Home » Hong Kong » Helen Bannigan, Sai Kung

Helen Bannigan, Sai Kung

Who are you?

I’m a mom, wife, entrepreneur, culturalist, and a lifetime advocate of making the world a better place by following my passions in life and sharing those passions with those around me.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

30 years ago, after graduating from university in Washington, DC, I got fired from my job, the lease of my apartment wasn’t renewed, my boyfriend broke up with me, and my dad died of cancer… all in a space of about six months. Clearly the universe was trying to tell me something.My dad, whom I admired deeply, was an avid Europhile who spoke 6 different European languages and always taught me the importance of taking a bite out of life and enjoying it to the fullest. So, I sold what little I had, and went backpacking around Europe by myself for 1.5 years. Best education I ever got. My first country was France, because I had taken French in high school and college and now – seven countries later – I’m moving from Hong Kong to London.

What challenges did you face during the move?

Money was always a challenge as a young kid in my 20s but I quickly met other young expats and found work teaching English. The language was a challenge, even though I spoke French well “for an American”.

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A few moments into my first “real” job interview the Parisian woman stopped me and said, “I thought you said you spoke French?!” Ugh. I ended up deciding to pursue my masters in Paris and spent a year preparing for the entrance exam to “Sciences Po”, a prestigious political institute. I ended up getting in (I guess I convinced them I spoke French!) and built up a lot of resilience being up against the very competitive French intellectuals who had distinct opinions about Americans and their intellectual capacity (or, rather, lack thereof!).

How did you find somewhere to live?

I started in hostels. Then I knocked on the door of an Algerian-French guy I had met while travelling in Morocco who had said I could stay with his family if I was ever in Paris. Insanely, the mom – who raised 10 kids by herself after the death of her husband – welcomed me into their home and I lived with the family for over a year. Even shared the bed with her 16-year old daughter, who never once complained.

Tragically, the son has since died but I’m still in touch with that family 30 years later, and consider the mom my surrogate mother, and the daughter as a sister, as they treated me with such love and compassion.

Are there many other expats in your area?

Fast forward 30 years, after growing up in NJ, I lived in Paris, Lisbon, Madrid, Rome (where my kids were born), and now Hong Kong. We’re moving to London in a few weeks.

Each country was different, but currently I live in Sai Kung, Hong Kong, a beautiful area in the suburbs with a nice mix of locals and expats.

What is your relationship like with the locals?

I once asked a Hong Kong local what he felt his responsibility was in welcoming us foreigners to town. He answered first that they don’t really give us a second thought, don’t pay attention to us other than being grateful that we make a lot of money for the city. But then, he said in terms of welcoming us, as long as they don’t overtly offend us, they feel they’ve done their job. I get that sense with the majority of locals, we’re sort of invisible to them.

Having said that, there are loads of locals working with multinationals, often educated abroad, who have global mindsets and are absolutely lovely to hang out with. These friends are quite different from the traditional Hong Kong person in terms of behavior, communication style and outlook on life.

What do you like about life where you are?

I love being near the South China Sea, to enjoy Dragon Boat racing and kayaking; and also, near the stunning mountains to go hiking and enjoy nature. Many think Hong Kong is just a bunch of chaotic high rises but that’s actually a minuscule percentage of all that HK has to offer.

One of my favorite things is to take a local boat (either a “sampan” or a “junk boat”) out to one of the secluded surrounding islands where you can enjoy a rustic, simple lunch and laze the day away swimming in the ocean and watching the feral water buffalo and wild boar wandering around.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

Very little, I adore being an expat. The only thing I can think of is being far away from family and friends back in the US, and our kids not being able to see cousins and extended family very often

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?

There are so many, and – again – each of the seven countries have different contrasts.

For Hong Kong, I’d say it’s the mindset of dependence on each other, vs. the American value placed on independence. HK people appreciate relying on each other and nurturing a sense of compassion and good will amongst their created “inner circle of trust” comprised of close family, friends and colleagues. Americans, on the other hand, tend to have lots of loose acquaintances and pride themselves on achieving milestones on their own, a sense of self accomplishment based on a perpetual can-do attitude and personal achievements.

What do you think of the food and drink in your new country?

I love tea, especially jasmine and green tea, so it doesn’t get much better than this part of the world for that.

As a vegetarian, however, I find it challenging to order in very local restaurants, since so many things – even a plate of vegetables – will be cooked in oyster sauce or contain bits of pork (“for flavor”, they say). Even when I say “mo yok” – “no meat” – when ordering and they confirm, it invariably comes with some variation of flesh.

The good news is that HK is a very cosmopolitan place, so there are plenty of international restaurants with long-standing vegetarian traditions (Indian, for example) that make it easy to eat out as a veggie.

What are your particular likes or dislikes?

In general terms, I’m passionate about yoga, meditation, singing, kindness, gardening, animals, environmental awareness and protection, compassion, dancing, the smell of the ocean, sincerity and authenticity, foreign languages and communication in general, cultural awareness, theatre, perpetual learning, arts, music, reading, and peace.

I don’t care for anchovies, intentionally harmful people, the Hong Kong humidity, heavy metal music, and rancid smells.

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

1. Other people’s opinions of you are none of your business
2. Assume good will… until proven otherwise
3. Life is short: eat dessert first!

What are your plans for the future?

While I certainly plan a bit for the future, I do focus on the gift of today, and being grateful for every moment I have to share my joy with others.

In the near future, we’re getting ready for a move to London, so are focusing on ensuring the kids (now teens) are well-adjusted and thriving, and that we all create life circumstances that feed our souls and bring us joy.

In the longer-term future, I’m looking forward to enjoying our life-after-kids, as both will be out of the house in four years. I recognize it will be bittersweet, but it’s a new chapter in my relationship with my husband, and I look forward to non-kid-focused adventures with him. No plans to move back to the US for either of us.

I do place a priority on being a good role model for our kids, and ideally contributing to their development into kind, compassionate, wise human beings who have a passion for leaving the world a better place than when they arrived into it. I strive to do that every day and – so far – I think our kids are well on their way to doing the same.

You can keep up to date with Helen's adventures on her blog, What In The World Am I Doing Here.

Would you like to share your experience of life abroad with other readers? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or answer the questions here to be featured in an interview!

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