Almost four years on board the expat train in the multi-layered metropolis of Hong Kong, it’s time to call it a day.
I knew this post was coming… in fact I’ve known since the day we decided to pull up stumps and relocate from our home in Australia — that one day it would all come to an end.
To be honest with you, the day I stepped foot in humid, heaving Honkers – I already had my eyes on the finish line. I’ll give it two years (at best) I thought, then we’ll go home.
But with time comes acceptance, assimilation and ultimately adoption.
I’ve unexpectedly fallen in love with this intoxicating city, enough to start a serious relationship and call it home – 43 floors up.
In fact, I’ve spent more of my married life in Asia’s World City than in Australia and have experienced the biggest life-changing event of all in the city that (appropriately) never sleeps – motherhood!
When my toddler asks where she’s from it’s Hong Kong (Kowloon to be precise) her home is a very tall building called Gwun Lum Tin Ha and she thrives on a diet of dim sum and rice.
Truth be told, I’ve also (surprisingly) become a little bit addicted to expat life.
It sneaks up on you. Before you know it, you’re hailing cabs like a woman possessed, wielding chopsticks with an element of finesse and crowd jamming with the best of ’em.
For the last 18 months though, ‘normal’ life has been interspersed with a roller coaster ride of emotions – heart racing moments, highs and lows, plenty of what ifs, what next and how the hell?!
With a husband in hotels, they like you to progress and conquer, meaning the next role is never too far out of sight.
There’s an unspoken rule…don’t get too comfortable, for soon it will be time to move on.
This time it’s for ‘top dog’ — General Manager — the very reason we started this expat journey.
The ball started rolling as the clock struck midnight 2013! No sooner had we clinked champagne glasses, pondering what the future may hold …the phone literally lit up with calls. (Who needs fireworks!)
First cab off the rank (unexpectedly) Sydney! Yes! Sydney!!
It wasn’t for top dog. But it was Sydney!! Our home.
It’s like being offered your favourite pair of warm fluffy slippers after you thought you’d lost them or a warm blanket when you’ve been out in the cold too long.
So very tempting to slot back into that old life where good friends, good jobs, a city we love and precious family not too far away, co-exist all in One. Single. Place.
Really – what’s to think about?
Call us crazy (yes the really loopy in the head kind of crazy if you must) but… it wasn’t time. It was too soon.
We realized then and there, when fate slapped us in the face, we’d changed.
The excitement of living amongst a different culture, constantly learning and forever adapting — being in a place where each day brings new surprises, some good, some bad and some just plain bizarre had caught us in its grip, more tightly than we’d ever anticipated….and so we said no to Sydney — for now.
Then a month later, Wuhan, China came knocking at our door.
And just when we thought we were hardened expats, ready to embrace the next big adventure, Wuhan wobbled us off our expat axis….
With two days to decide, we took a frantic flight to the place they call Asia’s furnace. I’ll spare you the drama, but if you missed it, you can read about the slightly harrowing, yet enlightening experience in my previous post – Do All Roads Lead to China?
So, feeling weary and weighed down with the pressure of making the right decision again, we wiped our brow, took a few deep breaths, dusted Wuhan off and carried on enjoying life in the fragrant harbour. Breathing in Hong Kong air never felt so good!
Then, about a month later, just chilling on the couch, a late night email came through. This time – the arrow had spun around, landing on – Bangkok!
We tried to contain our excitement, hide our smug grins (it is the ‘Land of Smiles’ after all). This was the prize winning lotto ticket (after Hong Kong).
We could do this! No consideration necessary.
A quick google search for the hotel… it met all our expectations – perfect for a first time GM. A sparkling city boasting plenty of culture and charisma.
As any expat would know, when you get this kind of call, as much as your head tells you sternly not to start planning, you let a little bit of your imagination run away….just a little.
You start picturing what daily life in that country might look like. Where you might live. What you might do each day? Imagine yourself walking the streets amongst the Tuk Tuks, temples and famous Thai cuisine. A new culture to explore and conquer.
But we weren’t. Disappointed, you tell yourself it’s not to be.
About now, a little bit of panic sets in. What’s next then, will China call again? Brace yourself, you can’t say no forever.
You also breathe a small sigh of relief, knowing it buys you extra time. Time in your haven where you can almost pretend you’re not going anywhere. Life goes on as normal – school run, work, socializing, trips away, shopping….doctor’s appointments.
But just as you let your guard down, relax and almost convince yourself you’re here to stay, the inevitable happens.
When my husband comes home from work in the middle of the day, bearing a Mint Mocha, I know it’s serious.
“How does Melbourne sound?” he says ever so half heartedly. Then more enthusiastically, “This time it’s top dog!”
My heart skips a beat. We’ve got 24 hours. 24 hours to make a decision to put ourselves forward as one of three candidates for a role which could potentially change our lives.
We talk it through…over and over. We text family… we try to get a feeling one way or the other.
It’s home but it’s not really home. It’s still too far from family. It’s a great opportunity but is it a great move financially? Great city, but we’re not convinced it’s for us.
We can’t decide. There are tears of frustration, heated words. We make a list of pros and cons. We think we should go…but when it comes down to it, we realise, neither of us really wants to.
What’s happened to us? They joke people (namely expats) get lost in Asia. Is this us?
Much to the surprise (shock) of friends and family we decline Melbourne and deep down know this may very well be a decision we long live to regret. But still, we feel OK. We know we’ve got unfinished business in Asia. If we end expat life now and go home, we’ll never know where it may have taken us.
