By Jessie Yang
“How can offering a title to a fine man be an act of offense?” The king laughed. “Do people offend you when they offer you a fortune?”
Joe dodged the joke with a bitter smile. “I am offended because I am regarded as unqualified and need to change.”
In John’s novel “The Edge”, he becomes the narrator of a fairytale about a shepherd who falls in love with a princess, but the difference of status stands as an obstacle. While the protagonist, Joe, defies the social prejudice courageously, in reality,it took John a great effort to step forward and addresses the society’s discrimination and stereotype towards asylum seekers, a title that people associate with crime and poverty.
I met John near Lan Kwai Fong in Central, a glamorous business center in the morning and a first-choice for clubbing at night. John called himself an outsider in Hong Kong, but in this specifically popular place for expats and foreigners, his identity as an outsider gives him a privilege to observe his surroundings with a different perspective.
“It is interesting to see how people yearning for another identity by dancing and drinking.” He told me on our way to the restaurant. Seeing those rich people trying so hard to feel contented in clubs makes him feel better. No matter how wealthy those people are, there is an emptiness in their heart as well.
Fleeing from Iran to Hong Kong due to political persecution, John has been in Hong Kong for more than five years. Although he no longer has to worry about his safety, the early years were torturing and distressing. For the better good of his love back home, he had to let nine years of their marriage go; staying in a tiny apartment, memories of detention in Iranian prison hit him hard.
“There is a cycle of a refugee’s life,” He used a metaphor to tell me. “You have to leave your home, and then depression crawls on you; when arriving at a new place, now comes the stress comes from immigration system and the loneliness in an entirely unfamiliar country.” What’s worse, bad news from home country and family easily break people down.
Although hopelessness can devour people’s will to survive, what motivates John to wrestle against depression is the human instinct of survival, rather than hope.“I have nothing to lose, fighting keeps me alive,” He said firmly. John doesn’t believe in hope, “Hope is something created to stabilize the society, so the people in lower status would obey instead of fighting against injustice.”
If it weren’t for hope, he wouldn’t have put his expectation in the immigration system and his marriage for so long, while the wait is in vain. John grows into a realist, who takes initiatives in finding solutions. In a time when hope is nihilistic, only a person can save himself from desolation.
John’s engineering background brings him the capability to examine the “systems” within a problem, the way he sees analyzes things is organized. While we dine in a fast food chain, I by chance mentioned that the restaurant here was better than the one near where I stay. “The service and food quality depend on the district, even for franchise restaurants.” He told me.
The branches in central are better, whereas those in Mongkok are worse. Customers are the key factor, the well-off white-collars in the Central district compared to Mainlanders and other foreigners in raucous Mongkok makes the difference. If people look close enough in the system, they can always find the cause of a problem, John believes.
From small things in lives to something more substantial in the society-the immigration system in Hong Kong, for instance, there are always things that go awry but difficult to resolve. To change a policy, meaning to change a whole structure and all the parties involved.
Hong Kong Immigration department’s Unified Screening Mechanism (USM) is known for its bureaucracy and inefficiency, which is shown in the low recognition rate (0.5% as in 2015) as compared to global recognition rate (38% as in 2015). Although speeding up the process make it easier to identify fake claims, save tons of taxpayers’ money, and allow asylum seekers to receive proper assistance, the whole screening process is nearly impossible to change.
“You must understand that people involved in the whole structure benefit from it,” John said. The corporations need people who can work overtime and accept underpay, and the government has no incentive to change the existing practice.
“If you discover the root of a predicament, with the right people, you can solve it.” John said with confidence. In this case, the right people is the public. Therefore, John starts writing about the harsh truth in people’s daily lives. He doesn’t give false positivity because satisfying the readership is never his objective. Instead, he shows the readers the real, and the often cruel reality they dwell in.
“If my work can change one person’s views, even just one, it will be worth it.”
Pen and paper are John’s confrontation to the injustice within the society. His works capture the themes of identity and social classes, which are also prevailing in the Hong Kong society where people follow the rules, chase after status to feel competent, but now torn between their identities in political turmoil.
Beyond all the inglorious defects of human beings, loneliness is the most vulnerable trait that people from all walks of life work so hard to disguise, trying to find a sense of belonging.
In John’s novel “The Edge”, he has to watch the girl he met at the bar walking away upon knowing he is an asylum seeker. Unlike the fairytale we used to hear when we are little, in real life a guy with humble beginnings don’t stand a chance to marry the one he adores, especially when a label is already branded deeply in his skin and in people’s minds.
Why love? I asked John. What is so significant about love that becomes the motifs in his novels? “Because we are honest in front of love.” He replied without a doubt. People can easily hide their true intentions through words, but love, on the other hand, is something we could not control nor inhibit. Everyone expresses their fears, happiness, and perspective of lives in the presence of intimacy, so it shows our real characters, the strength and flaws as well.
“I couldn’t, however, be more grateful for people who stay and whose questions didn’t end up with ‘where are you from’ and ‘what’s your job’,” John mentioned in his preface. Hong Kong has the special regulation that when people apply as asylum seekers, they must either committed a crime before or overstayed illegally in Hong Kong. As a result, the tag as “criminal” marginalizes asylum seekers, grouped them as the “poison of the society”, even most of us never interact or listen to them before.
Among all the amazing people I meet in Hong Kong, I see the strength in human beings not by the words they say, but through the things they do. Underneath John’s witty humor and comments is his determination to survive, survive not just in a world unfriendly to asylum seekers, but to overcome the despair and make the purpose of life bigger than himself
“Maybe it’s my call. It’s my responsibility to make a change.” John said calmly. “I always tell myself to leave a place better than I arrive.”
The outsider, who is rejected by his own country and the society that doesn’t welcome outcasts, finally finds his identity as an unwavering rebel to stereotypes - an insider who perceives the problem, go deep into a system, and fix it.