I now know my departure from Hong Kong is (sob) imminent. After calling this foreign frenzy of bright lights, burgeoning buildings and bustling bodies my ‘home away from home’ for four years, we are heading north… to China. Yes! (gulp) real Mainland China (but that’s a story for another day, you can read about it here!)
While I can’t deny I’ve fallen madly in love with Hong Kong, having found myself caught up in its dazzling web of intoxication, I’ve always known the toughest goodbye wouldn’t be to the city itself, but to my family, my ‘expat’ family.When you’re in a foreign country, devoid of all things familiar – from the language, to the landscape, culture and climate; not to mention your community, friends and loved ones, you reach out (clutch desperately) to those like-minded souls walking the same path as you.
I’ve long realized just how important these people from all walks of life, strolling (or quite possibly, running) alongside us in our new life have come to be, but it was a few months ago when it really hit home, just how pivotal the expat connection becomes to your daily existence.
It was a regular old Sunday in Hong Kong, when I went for a walk in my ‘hood with my husband and small person in tow – we were off to the eclectic and colorful suburb of Jordan to find Mr Phone Fixer – who surprise, surprise, does just that, down a nondescript lane way, inside a shop no bigger than your regular WC. On the way, I bumped into my yoga buddy and fellow expat roomy. She’s in Tower 2.
Homeward bound we stopped at our local pub-equivalent in the square – our friends were joining us from Tower 3 for a quick Sunday afternoon drink.
Finishing up and walking the brief two-minute journey home – our good friends in Tower 1 called out to us and we all walked home laughing and joking – our kids holding hands. Let’s not forget, this is a city of seven million people where you still manage to run into familiar faces on a very regular and surprising basis.
There’ve been many occasions when I’ve tried to figure it out. What is it that builds the expat bond?
Of course there’s the plain old, in your face obvious – the fact that we all moved away from the comfort zone of our native countries to pursue life in a foreign environment; many of us had to find new ways of earning a crust or just reinvent who we were altogether. All of us have become parents for the first time in a strange land, with no parents of our own near by, cousins, aunties and uncles or brothers and sisters to pop over for that priceless show of support or a late night glass of rejuvenating red.
In short, we make up each other’s ‘pseudo’ family.
But it’s more than that. It’s an unspoken understanding.
We know all to well, what it’s like to make those long, frantically-fuelled trips home with babies and toddlers in tow, so much so, we become experts in discussing the best way to keep a child entertained in a small seat for hours upon hours at a time.
We know what it’s like to see family in short spurts. To have to make up for lost time and immerse yourself briefly back in your old life. And we know what it’s like to leave. We understand the pit in your stomach feeling that rears its ugly heard Every. Single. Time.
We all have the same question permanently hanging over our heads. When do we call it a day and go home? When does our expat adventure come to an end? And what’s the catalyst for pulling the pin?
As time goes by, we are all acutely aware that we never stop missing family (goodbyes only get harder) we always yearn for that cuppa and a catch up with an old friend we’ve a shared history with – be it school, university, work, our home towns – we know life is steadily moving forward and we’re not sharing it.
We miss birthdays and special celebrations; we struggle to time our trips to fit in with important milestones, in between work/school holidays and new babies.
We spend a lot of these important milestones with each other.
We are the stand-in family at Christenings, 1st birthdays, 40ths and often Christmas and Easter celebrations.
Despite these forced absences that tug at our expat heartstrings, none of us dare deny that our life is one of supreme ease and comfort! Most of us are fortunate to have help in some form or another, not to mention enviable expat packages and life in a city that oozes charm, sophistication and soul.
We all share that passion for embracing a new culture, walking a new journey and the tingles of excitement when you discover a new city (not to mention a love of any new series out on DVD)!
We all travel, a lot!
But for many of us, that travel at your fingertips is a double-edged sword. A lot of expat jobs involve regular, weekly traveling, for days at a time… leaving one spouse to pick up the pieces at home.
For many women coming away as the (heaven forbid) trailing spouse – we not only leave behind careers, we put our aspirations and plans on the back-burner for the next country that comes along. They call us Tai Tai’s – but invariably the champagne is on ice while we scurry about trying to build a new life.
There’s that ongoing struggle with decisions we could obliviously avoid back in the day-to-day lives we once led at home.
Being an expat means there’s often more than one location on your map, which brings the ongoing pressures of making the right decision for the family. It’s not just taking a job at another company across the city, but uprooting to another country, another language, another culture or in many cases, repatriating back home (which can be just as daunting).
Friends are left behind again and new ones made. Kids pulled out of schools, work that you’ve spent endless hours trying to get, left. A life that must once again be turned on its head, as you continue on the exhilaratingly addictive expat adventure.
We all know what it’s like when a new homeland is up for grabs. Everyone pitches in with support and words of encouragement or tales of terror. Good lucks are passed around and collective Google searches carried out.
You run through the list once again with your expat family. Remind me what my priorities are? Is it a livable city for everyone? Are we brave enough? Why are we doing this again?
You find yourself constantly questioning the purpose of life when you’re away from loved ones. Family verses career, verses friends, verses lifestyle, verses marriage, verses kids, verses education.
While you’re weighing up the big questions, you do so with a laugh and a giggle knowing the situation is extremely absurd but it’s also liberating.
You find the humor in it all (“Don’t worry we’ll come and visit you in China,” they reassuringly say).
The intensity of living as an expat is not lost on any of us. We know we’re here for a short time, not a long time and ultimately, it’s about making the most of each day. Mostly it encourages us to really appreciate the people in our lives, no matter how near or far.
The expat club is yours to join and whether your membership is short-lived or long lasting, the expat bond is for life.
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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