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Nancy Bach, Hong Kong

Who are you?

I am Nancy Bach, a wife and mother of three. I’m a chemical engineer by training, with an MBA in economics and marketing. I worked for Eastman Kodak for 28 years, first in technical, operational, and supervisory roles in manufacturing, and then as a business manager with responsibilities for strategic planning and product and market development. After leaving Kodak in 2004, I planned to be officially retired, doing some volunteer work, but mostly relaxing. That got old quickly and I found myself pursuing many new jobs. Now I work full-time, but in a combination of many roles: as consultant, teacher, writer/editor, and more.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

In 1995, we were living in Rochester NY, working for Eastman Kodak. I was in a global strategic planning role working with our regional marketing managers all over the world.My husband, also with technical and MBA degrees, was working as the US finance manager for one business unit. I had been campaigning for an international assignment for quite some time and hoped to move to England or France. However, at the time, Kodak was pursuing a growth strategy that included creation of a new Greater China Region. The prior European regional manager was named head of the new GCR and invited my husband and me to join him in marketing and finance roles for a one to two-year assignment. He was happy to get a “two-for-the-price-of-one” deal. My wish was granted! I wanted to be a foreign exchange student in high school and it finally happened 15 years later.

What challenges did you face during the move?

We told our children—ages 9, 7, and 4, at the time—about the move. First they thought we were joking and then they turned tearful. Our daughter cried nearly the whole 13-hour plane ride to Hong Kong, thinking that this was the worst possible thing that could happen to her. We had second thoughts about making the move, but decided to continue. Although we didn’t live near either set of grandparents, moving half the world apart meant that our kids would not see their grandparents frequently, another emotional issue. In fact, our parents had some concern that we were moving to a Communist country that could have the PLA marching into our home at any time! We had only a few months to try to sell the house that we had built nine years earlier. We hoped for some appreciation, but it didn’t sell. Fortunately the company paid us market value, so we didn’t take a loss and didn’t have to deal with the logistics of home-selling from across the ocean. Learning to drive on the opposite side of the road takes some concentration. Since we were moving from a large home in upstate New York into a relatively small apartment in tropical Hong Kong we left much of our household goods and winter items in storage for the relatively short time we would be gone. Our term in Hong Kong ended up as six years and we wished we had brought many of the things we left in storage. (For example, we left all of our ice skates in the US and were surprised that my husband and son could play ice hockey year-round in Hong Kong.) At first it was difficult to find some of the comfort foods (chocolate chips and Cheetos) that we needed occasionally for a boost, but as we learned our way around Hong Kong we could generally find these things, and of course, we found many local food items to give comfort as well.

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How did you find somewhere to live?

Our company sent us on a house-hunting trip and hired Richard Ellis to provide rental agent services. We identified several possible locations that would be both convenient to work (in North Point) and to the children’s school (in Repulse Bay). We discounted Lantau Island and Kowloon as being too far. We visited Tai Tam apartment buildings, but thought that was too far from work, especially since we would have only one car and might not always be able to carpool. We visited midlevel apartments but felt a bit claustrophobic, especially concerned that there weren’t many places for the kids to play without going out into the city itself. Then we visited Parkview and fell in love. The complex was halfway between our work and the kids’ school and on the popular #6 bus line, so it was very convenient. At the time it had wonderful facilities with dance lessons for our daughter, skateboard area for the boys, workout area, six restaurants, two outdoor pools, and the large grass-covered podium area inside the perimeter of Parkview for active play for the kids. Plus it was in the middle of the county park so we could step out the door onto a number of hiking trails. It was like heaven to us; it would be like living in a resort complex. The main feature that we appreciated was the security that our kids would have plenty to do without having to venture off the property. We had a problem that our housing allowance didn’t cover the rent, but our manager quickly upped the allowance slightly since he had gotten such a good “two-fer” deal to start. We certainly didn’t get the penthouse, but our third floor apartment was very comfortable.

Were there many other expats in your area?

We interacted with many other expats at our work. One of our colleagues from France, who was living in Repulse Bay, scoffed at our choice of Parkview, calling it a “concentration camp for expats.” He was right to some extent in that there was a high concentration of expats. The 18 towers had 3500 residents. At least half of these were expats of non-Chinese descent and many of the remainder were American-born Chinese or Hong Kong-born Chinese returning for expat assignments. At my son’s sixth birthday party, his best friends included one Norwegian, two Koreans, and two Chinese boys. We regularly met expats at Parkview, particularly at the pools. We also visited the American Club often and met many expats there, primarily at the Tai Tam location. Our largest exposure to other expats was through the kids’ school, Hong Kong International School. Again, this included many Americans, but also people from other countries.

What was your relationship like with the locals?

