Hojas de palma
Every Easter vacation, my family and I travel back home to the Philippines. Every Easter, I receive yet another fresh batch of dried palm leaves to accompany me on my annual journeys around the archipelagic nation I learnt to call home.
I was born and raised in what many would consider one of the best places to be. The international city of Hong Kong boasts its glistening harbour reflecting the hundreds of skyscrapers scattered throughout this tiny metropolis. The infamous costly living expenses are overcast by the limitless opportunities available for entrepreneurship, philanthropy, academia, and so much more. Hong Kong brings in dreams and catapults them into the sky, turning fantasies into reality. There is no doubt that this is the city where you can make your dreams happen.
I am very fortunate to consider this place my birth home. But what does that mean for immigrants like me? My father migrated to Hong Kong in 1992 back when the scenic Kowloon Walled City stood strong, hovering over thousands of travellers wanting to see this dizzying microcosm. My mother immigrated a few years later as a domestic helper, excited to be part of a whole new world. They met, fell in love, and settled in a quiet neighbourhood overlooking the skyline, lighting up like fireworks when the sun descended into the horizon, welcoming the stars and waking bright billboards. They were ecstatic to start a new life here. When I was born, my parents made it their priority to ensure I assimilated into the local culture comfortably. They believed they were in no position to teach me Cantonese nor to guide me throughout school since English was not their first language.
That meant that I was on my own.
Growing up, my parents accumulated a collection of dried palm leaves. These leaves carry heavy significance in the Philippines pertaining to the Roman Catholic culture. For aeons, palm leaves have symbolised ‘victory with integrity’. The Greeks would traditionally bestow these leaves upon victorious Olympic athletes. For my family, these leaves were reserved for us as children getting ready for our very first day of school. We believe that tucking in a small palm leaf in between our textbooks would bring us great academic and career success. It also serves to remind us that education is not a race, but a process of growing and finding ourselves. It is a common Filipino belief that understanding and learning about the self is the ultimate goal in life. My parents passed down their palm leaves to me as they explained that life would be unfair especially because we were branded as immigrants. ‘Victory with integrity’, my dad’s words replay in my head.
My experience studying in a local school in Hong Kong was undoubtedly difficult. I spent two years in Manila for preschool where I learnt to read, socialise, and act on stage by recreating Disney’s Lion King where I played a monkey climbing on top of fake trees. I was in love with the Filipino education system because it prioritises self-reflection and the imagination – traits not prioritised in Hong Kong. Immigrating to Hong Kong from the Philippines was dispiriting as I had not expected my free-spirit and creativity to evaporate.
Back in Hong Kong, the outside world ceased to be my classroom. Instead, I was squished into a tiny box where the infamous spoon-feeding culture perseveres. Hong Kong’s education system is known to be a factory producing some of the world’s top scholars. As immensely proud as we are of this fact, looking through the list of talents we immigrants of Hong Kong ask one main question: where do we feature on the list?
The fight for equal education between local and immigrant students and academic representation has time and time again been a serious topic. It is one I advocate for tirelessly. We have been reminded and advised over the years of the importance of assimilating into the local culture through excelling in the Chinese language, but how should we acquire fluency in a language if our government has not created a universal teaching structure for immigrant students? How are our teachers expected to teach if there are no guidelines? Some schools are fortunate to have fiercely passionate educators who care deeply for the marginalised communities, but what about the unlucky students whose teachers are less than motivated to reach out to other communities?
In a perfect world, our problems would be heard and would be solved. The beauty in immigration, I find, is the perseverance we hold to prove ourselves worthy of equal standing in the place we consider our second home. Our strength lies in our cultural identity, in maintaining and celebrating traditional traits we bring into our new home. Although our faulty education system that looks past immigrant students is yet to be addressed and negative media continue to portray immigrant children as ‘rebels’, I see instead intensely confident and devoted individuals vowing to bring equality to the city’s education system for incoming immigrant families in our globalised world. This process of learning about myself and pushing through hardships with grace is the essence of the Filipino identity.
Our cultural differences as immigrants are what has comforted us throughout the challenge of studying hard to keep up to par with the local community. ‘To force assimilation cuts us off from cultural richness and leaves us with an emptiness’, beautifully said by Amira Bashbishi. Celebrating our cultures, holding little objects dear to us, or singing songs from our motherland is what kept us breathing and running. My parents made it when they knew not a word of English nor Cantonese. My friends have made it and I know I have made it because seeping through my textbooks are the thorny palm leaves that prick my fingers when I hold up my book. While an unpleasant feeling, it reminds me of home and who I truly am. The advocacy continues but this newfound courage and desire to bring change is victorious in and of itself.
These palm leaves are something I will gift my younger brothers one day to remind them to persevere into victory – with integrity.
Chloe was born in Hong Kong and has permanently settled in the city after living for some time in the Philippines, where she is ethnically from. She recently completed her Associate's Degree in English Language and Literature and is looking towards continuing her education in International Journalism focusing on Filipino issues such as education, healthcare, and the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) phenomenon leading to the Filipino Diaspora. Embracing her identity and cultural roots is what inspired her to pursue a career in writing. She hopes to amplify the voices of Filipinos worldwide and shed light on important issues present in the country to enact change. Currently, she is an intern at the Africa Center Hong Kong, acting as Editorial in Chief of Amplify Africa, a magazine dedicated to raising the voices of marginalised Africans across Asia.
Connect with Chloe: firstname.lastname@example.org or Chloe Alquitran on LinkedIn.