By Gabrielle. Photographs by Heidi Selch.
I know firsthand how hard and yet how rewarding it is to find your groove as an expat. There are different languages to master – at least enough to procure what you need at the markets, to say “Thank you” for when it all goes well, and “I’m sorry” for when it doesn’t! – and cultures to respect. There are also the things you’ve left behind and the things you’ve learned to love, and all the frustrating moments in between.
Today, we’re following Christine through her Hong Kong day. She’s learned enough Cantonese and Mandarin to survive, but also leans heavily on drawings and hand gestures and genius apps! She stands firm even when school is pressuring her kids to do more, and is currently plotting a way to kidnap her helper when she returns to the US in a few years. I can’t wait to spend the day with her. Welcome, Christine!
Q: Good morning! How does your family wake up?
A: Our eldest, Joseph, true to his premature start in life, is never late to any party. He is our human alarm, and greets every day with enthusiastic whistling and humming until met with his little sister Stella’s loud disapproval. We do not speak to Stella until our engraved invitations have arrived.
Joseph is our old soul. I know that’s tossed around a lot, but he is. He is intense and detailed. He loves conversations, and will hang on every word you say. He can tell you all the details about the Titanic forwards and backwards. And he can build anything with Legos.
Stella is nine and no longer likes pink because it is too girly. She searches for sticks and rocks while dragging her American Girl, Jessica. We all love Hong Kong, except Stella secretly wishes we could go home to Virginia sooner rather than later as we promised a puppy upon our return. And she already has a name picked out.
We are lucky enough to have a live-in helper, which makes the mornings run very smoothly – although there’s no longer any of that showing up to the espresso machine in a state of undress! Don’t ask how we learned that unspoken rule. Her name is Merly, and she is the master of being there and being invisible all at the same time. She knows what the kids like for breakfast and also helps pack lunches on days when I’ve lost the plot. I was one of those expats who showed up and scoffed at the very idea of a helper, but I appreciate her so much. Real life will be here again soon enough, so I might as well enjoy the life I’m living now!
Q: Can you share a typical breakfast? What are you all discussing this morning?
A: Stella would prefer a daily midmorning brunch at the most leisurely ladies-who-lunch pace versus her quick bowl of Panda Puffs. Meanwhile, Joseph inhales a stack of gluten free waffles. Todd and I sip coffee while alternately begging Joseph to turn down American news on his iPod before Stella starts a revolution.
It’s a funny thing to be expatriated; so many things happen while we’re sleeping, so the morning blast is often too much for any of us to handle. I usually scour the news beforehand so I can preempt any panic.
Joseph developed a funky rash a year ago and, much to our surprise, tested positive for Celiac disease. Locals somehow don’t seem to be affected by gluten the way we Westerners are, so now we are those most annoying foreigners quizzing the locals on menu ingredients. There is a lot of wheat in soy sauce, and a lot of soy sauce in Hong Kong! In a place like this, where a gallon of milk costs way over ten dollars, you can imagine the cost of gluten free foods.
Joseph carries his lunch every day, as his school cannot guarantee that any of their food is gluten free. He also usually has a few snacks on him at all times. He is a 13 year old boy who can eat an entire meal for an after school snack and still devour his dinner!
Q: How do your kids get to school?
A: Todd drives the children to the bus stop. To be honest, the bus stop is a walkable distance from our house, but for the majority of the school year it is way too hot, and with 100% humidity it’s impossible to walk that distance without your clothes becoming soaked with sweat. Not a great way for anyone to start their day!
We pay a private bus company to pick up the children at the stop. Todd sees them off, and then continues on his merry way to work. It’s still not 7:00 am.
Lots of children stay up late at night studying hard to get straight As, so it’s not unusual to see several children fast asleep with faces plastered against the bus windows. My kids are still not used to whispering on the school bus so as to not awaken the others, and the bus mom warns them everyday to please be quiet!
