Expat Living in Hong Kong: Taming the Dragon

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Some expats to Hong Kong will find the legendary dragon is not so fiery after all.

My eyes anxiously scanned the mostly Asian crowd in the Kai Tak Airport in search of my American brother. When I couldn’t locate him, I was gripped by a sense of helplessness and panic. After all, I did not have any local currency or even know how to use the phone.

Quickly glancing around again, I spied the familiar yellow arches of a Mc Donald’s restaurant. I pushed through the doors and found him sitting at a table, munching on a Big Mac. Relieved that I was finally able to make a personal connection to the strange world of Hong Kong, my panic eased. I was ready to explore.

Of course, few expatriates to a foreign country are fortunate enough to have a relative there awaiting them. But having someone to show them the ropes, whether it’s a destination service counselor or fellow expatriate, greatly improves the chances of a successful relocation.

Many expats to Hong Kong assume that because of the British presence there, the transition into the culture will be easier. Instead, they should be prepared for the hidden differences in attitude and culture they will encounter. As Eric Bachmann of Hong Kong-based Santa Fe Transport International so aptly puts it, “Hong Kong can be a deceptive place.” The fast-paced atmosphere and transient workforce, combined with the vast differences in customs and culture can add up to a confusing and difficult transition. Cross-cultural training prior to the departure can help alleviate that process.

No place like home

In addition to preparing mentally for cultural differences, expats will also need to consider the differences in lifestyle between Hong Kong and the US — and plan their household goods shipment accordingly. Lifts and stairwells, for example, may not accommodate a three-seater sofa. Living quarters are usually smaller, as are closet and storage spaces in most homes. Bachmann suggests employers provide a pre-departure trip to the destination, so expats have time to find and evaluate their new home. They’ll likely decide there are many things that are better left at home.

Expats will also want to avoid importing their American automobiles, since duties and registration fees are very high. Although there are expats who own cars in Hong Kong, they have usually purchased them secondhand. Overall, owning a car is not a priority, since public transportation is widely available and taxis are cheap.

Adjusting to the HK attitude

My first trip into Central was an experience I won’t soon forget. Clad in my casual gear — Gap jeans, T-shirt and sneakers — I was pushed forcefully along in a massive sea of suits. Although it was exhilarating at first to be a part of this pulsating crowd, the novelty soon wore off, and I quickly became annoyed by the constant pushing and prodding.

As it turns out, this was my first introduction to the dichotomy of Hong Kong — traditional family values and graciousness on one hand, and what appears (at first glance) as downright rudeness on the other. There is a lack of sentimentality in the business world and everyday street attitude of Hong Kong that many expats find hard to get used to. There are no apologies made for being “pushy,” and doors are seldom held open for you. It takes time to reconcile the “go-getter” attitude of the people with their polite charm and graciousness. Eventually, expats come to realize that it’s this very attitude that makes Hong Kong one of the most dynamic and prosperous cities in the world.

The need for networking

One way expats can deal with the Hong Kong “attitude” is to become involved in the expatriate community. Business, religious and social organizations, as well as American Chamber of Commerce functions, are good places to pass your card or simply have a friendly American chat. Spouse/partner support — an essential aspect of a successful relocation — is plentiful in Hong Kong. There are a number of organizations and services such as the American Women’s Association, the YWCA, and Women in Business, that can offer support and assistance. College alumni associations are yet another option.

Educational options

Although expats have a wide choice of schooling, they should be prepared for high tuition costs in primary and secondary schools. There are government-run schools available only to English-speaking children whose families are residents of the Hong Kong community. Expats have the option of sending their children to the schools of the English School Foundation, which are reasonably priced, but operate in accordance with the British school system. Many American expats send their children to one of the international schools, which are geared toward preparing the children for ongoing education in North American colleges.

An interview and placement test are often required for entry into the Hong Kong school system. Since space at most schools is limited, expats are advised to apply early on — before their departure, if possible.

Expats can gain advice on the schooling options available in Hong Kong by consulting The English Schools Foundation at (852) 2574 2351. Information on special education in the ESF can be obtained from The Jockey Club Sarah Roe Centre at (852) 2381 4362, or The Education Department in Hong Kong at (852) 2891 0088.

A healthy outlook

Generally, healthcare in Hong Kong is excellent. Some facilities expats frequent include the Canossa Hospital on Old Peak Road, Mid-levels; Adventist Hospital, Stubbs Road, Happy Valley; and Victoria Hospital on the Peak.

Most employers provide expats with private healthcare programs, such as Blue Cross or BUPA, but expats can also pay for their own private health care or use the government hospitals and clinics available to holders of Hong Kong Identity Cards or British passports. Although care in government facilities is good and the prices reasonable, English-speaking doctors are not always available — and waiting times can be lengthy.

Learning the language

Since English is spoken in business circles, major shopping areas and hotels, a knowledge of Cantonese isn’t essential for getting around in Hong Kong. Many employers, however, pay for private tutoring for their employees — and with 1997 fast approaching, the ability to speak Cantonese or Mandarin will likely grow more important. Although Cantonese and Mandarin are complex and require formal lessons, expats will find that their Chinese friends and colleagues appreciate their attempts to learn the language.

On bargains and big feet. . .

Expats who like to shop may be surprised to learn there are an abundance of shopping areas in Hong Kong. In fact, there are mini-malls on the ground floors of many buildings. The widespread bargaining Hong Kong has been known for in the past, however, is usually reserved for street markets.

Although expats who are extraordinarily tall, have big feet, or who are “pleasingly plump,” will be able to shop in some stores, such as Marks & Spencers, they should bring an adequate supply of shoes and clothing with them. They should also be prepared for the Hong Kong attitude toward Westerners’ comparatively large size. A shopkeeper once told me, “No, you are too fat for this store!” What she really meant was that the clothes designed for locals wouldn’t fit my Western frame. A friend who is 6′ 7″ and wears size 12 shoes, was often greeted with a chorus of laughter when he walks into Hong Kong shoe stores.

A look at Hong Kong TV

Expats who are “couch potatoes” should be prepared to curb their TV habits, since television programming isn’t nearly as extensive as in the US. Most expats are lucky enough to have Star TV, so they’ll be able to watch such American favorites as ERChicago Hope — even Baywatch. One saving grace of the regular programming on Hong Kong’s two English language channels is that decent movies are often shown each night at 9 p.m. As with all programming in Hong Kong, however, this tends to run in phases. In fact, some expats have remarked that over the years, programming has become increasingly Chinese.

The television system in Hong Kong is also different from the US, and American television sets can’t be converted. Expats have the option of purchasing a multisystem TV and/or VCR, that is operable in both the US and Hong Kong. This will eliminate the need to sell their television or VCR at the end of the assignment.

Taming the dragon

To me, Hong Kong is a special place . . . A place where my parents were reunited during the Vietnam War at the now defunct Hong Kong Hilton . . . where my own husband, a Brit, proposed to me.

Despite my own biases, though, I know that most expats will form a love/hate relationship with Hong Kong. Some will seek out the safety of the expatriate community. Others will immerse themselves in this strange and marvelous culture; those who do will find that Hong Kong, the dragon — fiery and beautiful — is a place on the verge of change.