Moving Overseas: How Much Of The Local Culture Do You Adopt?

It was Father’s Day in Australia this month, so we celebrated with Sunday brunch in Soho, uptown Hong Kong. Don’t let that fool you; I hadn’t exactly planned it around Father’s Day, if you know what I mean!

It was a restaurant review and I was technically “working” but hey, a hearty feast of scrambled eggs, hash browns and baked beans, washed down with a fine glass of Italian Prosecco has to be better than a poke in the eye with a burnt piece of toast, right?

For the record, as an expat I’m still not quite sure which country’s ‘special’ days you’re supposed to celebrate? Your home country or the one you’ve temporarily adopted? Admittedly, I’ve failed miserably at both this year.When it was Father’s Day in Hong Kong, I insisted I’d forgotten because well, it wasn’t real was it?! Since when is Father’s Day in June! (But just you try getting a Father’s Day card here in September – ain’t gonna happen sister!)

So it begs the question, when you’re living in a new country, just how much of those familiar traditions from home do you hang on to, no matter what the cultural climate?

Hong Kong is blessed with a bucket-load of auspicious dates. Of course Chinese New Year is probably the most significant on the Chinese calendar. It’s a week of carefully planned and poignant moments with A LOT of rituals leading up to and during the national holiday that, if you’re a believer, simply must be observed.

As a foreigner, it’s hard not to get caught up in the CNY-hype, especially when the city – laced with brightly coloured lanterns and a lucky orange tree on every corner – is buzzing with the energy of a thousand lion dancers, fire breathing dragons, and enough Lai See to pave the streets in diamonds. But as an expat unaccustomed to such tradition, how much do you get involved in and when is it OK to bow out?

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Do you make that hair appointment before CNY – just to be on the safe side – wouldn’t want to risk cutting your money loose with every snipped strand (as legend dictates) would you?

What about the notion that sweeping your floors during Chinese New Year will sweep money right out your front door? Do you refrain from housework – better to be safe than sorry? (It’s not a bad excuse right!)

Do you give red packets of cash (Lai See) to strangers just because it’s customary in China and you don’t want to be left red-faced?

This month marks another influential holiday on the calendar, the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Hong Kong pays homage to its Chinese roots and a bygone era when farmers thanked the moon god for bountiful harvests. A festival celebrated since the early Tang dynasty (618-907) if you buy into tradition, it’s time to get together with family under the light of a full moon and munch on the ubiquitous moon cakes that are a prominent fixture across the city.

Christmas, however, is not a holiday that attracts so much attention and adoration – mind you, to be fair, the fragrant harbour does go all out to ‘paint the town red’ – so if you’re out and about there’s definitely a twinkle of merriment in the air that says ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ (with a twist). The city that never sleeps is open for business, meaning most shops, restaurants and government departments are ticking along as per usual and for many locals it’s just a regular old day. (Side Note: Christmas turkeys are also in short supply, let alone a decent-sized oven to cook the thing in, so it’s pork or chicken on the Xmas menu or alternatively eating out – which isn’t a bad option given Hong Kong is home to around 8000 restaurants.)

In a foreign country would you go cold turkey and sacrifice the trimmings for a slightly altered version of the yuletide?

Special days like Thanksgiving in America, Australia Day or Remembrance Day in the UK will often see expat communities rally together in a patriotic bid to recreate those magic memories that stem from a lifetime of compulsory ‘national’ celebrations. Far from home, you realize these ‘days’ are ingrained in our psyches – whether ultimately, we care or not. Heck! Even Melbourne Cup gets its own soiree halfway around the world.

Televisions are flicked on in expat lounge-rooms across the city, in the desperate hope of finding a channel that might offer a glimpse of the frivolities back home. (Just in case we’re missing out, you know!)

What about the local food? Is it a case of sticking to what you know or do you throw caution to the wind and give your taste buds a serious makeover? In the city nicknamed ‘Gourmet Paradise,’ you can find pretty much any type of cuisine your stomach desires, but of course Chinese food is king!

Where do you draw the line? I’ve become a regular Dim Sum eater, I’ve even become partial to the odd bowl of congee and birds nest soup (good for the skin they say) and I may be seen eating the odd fish ball, but to be honest, chicken feet and goose web are still not on my dining radar (nor are they ever likely to be).

