be together soon enough.
As the dragon twirled in front of me, I didn’t know that in nine months I’d be sitting on the floor of my single apartment, cell phone pressed to my ear, feeling the foreign ground shift beneath me, feeling a panic I’d been too confident to anticipate. I pulled my hair away from my neck, trying to find relief from the suffocating heat, too stubborn to guess at the coldness that was coming.
This was not what I had planned. Nothing happened the way I expected. This was Hong Kong.
As the rumble of the drums reached a crescendo, the men carrying the dragon pulled off the sticks of incense and passed them to the crowd. Within seconds, the fire dragon dispersed into a thousand tiny sparks in the night.
Thanks so much to Shannon for this post and lovely excerpt! Don’t forget, if you’re in the Hong Kong area this weekend and would love to have your very own signed copy of her excellent memoir, Shannon will be appearing at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on Sunday, November 9 at 10am at Room 202, Duke of Windsor Building. Tickets are $90 to attend (purchase yours here).
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