When you get the call to uproot your life and relocate to a new, foreign country, the shellshock of packing up your ‘life as you know it’ and heading into the unknown abyss, is more often than not followed by a fast and furious ‘Google’ of the new ‘home’ in question.
First things first:
Location: Check! (Yes it is right where you thought on the map; or Surprise! who knew it was so close to Timbuktu!?)
Population: Check! (Mighty important to know what you’re dealing with here – are you one of hundreds, thousands or millions?)
Language: Check! (Just how much brainpower is this assignment going to require?)So, with the basics ticked off – you’re in business.
Next on the relocation agenda, the things that make your world turn – jobs, real estate, schools, medical facilities and supermarkets.
If you’re a couple making the move into the expat world, usually one of you gets the job of heading into uncharted waters first and it’s usually the one with the new job.
For us, it was my Hotelier husband, who arrived cold turkey in Asia’s World City. We’d both had a brief taste of the city that never sleeps in a past life but for all intents and purposes, those trips (for me) were about shopping, eating and sightseeing, not so much focused on the unknown fact that my future might involve living amongst the madness that is Asia’s Manhattan.
So! Wheels set in motion, James landed in the fragrant harbour a good month ahead of me (and my bump). It was the middle of summer, which meant it was hot, humid and heaving!
With his heart in his mouth, he ventured into the mighty metropolis to soak up this unexplored city that was to become our new home, for an indefinite period.
Bracing himself, he joined the tidal wave of humanity sweeping through Hong Kong streets, anxious to reassure me we’d made the right ‘rather spur of the moment’ decision and the city was every bit as sophisticated and civilized as we’d imagined.
His first stop (much to my amusement at the time) the local chemist. I distinctly remember the over-excited phone call. After all, I was hanging on for dear life – a million miles away – desperate for any smidgen of information, a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that would make up my new existence.
He was ecstatic to tell me the local chemist sold makeup wipes and Voltaren gel (for those pregnancy aches and pains) plus his all-important brand of hair gel!
Manning’s – you had me at hello! Based on that alone, I was convinced our decision to move half way around the world was the right one (said tongue in cheek of course, but with an element of truth to it).
Funny as it may sound, when you’re in a foreign country, far away from home, there’s nothing quite like a few creature comforts to make the adjustment that little bit smoother…that little bit more familiar. And no matter how big or small the item, when you can’t get it, it’s frustrating at best; at worst, if you’re feeling unsettled and out of your Dim Sum dining depth, it’s torturous. (Anyone knows a decent bar of Cadbury’s will help you through an acute case of culture shock!)
As time goes by, you realize there’s no need to sweat the small stuff. If something’s unobtainable, it usually means putting it on the ‘list’ for your next trip back home, ensuring you return with a suitcase stuffed to the brim with all those miscellaneous items you simply can’t survive without. (Or alternatively you can always order online or sweet talk one of your expat buddies into picking it up for you on their trip back home.)
I’ve just returned from a visit Down Under and three years into expat life in Hong Kong, my suitcases were surprisingly as light as a feather. (Ok slight exaggeration, but my usual heavy load of essential treasures was on the leaner side, for a change.)
But maybe it’s not so surprising – could it mean I’m almost local?
Three years in, I now know the thriving hub of Hong Kong pretty much comes with everything I need. Obviously, the longer you live in a city the more often you stumble across those bits and pieces you’d all but given up hope of finding.
Much to my delight I’m still making those daily discoveries. Who knew they stocked my favourite brand of hairspray just a hop, skip and a jump up the road (yes it’s all about the hair!) or that you could buy printing cartridges at a vending machine in the local shopping centre? Don’t let me lull you into a false sense of security though – depending where you’re based, things are harder to come by and you won’t find a one-stop shop like Target, Sainsbury’s or Walmart on your doorstep or anywhere even remotely close by.
So, If you’re currently in a sea of boxes, ticking off what to ship and what goes into storage (or on Ebay), here’s the expat lowdown on a few things you’ll be glad you sent with the removalist and those things you might want to start stockpiling in advance.
I’ve surveyed more than 120 expats to get the nitty-gritty on those things you can’t leave home without.
1. Electronic/Household Goods
Whether it’s your Internet and TV set up, your slow cooker/steamer/toaster or even heaters, lamps and light shades – it’s a good idea to put these in the ‘take with you’ pile. Choice is limited in Hong Kong and these kinds of items can be much more expensive.
(Take note: if you’re not from the UK and bringing appliances, make sure they’re 220voltage and you’ll need plug in adaptors or an electrician to convert your plugs.)
It also pays to check the Television system your home country uses to ensure your TV is compatible. HK TV uses the PAL system like Australia and the UK, while the US and Canada use NTSC. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than sitting down with a desperately needed DVD series to find it won’t play!
NB: For me, personally, I always bring back a stack of DVD’s to watch. Let’s just say Dim Sum TV isn’t always a ratings winner.
Still on the household front, if you are partial to a decent set of bed sheets and extra fluffy pillows or plush towels, the word is – bring your own. Some expats will even go as far as telling you to bring your own bed. International brands can be three or four times the price.