It goes without saying, if you’re somewhere a little more remote, you might not have the luxury of choice and obviously the local food is going to beat any other hands down. (I’m thinking of my poached egg fiasco verses my husband’s delicious wontons in mid-China!)

What about the local dress code – which obviously depends largely on where you’ve been relocated? In Hong Kong, the dress sense is somewhat similar (minus a few frills and sizes) so it’s not really a pressing issue. But it can be much more than just slipping on a sarong or squeezing into a pair of thermals in a cold climate. In some cultures it’s illegal to show too much skin. Living as an expat in an Islamic country would you wear a Burka or would you meet the country’s code of conduct halfway and dress modestly or alternately shrug off any ideas of conformity and dress as you always have, perhaps running the risk of offending the nation you currently call home? (Not to mention a stint in jail in some places.)

Safety standards also differ from country to country. In most western countries road safety in the 21st Century is paramount – here in Hong Kong, not so much. Arriving in Asia (with impending baby) I spent sleepless nights worrying about living in a nation whose road regime appeared trapped in the seventies. But inevitably, over the years, I’ve found myself blurring the lines, because it’s just how it’s done here. (Plus it’s not all that easy to change a nation’s legislation single-handedly.)

I’ve heard a lot of expats say they find it hard to understand the native mentality or mindset in their new home, which clearly, differs the world over. Sometimes it’s something as simple as the service or ‘lack of’ in a local restaurant. Here in Hong Kong it can be frustrating when you have to keep waving frantically for the next course. But do you say something or just resign yourself to the fact it’s perfectly acceptable in these parts?

Let’s face it, everyone knows when you’re at a tropical island resort – those drinks you ordered at lunch might well become an afternoon aperitif by the time they arrive. (The saying ‘Fiji-time’ stands for a reason.)

I’ve often found myself re-evaluating my approach when it comes to communicating with the locals (and not just because of my limited – ok virtually non-existent – Cantonese). As a Kiwi/Aussie, I’m a pretty laid back kinda gal and not one to shy away from laying it all on the table when it comes to conversation, but that’s not always appropriate.

My over-friendly, bare your soul attitude can be a little confronting at times for a nation of more reserved people who often don’t scratch below the surface with strangers. Note to self: When greeting the locals, just ‘Hello’ not the typically Aussie “Hello, How are you?” Nine times out of ten I’m met with an awkward response, like I may have just asked what color undies they’re wearing!

Yep! Just Hello.

Take education – here in Hong Kong it’s intense, it starts early and it’s pretty relentless for the next 20 years. I don’t necessarily agree with the pace – but I’ve embraced it, a little even though part of me feels like it’s going against the grain of everything I know and have been conditioned to believe is ‘normal.’ I have many friends who feel the same but who know they’ll be in this environment long-term – so there’s no getting around it – if you want your child to survive the rat race.

As they say….”When in Rome…”

The same can be said for the ‘Helper’ concept. In Hong Kong and most Asian countries it’s considered normal to have a live-in maid. When I first landed in this foreign neighbourhood, that idea was probably one of the most alien to me. (Hello – we all live in homes the size of postage stamps!?) And while to this day, I don’t have a full-time helper, the longer I’m here, the more I begin to see the logic in it, for some parties anyway.

So just what is normal? As an expat, I’d like to think I’ve been able to broaden my mind and can see both sides of the cultural equation.

It’s important to give local values and customs a chance – after all, you’re technically a visitor in someone else’s home and while things might seem at odds with your beliefs – for the most part, these are cultures that have developed over thousands of years. To completely reject it, well isn’t that just a little disrespectful? (That said, I still draw the line at the Chinese custom of burping loudly in public.)

At the same time, it’s got to be okay to hold on to those fundamental core beliefs and long-held traditions (as long as you’re not inflicting them on others or causing world war three right)? So basically, I’m saying if I don’t want to drink water warm because it’s good for my yin & yang, I don’t have to ok!

Of course, conversations like this stir up debate the world over – thankfully Hong Kong – the place where East meets West is the perfect blend of identities, a cultural melting pot where it seems perfectly OK just to be yourself (with a few minor adjustments along the way).

But isn’t that half the fun of expat life and traveling? You never know what you might learn from the experience and how you might change your tune.

Next year my husband might even get a Father’s Day gift in June!

So where do you draw the line when you move overseas to a foreign country? Do you make compromises?

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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