We feel like there’s enough pressure on the kids to acclimate into a totally different culture and lifestyle, so bedtimes in our house are still pretty early and our expectations are low. If I had a dime for every time I said, “I don’t care if you don’t get an A in Mandarin!” or “Your handwriting isn’t awful! I’m sorry I didn’t enroll you in calligraphy class when you were three!” or “Please remind your teacher that you just started the violin. Of course you’re not playing Paganini yet!”, I would take you to lunch and buy you a fake Louis Vuitton. (I’m kidding. Don’t buy fakes. They’ll just be taken away at the airport. Ask me how I learned that.)
Also, I think it’s difficult and exhausting for anyone to be in the minority. We’ve learned firsthand here how that must feel for others, so our empathy levels are at an all-time high. We are different physically and mentally from the locals, especially in the way we are raising our children, and you might be surprised how locals judge those differences. I wear a size nine shoe, and the giggles and pointing are sometimes too much to take. Our children don’t practice piano four hours after their three hours of tutoring every night, and their Mandarin could be better, and we hear about all that, too. Exhausting!
Q: What do you love about your kids’ school?
A: If there’s one word to describe schooling in Hong Kong, it’s pressure. The goal is perfection, which is something I fight against every morning before I send them off and every afternoon when they’re home again.
Schools are very, very hard to get into in Hong Kong. Most people start interviewing for schools when the child is two! It’s craziness! There are child interviews and separate parent interviews. The stress is so great that there have been cases where a family has sent in fake parents with their child to increase their chances of getting into an international school. Most international schools do not speak cantonese or mandarin as a main language, so they are looking for a family that can speak the desired language – whether that’s English, French, or something else altogether.
Asia consistently scores above US schools in almost every category, except maybe in art. When we arrived, Joseph and Stella were almost two years behind their grades’ coursework here. We have since caught up, but it hasn’t been easy. And we struggle to keep our head above water. I have had more parent-teacher-principal meetings than I ever did in the States. They are constantly pushing tutors and a litany of lessons, and we are constantly pushing back politely. We believe in a childhood.
Q: How do you spend your day?
And then, nothing’s better than meeting up with group of friends over a lazy susan stacked high with steaming baskets full of dim sum, and washing it down with jasmine tea and some bubbly. Most of my friends are foreigners who are now permanent residents in Hong Kong; staying over seven years grants you permanent residency.
We live in a development that is mainly expats from all over the world, and we are one of only two American families. I think the American stereotype is so strong – negative and positive, depending on who you ask – that other expats are hesitant when meeting one. I get a lot of, “You don’t act very American,” and I still never know whether to take that as a compliment or an insult!
It’s funny that I’ve never heard anyone say, “You don’t act very (insert any country other than America).”
Q: How do you errand?
A: I really struggled with how to get errands done when we first arrived in Hong Kong. Most stores do not open until 11:00 am, and there are no big box stores except IKEA. So I’ve learned to cross off most of my non-shopping to dos first thing in the morning, and then head to the stores afterwards.
I have to go to the local butcher for our meat and produce. As most of their products are gluten free. I need to visit the flower brothers for any bouquets I need for a dinner party. This sounds frivolous when I compare it to my usual life in Virginia, but there are a lot of dinner parties thrown here! I sometimes hit the wet market for produce as well, especially bok choy.
I have also finally figured out which American companies will ship to Hong Kong, as locating gluten free food I trust is rather tedious and expensive. Even though Joseph is the only one who tested positive for Celiac, we have taken the approach to all eat gluten free at home due to cross contamination.
I love finding tiny joys. Last week, I found Joseph’s favorite tea from the States. It only took two years! He was so surprised.
We have to mentally let go of hope of finding some of the items we once loved so much and had on hand with just a quick trip to Target. Sometimes we find a replacement. Sometimes we don’t. I’ve pretty much given up on finding Reese’s peanut butter cups! The result is that we end up finding new things to love like seaweed snacks.
Q: Do you carve out any personal time during your day? Do anything to recharge a little?
