Dear Hong Kong,
We need to break up.
It’s not you, it’s me. We’ve had five beautiful years together, filled with ecstatic highs and bitter lows, but I think it’s now best for both of us that we should part ways.
When I’ve told friends and family about my plans to leave Hong Kong this year, I’ve been met with questions like, ‘But I thought you loved it there? Where will you go? What will you do?’ and I’ve answered in the same euphemistic way you write a resignation letter:
‘…I’m ready for a new challenge. I believe I’ve gone as far as I can in this role, and I’m very proud of what I have achieved here, but it’s time to move on…’
Those statements aren’t false, but they’re vague and try-too-hard overly-positive. Like when divorcing celebrity couples release a joint statement: ‘the split was amicable and we are still the best of friends.’ Whenever I answer in this way I get a nagging feeling at the back of my head that I’m not telling the whole truth.
Because our relationship is more complicated than that, Hong Kong. It’s deeper. It’s layered. It’s passionate. It’s changed me. It’s the kind of love that Taylor Swift would write a song about.
As befitting of many romantic stories, we first met in the summer. It was August 2011 and I was 21, newly graduated from university. Wide-eyed, overly-confident, idealistic, naive, but full of energy. I had never been to Asia before. I had never travelled alone on a plane before. I had never visited a foreign country for any purpose other than a holiday.
Then I moved to the other side of the world to a city where no one knew my name.
It was love at first sight.That first year I couldn’t get enough of you. I fell hard for electric skylines, steaming pork buns, the jade green China Sea, the ever-accelerating pace of the city, the atmosphere buzzed around us and overwhelmed us, like the insatiable humidity.
And beyond the wanderlust, you taught me that the world was both bigger and smaller than I ever could have imagined. You taught me that I was strong and smart and brave. That I could do anything if I put my mind to it.
I remember as the days counted down to my flight home (had a year really passed so quickly?), watching the sunset at Deep Water Bay one evening. Everyone was filled with adrenaline and beer-happy from celebrating not coming last in a dragon boat race. We swam out to the shark nets and balanced on the floating booms, falling giddily over the edge into the water and splashing about like children. It was the kind of day that you were nostalgic for even before it ended, because you wished it would go on forever.
I sat on the boom and looked out at the soft orange horizon, the blue-green waves, the misty islands in the distance, and I knew that we weren’t finished yet. This love had more to give, and I knew I would come back for you.
It was over six months before we saw each other again. I returned in February 2013, just after Chinese New Year. It felt like a good omen. There were some fantastic memories in that second year too: the south stand at Rugby Sevens, beach camping at Tai Long Wan, endless invitations to junk boats, Christmas in Macau.
There were struggles too. Struggles with work, with money and crazy flatmates. We had our share of tears and fights, Hong Kong. But it was worth it. I embraced your light and dark sides, the good and the bad, because this time it was serious. It was hard realising that I would never feel that same magic of discovery that I felt in the first year, but I was here for the long-haul.
There’s a saying in the expat community here that people stay in Hong Kong for three years or life. As I watched good friends start to pack up and leave as they approached the three year mark, I shrugged it off, believing that our relationship was stronger than that. We were different. We were soulmates.
Then the third year hit, with all the force of Black Rain and a T10 typhoon. I quit a job that I had endured for 18 months and hated, but struggled to get another. I was stranded in a visa-less limbo of no work and no money for months. I was hit with a disgusting bout of adult acne that I couldn’t afford treatment for – thanks for that one, pollution. I was told I had to leave my apartment within three weeks because the building was being turned into expensive serviced apartments. I was served a monster tax bill and had no way to pay it off.
No money. No job. No place to live. I hit rock bottom. You really tested me, Hong Kong. And even though I desperately wanted to, even though I had my hands up in defeat, I couldn’t even afford to leave you. We were stuck in a vicious cycle, you and I. I had been so proud of carving a life for myself in one of the world’s biggest metropolises, and now everything seemed to be falling apart.
People back home rolled their eyes. What was I complaining about? Living abroad is basically a holiday, right? When was I going to stop extending my ‘gap year’ and come home to get ‘a real job’?
But that stormy third year also taught me a lot. You taught me to keep going when things get tough. To stay strong. To remain positive. To laugh in the face of misfortune – it’s important to see the funny side, even in the worst of situations. You taught me that things weren’t easy. That life has ups and downs, and that doesn’t change whether you’re a twenty-something in a recession in the UK or a twenty-something living and working on the other side of the world. No matter where you are, figuring out your life is never a holiday. You can’t escape growing up.
And, I realised that I no longer loved you unconditionally. I learnt that it was dangerous to love blindly. The rose-tinted glasses were off. I was more wary of you. Less trusting. This love was no longer naive and idealistic.
