I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty worldly guy. I lived in New York City’s East Village for a long time before making the trek all the way Out West. You know, to New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. (I even braved the mean streets of Brooklyn for some time!) But any sense of my worldliness was quickly shattered as I listened to Harun Sinha list all of the various places he and his husband, Austin Dowling, both 41-years-old, have called home in their lives:
“Well I’m from Bangladesh, and he’s Irish,” he began, as we sat together in a coffee shop in lower Manhattan. “But we both have Australian citizenship. We were in Sydney for a long time before we moved to New York City. Then we moved to Hong Kong.” Then, almost as an afterthought: “Oh, and I was in North Carolina for college.”
A short novel could probably be written about the places Harun and Austin have lived. But for the sake of brevity, we’ll pick up on their story in Sydney, where the couple met doing volunteer work (shocker!) in 2002. Though they were just friends at first, their relationship quickly evolved to include, “um…you know, other stuff,” Harun said with a mischievous smile.
“We both loved the city,” Harun said of Sydney, but, as their relationship progressed, they also wanted to start a family, which can be easier said than done for gay couples in Australia. Commercial surrogacy, for instance, is illegal in the country, though this wasn’t an option the couple considered that seriously. (“Whose sperm do we use?” Harun said simply, when I asked why.) Though adoption by same-sex parents has since been legalized in four Australian territories, that path to parenthood, too, was mostly illegal at the time.
“[Adoption] is actually difficult for everyone there,” Harun told me. (In fact, due to what many see as Australia’s overly cumbersome regulations, Australia has the second-lowest adoption rate in the developed world.) “But if you’re gay, it’s even more difficult.”
To make the process a bit less fraught, the couple decided to pack up their lives Down Under and relocate to New York City in 2008. The move was fairly seamless. “Even at that time, the United States was pretty supportive as far as visas for gay spouses,” Harun said. “And Austin,” who works for Macquarie Holdings, a financial firm headquartered in Sydney, “had great support from his job [during the move].”
Fortunately for Harun and Austin, their adoption process, which brought a son, Alfie, into their lives, was also fairly seamless. “We had been advised to keep talking with other families “since the [biological parents] still have 40 days to change their mind after the birth,” Harun said. “But [Alfie’s birth mother] really involved us. She was like, ‘this is your baby, I’m just carrying him.’”
The Call From Nowhere
With Alfie in their lives, Harun and Austin began to make a home for themselves in their two-bedroom apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. Austin continued to work for Macquarie Holdings, and Harun found a job with a pharmaceutical company that let him work from home. They also found a great daycare nearby for Alfie, who is now 3-years-old. Maybe the young family was finally settling down?
Not just yet.
“The call came out of nowhere,” Harun said. Nearly two years ago, he explained, Austin received a call from work asking him to consider an exciting new position that had opened up in Hong Kong. Without giving it much thought, “I just said sure, let’s do it!” Harun said casually, like he’d just been asked to go on an impromptu trip to the movies.
Now I’ve lived abroad before too, and have done my fair share of traveling. But each of my sojourns has been obsessively planned out, down to the outfit I’ll be wearing to the airport. (I recommend a breathable poly-cotton blend for transoceanic flights.) For Harun and Austin, however, I was beginning to suspect that spur of the moment adventure-seeking of this sort was just in their blood.
“We knew we wanted to explore somewhere else together,” Harun said simply. Why not Hong Kong? So less than five years after the couple had moved to New York, they began packing up their lives in Hell’s Kitchen for Hong Kong, trading in one HK for another.
Besides sharing the same initials, however, Harun found his new home in Hong Kong had very little in common with his former one. “It’s very segregated,” Harun said, when I asked about his first impressions of the city. “The Chinese locals and service people have their community, and the ex-pats have theirs.” Harun and Austin were also quite struck to find that almost everyone in Hong Kong has live-in domestic workers, known as “helpers.”
These are all rather common elements of culture shock, so they weren’t, in fact, all that shocking to this well-traveled couple. However, with an 18-month-old Alfie in tow, it was different this time. They had to learn to acclimate to their new home as a family. It was a family, moreover, that wasn’t done growing; about a year into their time in Hong Kong, Harun and Austin adopted another baby boy, named Ernest, who is now just a year old.
