by Nicanor L. Guinto
“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
– Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist)
I was nine when my mom left to work as a domestic helper here in Hong Kong. Back then, Hong Kong sounded so distant to me based on the stories of my aunts and uncles who had never been here, but had always referred to it as a faraway place only the brave could reach. But I thought that my mom’s personality was nowhere near the definition of brave. And so, I dreamed of (literally) flying to Hong Kong to see how she was doing (if only I could find the wings to make it happen).
Exhausting all the possible means to answer my curiosity, I did think about studying here. But the prohibitive cost of studying elsewhere than my hometown in the Philippines dimmed all my childhood hopes of ever seeing my mom in the distant place they call Hong Kong. I never thought that such a childhood dream would come to light around two decades later: what the devout would call God’s perfect timing.
It was in 2011 when I was reminded again of this dream while I was doing an annotated bibliography for an MA class at the University of the Philippines. One of the books I was working on was published by Hong Kong University Press. I can still recall how I felt a sense of connection and an unexplained excitement just holding that book. I thought that it would be really nice to visit HKU someday, at the very least.
In April 2012, I went to Osaka, Japan to present a paper at a conference on Language Learning. It was my first ever out-of-the-country trip and plane ride, which I’d earlier thought was not going to happen because the whole trip would cost a fortune for someone like me who was just starting my academic career, and had no savings at all. Just before the deadline of participation confirmation, when all my hopes were almost gone, I received a travel grant that covered all my expenses.
Noël Christe during his presentation
There, I met Noël Christe who was doing his PhD at HKU. He was the first of only a few people I had the chance to talk to in the conference (as I was very shy to speak with most of them). We later discovered that we were staying in the same hotel, which was some ten to fifteen minutes away by train from the conference venue. He told me many more good things about HKU.
Then in December that year, my mom’s employer invited my family for vacation here for the first time. It was then that I realized that Hong Kong is not a very far place after all because it’s a matter of two hours’ plane ride from Manila. The travel time is much shorter than the five-hour bus ride from my home town in Southern Luzon to Manila. I also learned that Hong Kong is not just the image of Disneyland, shopping, double-decker buses, and awe-inspiring architecture that usually comes out of balikbayan boxes sent by Overseas Filipino Workers to their loved ones in the Philippines, or from video calls and OFW documentaries and movies. It is a place teeming with opportunity, one that welcomes diversity; a perfect place to be called a “world city”.
One afternoon, while looking for a place to eat around Sai Wan Ho, I jokingly told my mom that I would pursue my PhD here. At that time, I had no plans of pursuing a PhD degree, since I was still only halfway through my Master’s degree. It would also be impossible even after I finished my MA degree because my scholarship grant required me to render return service by teaching for twice the number of years I spent on my studies. (Luckily, the return service requirement was later deferred.)
In her soft voice, she told me that it would be great for me to continue my studies here, but mentioned that there are many other good schools in Manila where I could go. It was her nice way of saying she couldn’t afford the cost of sending me to a university here.
Just three months after my graduation in June 2015, I met Dr. Lisa Lim (then Departmental Research Postgraduate Committee Chair, and currently Head of the School of English at HKU) at a conference in Manila. She was one of the invited speakers, and her talk was scheduled on the last day of the conference. I almost missed her talk because my colleague and I had to catch a van that would take us back home. But for the first time, I thanked the traffic jam that delayed its arrival.
We were waiting outside and had our bags with us when Dr. Shirley Dita, the conference convener and President of the Linguistic Society of the Philippines, saw us, and invited us back to attend the last plenary session and closing ceremonies. Dr. Lim was already being introduced by the moderator when we reached the hall, and she started her talk while we found available seats. Her talk focused on a research topic that interests me most: how erstwhile peripheral and marginal ethnolinguistic groups now have greater things to offer to/than the center (as I consider myself to have come from a peripheral space too, in reference to a geopolitical center in the Philippines). She discussed how the Peranakans in Singapore, and linguistic minorities in Hong Kong, have responded to the challenges of the late modern world. Before she ended her talk, she briefly talked about HKU, and the School of English, and informed everyone in the hall that application for postgraduate studies and scholarships was already open. Dr. Lim’s compelling lecture inspired me to try my luck. In fact, I immediately checked the HKU website for information on research postgraduate application requirements as soon as I was seated on the van that took us home.
In the following months, I would forget about it because of so much work until Dr. Dita tagged Dr. Lim in the photo I uploaded on Facebook right after the conference, sometime in November, just a few weeks before the December 1 deadline of application for the 2016 intake. I guessed that there was something out there telling me I had to give it a try. And as you may know, the rest of the story is what I now consider as one of the defining moments of my life.
The photo I uploaded on Facebook
From the left: Dr. Ahmar Mahboob, founder of the Free Linguistics Conference; Dr. Lisa Lim; Dr. Shirley Dita; my two colleagues and friends; and me
Next year, I’m turning twenty-nine, and my mom is leaving her work as a domestic helper here in Hong Kong to hopefully start a family business in the Philippines we’ve been wanting to open for a long time. But now, Hong Kong is no longer a distant place to me. I know why my mom decided to continue her contract of work here even after our college graduation. That’s because it is a place that deserves to be called home, a second home, if I may.
My mother and I visit HKU together
Life indeed has plenty of surprises. And it’s amazing how one’s heart’s desire can actually lead to some miracles. When the universe conspired, it brought me to HKU’s School of English, and with a bonus of being able to do a joint PhD program with King’s College London. Two decades is worth the wait.