I didn’t lose too much sleep over my decision to immigrate to Canada. I was already here—all I needed was a legal status, a bit of luck and an open mind.
I didn’t have anything to lose, after all.
I took a much bigger chance that day of November 11, 2001, when I flew to Mexico City to meet Feng.
At 18-and-a-half-years-old, I boarded the Paris-London-Mexico City flight with confidence and my favourite outfit. I wore a grey Hard Rock Café Hong Kong t-shirt and a pair of jeans also bought in China a month earlier—I consider them my “lucky jeans” because they fit, which was kind of a miracle because in China, “XL” usually means “three sizes too small for you, fat Westerner.” I had checked in a Decathlon backpack. My carry-on luggage was a messenger bag I had made and decorated over the summer—I painted and drew on pretty much everything I wore or used.
Yeah… I was 18.
The plane was almost empty and I had an entire row to myself. This was two months after 9/11, people were afraid of flying—or maybe Mexico City wasn’t a November holiday destination for French tourists.
The couple in front of me spent the long leg over the Atlantic Ocean kissing and making out. I was listening to Manu Chao and Pink Floyd on my Walkman. I wouldn’t have minded a seatmate and some standard airplane conversation. I was getting really anxious.
I had met Feng two years earlier, over the span of a summer in Beijing. This was before high-speed Internet, Facebook and digital cameras—we hadn’t exchanged that many emails, much less recent pictures. I hope I could recognize him. “It’s okay, spotting in a Chinese guy in a Mexican airport should be easy enough,” I thought. I was right, by the way. This is one of the perks of being the other half of a visible minority. If I’m looking for Feng, I don’t waste time describing a 5’8“ guy with black hair—”have you seen my husband? He’s Chinese” usually does the trick. Except in China, of course, where it’s best if Feng asks around for the Western woman who possibly spoke Mandarin.
But maybe I wouldn’t even have to look for Feng—maybe he wasn’t going to show up. Maybe this was just a cruel joke, like when the popular jock asks the nerdy girl to prom and she says yes and he replies, “seriously, you thought I’d go with you, loser?” Maybe I’d be on my own in Mexico. That was okay. It was plan B. I had a Lonely Planet guide and I kind of spoke Spanish. I’d survive just fine, thank you very much. I mean, who need a man, right? They’re all jerks—my friends and I were pretty sure of it, we had read Bridget Jones’s Diary several times, after all.
The plane began its descent. It was pitch dark outside. We turned, turned and turned again until I saw an endless sea of lights below. Mexico City.
Shit. That city was huge.
I grabbed my bag and took a deep breath. If Feng wasn’t at the airport, I’d go to the “Hostel Catedral” as agreed. And if he wasn’t there either, I’d…
“Sorry, I’m coughing… must have caught a cold. It’s freezing in the highlands,” Feng explained when he saw me.
I laughed. Felt warmer than Paris in the morning.
We took the subway to the hostel.
“Eh, your friend is here!” the guy at the reception desk noted.
“Nah, just some random woman I picked up,” Feng replied. “It’s a joke,” he added when he saw the confused look on the receptionist’s face.
It was your typical hostel room with bunk beds except we were the only two guests. It felt strangely intimate and empty. I wasn’t prepared for that—in Hong Kong, there were about two billion people per square metre and where I wasn’t even sure I was truly alone in the bathroom.
“Wanna go eat?”
I shrugged. “Sure.” I didn’t know anything about Mexican food but I had just survived weeks of Cantonese delicacies that included chicken claws and pig’s intestines for breakfast, so it could only get better from here.
“Coctel de camarón. Shrimps,” Feng explained. Later, we also grabbed a torta from a stall in the street. Mine was stuffed with chunks of avocado and I didn’t remember liking avocados—the colour is kind of suspect, right? I was hungry and I took a bit. Damn. It was delicious.
Feng was doing most of the talking because I couldn’t find anything smart, funny or interesting to say—at least not in English.
“Wanna go to Teotihuacán tomorrow?”
I nodded. I had no idea what he had just said. In fact, I only understood five words out of twenty—I didn’t speak much English and Feng’s North American accent was undecipherable. I hoped I didn’t just agree to get matching tattoos the following day.
“I’m going to take a shower,” I eventually said. I was too stressed to pee knowing Feng was in the room, a few metres away and I couldn’t figure out how to get hot water.
“You flooded the floor!” Feng noted jokingly.
Then showered as well and we lay down on two different bottom bunk beds.
Two minutes later, he was asleep.
I finished Kerouac’s On the Road, then I turned the lights off even though I didn’t think I could sleep. The hostel was quiet, the streets weren’t.
The trip lasted three months. There were many firsts, some travel-related, some not. We kissed, ran out of money, argued, made love, got robbed (multiple times), solved issues, slept in buses, shared anecdotes, got hurt, held hands, got sick, learned about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, saw amazing places, crossed borders, met people, saw the world.
We made it to Brazil.
I came back to Canada with Feng.
And this is when, at the ripe old age of almost 19, that I realized that life is like the blank page of a book waiting to be written. We come to this world with a background—genetic, cultural, social—but we are free to come up with a better story for ourselves. And yes, even the most far-fetched and logically questionable decision can be the right one.
I’ve never wondered how my life would be if I hadn’t boarded that plane to Mexico because it never came to mind.
Seventeen years later, we’re still travelling.