When we went into our fourth year, things started to turn around. I clawed my way back out of debt, started a new job, got my visa sorted, found a new flat, started treatment for my skin. But I couldn’t shake off the bitterness. I felt like you had tricked me – lured into a false sense of security filled with free drinks on Ladies Nights, lying on the beach all day and dancing all night in Lan Kwai Fong.
I was wrong. That wasn’t Hong Kong at all.
Something happened one October night. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest against the biased democratic reforms that were being pushed through by the government, and by Beijing. I had never seen you like this, Hong Kong. I had been so wrapped up and absorbed in my own problems, that I had no idea that you were suffering too. You were angry. You had your own shit to deal with. What were my privileged first-world expat problems in comparison to this?
I was astounded not only by the peaceful protests of the masses, but also the small stories of selfless individuals. The man who brought solar panels and extension cables to the occupied sites so that protestors could charge their phones and let friends and family know they were safe. The teachers who set up a classroom tent and worked for free in the evenings to help protesting students with their schoolwork. The ocean of post-it messages from supporters all around the world on the Lennon Wall.
It restored my faith in you, Hong Kong. You are a city of multiple voices – a chorus. I was stupid to think I could tame you or keep you all to myself. You didn’t exist just for me. You were raw. Wild. You needed to be free.
So I stopped trying to box you up. I stopped chasing the magic of that first year, where everything was new and exciting. I stopped pining for butterflies in my stomach. I embraced the beautiful contradictions that you stood for. I reminded myself that I was merely a visitor in this strange land. I was only there by invitation. I was entitled to nothing. Hong Kong owed me nothing.
I challenged myself to break out of the expat bubble. To stop thinking of Hong Kong as just a city, and explore the vast expanses of green, the hidden trails, the forgotten islands.
I started running – something I had loathed my entire life, but now suddenly seemed relevant. I ran down floodlit typhoon shelters. I ran the Quarry Bay promenade twice a week, watching cruise ships pull into Victoria Harbour. I ran around Disneyland twice for charity. I practiced yoga in Tamar Park, and on the Central ferry piers. I stared up at skyscrapers. I climbed mountains to stare down at beaches.
I would sit on the waterfront and stare out at the harbour for hours. There she was again, the stunning green of the China Sea. Had it really been four years since I sat on top of that shark net on that perfect day and watched the sun set?
I started to write again.
I began to meet and recognise younger versions of myself. Energetic 21-year-olds who were in their first enchanting year in Hong Kong and were under its spell. I both envied and pitied them. I smiled knowingly when they told me they had started Cantonese classes and expected to be fluent in a year or two. I watched as they drank too many bad vodkas at Ladies Nights. I listened without judgment or reaction when they told me they wanted to live here forever.
Maybe they would. But I knew it was no longer for me. I had beaten the ‘three years or life’ rule, but barely. Maybe I should have left earlier. Maybe I should never have come back at all, and just kept that first year as a happy memory. If my 21-year-old self had known what these five years would bring, would she still have taken the risk and got on the plane? I hope so.
When I travelled to new cities – Singapore, Seoul, Tokyo – I began to realise that Hong Kong was not the only place I could see myself living. It was time to move on. I went back to the UK at Christmas, and for the first time I could see myself moving home too. I no longer thought of returning home as giving in or failing. Hong Kong had taught me that the world was bigger than I had ever imagined and I could be anything I wanted to be – how had I forgotten that?
Which brings us to the fifth year and the present day. When my boss announced that the company I was working for was going through some tough times, and an opportunity came up to go back to Europe over the summer, I knew that this was Hong Kong’s gentle way of nudging me in the right direction.
‘I love you,’ we said to each other. ‘I’m just not in love with you anymore.’
And so, though there were times I hoped this day would never come and days when I felt it couldn’t come soon enough, this is goodbye, Hong Kong. You’re going to have to settle for being the one that got away. The ex you bump into unexpectedly after a few years; a bittersweet lump in your throat as you think about what might have been. Then, you see they have their arm around a new girl, and you realise that things are as they should be and that you’re both happy now and everything that happened was for the best.
I was 21 when I touched down in the Fragrant Harbour, disorientated and bedazzled by the millions of lights that sparkle in the world’s most beautiful skyline.
That girl said she would never vote in an election again, but this girl knows what her vote is worth.
That girl rolled her eyes at long walks in the countryside and organised sports, but this girl hikes every other Sunday, she jumps off cliffs, she runs and she wins dragon boat races.
That girl rang her mum crying when she was offered a job in Hong Kong and said she didn’t think she wanted to go, but this girl throws a dart at a globe and thinks nothing of getting on a plane and following her dreams.
It’s been bizarre and wonderful and miserable and magical coming of age, growing up and discovering who I am in Hong Kong. I have no regrets. It’s been a fantastic ride. And I wouldn’t swap my time with you for the world, you lovable smelly harbour.
I’m sure we’ll see each other again some day.
And, until then, I promise I’ll always think of you when I see that breathtaking shade of green that reminds me of the China Sea.