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Nicole Webb

Two years ago today, my life did what you might call a 180 degree turn! At 38 years old I went from being a News Reader with national 24 hour news channel Sky News Australia, where I’d worked happily (mostly) for the best part of a decade, to being an unemployed housewife, smack bang in the middle of one of the world’s most populated cities.

I was living in a fairly comfortable apartment in Sydney’s not so shabby Neutral Bay with my also not so shabby hotelier husband. My close-knit family was just a hop, skip and a jump up the road in Queensland and the tight-knit sisterhood of friendships built on a lifetime of shared experiences, all within ‘wine quaffing’ distance.

So what happened? I gave up my life as I knew it, took a plane ride and a leap of faith to what they call Asia’s world city.Jobless, homeless, friendless, carless not to mention…(whimper) petless…I was also barefoot and pregnant in HONG KONG. Ok, so I had shoes on my feet and lets face it, I am not the first to up stumps and relocate to another country.

No biggy some might say…and it’s not. Not in the big scheme of ‘life!’ It just takes a little bit of re-working the old head space and a lot of deep breaths!

I won’t lie and say there haven’t been many, many moments where I’ve paused… and thought, “What the hell have we done, I want my old life back. I want the old me back!” (Ok so Hong Kong is not entirely to blame for the old me being spat out and discarded along with the nappy bags.)

Let’s rewind a little….

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We were a happily married couple who’d just celebrated their first wedding anniversary at the said time of ‘uprooting.’ It wasn’t a complete bombshell. Back in those heady dating days, James had ever so tentatively broached the topic of living overseas. He was in hotels and they like you to move, progress and conquer!

“NA UH!” I said… a straight up no way, never, nope! Sorry it’s just not for me. “I’m a career girl too don’t you know!”

The time for doing that overseas stuff was in my 20’s…in my best Honky accent – “CANNOT LA!!”

Looking back, I was so ensconced in that good old thing we call a ‘comfort zone’ – another ten years could’ve merrily rolled on by and I’d still be hastily weaving my way in and out of traffic, making the 15 minute drive to work (maybe in something slightly larger and less hip than the convertible mini ) rocking into the familiar, overcrowded Sky News car park, briskly making my way to the no-frills make up room to glam myself up before fronting the tele for a few hours.

Doesn’t sound so bad does it? It wasn’t.

Several overseas postings for James had come and gone, mostly dismissed, instantly, by both of us. We were happy and living the fancy-free life as a couple does in Syd-Vegas.

Life was good. We were ready to have a baby if the Gods rendered it so and be a fair dinkum family building sandcastles on Balmoral Beach. Why rock the boat? But then… as they say, the light went on – something they call an ‘epiphany.’

It’s cliched, but we really do only get one go at this thing called life. Was it time to step out of the comfort zone and opt for something a little more like living life on the edge? Shouldn’t James take the chance to reach the top rung on the ladder and embrace the opportunities a lifetime of waiting tables has afforded him?

I’d realized what I set out to achieve at that adolescent, dreamy age of 17 hadn’t I? Back then a seemingly overly ambitious goal of becoming a television news presenter that took me half way around the country and back to get there….and who’s to say it’s a done deal?

So it seems, when the universe has a plan, the universe has a plan!!
Within three months of putting it out there so to speak – James was asked to fly overseas for an interview at the very hip, contemporary and somewhat quirky W Hotel in Hong Kong.

When you’re talking Asia and relocation in the same sentence and Hong Kong’s put on the table, it’s kind of like hitting the jackpot. The ouija board of top hotel spots had spun the arrow directly in our direction. Turning it down was an option, but a very slim one.
As I nervously gulped my glass of wine over the phone to a rather apprehensive but slightly excited James in Hong Kong, little did I know my world was about to cartwheel itself upside down and inside out.

A week later, job accepted, move set in motion, mini in the Trading Post…another bombshell…I was pregnant! Cue major fist punching in the air! But lurking not so deep inside, we both knew – ready or not, the roller coaster ride was about to begin. To quote Lao Tzu “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

So a thousand teary farewells later I touched down in the heaving, ridiculously hot metropolis of Hong Kong. Aside from the overwhelming humidity, I am welcomed by the same imposing image that greets me every time I arrive back in this dynamic wonderland.

A mass of sky scrapers as far as the eye can see, dominoes that roll on for what seems like an infinity, lit up like Christmas trees. I always wonder how there can be so many people living in this one, small space. But there is so much more to this city than tall buildings. Two years on I know this….two years ago I didn’t.

