8 Lessons Learned: Three Years As An Expat In Hong Kong

Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of the victory.
George S. Patton

This month I’ve chalked up three years in the mighty Kong – my third anniversary symbolizing a colorful and (often) crazy journey towards living life as a fully-fledged, ‘fair dinkum’ expat!

A friend said to me “You should be really proud of yourself” – I hadn’t thought about it that way, but when I cast my thoughts back to those early days when I felt like a ‘fish out of water’ in Hong Kong’s fragrant harbour, to today, I am swimming with the crowds and making a few splashes…. yep! I guess I’ve come a long way!Looking out of my lounge window in Hong Kong, I see a similar view to that which I saw from my hotel room the day I arrived – it never fails to jolt those initial feelings that fluttered frantically inside me (along with 16 week pregnancy hiccups).

Angst, anticipation and excitement, coupled with the absolute terror of the unknown! To be honest, I didn’t think we’d stay much longer than18 months – at least that’s what I made my husband promise (in blood)! It was to be the great adventure – a stint overseas to shake things up a bit.

Hurling me out of my comfort zone in Sydney where I was happily cruising into my tenth year at Sky News, surrounded by all the creature comforts of friends, family and familiarity (not to mention life as a fancy-free, newly-wed couple) tossing me unceremoniously into a city heaving with high-rises, humidity and high-waisted maternity clothes!.

Moving to a foreign country is one thing, having a baby there soon after, quite another. Finding doctors, hospitals and shops selling baby ‘stuff’ is challenging at the best of times, let alone when you’re not on home turf.

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I still remember the concerned looks from friends asking if I was game enough to be giving birth in this unknown, oriental location? – Will it be civilized? Will they speak English? Will it be safe? In truth, I really didn’t know, but heard myself muttering something like “I’m sure we’ll be fine” (mostly to reassure my rather apprehensive self).

For the record: it’s all of the above!

Mind you, the process wasn’t without its perils. (When is having a baby, ever?)

Surviving those moments when my little blondie was born and I took her to her first doctor’s appointment in a city that, on the surface, appeared to be about as baby-friendly as hiking through the Himalayas.

Hailing a cab with a new-born proved next to impossible (too much baby paraphernalia, hide the stroller people warned, you’re more likely to get a lift); underground train stations were unreachable and footpaths steeper than Mount Everest!

These days I’m quite chuffed to say ‘we made it’ and I can successfully navigate the city with the best of ’em – with stroller (in heels)!

Naturally the three-year mark makes you pause and reflect: How much have I learned? How much have I changed? What would I do differently next time?

Living the expat life has undoubtedly been an invaluable experience. For starters, I like to think I’ve learned a lot about myself, what makes me tick, what I’m really capable of and what it takes to survive in a place that challenges you on every front, without the usual support networks. Your strength and weaknesses are revealed in all their glory and like they say, ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!’

Ultimately though I’m still the same old me, with a slightly higher tolerance for chicken feet and hairy crab.

Of course there will be a new place to call home eventually. I don’t know where and I don’t know when, but I do know, second time round I’m much better prepared and the reality whilst admittedly scary – is a lot less daunting.

So what lessons will I take with me to our next expat destination?

1. No Man is an Island

Most countries have an expat community so don’t be afraid to seek them out. Expats are a friendly bunch and there’s always room for one more. Living in a place where there are so many likeminded people bonding over similar situations can be incredibly comforting.

Arriving in a strange land pregnant, jobless and friendless, it soon became clear, for me, there was no escaping the inevitable ‘meet and greet with strangers.’

So with that in mind, I tentatively joined a mum’s group (online) and went along to their monthly lunch. (Note: Getting lost on the way is not an excuse to turn around and go home….deep breaths and persevere (use google maps if you have to!)

Turned out to be the best thing I ever did… If you network enough, you’re bound to find someone up your alley (in my case, someone to share a vino and cheese platter with while discussing the latest box-set in a country where DimSum TV just isn’t cutting it).

2. Cross-Cultural Understanding Counts

Be open-minded enough to embrace a different culture. A new language, new food and unfamiliar customs can be overwhelming and a little daunting to say the least – that’s why they call it ‘culture shock’ but try and take the opportunity to explore and learn.

I can’t promise you’ll always be laughing (especially if you’re in a taxi with a baby on your lap on the way to “Timbuktu” and can’t muster up enough of the local language to say “stop here”).

If you’re working with locals, try to be culturally sensitive. Seeing things done differently to the way you’re used to in your own country may be frustrating, but remember not all cultures think the same way and many habits, rituals and attitudes have been conditioned over hundreds, maybe thousands of years.

Once you can accept the challenges and embrace the positives, it’s forever empowering.

3. One Day at a Time

Settling into a new country and calling it home doesn’t happen overnight. Expect teething problems and accept there will be times when you find yourself seriously questioning how you got there and what you’re doing in this strange land! Feeling homesick is OK. One day when you least expect it, you’ll find yourself calling it home. If you can’t find the love, you can always pack up and call it a day.

4. Technology Talks

With Skype, FaceTime, What’s App, Email and Facebook, there’s really no excuse not to be in touch with your loved ones these days. But yes it’s always hard being so far away from family….and no, saying goodbye doesn’t get any easier with time. It helps if you can try to plan ahead and organize trips home, so you know exactly how long before you’ll be reunited again. My tip: In the first year try not to go home too much when you’re trying to establish your new life.

5. Your Relationship Rules:

Naturally, a couple who moves to a foreign country for one partner’s work is going to find themselves under pressure when things aren’t going as smoothly as you’d like, both for different reasons. There’s a tendency to blame each other for your predicament. It’s never more important than now to stay on the same page. Remember why you made the move in the first place and stick together. Without family and friends to hold your hand, you need to make sure you’ve got each other’s back. The expat experience, if anything will strengthen your relationship.

6. It’s a Transient Life

There’s no denying, as an expat, you’ll see friends and colleagues come and go…and there’s every chance you may not know how long your current posting will last – but don’t let that put you off diving into new friendships. Some of these people will become permanent fixtures in your life, no matter where you go in the world… and you just never know when you might end up in the same city again. You’ll be thankful when you know great friends in every corner of the globe!

7. You're Not the First Expat and You Won’t be the Last

Since starting this journey I’m constantly amazed and impressed with the giant expat community that exists the world over.

Feeling anxious, unsettled, missing family, need advice….go online! Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, expat websites/blogs …there’s an abundance of expats all experiencing the very same thing – the good, the bad and the ugly!

8. Never say Never

The biggest thing I’ve learnt – ‘never say never.’ It’s easy to get caught up in your own ideals and even easier to stay in your good old comfort zone. All too often we think it’s just not in our nature to do something so radical or live somewhere alien, in an unfamiliar culture. How would we cope? But you don’t know until you try, some times in life, it’s worth taking a risk.

You might just end up having the time of your ‘expat’ life!!

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu

by Mint Mocha Musings blogger Nicole Webb.

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. Her expat journey to date has been filled with plenty of intriguing and humorous tales. Check out her blog Mint Mocha Musings and on Twitter @nicoledwebb

Read Nicole's other Expat Focus articles here or click the button below to view her own blog…

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