If there was a definition for EXPATIFY (which there’s not) I’m pretty sure it would go something like this:
Acceptance of the alien nature of an environment, development of new-found tolerances, greater objectivity and appropriate coping skills.
Pretty much sums up the adjustment required when you become an expat don’t you think?
When you launch yourself into expat life – for awhile, everything seems out of kilter. For me, stepping off the plane into the neon-lit metropolis of Hong Kong was akin to plunging head first into an ocean full of hungry sharks. I was frantically treading water, doing my very best not to get swallowed up.Everything in my new environment felt all-consuming, overwhelming and more than a little suffocating. I could literally taste the foreignness. Heart in my mouth, eyes wide like saucers, I struggled to soak in my new surroundings. The predominant and (for many) most memorable image – the rows upon rows of imposing skyscrapers that stand luminously guarding a city that’s heaving with bodies.
A city where the light never dims and everything and everyone operates in permanent overdrive. There’s not a spare patch of land in sight – roads are packed with vivid red taxis jostling for position, while on the water, ferries zip in and out, past the Junks, weaving through the hundreds of container ships, docked briefly in one of the busiest ports in the world.
Overhead, a constant buzz of helicopters criss-cross through a concrete jungle.
A fragrant harbour loaded with its distinctive smells, in every direction it’s sensory overload.
Street signs loom large in a language that’s anything but familiar. Announcements boom over loud speakers in train stations and airports, commanding your attention in an unrecognizable dialect.
Local newspapers and television channels are humming with information, that to you, means nothing.
Geographically you feel blind. It’s unsettling and intimidating and the only way to describe it – is ‘culture shock.’ You dare to wonder if this unknown, unchartered territory can ever be home? But like almost anything in life, you soon find out, all you need is time.
For me, it took nine months into my expat exploits before I felt comfortable wearing Hong Kong’s skin. A bit like pregnancy – you spend the first three months in shock, the next three accepting the changes and finally in the last trimester, you settle in to the groove and get ready for the ride.
Three years into this mad Asian adventure, I reckon I’ve acclimatized enough to climb aboard the expat train with a confidence that only comes with experience. It sneaks up on you. One day you wake up amongst the chopsticks and Chinese calendar and realize things you found markedly different or downright annoying don’t bother you in the slightest. In fact, you embrace them, enthusiastically and eagerly.
There are thousands of reasons for feeling expatified in this city with its addictive energy, but today, here are my top twelve.
1. Hear no English, See no English, you speak 'Chinglish.'
Admittedly, the Cantonese of most Hong Kong expats I know (including myself) is restricted to ‘taxi lingo.’ Even though many locals speak English, more often than not, it’s the important details that get lost in translation. Chinglish is what gets you by and stops you from losing more than your marbles. It’s nonsensical English at its best. You take shortcuts, abbreviate words, omit any ‘fluff’ from your jargon and repeat, loud and clear!
You redevelop a love of charades and know by adding “la” on the end, you’ll get a more satisfying response. The danger spot is when you find yourself talking to your husband in Chinglish. “How you?” “Maybe we go here tonight?” “I’ve heard food is good, yes?” OK LA!
2. You don't break out in a cold sweat over the local cuisine.
A giant slab of meat resembling a freshly slaughtered pig slapped on a trolley trundles past you in the middle of a bustling street and you don’t bat an eyelid, nor do you rush to get the camera out. You know those roast ducks hanging in shop front windows? Yes, the ones with their heads in tact, hanging from hooks by their long necks? The site of them doesn’t send you scurrying … (thankfully) you barely notice them.
You happily snack on a spicy fish ball instead of a bucket of chips and when presented with a plate of chicken’s feet or goose web, don’t feel the urge to pass out.
You realize the benefits of bird’s saliva soup and rush to buy hairy crab when it’s in-season.
You don’t mind that your fish is still swimming in the tank on display moments before it’s served and you find yourself opting for ‘congee’ on a flight where there is a western choice.