A: If I don’t have a lot on my plate or need to clear my head, I head to the beach first thing in the morning to recharge. Sometimes I feel the need to sit and think, and sometimes I need to walk it out. I have never lived this close to the ocean before and honestly don’t know how I will ever give it up.
When I have a free afternoon, sometimes I hit the little local shops and look for little gems. I love finding a plain beaded necklace in Hong Kong and schlepping it up to China and adding a big red Chinese knot or even a huge jade pendent at the jade market. My husband and friends think I should open a shop and sell all the jewelry I’ve accumulated! I’m thinking about it.
I have always always had an issue with leaving things in their original state. I cannot do it. I add glitter to seashells and sticks. Charms to plain beaded strands. Buntings and fairy lights to rental white walls. I am constantly dragging items home and then figuring out what to do with them. And I drive the folks up in China crazy. I ask them to do things they cannot understand. I draw a lot of bad pictures. Maybe I should learn more Mandarin…
But the thing I love about Hong Kong is that anything is possible. And I am learning how to do things I never thought I’d do: like bargain hard at the jade market, make traditional bubble waffles gluten free, and make yummy mango pudding!
Q: When do you meet back up with the rest of your family?
A: If Joseph doesn’t have too much homework, he will ride the public transportation home with his friends. This is something I would have NEVER EVER allowed in the States, but it’s so safe here. Otherwise, I usually meet the children at the school bus around 4:00 pm. Joseph usually starts his homework right away, and Stella runs the neighborhood with friends until we eat dinner. I am back and forth, either outside or assisting with homework. We all meet for dinner around six and hash out our schedules, problems, and accomplishments. After dinner, Stella starts her schoolwork. We usually all watch a silly American sitcom before the children head upstairs to bed.
Sometimes, Todd and I meet friends for dinner on a weekday. We could never do this in the States, but Merly’s here to be sure all teeth are brushed and bed times are observed.
Q: Describe your evening rituals for us. What makes the end of your day special?
A: I love hearing everyone’s stories at the end of the day. Someone usually has a story involving the infamous Hong Kong cannot. (When locals steadfastly stick to the rules, they usually state they cannot do something…even if it makes more sense!)
Once a week, one of us usually has a crazy public transportation story. Oh! And the amount of people who stop to get their bearings at the bottom of an escalator – last week I narrowly avoided a domino-effect catastrophe, nearly taking down a small old man in the process! There are many public urination stories, but that just goes with the territory and, crazily, we’ve all become accustomed to the craziness. And very often, someone realizes they have been saying a Cantonese word wrong ever since we lived here, and what we’ve been asking for means something TOTALLY different than what we think it means.
Q: Please finish the sentence: The last thing I usually think about before falling asleep for the night is…
I’m a late night owl anyhow, so that doesn’t exactly help me stop the night time catastrophizing. It just dawned on me that we are now closer to the end of our time in Hong Kong than the time since we arrived. I have so much more I want to do! It’s the weirdest feeling that I’ve never experienced before. I’m stuck between East and West. Every day I walk a balance beam where I constantly have my hands out for steadying myself. I never feel confident enough to lower my arms. And just when I think I’ve got it, I slip off.
We have been living a parallel existence, lucky enough to go home and see friends and family while stocking up on American goodies, and then living in The Kong like a tourist. Eventually, the Hong Kong life ends. And I’m so worried that repatriation could be far more difficult than living life as the expat. How do we give this all up cold turkey?
I constantly worry if I’ve done the right thing moving here. And how will I reintroduce the States to the children? How will they do back in the American schools? Will their friends remember them? Will it be easy to make new friends? The thing about expat life is that everyone greets new arrivals with open arms and an, “I get it. I’ve been there.” attitude, but that doesn’t really happen as much in our area back home. I’m scared.
Thank you, Christine! It’s inspiring to hear how much you’re enjoying such a new environment despite all the challenges. You are right: “Real life will be here again soon enough, so I might as well enjoy the life I’m living now!” For those in the same situation, I hope you’ve got Christine’s attitude!