Living Here Living In Hong Kong

How Hong Kong can turn a family’s life upside down

Hong Kong is vibrant, exciting and affords expatriates many diverse opportunities and experiences. But as experienced by Caroline Roy, author of the blog, expat family life can also be very disrupted by the fast pace and collision of cultural customs.

“When I arrived here in 2004 as a new parent, it was an accepted truth that families need routines and a predictable structure to the day. I was willing to give it a try. But I found myself in a typhoon of change, having left a London of neighbourly potluck dinners, plenty of neighbourhood walking and personal space, and a huge tolerance for externally imposed chaos. I quickly learned that Hong Kong is very different.

Here it’s possible to pack an entire neighbourhood into one building. You can hike through lush greenery for two hours in the morning and be at your desk in Central 30 minutes later. What is not possible, however, is to experience a single day without the organised disruption that HK living has in store.

Expat family life in Hong Kong
Expat family life can be hectic in Hong Kong

When our kids moved from early childhood – teething, ear infections and traumatising us on long-haul flights – into the more structured school-age phase, we adopted a puppy to prevent our home from actually becoming functional. Once the puppy grew into a high-energy dog, it was my kids’ turn again to sustain the there’s-always-something feeling of Hong Kong life.

It starts with the first-time pain of best friends leaving due to corporate rotation or other reasons. We lost several family friends to relocation and each time it felt like a limb was being amputated. The proverbial village it takes to raise a child began to resemble a train station with people arriving and leaving – except that there is no schedule that helps you prepare for the personal sense of loss that follows the phrase, “We’ve got news. We are moving to _____” (fill in a relatively desirable location in Asia, North America or Europe). These news bombs often drop around Chinese New Year, leaving varying levels of casualties, and always some psychic collateral damage. Before you can cry or fill the dishwasher, it’s Easter.

Once my favourite holiday back in Europe, I keep forgetting whether it’s time again to worship the dead, celebrate Buddha’s birthday, or drop everything I do because it’s the national week of spending, saving or celebrating the future. I believe Easter is the one with hiding chocolate eggs too cleverly for the kids to find, then discovering them months later, mouldy and misshapen, on top of a Staffordshire figurine or a Transformer collectible.

It puzzles me every year after coming back from a summer break, kids barely scheduled for the school year, when I suddenly realise I have to plan for the autumn school break. First, I ready the family for Mid-Autumn Festival, avoiding the fireworks traffic, remembering it’s National Day in a few days, followed by Chung Yeung Festival. That’s the one where you pay respect to your ancestors, and usually the clue for Halloween approaching.

With my middle-age looks, it’s an easy one to prepare for: on October the 31st, I leave a pumpkin by the door, stay in my pyjamas and wear no makeup. In case some privileged little vampires have the guts to show up, I throw Chinese candy at them until they leave. It works.

The next disruption probably is “Chinese November Day”. We’re supposed to rearrange furniture and bury a piece of red cloth worn by a grandmother at midnight, or something. Verdict: two days off school, stir-crazy kids and time for the mall. Everything you buy at Chinese November Day sales will bring you luck. Fine, I might have made that one up, but at least we can enjoy the new Swegway basketball set because then there’s teacher-training week at the school, so another three days off.

Have I mentioned Diwali? While the atmospheric Hindu festival of lights is not strictly a HK holiday, in our multicultural community you don’t mess with it either. You wrap your family up in a sari and show up. I look at it as a colourful break from drab everyday life before it’s time, finally, for the high maintenance American Thanksgiving. Our kids’ school literally makes a meal out of Thanksgiving by uprooting the entire school community, forcing us practically at gunpoint to show up on campus with piles of turkeys, pigs and vegetable platters and create a buffet for students, teachers, staff and cockroaches.

The feast includes at least seven world cuisines presented on plastic trays, plates and cutlery. It probably leaves the equivalent carbon footprint of the entire British Empire at its peak, not counting the Styrofoam containers in which we bring favourite side dishes and desserts. The school feast is followed by two days plus the weekend off to enjoy Thanksgiving at home too, and it feels churlish not to invite our entire Anglo-American community, including half a block of neighbours, to stuff them with more turkey and drown them in eggnog while 18 or more kids transform the living room into a war zone.

Good that there’s at least a work break before the season’s first Christmas party – can we bring leftovers from our Thanksgiving, I wonder, or is that too creative? An attempt to shop, eat or socialise in reasonable proportions during the whole month of December is the last obstacle course of the year. Then, it’s back to normal. Until you realise that, for an expat, there’s no such thing. Because when the year is over and you’re back on track in January, you’ll look at your calendar and think: Oh, Chinese New Year is early again this year …

This article first appeared in the Dec/Jan edition of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.

Want to hear more about the experiences of expats in Hong Kong? Check out our living in Hong Kong stories.

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