I get asked the question all the time….and that’s pretty much my answer!
No, ok, so I do try to expand on that, but it’s not quite that simple.
I spent four years in Hong Kong and I won’t lie, I fell in love. Really, what’s not to love about the ‘City that Never Sleeps!’ I’ve written numerous posts on the mighty Kong…and all that it encapsulates and I’m sure my affection for the glittering harbour city leaps off the pages.
The million dollar question: “Will I fall in love with Xi’an?”
To be honest, probably not in quite the same way. But, (yes there’s a but)… I do know, that when it comes time to leave Xi’an — this city will have snuck in and grabbed a little piece of my heart, craziness and all.
Time does that.
Often whether you like it or not.
You make memories, good and bad….you form a bond with the city and its people…and before you know it, you find yourself being a little over protective about the new love in your life. Pollution?? What pollution! Pfftt! (She says choking through her new (stylish) mask!)
But let’s get down to the nitty gritty, because despite both cities technically belonging to China, they are chalk and cheese!
Hong Kong is an SAR – Special Administrative Region of China which means it still (for all intents and purposes) governs itself but remains under the control of the People’s Republic of China. Under British rule for 156 years, the great ‘handover’ to China took place in 1997.
As you can imagine, this makes Hong Kong a fascinating blend between the East and the West.
As you may also imagine, a large part of Hong Kong’s population grapples with the idea of being under the Motherland’s umbrella… which as we saw with the protests last year, can create a lot of friction (to say the least). For more on the relationship between the two, you can read my post: Not Made in China.
There’s a somewhat icy relationship between the two and it shows no sign of thawing, admittedly more evident when you’re in Hong Kong. In Xi’an many people have never even been to Hong Kong (one reason being: they are not allowed to fly directly) so to locals this ‘fragrant harbour,’ remains an enigma.
For me, as an expat now living on the Mainland, the two governments make for some interesting lifestyle
Whilst Hong Kong experiences the freedom of the Western world, the Communist Party of China’s rules on censorship are strict and probably what affects my day to day activities the most. My regular haunts on the computer are banned (Facebook, Google, Twitter and many, many websites). Often news stories are only shared on television and in newspapers with a local twist (if they’re shown at all) making it difficult to stay in touch with the real world.
Yet, Somehow I manage. 😉
As for using the internet, at all.. let’s just say it can be the stuff of genuine nightmares (first world problems I know)! But the government runs the only two internet companies and the connection is extremely patchy…(especially after coming from HK where the internet speed is amongst the fastest in the world)! In mainland China, your internet usage is also monitored (yes everything you are looking at, they’re probably looking at too).
The magic VPN’s help us connect with the outside world but the government is continually cracking down on these in a bid to make it increasingly difficult for foreigners to log on to their favourite spots. (And breathe!)
Located in the south of China, Hong Kong is a harbour city, which means oodles and oodles of water, tropical islands, beaches, outdoor pools, junk boats, not to mention lush green mountains, all wrapping around a sparkling skyscraper city! Need I go on?!
On the flip side, summer in Hong Kong is ridiculously humid, so humid you continually feel like you have just poured a bucket of warm water over your head and must make friends with the shower several times a day. It’s also in the path of plenty of typhoons! (Mind you expats love this….a T8 means take the day off!)
Xi’an on the other hand, is in the far north west of China, in fact it’s not all that far from the desert and is completely land locked! It’s not unlike a dust bowl. In the heart of the summer months with temps in the 40s for several weeks, the heat is dry and oppressive. Nonetheless, it boasts one of the most authentic Chinese looking cities on the map. Paved with stunning architecture and ancient monuments, this is the real deal!
Winter in Hong Kong is relatively mild, whilst in Xi’an things step up a notch with minus temps and often snow. (Bring on the snow fights!)
Both cities are steeped in monumental history.
Hong Kong boasts fascinating stories of powerful clans, marauding pirates and European traders.
But when you’re talking cities and history, Xi’an is hard to beat. It was the start of the epic Silk Road and has been the capital of China for 10 dynasties! It harbours some incredible sights that are thousands of years old (those famous Terracotta Warriors just one that brings millions of tourists here all year round). In both cities it’s hard not to be swept up in their traditions, but Xi’an definitely captures a moment in time that nowhere else does. To that end, Xianese are fiercely proud. As an expat it’s hard not to become enthralled with a city that has experienced so much.
Both country’s predominant language is Chinese, but in Hong Kong they speak Cantonese while in Xi’an (and the rest of China) it’s Mandarin (mind you there are many, many dialects)!
Hong Kong still uses Traditional Chinese characters for writing, while the Mainland use what they call Simplified Chinese (if you can call anything about these complex characters, simple)!
