During my recent visit to Hong Kong, a friend asked, “I’ve never tried shaved ice (綿綿冰). What’s it like?”
“Like ice cream, except fluffier and less heavy,” I responded. “But Chong Kee (松記糖水) used to be famous for its mango dessert (楊枝金露).”
“I live here, but that’s news to me. How do you know all that?”
“Because I used to go to the original shop in Sham Shui Po before it even had chains.” That nugget of local knowledge made me feel something I had never previously felt entitled to: in some ways, I am a Hong Konger.
It was just an accident of circumstance. That auntie, who had grown up in Sham Shui Po, happened to be a good family friend, and I happened to go to Hong Kong the summer before I went to university. At least half my experiences in Hong Kong are such coincidences: me following a local friend to their special corner of the city. Combined, these make up my Hong Kong Special, with diced-up corner food stalls, tossed in with upscale colonial restaurants, swirled around by the MTR subway, spiced with colourful Cantonese street slang, and garnished with a challenging hiking route or too. I feel connected to every corner of the city, and the people who inhabit them.
It wasn’t always that way. Even though I have great friends in Hong Kong now and favourite haunts every time I go back, one of my biggest setbacks was not knowing how to find them early on. Sometimes, it was that I didn’t try hard enough, other times that I didn’t know where to begin. These are some things I’ve learned since Hong Kong, that can help people settle in to more easily to new places, especially introverts like me.
My memories of Hong Kong are accumulated through many visits since I was a child. Back then, family and friends often took us around to the most interesting places and best restaurants. The things I remembered were the things I liked, a complete memory bubble. When I returned to get a job, I saw the other realities, such as workplace dress codes, the snarky remarks of drivers and market stall owners, and the rush hour traffic. I quickly realised it was nothing like my vacations. I took it all in as learning, but I’d have learned even more if I recognized the steep learning curve, and asked for help more often rather than try to prove I knew things.
Forget half the things you remember from your favourite vacation. Chances are, after you have a job, you won’t have time for half of them. That’s okay. If it’s the place for you, you’ll find plenty of other things to do, such as hang out with friends. Note, one of the first big adjustments is dealing with impersonal administrative matters: finding a place to stay, getting a job, registering ID. They are never the first thing we associate with homes, are often confusing and even overwhelming, but for the most part, they are just one-off things to work past; so far, I’ve been able to reach out to local friends or online groups (i.e. Reddit).
- Make no assumptions. The interesting thing about moving is you learn how much you take for granted, from how the transit system works to how people fill in forms. Be observant, and oftentimes people appreciate your efforts to be aware.
- Don’t ask about something you can Google. Most people are happy to help. They’re even more willing to help if you’ve done a little homework. Do your Google homework first and ask your friends questions based off of your findings there.
- Give yourself a deadline. If you’ve just arrived and are looking for work, give yourself a deadline (i.e. 3 or 6 months). It helps you focus quickly, and gets the ball rolling so you can move on to other things – like meeting new friends!
I arrived in Hong Kong just after the 2008 recession and lucked out with a job within a month and a great apartment offer. Rather than using this as my launchpad and diving further into Hong Kong culture, I mostly went to work and went home. Even though I eventually explored most of Hong Kong over the years, centring my life around work slowed me down. In many jobs, mine included, overtime was common. Checking e-mails on the weekends was common. The people I saw most were my colleagues, which was a narrow social circle with limited topics and perspectives. The small talk was draining for me as an introvert and made me lethargic. Doing and trying things during free time took too much planning and energy. Work took up so much of my life, it was the only thing I had energy for.
In order to focus well, one needs distractions. I now remind myself to be distracted, to find the little moments of wonder and gratitude that I’m here. I’m not just sustained by my job. I’m sustained by the place I live in.
- Drop and explore. If you’re tired or bored, just explore the neighbourhood for 5 minutes, and be flexible if it becomes 30. Walking is good for you!