A Quest for Other Rainbow Families
When they first arrived in Hong Kong, Harun began looking for playgroups for Alfie to join. “I thought I’d meet some locals that way,” he said. “I really wanted to have a local experience there, but it didn’t really work out that way.” Two months after their move, Harun managed to find a local playgroup that he liked, he explained, but Alfie’s experience there was short lived due to an incident that occurred on Mother’s Day. That day, the leader of the playgroup had gathered all of the children to speak with each of them individually about the important role mothers and women play in their lives.
“But the teachers avoided Alfie,” Harun said, shaking his head. “They got to the boy before him, and then just skipped right over Alfie. I was like, did that just happen?” Harun decided to give the playgroup the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they just needed some guidance on how to handle this type of situation when a child has two fathers? So he went home and wrote an email to the group’s leaders. “I wanted them to know that there were ways to keep our son included,” Harun said. Alfie’s birth mother, for instance, is involved in Alfie’s life. “And he also has plenty of strong female role models,” Harun said. “You can talk about them! But they were totally unresponsive.”
After the disappointing experience with the local playgroup, Harun decided to search for another one that would be more inclusive of LGBTQ families. “If I’m going to stay here for three years,” which was the expected duration of Austin’s job in Hong Kong, “I need to find other gay parents. I knew we couldn’t be the only ones.” First, he called a local LGBTQ center to see if they had any programs for families, or at least knew of other same-sex parents to whom they could reach out. The local center, though, only had programming for LGBTQ youth, not families.
Frustrated, Harun decided to take up the cause himself. “I created a meet-up for gay parents ‘Wayward Families of Hong Kong,’ he said.
“Wayward, huh?” I said “Wow, that’s a pretty provocative name for…”
“No, I said ‘Rainbow Families of Hong Kong,’” Harun said, correcting me with a laugh. Though I misheard him, “Wayward Families” might actually have been a good alternative name; Harun did, in fact, intend for the group to push back some on the cultural norms in Hong Kong regarding same-sex families. “We wanted to be out about it,” Harun said of the group’s philosophy. “We figured the more visibility the better to help put a face to the issue of gay families, to personalize it.”
The group started out slowly. “I found one guy a couple of weeks into it.” But word quickly spread, Harun told me, and before long, he had roughly 18 families that would join their out and proud meet-ups at any given point. The only downside to the visibility of Rainbow Families of Hong Kong, Harun admitted, was that it had the unintended effect of discouraging locals from joining. “They had more to lose,” he acknowledged.
He explained: one of the gay couples Harun and Austin met while living in Hong Kong had used a commercial surrogate to start their family, a practice which remains illegal. When they were found out, they were taken to court and then prison overnight. “Imagine, their kid is at home during all this…” Harun said, then pausing a moment. “All because they signed some paperwork in Hong Kong.”
Still, for the expat community, Rainbow Families of Hong Kong became an important resource. “It’s great to have these connections,” Harun said. “You can ask about gay-friendly schools, and make some really great friends.”
Gay Dad Expats vs. Hong Kong
So what was life like more generally for Harun and Austin, as gay dad expats?
At least as far as any overt discrimination is concerned, Harun said he and his family never experienced anything of the sort. In fact, Harun was excited by much of the local progress he witnessed. “There is so much happening inside the [Hong Kong] gay rights movement right now,” he said, pointing out that, unlike most countries in the region, Hong Kong has enacted a limited number of anti-discrimination protections for lesbians, gay, and bisexuals.
Still, Harun and his family had their fair share of “experiences,” as Harun put it, on account of their sexuality. When the family went out in public, for instance, “we got a lot of looks,” he said. “You can see that everyone’s talking about you, but we just tried not to pay attention. And people were always very friendly to the kids, even if they were standoffish towards us.”