Another few weeks go by after the emotional upheaval… and again ‘normality’ resumes, that is until we hear the top spot at one of the company’s other hotels in Hong Kong is up for grabs. Could this be ours? A chance to stay in Hong Kong! Is it too good to be true?
Yes it is. This one’s got a list as long as my arm and we’re not at the top.
My husband’s getting itchy feet …should we have gone home? Are we going to end up in the back of China? Probably.
It’s hard to make plans….how long have we got? Do I sign up for that work event? Should Ava start her new school? Should I say yes to that Junk boat invitation next month. Can we book a flight home?
Then it happens again, lying in bed one night, another day is over…James quickly checks his emails – a few expletives…then, “The W Koh Samui – They want to put me forward as one of three!”
Uh oh.. here we go again….a restless night ensues, simultaneously, we toss and turn. Another long three weeks go by, waiting…waiting – stomach in knots…is this the one?
I’ve never been to Koh Samui, but it’s hard not to have heard about it. That famous Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach springs to mind. Amazing location. But an island? – me on an island?
Until recently we’d all but ruled-out resorts. Too isolating for us city slickers we’d joked and brushed the idea under the carpet.
But after the last six months, lazy days by the pool suddenly sound very inviting. I picture a relaxed, family lifestyle, lots of delicious writing overlooking the powdery white sand and crystal clear waters…life in a variety of techni-coloured sarongs.
Am I dreaming? From 7-million to 62,000 people!
Suffice to say, I was dreaming, it didn’t eventuate. Disappointed, again, we take a collective sigh and try to carry on as normal.
The next email comes a month later. The desert heat of Doha is calling. I’m scared because it’s the Middle East and it’s not familiar, but I’m also keen because I actually know people there. This could work….I start to envisage Arabian nights under the stars, but after a month the project is placed on the back burner and the idea of camel rides in the sand is quickly blown away.
Hot on its heels comes Goa, in India! By this point my husband is calmly throwing these locations out there over dinner and I’m usually replying with a nervous half chuckle, too scared to acknowledge it might be the one.
I’ve never heard of Goa but our English friends tell us it’s the perfect island city. Again my imagination does a little dance and I think about life on a diet of curries and a place where cows roam the streets. But again I’m quietly anxious. It’s a time when India is front and centre in the news for all the wrong reasons…
So, maybe it’s just as well the powers that be rendered Goa not the place for us.
Swallow, inhale, exhale, repeat!
At this point I’m stuck between desperately wishing for a crystal ball and just forgetting this limbo land exists! My iPhone weather app seriously can’t take any more cities.
But it’s going to have to. A little town in China comes up called Heifei. Unfortunately a quick google tells me it’s one of Asia’s ‘other’ furnaces. This little town has seven million people and it’s still considered a backwater! The city’s nickname “nowheresville” jumps out at me from my screen. I anxiously read on and discover it’s a place where people can’t park their own cars. I picture myself being flagged down by rich Chinese in Mercedes and asked to parallel park for them.
We say no to Heifei.
It’s not long before bikinis are back on the agenda. It’s Bali but a sideways move for James. We debate the merits and as much as we’d love to dabble in the Island of Gods, it defeats the purpose of this adventure.
Relaxing back home over a little Christmas lunch with the family Down Under, the faraway land of Seoul in South Korea springs up! On paper, it sounds oh so very sophisticated, but by this point in the game we barely bat an eyelid… just as well because by New Year, Seoul is off the cards.
Another day comes, another Chinese city. ChongQing. The third furnace in China… also known as the ‘fog city.’ Somehow we narrowly escape this one.
Then Macau is placed in our laps and we almost somersault with unbridled excitement! It seems like a done deal and while it lacks the excitement of exploring a new, unknown culture, a stone’s throw from Hong Kong it gives us the opportunity to cling onto much of our old life.
We happen to be in Macau on a weekend holiday so we snap pictures outside the half built hotel, daring to wonder if this will become a significant moment in our future.
But our snaps end up being deleted. Macau is not where we belong. Our brief love affair is over.
Then… just when I start to think we might be destined to remain in Hong Kong, along comes a place we realize we can’t refuse. Oh yes, it seems the path to China is set in stone (or rather clay) and truthfully we almost sigh with relief at this point.
Our new home is also home to those famous Terracotta Warriors.
Xi’an means Western Peace and is regarded as one of the fourth oldest cities in the world, along with Rome, Cairo and Athens, although I’m pretty sure it’s not nearly as esteemed. But what I’m comforted by, is it has character and it has soul (and it’s not the fourth furnace)!
The odds are surely in my favour, there are direct flights to the Gold Coast and there’s a Starbucks opposite the hotel. Xi’an, you had me at hello!
Something tells me this is where the real expat journey begins….(thank god for those few Mandarin lessons….and thank you Beijing Mandarin for teaching me how to order a Mint Mocha in Mandarin today!)
So, it’s time to say ‘thank you’ Hong Kong. Thank you for showing me a life I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams.
As excited about this new adventure as I am, I’m also slightly terrified!
So stick with me, because I’ll see you on the other side!
Pssst, i’m almost positive you’ll have a very good picture of Xi’an by the time we leave, but here’s a short video to give you a sneak preview.
Anyone interested in the Westin Xi’an…. this is what it looks like!