Unfortunately, because we were working nine to five (or later) in a multinational company with many expats, we didn’t meet many local people in our day-to-day activities. Our local business contacts were, of course, friendly at work, but we didn’t develop the “drop over for dinner” relationship that might happen in the US. In fact, with small apartment living, most dinner invitations were to go out to a restaurant. My husband was frequently included in karaoke (and drinking) with our colleagues while we were on business trips, but I was sent back to the hotel. One of our colleagues confided to me that the men didn’t want me to go to karaoke and then tell their wives what they were doing! A very unlikely scenario since I didn’t know their wives. We learned to speak some Mandarin. Even though Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, we found that many locals understood Mandarin or English, so we were able to communicate with some combination of those languages and smiles. Again, people were very friendly in daily interactions. Being somewhat introverted, we didn’t try to create new friendships other than those that came up through our interactions with other parents at HKIS, but we never felt that we were treated badly.

What did you like about life where you were?

We loved Hong Kong. It was the perfect combination of big city and countryside. It was a great jumping-off point for visiting all parts of Asia and Australia/New Zealand. The people were friendly. The food was wonderful. The markets were fascinating. Public transportation was great. Our kids’ school, HKIS, was ideal with good education and enriching extracurricular activities. Living in Hong Kong was a bit of a fairy tale existence. We worked hard during the week (and on some business trips), but then we came home to a warm, inviting apartment. One of the best things about living in Hong Kong is having an amah. For six days of the week, she served all of our household needs, keeping the house clean, creating wonderful meals, and providing adult support for our children when we weren’t there. She has become a lifelong friend. We always found things to do on the weekend, with many outings to nearby islands or ventures into New Territories. We could do all the sports that we enjoyed back home—bicycling, hiking, ice hockey, soccer, and more. We found the new sights and sounds and tastes of Hong Kong so stimulating that we used that as the theme when we created a promotional entry for a Hong Kong Tourist Association contest called “Hong Kong, Our Home.” Our family was the only non-Chinese group in the finalists. We were honored and content, for Hong Kong WAS our home.

What did you dislike about your expat life?

This list of dislikes is short. The biggest concern is the air pollution. We watched it get worse each year we lived in Hong Kong as manufacturing development increased in southern mainland China and the pollution shifted our way. Our beautiful blue-sky views of the South China Sea became limited…and we wondered how that was impacting our health. The long trip (15 hours) between Hong Kong and the US is particularly grueling in economy class, one more reason not to leave Hong Kong! Traffic on Hong Kong Island can be bad, especially after a rainstorm with many “landslips.” One of our colleagues described even everyday traffic as “six cars short of total gridlock.” Emotionally, the biggest issue was being away from extended family in the US.

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

One of our colleagues who had visited Hong Kong before our move gave my husband these words of advice: “They don’t have guns so you won’t get shot, and if all else fails, there’s a McDonald’s on every corner.” Even after we watched the PLA being trucked into the city with the change in reign as China took over from Britain with the handover in 1997, we didn’t question our security. Of course it’s important to take precautions against crime as you would in any large city, but we didn’t worry as our 11-year old daughter traveled alone by bus, tram, taxi, and on foot across the city to various locations or our 9-year old son lugged his heavy hockey bag from the bus onto the MTR to get to the rink in Kowloon. With safety and security in place, the rest is fun. This is a tremendous chance to explore and enjoy new experiences. It’s easy to find comfort zones with food, friends, and habits that you are used to from home. But it’s better to make the effort to try something new, meet new people, and take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you’re NOT working, this is the time to immerse in the culture. There are many volunteer opportunities that will welcome non-Chinese workers. And there are unlimited locations to explore across the city. Make Hong Kong your home, not just a temporary assignment.

What are your plans for the future?

After our six years in Hong Kong, we moved to Switzerland for a year. Surprisingly we found that “free” Switzerland was much more constricting than “Communist” Hong Kong. We missed the freedom and flexibility that we had enjoyed in Hong Kong with its 24/7 economy and lifestyle. We missed our home in Hong Kong! This bit of malaise continued as we returned to the US. After working overseas as big fish in a small pond, it was difficult to return to the US as smaller fish in a bigger pond. The bureaucracy of the home office was a big change after the autonomy we had had on the other side of the world. We tended not to talk about our experiences overseas because no one in the US was interested. Even our kids noticed that some of their friends were close-minded, xenophobic, and just unaware of the larger world beyond the county where they were born. When our daughter wrote her application essay for NYU she talked about her extreme sadness upon hearing of our move to Hong Kong and then related that her move to Hong Kong was the best thing that could ever have happened to her. She did get in to NYU and studied international business. All three of our kids now have some international component in their careers. My husband and I are thinking about retiring as global expats, spending a successive month or two in different foreign countries. Hong Kong will surely be one of our stops.

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