"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Travel
July 15, 2011

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 […]

Hong Kong In High Contrast

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.

Ruth 13 years ago

I’d agree. I came 16 years ago and received the same advice as you: learn Mandarin. ‘Because it’s easier’ was the reason given. But, back then it was a foreign language and useless to get around in HK. So, I made an effort to learn Cantonese and progressed fairly quickly. I’ve probably not learned any more Cantonese for the last 15 years, but I use what I know almost daily. It’s not good enough to conduct a meeting, but it helps. All the best with your move!

Piet 13 years ago

Hi Fernando,

Thanks for this honest blog post. It’s always nicer to learn from other people’s mistakes than to have to make your own ones. I’m not planning on moving to Hong Kong, but I’d add to your post that – even when only going to a place for a couple of weeks or months – learning at least some of the language is always highly appreciated by the local people…

Tom 13 years ago

Or massively rely on their Cantonese speaking friends to find things for them!

Good point. I haven’t even made an effort on the basis that (i) I really am here a short time and (ii) I suck at languages. Still I should have learned a few small phrases at least. I always have in Europe, why not here!

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Ruth – thanks for your comment. You did well. Unfortunately, my Cantonese never got beyond asking cabbies to slow down, or waiters for tea refills, etc. Oddly I learnt more Hindi in my three years there than Cantonese in five years here.

Moreover, we invested a fair effort in trying to make expat friends in our first two years – which proved to be a waste of time. It feels odd and not right to leave after five years with so few local connections.

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Piet – you are right. I did learn some basic Cantonese – but if I am really honest, I know more German and Japanese, despite only having spent short periods of time visiting those countries.

One thing about Hong Kong though, is that I’m just not sure how much locals appreciate Westerners trying to learn Cantonese. The attitude here sometimes reminds me of the way Parisians treat Brits who try to speak French.

I’ve had it happen to me that I try to order in French, only to have the waiter disdainfully reply to me in English. The only way to salvage the situation is to lie and say, in Spanish, that I can’t speak English and only speak a little French. Then the waiter either tries to speak to me in Spanish, or patiently speaks in French 😉

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Tom – True. Sometimes I wished my Cantonese speaking friends would drop more canto words into their English, the way Indians do with Hinglish.

Like you, I have an internal narrative that says I’m not good at languages. Of course, it’s really bollocks. I’m fluent in Spanish, middling at English and also can fudge my way through in Italian and Portuguese. Although my Ancient Hebrew is gone from memory, I still surprise myself when I’m patient enough to sit down and read Latin or Ancient Greek. And, of course, it took all of a day to remind me that I actually can speak basic Hindi. Put simply, it was kind of stupid not to get a tutor and learn Cantonese.

Virginia 13 years ago

Good read and I’m always back and forth with regards to this issue. To pick up on a comment that you made though, locals DO appreciate how hard the language is for foreigners. I don’t know if I’m in a position to comment as I’m the typical third culture kid, neither here nor there. Foreigners think I’m local but local people find me foreign as I speak the language but can’t read or write it.

But at the end of the day, whenever I am in the cha chan teng or wet market and there’s a ‘gweilo’ or ‘gweipo’ whether attempting to speak Chinese or speaking fluent Chinese, the reaction is always delight that someone has taken the initiative to try to learn the language. And taking that into consideration, since they know you speak English, they also want to make it easier for you by speaking what English they know which is also a source of pride for the locals as English is a difficult language for them to master. It’s the typical Chinese custom of trying to be gracious and making things as easy as possible for their customers.

Personal note now: still sad you’re leaving!!!!!

Javier I. Sampedro 13 years ago

Definitely is a good advice you are giving. I am trying to get a bit more into cantonese, but sometimes admit to be lazy as I spoke most of time in spanish/english (office, home) but try to use when go to restaurants, 7-11 and shops. The people always appreciate your effort and welcomes with a smile. Step by step and hope to get some knowledge from my local friends and gf too.

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Virginia, thanks for your comment. I’ve been overwhelmed with how kind everyone has been about my leaving Hong Kong. It’s nice that people have noticed!

I’ve sometimes had and seen the experience you describe. Though, to be honest, it reflects my experience on the “mainland” more than in Hong Kong.

Certainly in some markets in Hong Kong, especially away from Central/Causeway Bay, I’ve had people be patient and accommodating. But, my overall shopping experience in Hong Kong over five years doesn’t really match up with make things as easy as possible for customers at all. If anything, it often feels totally hit and miss. Anything beyond pointing to something on the shelf and handing over your credit card can be really painful.

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Javier – I was watching a Bollywood film the other night and it surprised me again how much Hindi I remember. In fact it saddens me that I didn’t really connect in Hong Kong on that level. Hope you keep going with the Cantonese – I’m sure the city will open itself up more to you.

Whitedusk 12 years ago

When I went to HK in 2005 to work, the one piece of assurance given to me was “Don’t worry! HK is a cosmopolitan city and everybody speaks English!” I had difficulties at work trying to give instructions to my staff. Likewise they had difficulties trying to express themselves. I was using sign language with some of the warehouse staff!

Out on the streets it was even worse for me because I’m a Chinese Singaporean so they look upon me like a local and expect me to be able to speak the language! Soon they realise I’m Singaporean and they try to communicate with either Putonghua or whatever English they have.

2 years later I was fluent enough in Cantonese to order my own food, conduct meetings with vendors and chat with taxi drivers. Everything was easier with Cantonese.

I totally agree with you that there is a strong expat community in HK that is pretty much segregated from the rest of HK and they don’t really need much Cantonese to enjoy the place. But then again they never intended to stay forever. Those who do will bother to learn the language~

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