Living abroad 2, Hong Kong…/Vivre à l’étranger 2, Hong Kong…

(Désolé, mes amis français, mais je suis rentré tard, ce message est devenu plus long que prévu et je n’ai pas le temps de le traduire. Mea culpa!)

Yesterday I wrote about my good experience in coming to France, discovering a new culture, learning a new language and becoming a better person in the process.

Let’s continue that story today, because living abroad is not always easy…

I had been in France for about four years and one day the Mrs. came home and told me that her company had offered her a job in their Hong Kong factory. And if she accepted they would help me find a job there.

Well, coming to France had been such a good experience, it seemed like a good idea. I had gone through the three stages fairly easily so Hong Kong shouldn’t be a problem.

By this time we had one child and number two was on the way. So it wouldn’t be easy but what an opportunity to experience life in Hong Kong!

The first surprising thing about Hong Kong was that the airport, at the time, was in the middle of the city. As the plane made its descent, it flew down between apartment buildings to land on what looks like a very short runway that ends in Hong Kong Harbor.

The second surprising thing about Hong Kong is the climate, a sub-tropical climate. I arrived in November so it wasn’t so bad being the cooler monsoon season. As it is a tropical climate there are only two seasons, hot and humid from April to October and the rainy season from November to March. It is a livable place from November to March.

But the hot and humid season is unbearable. The low temperature at night was is in the low 20s. The high temperatures plus the high humidity makes sleeping very difficult. The humidity is so high that matches don’t work and we had to throw away books and clothes that became green from mildew. So from April to October it was air conditioning 24 hours a day.

The problem with air conditioning was the banks and the taxis that had their air condition so cold that glasses would fog up when you went outside. Because of these extreme temperatures differences, one of my children was in the hospital with pneumonia when she was two years old.

Another challenge was the crowds. Certain parts of Hong Kong have a high population density. This means fighting crowds wherever you go. Public transportation is particularly crowded.

Constant crowds, constant noise, constant activity, it’s an exhausting place to live. And the work week is five and a half days per week, Monday to Friday and Saturday morning.

Then there is the language. The Mandarin dialect in the north of China is already difficult with its four tones. This means the same word can be pronounced with four different tones, with each tone changing the meaning.

But Hong Kong Cantonese dialect uses six tones. It could be worse other Cantonese dialects use seven!

French is not an easy language so I optimistically thought I could learn Cantonese. I took classes for about six months but when I tried to speak one of two things happened, either they understood nothing or they answered in English. So I decided I could live without Cantonese. There were two TV channels in English, two daily newspapers, every company had several people who could speak English so why knock myself out.

Even if I didn’t speak the language I was convinced I could come to appreciate Hong Kong. I met so many expatriates who had lived there for 25 or 30 years and they loved the place. I didn’t but I remained hopeful.

But it was a difficult place to love. Hong Kong was created as a port for the British to ship opium into China which is not the greatest motivation for doing something. Well, the spirit remains the same today. Everyone is there for the money. The Chinese live to make money. They work five and a half days a week and many of them have a second job in the evening.

Many of the expatriates are there because of the money, they get good expatriate benefits which make it worth the effort. Hong Kong is the capitalistic Kingdom of Heaven. Companies, at that time, paid no taxes or charges for unemployment, social services or retirement because the Hong Kong government, at that time, had no social system.

When people are old they either live with children who take care of them or they work till they die. You see many old people working in Hong Kong cleaning streets and in fast food places. It’s hard to feel comfortable in a McDonalds when you see a little old grandmother going around cleaning tables and emptying the trash.

We stayed for four years and I’m sorry to say that I never learned to appreciate Hong Kong. Looking back my biggest mistake was not making more of an effort to speak the language. As I said in yesterday’s post: “Learning the language is like opening a door to the people and the culture.” I never opened that door and it kept me from discovering the people and the culture.

Living abroad can be a challenge! But living in Hong Kong was still a good experience and opened me up and broadened me in new ways. I don’t regret that decision at all.

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