Living in Hong Kong as an Expat — the Trip Home
Getting ready to travel from Hong Kong
You would think by now, being a so-called ‘seasoned’ expat, I would surely take a trip to see family in my great ‘globetrotting’ stride?
I mean, seriously, when you’ve crossed more time zones than you can count (with toddler in tow) how hard can it be? Tickets, passports, pack a few bags……
But that – right there – is where all the trouble starts. “Pack a few bags.”
After trips here, there and everywhere, I admit, the airport may be beginning to resemble a second home (I can order a trusty Mint Mocha in most terminals) but alas, I still struggle to master the art of packing a decent suitcase.
For starters, whoever decided 23 kilos is a fair luggage allowance clearly isn’t concerned with having the right outfit to wear on holidays, at all times.
When your rather sturdy well-traveled bag takes up five kilos on its own, surely it’s illegal to put restrictions on the number of stilettos (I may, admittedly, never wear) or those trainers – just in case I make it to the gym (ok, so hands up if you ever make it to a fitness centre on holidays)?
But it seems the airlines aren’t familiar with those ‘just in case’ items, hence stuffing a fortnight’s essentials into a small space is at best challenging. (Thank god for my slightly more regimented husband and his military-precision packing skills!)
To make matters worse, these days it’s not all about me and my half a dozen handbags, now there’s a small person requiring her own luggage space! (Don’t even think about squeezing that Hello Kitty handbag in, short stuff!)
Flying with a Toddler
This trip we jet-setted scrambled to the UK …my other half’s homeland.
It’s been awhile since we escaped the Asian bubble, six months to be precise, so it was with much anticipation we left Hong Kong and it’s strapping skyscrapers, steaming humidity and all things oriental behind.
We’re by no means alone. This time of year generally sees a mass exodus of expats leaving Hong Kong’s sauna-like summer weather for greener, much cooler pastures – and of course, it’s no secret the ‘Weather Gods’ have been smiling on the Brits of late.
(*Note: this knowledge didn’t make my ‘packing’ task any easier – 27 degrees it may be, but I know how these things can turn at a moment’s notice in the old Blighty!)
Naturally, just before the big event, you can almost guarantee there’ll be hiccups – nothing major – just a sniffle, an irritating lurgy rearing its ugly head, days (if not hours) prior to departure putting a small spanner in the traveling works!
On top of the added ‘flying with toddler’ stress is knowing you need to get as much sleep as possible beforehand to deal with the looming jet lag (of all parties involved) plus the impending social onslaught (which is of course why said toddler decides it’s a good idea to resume middle of the night ‘wake ups’ a few days out from the big journey).
This time though, I’ve got to say, I was actually looking forward to the flight – yep all 16 airborne hours of it (not counting a midnight, three hour stopover).
I envisaged a movie, small glass (bottle) of white and a little bit of sleep…long before the suitcases were packed.
Who was I kidding!!
I was clearly still in denial about long-haul flights with a toddler through several different time zones!
Mummy and Daddy Pig, Brother George and Peppa tagged along for the ride (in about 1000 minutes of eagerly downloaded episodes).
It sure as hell beat past flights, which have involved running up and down the isle, traipsing after an over-excited/sleep deprived toddler – smiling and nodding apologetically at strangers, while mentally counting the monotonous momentous minutes until we hit the ground.
From Asia’s Manhattan to the English Countryside
As an expat, returning home is ALWAYS a big deal, there’re just no two ways about it. You have a couple of weeks to really immerse yourself into your family’s lives (much to their horror I’m sure)!
Relaxing is not really top of the agenda, it’s all about the social factor. You hit the ground running! “We’re here! Let’s get the party started.”
In other words, let’s catch up on a year of missed events. The pressure to make happy and memorable moments can be intense – on all sides. Missed opportunities are not an option when it’s a fleeting visit.
So after 16 hours in the air and far too much loitering in airports, we landed in sunny (yes you heard right) sunny England. A nation I must say in a top mood – Andy Murray’s win at Wimbledon a not too distant memory, the English (gulp) crushing the Aussies in the cricket (for awhile anyway) and of course the birth of a royal baby!
Prince George Alexander Louis was welcomed by the world via a throng of waiting media (read: thousands of journos with cameras camped outside the supposed hospital for at least a week) that went into royal overdrive the second Kate and William stepped into the spotlight to show off the country’s ‘future King.’
You most likely had a taste of the ecstatic jubilation in your part of the world, the much-anticipated arrival of a baby – a boy — third in line to the British throne. This — coupled with sporting glory AND a bit of sunshine had the country doing fist pumps all round!
My husband comes from a small, quaint village in the north. Huge leafy trees
form flourishing canopies across idyllic lane ways; Tudor-style homes and cobblestone houses dot rolling green hills and horses, cows (and the odd fox) roam in fields of lush green grass….and naturally, in true British style, there’s a pub on every corner, bearing a name like The Wheatsheaf, The Hare and Hounds or the BullsHead.