- Play on the way to work. If possible, cycle commute or walk different streets to work. It’s a quick way to steadily collect memories.
- Cook and eat. Rather than snack all day or subsist on meal replacements to ‘be productive’, I go to my nearby street markets. Seeing the seasonal foods and looking at cooking ingredients reminds me of old favourite dishes and untangles the knots from a day’s worth of thinking. It also inspires me to cook more local dishes.
In my first job in Hong Kong, I had the happy problem having well-paid part-time work. I mostly passed time reading articles online and being bored or restless. In Toronto, I would cycle in different neighbourhoods and knock on friends’ doors. However, cycling isn’t a viable commuting method in Hong Kong and walking in the humidity and smog wasn’t exactly relaxing. I didn’t know where to hang out or what to do. Despite all the places I’d yet to see, I didn’t want the hassle of taking transit. I lost interest in just being out, experiencing and observing the city. I only realised how much the environment affected me after I went to Europe for a one-year break. When I returned to Hong Kong, I made sure I either swam or cycled regularly before work, even if it was only 15 minutes. After that, I’d always arrive at work in a good mood.
- Walk. It’s easiest if you choose a nearby landmark: a cafe, the grocery store, or a park. Even five minutes is good! Rather than taking transit somewhere, walk the 30-60 minutes, just to clear your head.
- Do a hobby that requires getting out of the house. Whether it’s sports, taking a class, going to a community centre, or joining a club, make sure you have a hobby that forces you to put on your shoes.
- Go to free places. Local museums, public libraries, parks, public art installations, city walking /recreational paths, cultural districts, and nice residential neighbourhoods. It’s free, so it can’t hurt!
- Hike. Generally, do something active. Hiking is a good option because it combines a few things: 1) time in nature, 2) flexible exercise, 3) change of scene, 4) excellent for brief conversations and long silences if you bring company.
When I was in Hong Kong, I had a comfortable life that still required a general budget check. Ordering restaurant dishes I could make seemed like a waste, but since I got lazy cooking for myself, I’d just make noodles. In the end, being overly frugal meant I was depriving myself of experiences and memories. It could be opting out of an archery game or passing on group dinners with locals, who culturally socialise over meals. It was a few years before my colleagues invited me to lunch at second-floor Mah Jong clubs-turned-restaurants and industrial mess halls. They had previously assumed that I wasn’t interested because I was from abroad. These little tidbits of local knowledge made me look at many old buildings and industrial complexes with new eyes. Equally as important, embracing this side of local culture also brought me closer to my local friends.
- Join Meetup.com and group activities. Activity-based events means you can socialise as much or as little as you like. Examples include neighbourhood exploring, museum visits, hiking, sports, or video games.
- Use your local review platform to find new restaurants. Check Yelp, OpenRice, Dianping 点评, Tabelog 食べログaround your area. If you don’t know the language, use Google Translate and copy and paste the keywords for your search. Trying what locals consider as the best is a great way to learn about local culture.
- Have one paid adventure a week. It can be themed, based on your interests, such as art, concerts, coffee, architecture, or weekend getaways. For variety and inspiration, look-up city guides and subscribe to local event listings.
Hong Kong was my first foothold in Asia because I had connections. Networks certainly weather rough landing, but they cannot ensure smooth sailing.
In the beginning, most places have a glossy shine. The honeymoon period eventually goes, and after it’s time to reassess. Speaking Cantonese in Hong Kong, I found out, is a double-edged sword. It opened locals up to me, but they also expected me to know things I didn’t. In addition, I wasn’t prepared to confront them on daily, casually racist and discriminatory comments. On the other hand, many foreigners in Hong Kong had experiences and attitudes restricted by a language barrier and specific lifestyle that I didn’t relate to. Being between the two communities drove an invisible wedge into most of my relationships in the first year or two.
