By Alex Ho Cheung Wong
It was another cold, breezy, and outlandishly moist evening in mid-December Geneva in 2019, around the time of the Fête de l’Escalade but before Christmas. We parted ways in the elevator lobby at her place.
“Wait a second, this felt abrupt.” She said.
“We will see each other soon enough after the Christmas break, right? Merry Christmas!” I awkwardly waved my bike gloves.
People who know me know that I am not good at goodbyes, and even tend to avoid them, especially if I thought it wasn’t a farewell for good. But somehow they always turned out to be. The end of an era of your life would creep up on you.
A short while ago, I heard about the class of 2020 graduation ceremony for “thesis procrastinators” from the Institute’s email. A few months into my new job in the hustling Asian cosmopolitan city, I strolled down the memory lane of a serene European city-state of alps and lakes.
The graduation ceremonies of Hong Kongers born in 1997 were always disrupted or overshadowed by an indiscernible mixture of political unrest and pandemics1. The former fishing village went through a lot since the transfer of sovereignty 24 years ago. ’97 Hong Kongers, who are coincidentally 24 years old, never got to say goodbye, at least not properly.
I remember it was another breezy mid-December night when my two good friends (Meg and Reggie) and I went out to the vintage America’s Dream Diner before we all returned home for Christmas. The three of us belong to, let’s just say an “extracurricular interest group” that was very popular amongst our peers at the institute. Little did we know it was the last time the group ever got together in person before the world spiralled into chaos.
“Wow, this feels like home!” Meg said against a Christmas jingle from “Home Alone” in the background.
Weirdly enough, the 1960s American restaurant reminded me also of home two oceans away, which at the time of December 2019 was entering a very dark period. Leather booth seatings and marble tiles are signature of Hong Kong local tea restaurants in the 70s where American dishes and decor were adapted with a tint of local flavor. The 70s were the golden days of freedom and prosperity when dissent crackdowns were followed by reflections and problem solving, not more crackdowns. Nostalgia hits home differently for some if they might not have a proper home to go back to.
I can still recall what we discussed that night: GISA’s micro-aggression posters, talking about Reggie’s dating life and our respective dreams and life aspirations. It felt surreal to talk about these things in a warm, cozy diner amidst the snow, when news about students arrested and shot on the other side of the world would pop up on your phone. Some people with whom you went to the same school and merely passed by in the school corridors were sentenced to years in prison or life in exile.
Days after the dinner, I was swamped with packing up for home and a job interview in London. Near the end of December, I heard about a contagious disease spreading in an East Asian country. If past experiences were any indication, we know all too well that a shitstorm is coming. And the rest was history.
Proper farewells are a luxury not everyone gets to enjoy. Not for people abruptly separated by Covid border restrictions, not for friends and family hastily fleeing tyranny, and certainly not for dissidents around the world snatched away from home in the middle of the night. For some, they will be forever separated in this lifetime.
But sadness should not triumph. Instead of remembering us by our last moments of teary departures and glooming over what may come to an end, let this be the way we remember us. We are at our best selves celebrating togetherness and enjoying love, friendships, and life. Even though we have no clue it would be the last time – or precisely so because we have no idea.
Maybe Alzheimer’s will, but no distance nor brute force can take away our moments.
A Hong Kong film critic who was also a UN interpreter once published a book calling out Geneva as a “flavorless” city compared to its European and Asian counterparts. But I will not forget the smell of my last moments in Geneva, pre-Covid.
The time was March 2020.
We parted ways again, this time not at her lift lobby but outside the Maison de la Paix tram station. We talked about seeing each other again in September 2020 at graduation.
You can almost smell the humidity in the rain, the rusty metallic scent from the passing by Number 15 tram to Nations, and the aroma from the trees outside of Picciotto I never managed to identify. I gave a socially distanced goodbye to a frail but surprisingly opinionated girl.
- 2003 graduating kindergarten – political unrest (Article 23 national security law) and SARS outbreak; 2009 graduating primary school – political unrest (high speed railway project) and Swine flu outbreak; 2015 graduating high school – political unrest (election reform bill); 2019 graduating bachelors – political unrest (extradition law bill); 2021 graduating masters – political unrest (national security law) and coronavirus outbreak. Sometimes I joke that for the sake of Hong Kong, China and humanity, I should stop studying. Heck, in that parallel universe, I might have wanted to become a novelist.
About the author: Alex Ho Cheung Wong, Facebook: Alex Reborn Worng , thesis procrastinator ’20.
Photos by Alex Ho Cheung Wong