They say culture shock is reserved mostly for those going to an unfamiliar country but what about going home?
Is there a point where the once oh-so-familiar becomes almost foreign?
Hong Kong may have been colonized by the British and boast many streets named after English royalty but there’s an undeniable difference. (Chopsticks anyone?)
After three years, you know the frenzied buzz of Hong Kong has well and truly cemented itself into your psyche when the countryside seems so extraordinarily quiet, you can literally hear yourself think – and it hurts!
Yet, in Hong Kong the constant hum of a thousand diggers on a construction site below forty something floors from dusk till dawn seems to blend harmoniously into the background. Go figure!
It’s clear you’ve acclimatized to a different type of tropical living when it’s normal to stay indoors for several months at a time as 35-degree heat and sizzling humidity hangs over the city – this sort of Hong Kong weather dictates a ‘shopping centre culture’ where you can bet your life on it, these oversized, glossy shopping precincts will have the air conditioning blasting out at arctic temps.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world an enduring and unprecedented heat wave plunged the UK into a summer meltdown.
Coastlines chaotic as every man and his dog slathered in sunscreen scrambles to the beach to seize upon the sporadic sunshine; roads are melting and with air conditioning generally an anomaly, teachers are tormented in overheated classrooms that are likened to ‘Mediterranean Pizza ovens.’ Meantime, it’s BBQ mania and that means grassfires blaze out of control!
It’s a land where light beams from a clear summer sky until ten pm and stars shine through, uninhibited by a blanket of pollution; a place you can drink the tap water without thinking twice, milk is still delivered in bottles, yet you can be sure you won’t see McDonalds delivered on the back of a scooter.
Mr Whippy still roams the streets and parked cars are bumper to bonnet. (Yes, I’m still trying to work that one out…)
Instead of the smell of fish balls, dim sum and oodles of noodles and rice wafting from every corner , it’s scotch eggs, chip buttys and liver & onions on the menu (not to mention my fave – black pudding) along with the ubiquitous fish and chip shops that grace every corner and the local Indian restaurant making its mark on every town’s main street.
9-5 is the normal working day in the UK, but in Hong Kong you’ll be lucky to peek inside a shop before 10am…. yet by 10pm it’s a different story – the city is jam-packed, people roaming the streets, eating, shopping and socializing in droves.
In this transient city with its 100,000 plus expats, many residents will come and go in a few short years while in the English countryside, communities keep their neighbours close to home, some for long as 30 years.
For my husband it’s like stepping back in time, for me it’s a little like returning to my childhood….
But despite the many, glaring differences on the outside – which can make you feel like an alien when you hear yourself desperately gabbling to explain – daily life as an expat in Hong Kong really isn’t so vastly different.
For starters, who knew there were more than a million soccer fans in Asia (and never more so on show than in the Fragrant Harbour last month, when Manchester United hit town and things reached fever pitch).
There are more international restaurants than I could ever hope to dine at in a lifetime of living here, (Heck, I can’t even cover the 38 food outlets in my local shopping centre downstairs)!
English is widely spoken (whether you’re understood or not is something else) and yes I can buy Weetbix and Marmite (Vegemite for you Aussies) in the supermarket — although to be honest, Sainsbury’s – you had me at hello!
The reality of life as an expat….
Every expat will know, there are many highs and lows that come with the difficult decision to embrace expat life (sometimes the reality is, the ability to buy your favourite chocolate will come into play at the eleventh hour).
The endless journey back home perhaps not such a high (did I mention we killed the ‘Peppa Pig-playing’ I-pad before the return flight)?
But for all intents and purposes, it’s well worth the in-flight turbulence…and as an expat – it’s just the way it is.
Back on Hong Kong turf with an English tan, I was immediately struck by the oppressive heat; the indescribable smell that is ‘Asia’ and the shiny succession of glittering high-rises, not to mention the (oddly) ‘orderly’ crush of people that make up this vibrant, energetic city.
The incessant drilling wafting through the windows the next morning, enough to remind me I was home!
It’s human nature to wonder what you’re missing, what you’re not missing — if the grass is greener?
And it’s an inevitable thought-process that goes hand in hand with life as an expat.
There may be no abbeys, castles, cathedrals and cottages on display here in the Kong, but there’s a rich history of Chinese mythology steeped in thousands of years of tradition.
Hong Kong is often described as a place where East meets West and not unlike its British counterpart, seamlessly blends the old with the new.
Ultimately, one thing’s for sure – no matter what the culture, the landscape or the climate — everyone the world over is busy on the roundabout of life!
“It doesn’t matter much where you live. It only matters how well you live when you’re there.”
Going home for holidays, as an expat, how do you cope with the transition? I’d love to hear from you!