My mistake wasn’t exposing myself to everything, but my reaction after. For example, I soon gave up going beyond one-dimensional relationships after being boxed into stereotypes. Because of this, it took me twice as long to stumble upon new friends. I could have been more proactive in seeking them out. Still, when I did meet the friends that were too good to be true, I’m glad I took a leap of faith and nurtured those relationships, which are the reason I return often now.
- Learn the local language. This should go without saying, no matter how hard, how discouraging, keep trying. Keep finding practice partners, TV shows, books, anything that will engage you even if it’s one word a day. In Tokyo, I improve my vocabulary and make new friends at the Women’s Only Language Exchange.
- Look for bi-cultural friends. Bi-cultural friends are usually more empathetic to your cultural adjustments and can often point out things locals take for granted. You can try finding them in English-speaking university alumni groups, Meetup.com (English groups), embassy and trade council events, local university exchange events, Couchsurfing Host Meetups and TEDx events.
- Message strangers. Message Twitter friends, Reddit community members, bloggers and thought leaders you follow. You have nothing to lose, and a lot to gain, whether it’s knowledge or a new friend.
- Don’t be special. As an English speaker, it’s easy to be exotic in many countries; locals will usually be friendly and give you a break. It feels comfortable, but don’t stay in the bubble. As I blended into Hong Kong culture, I learned to appreciate the city through the eyes of minibus drivers, cleaners, construction workers and C-level corporate professionals.
- Don’t ‘contribute’. Just listen. Especially in English settings, we’re often encouraged to contribute. However, this isn’t a global default. Since you’re new, just listen, observe, and accept the local values and customs even if you don’t agree or fully understand. If you cannot contribute meaningfully to the conversation don’t impose English on everyone else. Ask a local friend to explain things you didn’t understand after.
- Inform yourself, but don’t show off. Learn about your new home’s history, government, ethnic dynamics, education system, healthcare, family values, etc. Remind yourself you know very little. Ask neutral questions such as, ‘What is your education system like?’, ‘How does ____ work?’ and not questions like ‘How does it feel to be [insert nationality]?’ because they put people on the spot. People will respond well to your curiosity and humility.
Soon after I arrived in Hong Kong, I recoiled from some of the culture shock I experienced (discussed above). Even though my colleagues were nice and I had family friends, I spent most of my time messaging friends in Toronto. My old friends anchored me to my old identity and positive traits that I was struggling to keep at first in Hong Kong. Still, there was a growing rift. We didn’t always relate to each other’s experiences. Yet, I didn’t want to let go of them and the conversations I so enjoyed.
Just as it is important to make time for old friends abroad, I needed to make emotional space for my new home and friends. I did that after taking up a Masters degree alongside my work. In an academic setting, I met fun, interesting, and motivated classmates. Thanks to them, I became almost fluent in Mandarin. We taught each other more about our respective cultures and discovered Hong Kong together. Just as my old friends in Toronto will always understand me through the memories we shared in undergraduate, my friends in Hong Kong grow with me as we experience the different facets of the city together.
- Find people who fascinate you or make you laugh, even if you don’t entirely get them at first. I had language, cultural, and character clashes at some point with my friends in Hong Kong. However, once we discussed them or accepted it, it created a deeper appreciation between us.
- Do things together with strangers. I met a lot of people after I joined the founding team for TEDxYouth@HongKong in 2010. It’s opened doors to travel, new friendships, two jobs, and the global TEDx organiser’s network. I grew to respect, trust, and admire the volunteers I worked with. With a project, I could begin conversations and engage people through shared values and interests.
- Let go of your old self. They say every time you leave a city, you leave behind an old you. Your old friends guard that memory, for better or worse. As we age, we feel perhaps that we have enough friends and don’t need more. Yet, just as one inevitably grows into a new city, there will always be people worth meeting, learning from, and growing together with.
As a last thought, it’s okay to say you tried. Personally, I believe that successfully moving and living in new places isn’t about loving every place that you live in. It’s about approaching a new home with every hope to love it.
This is part of my Nomad Diaries, where I document the interrelationship between the places, identity, reflection, and inspiration.
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