3. Meeting random strangers is perfectly normal.
When you’re an expat, all expats become fair game in the friendship arena. Don’t try to escape. See Guailo, will stalk!
There’s no cherry picking your friends, everyone’s in the same boat and everyone’s up for BFF status.
You think nothing of rocking up to a cafe to do lunch with someone you’ve never met…what have you got in common. You’re foreign – that’s enough!
4. You're un-phased by the roller coaster that is a Hong Kong Taxi ride.
The driver slamming his foot on the accelerator every 30 seconds no longer makes you feel violently ill.
You instinctively know, if you wear something with flimsy fabric, you will need to hang on for dear life or face sliding right off the seat!
You also know, because you live on the ‘dark side,’ (a stone’s throw across the harbour) you’ll need to find a nice driver, willing to make the trip into the unknown abyss.
You’ll need to perform a special cross-harbour ‘arm wave’ to catch his attention – (resembling something out of a nineties breakdancing movie). If the cab doesn’t have a sign on the dashboard saying “out of service” – don’t bother getting in, he’s not crossing the tunnel!
5. Summer doesn't mean less is more!
It may be July, 35 degrees and 99 per cent humidity outside, but should you need to venture anywhere inside you’ll feel like you’ve landed in the North Pole. Hong Kong likes its air-conditioning to resemble the inside of an igloo, the colder the better. It’s a status symbol, so you better get used to it.
You’ll suddenly feel awfully self conscious in that slip of a sundress and wish you’d brought your puffer jacket with you.
As far as the much talked about pollution goes, you’ve downloaded the Air Pollution Index app on your phone, but constantly reassure yourself (amid the sore throats and persistent coughs) that Hong Kong’s 50 shades grey have nothing on neighbouring China.
6. You don't notice the 'Guailo' Factor.
"Stare stare like a bear then you'll know me anywhere."
The Guailo Factor means you naturally stand out amongst the masses. And that means receiving the curious attention of the thousands of Mainland Chinese visiting the city every day. By now though, you are no fair maiden in distress, cowering in the corner awaiting rescue. Nor are you basking in the glow of being mobbed like a Hollywood superstar. (So you think.)
Instead you do the complacent shoulder shrug and (occasional) eye roll. You also find it pointless ducking for cover when you’re the only white face dining at the local. In fact you don’t even notice the intrigued looks. For all intents and purposes, you probably think you’re Chinese.
7. You don't mind getting up close and personal with a stranger.
Being squashed like a sardine is par for the course in one of the world’s most densely populated cities.
You no longer feel like you’re about to be devoured by the incessant noise, colossal crowds and bumper to bumper traffic, spat out and discarded into a heavily-loaded hawker’s trolley.
You can squeeze through with the best of them on packed trains, over-stuffed shops and bustling streets.
It’s quite OK to share your cafe table/couch/seat with someone you’ve never laid eyes on. They don’t give a hoot about you and nor should you them. Busy Hong Kongese are also partial to a public snooze, so don’t be alarmed if someone nods off next to you.
8. You embrace local dining habits.
Dining in a Chinese restaurant these days means you’re not compelled to look sheepishly at the waiter discreetly asking to swap the iconic chopsticks for a trusty knife and fork. You feel confident you can pull off chopstick etiquette with ease.
Seeing other patrons using a toothpick before, during and after their meal with a hand over their mouths in a ‘secret squirrel’ type fashion no longer has you stealing sideways glances, desperately trying not to shriek and point.
You’re still not a fan of spitting in the rubbish bin or clearing ones throat extremely loudly, but the days of shaking your head and frowning in disgust are long gone.
You don’t send warm water back in dismay and if you bring a handbag to dinner, accept it will be offered its own chair. In Feng Shui language “A purse on the floor is money out the door!”
9. You don't get in a huff when complete strangers offer unsolicited advice.
There’s no fist-clenching and silent cursing when a stranger asks you ‘post-baby’ if you are feeding with your breasts.
When someone takes it upon themselves in a restaurant to lecture you on your food choices, you just nod and smile.