On the flipside – it’s not recommended you bring all of your big furniture items, especially if you don’t know where you’ll be living. In general, Hong Kong living is a tight squeeze. Apartments are more often than not the size of a postage stamp and your ‘normal’ sized coffee and dining tables, book-shelves and wardrobes will look like you’re attempting to stuff a giant’s belongings into a doll’s house.
You can buy custom made in HK or trusty Ikea has everything you need (including dishes and cutlery). There’s generally no space for a dishwasher though, so prepare to get down and dirty with the sink. Don’t expect a proper sized oven in a regular HK kitchen either, you’ll have to forget about cooking that Christmas turkey!
2. Over the Counter medicines
For adults and children, the usual pain relievers and cold medication (like Nurofen Plus, Calpol, Tylenol Advil, Vicks Vapor Rub, Bonjela teething gel, Naprogesic, antacid tablets and multivitamins, to name a few) are hard to come by and for most expats it’s the one thing they stock up on from home. Panadol, plus some cold and flu tablets and throat lozenges are readily available and I’ve just discovered they stock run of the mill Nurofen in my local chemist. Hellelujah!
Yep! This one’s for the ladies! A common theme among many of the girls I surveyed was their disappointment in not being able to find a decent bra shop for their, um, girls! If you’re a D cup or above, it will be hard to find a bra full-stop! Asian sizes are naturally smaller and getting a good bra fitting isn’t so easy. You may also be hard pressed to find underwear in your size if you’re a size 14 or above.
Men, pack extras, options are limited for your bottom half as well!
In a positive light, you’ll never be short of Chinese style nightwear!
4. Spices and Condiments
If you enjoy cooking up a storm, you’ll miss your favourite spices, sauces, dressings, gravy and packet mixes. Let’s be clear, I’m no MasterChef, but I make sure I purchase plenty of slow cooker packets when I’m back home so I can rest easy when I’m on cooking duty!
Most big supermarkets sell a reasonable supply of western food but because it’s imported, you’ll find it a lot more expensive. Plus things that you can purchase one week are not guaranteed to be on the shelves the next.
Men and women struggle to find some of their tried and tested toiletries – everything from deodorant, good sunscreen, hair products to soap and self tanning lotion are hard to come by. For women in particular, a variety of razors and tampons are difficult to find and when it comes to cosmetics, you can’t always rely on your shade of makeup being available.
Don’t fret, shampoo and conditioner, toothbrushes and toothpaste, aftershave, perfume, wipes, moisturizer and shower gels line the shelves in their dozens.
If your feet aren’t on the small side, forget about finding decent footwear in this part of the world. Larger shoe sizes are limited in a city that favors the petite pair of tootsies.
Men over a size 10 will struggle to find shoes that fit – (most HK stores don’t carry anything above 10). You’ll need to get custom-made shoes (expensive) or put in a special order and pay the price for a larger size.
On the plus side, shops and markets are overflowing with handbags, wallets and sunglasses in every possible brand, colour and price range.
7. Baby products
Nappies/Diapers are easily bought in Hong Kong, but are not always of the same quality. Many mums complain they aren’t as soft or absorbent and are overpriced. You can buy strollers, bassinets and car seats here but a lot of parents find there’s more choice and they’re cheaper back home.
If your baby uses a specific formula, check before you come, as there are not a lot of international brands stocked. Alternatively, you’ll find plenty of baby toys, clothing, bouncers, cots, highchairs, baths, books, and baby bedding to buy.
There’s no denying Hong Kong is a shopper’s paradise with it’s glossy designer stores and bustling street markets, but there’s not a whole lot in between when it comes to affordable couture. There are European retailers with both men and women’s wear (think my favourites, H & M, Zara, Esprit and Top Shop) but unfortunately that’s where high street fashion ends.
On the up side, there are tailors on every corner, so it’s easy, efficient and reasonably affordable for men in particular to buy work shirts and suits.
And if you’re a watch or jewellery lover, Hong Kong is the place for you.
9. A Home Credit Card
It’s a good idea to keep your home credit card in use, at least until your bank accounts are set up. Even then, most expats say it’s handy to have to make online purchases from your home country for those things you can’t get in Hong Kong, as well as using it to pay any bills from home.
You can buy an Octopus card as soon as you arrive for the MTR (train system) and those small but all-important essentials like a Starbucks coffee or supplies from the 7 Eleven.
10. Cadbury’s Chocolate
Oh and just on that Cadbury fix I mentioned earlier for culture shock – if you’re a chocaholic like me, Cadbury’s Chocolate featured high on the list (especially with UK expats, who say nothing beats the taste of English Cadbury’s)! You can buy Cadbury chocolate here, but according to the experts, Asia uses a different recipe to make their sweet sensation and expats aren’t having a bar of it.
You’d better stash a few blocks in your luggage!
There you have it, the top must-haves to bring from home when you relocate to Hong Kong, with a few tips on what you can leave behind.
Happy packing! See you in Honkers!
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
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