What is it like living in Hong Kong? I get asked this question often, especially when I’m back in the UK.
So, I thought it was about time that I put a little more care into my answer rather than just shrugging my shoulders and saying something non committal like, ‘Uh, ok, fine, I guess…’ while wondering how best to describe this curious and crazy place to someone who has never been to Asia.
So here it is – the best answer I can come up with to summarise what its like living in the paradoxical and bewitching vertical jungle that is Hong Kong, for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting The Fragrant Harbour:
What is it like living in Hong Kong?
– The language is hard, the language barrier isn’t.
– Public transport is cheap and fast, though the bureaucracy can be slow and frustrating.
– The job market is good, though it should be noted that the majority of expats teach English or work in finance.
– The politics are messed up, but, then again, they’re messed up everywhere (I’m looking at you, Trump fans).
– People wear surgical masks when they’re sick, kind of like a zombie film.
– The skyscrapers look like something out of the future; the temples make you feel like you’re stepping into the past.
– You think of Hong Kong as a city until you venture into the New Territories and realise that you’ve been wrong the whole time, the majority of Hong Kong is spectacular countryside.
You cross your fingers and hope that the breathtaking country parks won’t be bulldozed and turned into MTR shopping malls any time soon.
– Chinese food is delicious and constantly surprises you in its diversity, from dim sum to dumplings to hotpot to barbecue. However, going for a meal is a bit like Russian roulette for your stomach.
You regularly eat Asian cuisine that you didn’t know existed before, such as Vietnamese pho, Korean bibimbap and Japanese curry, which are all readily available because everyone eats out all the time rather than cooking.
You also try popular food fusions such as Korean-Mexican or Japanese-Italian, and wonder where it all went wrong.
– Staying on the topic of food, local people assume that if you’re British then your favourite food must be fish and chips, and will ask you how much you miss it or how much fish and chips you ate the last time you were back.
In truth, you could give or take fish and chips, but you do miss proper cheese, proper bacon and a proper roast dinner.
– You start to refer to yourself as a ‘Westerner’, much to the confusion of everyone you know back home.
– The rent is high, but apartments are small.
– There are cockroaches, tree spiders and snakes. There may be a lizard living in your flat, but that’s a good thing because it will eat your cockroaches.
– Summers are scorching hot, sticky and humid, but you’re cold all the time anyway because the air-con is on full blast everywhere.
– The local TV is mostly awful, although sometimes so bad it’s good, and the news can be shamelessly censored.
– During storm season you pray for a typhoon warning from the Hong Kong Observatory so that you get the day off work.
– Ladies drink for free on Ladies Nights, and you’re not sure how you feel about it. Sometimes you are disgusted by the sexism and effectiveness of a cheap marketing ploy, while at other times you drink for free because alcohol that is not bought at club 7-Eleven is bloody expensive.
– You will buy drinks at a 24-hour 7-Eleven and drink them on the street making new friends with people who are doing exactly the same thing.
– There is a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark (and I lived in it for the first three weeks that I lived in Hong Kong).
– Chicken tastes weird.
– The most expensive real estate in the world is here and the city is home to millionaire tycoons. On the other hand, poor old ladies go through rubbish bins at night to find recyclable material that they can sell just to earn a little bit of money.
– It’s cheap to travel to the rest of Asia, though a trip to the Chinese embassy to get a visa to Mainland China is a nightmarish experience.
– There are day-long junk boat parties every summer.
– Many households have a ‘helper’ – a maid/nanny/servant who usually comes from the Philippines or Indonesia.
– Over time, you develop an ‘international’ English accent, mixing British idioms and turns of phrase with American vocabulary, peppered with slang from just about everywhere else around the world.
– You discover that queuing is a Western cultural norm, not a global one.
– The smog is gross, but the skyline is magical.
– The education system is crazy competitive and most children have no free time because they study so much and take a load of extra-curricular classes in the evenings and at weekends.
There are even infomercials on TV that remind parents that children should have at least one hour of play every day.
– The ocean is dirty, but there are still some secret beaches hidden away with white sands and sparkling turquoise waters, if you know where to find them…
– You eat more McDonalds than you have ever done before in your life, as the majority of branches are open 24/7 and the food is consistent with what you would have in a McDonald’s back home (if you ignore the corn pie and crayfish bisque, that is).
– Even though you will try, you will never truly understand the concept of ‘saving face’ in Asian cultures.
– Tax is low and paid once a year rather than being taken out of your paycheck every month, but it is near-impossible to work out how it is calculated.
Once the tax is collected, the government decides it has too much money and reimburses high-earners the majority of their tax in a ‘sweetener’ deal rather than spending the money on real issues… Yep, it doesn’t make any sense to me either.
– The crime rate is one of the lowest in the world and you feel safe walking alone at night just about anywhere.
– The birth rate is also one of the lowest in the world. There are also infomercials on TV that remind people to have more children.
– The expat community is small and you will inevitably know everyone through everyone else within a year. You will also, inexplicably, bump into someone who is from your tiny hometown and marvel with them at how big and small the world is.
– There are times when you miss your family and friends back home, and there are times when you remember that you get to live in Hong Kong!
Phew, so there’s my HK life in a nutshell, both the good and the bad. Sound impossible? Well, you could just come and visit me and find out what this mad place is like for yourself…