When Home Won't Let You Stay

Kate Ngan Wa Ao, „Where to?”

‘Go back to your country.’ I’ve heard those words thrown at me before. It’s not an uncommon phrase for any immigrant around the world. It can be a joke or carry the weight of hate speech. In my heart, I always respond with a bitter truth: ‘Trust me, I would go in a heartbeat, only if I could.’

The way we define ‘home’ has become more abstract. Globalization has made immigration more common—whether for work, embracing a nomadic lifestyle, or international marriage. Yet, titles like ‘refugee’ and ‘exile’, born out of war and political injustice, or someone who fears going back home due to legal oppression, are also on the rise. It’s surreal to find oneself caught between all these terms.

The seemingly innocent question, ‘Where do you come from?’ serves as a continuous process for self-discovery. Answering it countless times prompts me to ponder my origins, reflecting on the intricate layers that shape my identity. As a native of Macau, one of the special administrative regions of China, which is often unfamiliar to many people (another region being Hong Kong), I usually need to provide extra explanations with my answer. Macau was a Portuguese Colony for almost 500 years until 1999 and is set to be fully integrated into China by 2049. ‘Where do you come from?’ carries various sub-contexts, such as the culture I inhabit, the languages I speak, the prejudices of my race, and the power of the passport I hold. Each time I answer this question, I also find myself questioning it.

I came to Poland as a student, with a life plan of seeking a better and freer ‘home’ on the other side of the world. Nine years into my life here, I find myself in a doubly exotic identity. I’m no longer a local in Macau, and Poland is still somehow unfamiliar. However, when I stood alongside Polish people at Freedom Square in Poznań, protesting against the abortion laws and supporting women’s rights, or nine years ago in Warsaw after PiS got elected, even though I struggled to understand protesters’ slogans or speech, the emotions of those moments bridged language barriers.

At other times, I found solidarity with fellow immigrants in Poland while navigating the challenges of bureaucracy to secure a legal residency. The procedure often favours those who have the finances to hire a lawyer, a luxury that many cannot afford. Consequently, we rely on each other for support. We actively share the most up-to-date immigration information in Facebook groups, which proves to be more accurate and efficient than the official government website. The immigrant community came together naturally to support and guide each other, as a way to resist an unreliable and unfair system.

We’re often required to wait outside the Polish immigration office from 5 in the morning, waiting for hours to get a ticket for the day to submit residency permit applications—it is especially unbearable in winter. The application process typically takes a year or more. I have waited for 3 years for my last permit which was only valid for 9 months. We’re not allowed to leave Poland during the waiting period; otherwise, we will need to apply for a visa to come back. In this shared frustration with Polish immigration policy and indescribable homesickness, we find a common bond. No matter how tough the wait or the rejection is, going back home seems like an increasingly difficult option.

I share a special bond with Belarusian and Ukrainian friends in Poland. We connect through our beyond-borders, collective experiences, and memories in life. This unique connection creates a sense of belonging. For instance, in the 2019, the umbrella movement of Hong Kong and the 2020 Belarusian protests, we shared the same tactics ‘Be Water’—a flexible protest strategy that avoids direct confrontation with police, inspired by Bruce Lee’s philosophy of how to overcome what may seem like insurmountable fear: ‘be formless, shapeless, like water … Be strong as ice, be fluid like water, gather like dew, scatter like mist.’ Additionally, the documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom from 2015 serves as inspiration for many Hong Kongers at that time. As well, the words of Volodymyr Parasyuk are engraved deeply in my and many protesters’ hearts in Hong Kong: ‘If we accepted those terms from the government, our lost friends would not forgive us.’

I recognize that what Belarusians are going through politically could potentially be my future. We exchange strategies on activism and how to contribute more in Poland while it still feels safe. We share survival skills, keeping our Instagram private and sharing stories back home anonymously. We openly discuss our experiences and participate in various events in Europe to preserve our dying cultures and languages. But we also share fears and struggles about how we should position ourselves and our artists’ identities in Poland and Western Europe. We acknowledge that the more we do, the harder it will be to return home.

‘I am not political.’ ‘I don’t think art should be political at all.’ These statements make me wonder if they inherit a certain position of privilege. Consider voting and protesting—while some may choose to disregard these rights and obligations, for others, it’s a privilege to have the freedom to vote for their government and to stand up for their rights without risking one’s life and jail time.

‘I don’t want to be political’, they said. ‘Who wants to be?’ I asked. Being political is often not an option—just as simple as ‘going home’ is no longer a choice for many. Being suppressed and censored isn’t a choice. Having a home but living in fear or being denied the right to return isn’t a choice. Seeking a safe haven for the sake of future generations isn’t a choice. Feeling angry and desperate isn’t a choice. Being hopeless at the border or guilty as a survivor isn’t a choice. It is someone’s everyday life. It is someone’s reality. And it is the only way to reach ‘home’.

I strive to allow myself to believe that being an artist could be the highest form of privilege. However, such attempts are not always successful, especially when the world is still filled with injustice and there are moments when art seems unable to intervene.

Yet, time and again, dictators show that they fear it by resorting to censorship, arrests, and violence to suppress intellect, sensitivity, and aesthetic expression. Artists possess something within them that holds power which dictatorship fears. And if that is my privilege, I shall brutally abuse it without any regret.

I am the daughter of immigrants; my parents migrated from mainland China to Macau in the 1980s. At that time, Macau was still under Portugal’s colonization. They fought for a better life for their children, and they did achieve this goal. Thanks to them, I was born in Macau. It’s ironic that I, their child, am now leaving the place for which they risked their lives for, yet I’m following in their footsteps by becoming an immigrant in another country. Perhaps I inherited from them a desire for freedom. If I’ve learned one thing from my parents, it’s that sometimes in life, the only way to seek a home is to leave home.

Kate Ngan Wa Ao – a native of Macau, is a visual artist currently based in Poland. Her artworks are often inspired by visual cultures, childhood memories, and identities. She reshapes archives, photos, and everyday objects, blending materials and cultural symbols to reveal nuanced and complex meanings.


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