Moving To Hong Kong?
What advice would I give, as an expat, on my way out of Hong Kong after five years, to someone who was moving here, or had recently settled in this town? It’s a tough question. I’ve struggled with it and given different answers to this question in recent months. In fact, I’ve written several drafts […]
What advice would I give, as an expat, on my way out of Hong Kong after five years, to someone who was moving here, or had recently settled in this town?
It’s a tough question. I’ve struggled with it and given different answers to this question in recent months. In fact, I’ve written several drafts for this blog. Some, as you can imagine, were long and quite detailed. But, in the end, it all comes down to one simple suggestion – learn Cantonese.
I realise that this is a little hypocritical, since I didn’t learn Cantonese. What can I say – I got it wrong.
We moved here expecting to stay for two to three years. My daughter was learning Mandarin at school so, like many parents, I made an attempt to learn that language. However, I was never able to keep up with my daughter (who had six classes a week of Mandarin at school, plus an after school tutor).
Moreover, I got some (bad) advice suggesting that I wouldn’t really need to learn Cantonese anyway. In my first year I met people who were active in business here and seemed to do fine, professionally and socially, only speaking English.
I only came to realise later that those people lived in a social bubble – the expat bubble. Besides, after the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 they were all gone anyway.
The important thing to realise about Hong Kong is that this really is not a cosmopolitan Asian city. Fundamentally, it is a Chinese (Cantonese) city, with a relatively small Westernised expat community and a significant number of South East Asian (largely Filipino and Indonesian) domestic workers.
So, if you really want to connect with the bulk of the population and, by extension, their social and cultural world, you better learn Cantonese.
In the past few years, I’ve done some interesting stuff. But, everything, from shooting models on the street, to installing sound at Fuel Espresso in the Landmark building, could have been better and gone more smoothly if I had spoken the language. Moreover, the most interesting local work in design, theatre and music is largely happening in Cantonese.
Even today, I had two experiences that really shouldn’t have happened to me after five years here. First, I was ordering a basic local lunch. Something went wrong with my order and as is the way here when things get a little uncomfortable, the woman taking my order laughed. I should have been able to talk through the situation, but I was stuck there like a fool unsure if the laugh meant they were embarrassed for getting the order wrong (possible), I was a bit of an idiot for ordering the wrong thing (probable), or go away you stupid Westerner (rather unlikely).
The second involved getting some large fine art prints finished. The person at the printers was trying really going out of her way to help me. But, over the phone I couldn’t quite explain what I wanted – and, the instructions were simple. It’s kind of silly that I am working here as a photographer and I can’t check the resolution and crop instructions for a print over the phone in the local language.
Hong Kong is an amazing and at times hard to fathom place. Of course, there are plenty more things to be aware of, if you plan to move here as an expat. Search the forums and blogs and you’ll see plenty of ideas about housing (crazy expensive and often poor quality), international schools (crazy expensive and almost impossible to get into) and so on.
If I had my time over again, I would learn Cantonese straight off the plane. In fact, I kick myself for not trying to learn back in 2008, when we looked like we would be here for longer than originally planned.
Truth is, there are plenty of expats who have a great time and don’t learn Cantonese. But, the ones I’ve met who are doing really cool stuff or embracing this city in ways that appeal to me all speak Cantonese, or are on their way to becoming fluent.