Hong Kong’s western roots means English is much more widely spoken. In Xi’an, not so much. Hence while I escaped the need to learn Cantonese in HK, here in Xi’an, learning Mandarin is virtually unavoidable. (For most expats, that can be both a good and bad thing!) 😉
FYI: Both are what they call ‘tonal’ languages, Cantonese has nine different tones, Mandarin four (so I guess you could say, I’m lucky?!).
Naturally this small but pertinent issue makes my daily life somewhat more challenging living in Xi’an.
Even the type of expats differ between the two cities.
Of course, Hong Kong is king when it comes to being a haven for expats. There are around 300,000 currently calling the Fragrant Harbour home. In Xi’an, we are pushing 1000.
As the world’s financial hub, Hong Kong is one of the most sought after cities in the world and consequently attracts expats from all over the globe, largely in professional roles like banking and IT. (1st tier Chinese cities, Shanghai and Beijing obviously boast bigger numbers.)
In Xi’an, the majority of expats tend to be either teachers at international schools and universities or managers of some description at big factories like Samsung and Boeing.
The very nature of both cities and their trades, means day to day lives are a little different.
Picture a weekend in the Kong: Cashed up bankers roaming Lang Kwai Fong, swilling back a jelly shot or two; consuming copious amounts of dim sum for Sunday brunches in one of the city’s myriad of restaurants, often with a view over a stunning harbour…HK expats are filling up their lives with jaunts on Junk boats and heavenly high teas!
I do jest, (just a little) but the clincher is, those champagne brunches are much more doable in a place like Hong Kong where most families have the privilege of a live in Domestic Helper (Nanny).
In Hong Kong the helper is quite the phenomenon. Affordable and for most expats, compulsory.
If you get caught up in Hong Kong’s bubble you may find yourself living the highlife on more nights than is probably legal. No wonder there are 8000 restaurants in the Mighty Kong.
Here in China they do have “Ai Yi’s” – the helper equivalent but they are more common in the bigger expat cities like Shanghai. They’re not really expensive but it’s less of the norm here for them to mind the kids, it’s more about some cleaning and possibly a bit of cooking, (if you can handle the local fare). And finding one that speaks any English round these parts is truly a rare commodity.
So in Xi’an on the socialising front, more often than not you’ll find yourself at a friend’s home….(heck there really aren’t too many western restaurants in Xi’an with a view anyway!) It’s local Hot Pot and noodles all the way.
No matter which country you’re residing in, expats will tell you they rely on each other as their pseudo family. The more foreign the place, the more you need your peeps!
In Hong Kong, it’s really no secret, it’s one of the most expensive places to live in the world. Rent is exorbitant and the return is usually a rather small shoe box for living quarters..
We lived on the 43rd floor of a smallish apartment building, next to the world’s 7th tallest building – it was conveniently located above a shopping centre, train station and host of international restaurants.
In Xi’an, we live in a spacious apartment in a four story hotel, next to a 1300 year old Pagoda temple! There are shopping centres and street food carts at my door, not to mention cars driving on the footpath. (Did I mention room service?)
What’s the difference in dollars? I’m talking around 5000 RMB rent a month in China compared to say 20,000 RMB in HK (on the cheaper side) — 10,000 RMB compared with around 60,000 RMB on the average side.
The difference in price and space is quite remarkable!
Getting around Hong Kong is a no brainer. In truth, probably one of the easiest cities in the world. Geographically its small and that helps.
The local MTR (subway) system is fast, efficient, cheap and simple. HK’s iconic red taxis crawl the roads 24/7 and are pretty reasonably priced.
Here in Xi’an taxis are not so much part of the equation….for expats anyway. Firstly, because getting one is about as easy as climbing the Great Wall. One look at the foreigner and they’re scared off, for life. We have no clue how to tell them where we are going and they’re not going to get into that sort of predicament (which can also happen in HK I might add). The train system is reasonable but nothing compared to Hong Kong’s; so it’s generally (extremely overcrowded) busses all the way, unless you’re game enough to jump into a Tuk Tuk (local three wheeler), or get yourself a scooter!
A lot of expats in Xi’an have drivers (many come with the company contract) for the sheer fact that English is minimal and getting public transport isn’t easy; in theory it’s great, but the inability to get around on your own can mean a lack of spontaneity!
Some of the braver expats I know, ride bikes and scooters! Kudos to them!
Hong Kong’s healthcare is considered to be up there with some of the best systems in the world. Its people have the longest life expectancy, so that’s saying something isn’t it! With numerous private hospitals that are predominantly state of the art, as long as you have health insurance, as an expat you are generally in good hands. There are a wealth of local GP’s (many English speaking) and once you get used to them handing out your medication over the counter in tiny packets, it’s pretty manageable. I had my daughter in a Hong Kong hospital, the doctors were first rate and the facilities were even better.