If a random person tells you your toddler has a disease because her face is a bit red from the heat, well…no worries, anything’s possible right?
You don’t mind so much that although a size 10, you’re considered rather large in Asia and told in no uncertain terms you’re a ‘big mama!’
Getting told you look tired, have a large pimple on your nose or need to exercise more doesn’t send you running to the nearest bathroom in tears.
For every single ‘real’ ailment you do have, you’ll be told if only you’d drink more warm water, all your problems would be solved.
If you do so much as stub your toe, call an ambulance, nobody wastes time at the doctors around these parts.
10. Hygiene has taken on a new meaning.
It’s perfectly normal for those grooves in escalator steps to be cleaned with a toothbrush.
You know someone will clean the shopping centre toilet before and after you use it. Every single time!
If someone is on their knees outside your apartment cleaning the curb with Jiff you don’t stop and wonder if it’s been a crime scene.
You expect someone with a cold to wear a mask (you’re almost tempted to don one yourself). You agree all lifts should be disinfected every four hours!
You come to rely on hand sanitizer like spare change and expect temperature checks in most public spaces, featuring children.
You like that nobody’s allowed to eat in the train stations or on the trains, making for a pristine existence.
You forget what it’s like to live in an unsafe city. (Seeing a bar fight or any petty crime would probably send you into shock.)
You also know if you venture too far into the real Hong Kong you will be met with squat toilets and no toilet paper.
11. You welcome the traits and quirks of this nationality.
In Hong Kong, as well as a Chinese name, many locals take on a western name. (Invariably to help us poor westerners who can’t pronounce their Chinese name correctly).
It can also be seen as a right of passage and more often than not people choose something like the following: Salad, Coffee, Ice, Fire, Vampire, Cherry, Pirate, Man (for a woman) Dreamis, Apple, Cinderella, Rainbow or Sherlock… (just a few I’ve come across).
What’s more even more fascinating (and quite refreshing) is watching locals get excited, really excited by the little things in life.
A karaoke machine, the latest Hello Kitty paraphernalia, a plate of pretty macaroons, a shopping centre display and then – there’s Disneyland!
The theme park sends grown adults into a photo-snapping state of giggling hysteria!
And in Hong Kong, absolutely everything is photo-worthy…and that’s OK!
12. Every day is a date with destiny.
It’s quite common to see ‘lettuce eating lions’ and ‘fire breathing dragons’ rock up at a store near you (or anywhere for that matter) during (and often well after) Chinese New Year.
You understand the extreme importance of the Chinese lunar calendar and the significance of the year you were born in (or at least know there’s a consequential difference between being born in the Year of the Dragon and the Year of the Snake)! The Chinese calendar will dictate everything from the day of your wedding to the birth of your child and anything else in between and it’s not to be messed with, ever!
Being more in tune with Chinese customs means you’re no longer left red-faced at New Year caught without Lai See packets. You recognise handing out these red envelopes filled with lucky cash to ward off evil spirits is critical to your future, in more ways than one!
You’re no longer surprised there are no floors numbered with a four. Four sounds like ‘death’ in Chinese. Enough said!
If the boss says, now’s a good time to have your office examined by a Feng Shui master you won’t respond with raised eyebrows and a chuckle. “Take those two large vases of water, add a few green leaves and keep those blinds open.” Your business will thank you for it!
So there you have it…. my twelve perfectly sane (or not) reasons for knowing I’m no longer a stranger in a strange land. Hong Kong, I’ve been expatified.
What about you? When did you realize you'd been expatified in your country?
Nicole was a Journalist and News Reader with Sky News Australia for a decade before making the life changing move to Hong Kong with her hotelier husband.
Mum to hyped up blondie Ava, Nicole has swapped the news desk and microphone for a change table and nappy bag but is still enjoying the best of both worlds, freelancing as a Journalist, Presenter, Master of Ceremonies and Media Trainer.
Read Nicole's other Expat Focus articles here.