I was scared, anxious and a little bit terrified. For James there were a lot of cultural complexities but essentially it was a similar job to the one he had in the ‘comfort zone.’ He got up every day and went to work to do battle with the elements much like he always had.

For me?…I shopped!

Isn’t that what girls do when left to their own devices especially in a place like Hong Kong where markets, high street fashion and designer stores all meld together in a confronting kaleidoscope of chaos? I also explored…. and I got lost…..completely lost amongst those ridiculously tall buildings, lost down alley-ways with that distinctive fishy Asian smell and mostly, I was lost in translation.

Even as I write this, in a city where english is widely spoken but often on a very raw, basic conversation level, so many things continue to be lost in translation. As a result, I’ve had orange hair, been driven to places I didn’t know were on the map, been grunted at by taxi drivers I think were saying they don’t know where I live and can’t take me home…(even when it was ten minutes down the road in a very prime location.) Too much baby paraphernalia I’m told.

I get phone calls every night where someone rattles away in Cantonese unaware I haven’t a clue what they’re saying. I wish I did but my words are limited. I am yet to bite the bullet and muster up the time and dedication it takes for mastering this language.

When english is spoken, you need a thick skin and sometimes a jolly good sense of humor. It’s a cultural thing, it’s a translation thing – but lets just say there ain’t no holding back.

My pretty little blondie Ava has been called a boy more times than you can put her in a pink dress. I’ve been told on countless occasions she’s fat, not big or tall just fat. Did you know my girl’s so pale because of all the milk she drinks?

In the lift, a lovely woman took it upon herself to ask me if I was feeding with my breasts.

Just the other day, we were on a rare, sneaky visit to Macas, after staring and smiling sweetly for a good 15 minutes, a little old chinese lady leaned across and whispered in my ear, don’t feed your baby too much fried potato!

All this from complete strangers.

Then there are the paparazzi moments where I have to stop and wonder if I’ve been secretly transported into a hollywood superstar’s body or possibly even more believable, that of an alien. Before baby, the bump and blonde hair had many a mainland Chinese requesting photographs…. After baby, well – it’s a way of life. 
Rarely a day goes by where Ava is not photographed and often with a zoom lens and without my permission.

Deep breaths…. because in this city that moves a million miles an hour, there is also an unfathomable generosity (from complete strangers.) Ava might be ‘papped’ on a regular basis but she is also treated with the upmost kindness and care by over-excited locals who think she’s quite frankly the bees knees (heaven help us when we return home!)

In a place where locals tell you a cup of warm water cures everything and goose web and duck’s feet are the norm, is a people who’s beliefs and customs have stood the test of time thousands of years over. A culture that works dam hard, six days a week, 16 hours a day (at least.) One day off is considered a holiday, yet they smile without menace as they watch the ‘Guailos’ or white faces swan off for weeks at a time to exotic locations.

It is a city with a great divide, extreme wealth on one corner yet hidden amid the urban sprawl of multi-million dollar towers and stylish shopping centres are rows upon rows of tiny boarding houses nicknamed ‘coffins’ that families are forced to call home.

Foreigners pay little to no tax, yet there is no local pension and the elderly work until they can no longer do so physically. Old women carry the loads, literally.

Pollution levels regularly knock you for six, yet a stone’s throw from the bumper to bumper traffic and shoulder to shoulder crowds, lies a tropical oasis, a cluster of idyllic islands and lush green hills. Living amongst all this is an international community of like-minded and loyal expats, respectful and embracing of a culture where east meets west. A vibrant city so intoxicating – they come for two years and stay for 20.

There’s no doubt, whenever you move, be it an hour’s drive away or a 12 hour plane ride, it takes time to settle, time to embrace your new community….and for me it was a good nine months before I felt ‘familiar.’ Isn’t that what it’s all about…finding your mojo amongst the madness?

A local supermarket, coffee shop, dry cleaners, pub, book shop, hairdressers – whatever builds up your comfort zone and most importantly, your peeps. Only then can you honestly call it home.

Who knows where to next for us – remember, my husband’s in hotels (but that’s a story for another day.) But as this city I call Yin and Yang and I celebrate our two year anniversary, would I do it all over again?

You betcha!

I wouldn’t swap it for all the tea in China.

Nicole shares more stories about life in Hong Kong through her blog Mint Mocha Musings and on Twitter @nicoledwebb.

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