In Xi’an it is rather a different story. Naturally the language barrier makes things difficult to begin with if you’re a foreigner. While there is now an international hospital in Xi’an, most expats I’ve spoken with, if seriously ill, would choose to fly out of China. There is no such thing as a local GP, you generally go to the hospital for any of your ailments and see a doctor there. No appointment necessary, but potentially a long wait. Many of the treatments are quite different to those you would receive in the West as is some of the medication you’ll be given. Hygiene as you might know it in the West, does not appear to be at the forefront of hospital staff minds. (Read more about it here.) For many expats living in China, outside a first tier city, healthcare is often the biggest concern.
Ahhhh shopping….one of my favourite things…
There’s a good reason Mainlanders flock across the border at Shenzhen into Hong Kong, the shopping capital of the world where there are more LV stores than Paris!
The tax on local products in China means it is more expensive in Xi’an and believe it or not, whilst everything is apparently “made in China” it’s certainly not always available in China. Why? You can read about it here.
Stocking up on supplies in Hong Kong has become a regular part of my life. (And to think when I first lived in Hong Kong, I would restock back in Australia.)
In Hong Kong, the local Post Office is a world away from those ‘one stop super stores’ I know in Australia. Think your basic warehouse type scenario for ingoing and outgoing mail and nothing more. Sending and receiving mail is relatively cheap and easy though….although there are occasions when your mail can take weeks to arrive! In Xi’an receiving mail is like playing lotto! Highly unlikely it will arrive, but occasionally you get lucky.
Both cities have their cultural nuances. Hong Kong is filled with a world of oriental practices and traditions…Xi’an is heaving with its own ancient beliefs and colourful folklore.
There is a distinct difference in world views. Most Hong Kongers have travelled outside of Asia, but in Xi’an very few know what life is like outside of China…and for them, this world they have been sheltered from is naturally a little intriguing and most likely a little intimidating.
Most Xianese are content to spend the rest of their lives here.
A world that is fascinatingly simple and sacred, as an expat daily interaction with locals is challenging for both language and cultural reasons. ‘Face’ plays a huge role in most Asian cultures but in Xi’an it’s an integral part of everyday life. You never quite know what’s going on behind the ‘face’. It’s in Chinese DNA not to say no.
While Xian moves at a relatively slow, relaxed pace – in stark contrast the frenetic pace of Hong Kong is unrivalled. There’s a reason they call Hong Kong the ‘City that Never Sleeps.’
Food style differs right across China from the North to the South. Each region has its own tried and true recipe for success. In fact there are eight culinary cuisines, check out a full post on Chinese food here. From delectable Dim Sum and BBQ pork in Hong Kong, to noodles and hot pot in Xi’an..everywhere is exceptionally different. Up north they like it hot and spicy. Very spicy! Which for this foreigner requires a fire hydrant of water at my side!
You will find more western food available on the supermarket shelves in Hong Kong as opposed to Xi’an’s, which mostly carry very local grocery items. Cucumber toothpaste anyone?
Eating out in Xi’an has its plus side. It’s ridiculously cheap! From street food to local hot pot or even the buffet in a five star hotel….prices are refreshingly low! Aside from local holes in the wall, the same really can’t be said for Hong Kong.
The minute you give birth in Hong Kong, people will be asking you which school you’ve enrolled that new bundle of joy in to! No kidding! There are at least a dozen international schools and numerous local schools you can choose from. Despite the large number of facilities available, there are even more people wanting to enrol. With demand outweighing supply, the school entry system is cut throat and getting into the school of your choice takes meticulous planning and preparation (not to mention school interviews for kids often as young as two!)
Schooling in Xi’an is rather limited. If it’s not a local school (which is night and day when compared with a western school system — longer hours, less play), there are just three international schools to choose from. However getting accepted is relatively straightforward. In fact, with a lot less expats in town, these schools are champing at the bit for western children to sign up and give their school that ‘international feel.’
There’s no denying, despite both cities harbouring populations of around 8-million, Hong Kong’s exposure to the western world and the world in general, as well as it’s location and climate has seen it grow into Asia’s World City. It definitely makes for easier living in many ways.
Xi’an is still relatively untouched by the outside world and thus in many ways remains like a big country town. Tourism is bringing more and more global exposure in to the city …and I’m intrigued to return in another decade and see the changes. It would be a big shame to see it lose its authenticity though.
Depending on your desire, both cities offer completely different living experiences, in China!
For us, both have been unforgettable posts in more ways than one!
This is China.
Where would you choose to live as an Expat?