Harun was also surprised by a lot of the assumptions that were made about him and his family. Often, for instance, people simply assumed Harun and Austin were straight, despite all evidence to the contrary. “It was a little like going back in time,” Harun said of some of his experiences. For example, to get around Hong Kong, the family traveled mostly by taxi. (“It’s super humid!” he said, “so we weren’t out in the streets that much.”) But local taxi drivers, particularly late at night, are a known source for hiring sex-workers. “So even if [Austin and I] are in a taxi together holding hands, the drivers will still try to find us women,” Harun said, laughing. “They just don’t get it! Being gay just isn’t a possibility that enters their minds.”
Similarly, when it was just Harun and Alfie out in public during the day, “everyone assumed my wife was working and I was the stay-at-home husband,” Harun said. “I’d see people trying to figure it out when I’d take Alfie to the playground,” he continued. “But they just needed to hear [Alfie] call me papa, and then they’d get it.”
On several occasions, Harun, who is from Bangladesh, was also mistaken as a “helper” for his son, who is Caucasian. “I once walked into a helper agency, and they were like, ‘you must be the helper from Sir Lanka!” Harun explained that, no, he was not, in fact, a helper from Sri Lanka. Still, the possibility that Harun might be Alfie’s father never entered the agency worker’s mind. “He was like, well which helper are you then?” Harun said, laughing again.
Swapping HKs Once Again
Originally, Harun and Austin were planning to stay in Hong Kong for at least three years. But the couple received yet another phone call that once again upended their lives just as suddenly as before.
“Austin’s work called with another opening back in New York City,” Harun said. Though Austin was content with his career in Hong Kong, “I wasn’t happy there, and we all struggled as a family,” Harun said. “The weather was so bad, and there isn’t much green space for the kids to have outdoor time.” So when they got the call, the couple picked up and moved back to Hell’s Kitchen just as quickly as they had left.
And now, with the family back in their same Hell’s Kitchen apartment, everything is just as it was before they left. Alfie is back in the same day care, Austin is back in his same office, and Harun continues to work from home for the same pharmaceutical company. Apart from the addition of Ernest to their family, “we feel like we’re back in our old lives, just as we left it,” Harun said. “Our apartment is still even decorated the same way. It’s like those 18 months never happened.”
So, looking back, what do they make of their 18-month stint in Hong Kong?
“As a family, we’re just so happy and appreciative of the lives we have now,” Harun said. “There were so many things we took for granted before. We’re not being gawked at on the street anymore or made to feel different than everybody else.” While the United States certainly has its fair share of problems, I thought, there was certainly no gawking happening in our Chelsea coffee shop, where it seemed every other patron was a gay man pushing a baby stroller.
Austin agreed with Harun’s assessment of their Hong Kong experience via email. “Hong Kong was full of opportunity and excitement,” he said. “[We] experienced some fun adventures.” But he, too, admitted it was often a struggle to navigate Hong Kong’s “conservative outlook towards non-traditional families.”
Still, the couple has no regrets. “It’s great to be adventurous!” Harun said, though he admits he would do some things differently. “I’d definitely do my research and make some connections locally” before moving, he said, for example.
Towards the end of our conversation, Harun began swearing up and down that he and Austin were done moving for the time being. “We really don’t want to move again!” Harun said. Still, he left some wiggle room. “Well, we didn’t think Hong Kong would ever happen…” he said, without completing the sentence. But I got the picture: the adventurous spirit was alive and well. Who knows what surprises the next phone call will bring?
Whether or not the couple embark on a new adventure any time soon, Harun is certain of one thing: that adventure will not be leading his family back to Hong Kong. Still, he recognizes that his time there was not without purpose; even in Harun’s absence, for instance, the membership of Rainbow Families of Hong Kong, the group he founded to serve LGBTQ families living in Hong Kong, continues to grow. As of publication, in fact, the group now has 115 individuals listed on its Facebook page.
Though Harun struggles to find things he misses about Hong Kong (“Well, I do miss the swimming pools,” he said, when I pressed him) he also recognizes that his time there did, in fact, leave a lasting impression on him and his family, including young Alfie. “Whenever I ask him to pick out a book for us to read, he’ll often pick one of the Mandarin ones,” Harun told me. “It’s very funny because normally he’ll just lie there with me while I read, but with the Mandarin books, he’ll get up and start doing his dances that he learned while there.”
A wee little adventurer in the making, perhaps?