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What it’s like to leave Hong Kong

As odd as it sounds, right near the top of the long list of things I’ll miss most about Hong Kong is driving. Coasting by a mountainside road with dramatic ocean views or zipping past gleaming buildings side-by-side with colourfully restored tenements in the canyons of Wan Chai and Central has never failed to delight.

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Manoeuvring through stop-and-go traffic, deciphering obscure Hong Kong traffic signage and rules, dodging old women pushing carts loaded with recycled boxes and men on bikes balancing an office-worth of lunches on the handlebars make this place a thrilling – and maddening – place to drive.

We are leaving Hong Kong in just a few days, packing up with heavy hearts. It’s only been three years since our family of five arrived – a short stint compared to some, but a huge three years for each of us. We came in hot – literally and figuratively – and to say our world had been turned upside down would be an understatement. We arrived from the US, a place where driving is de rigueur. Driving here, upon arrival, seemed an impossible, downright terrifying, prospect.

The moment the keys of our expat-Volvo were handed to me, I was gripped by an unfamiliar anxiety: could I even make it home? Away I went, through the narrow streets of Wan Chai, sweat forming on my brow, white-knuckling it as I drove through wet markets, up Blue Pool Road in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and finally, gleefully, coasting down Island Road – clearly not the most direct route to the south side, but I had wheels; I had freedom.

Three years, two schools, two flats, and roughly 15,000km later, our family has grown to love this place so very far from our home. The magic of living here has been the opportunity to explore an entirely new city with a child-like sense of adventure, to be open to people from all over the world, and reconnect with my sense of self. Weird as it sounds, becoming a Hong Kong driver, taking to roads and streets in traffic that can sometimes resemble a manic video game, has been a big part of that.

Over the years, I’ve burned up the clicks between home and school, uncovering random carparks – some dodgy, others clean enough to have a picnic on – across Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. I’ve found short-cuts through Central, became savvy about taking the Aberdeen Tunnel versus Stubbs Road or a Chai Wan end-around. I’ve mastered the reverse park and made airport runs, always keeping the Octopus card loaded. I’ve loved the conversations and time with friends on longer drives to Shek O’s beaches or remote hiking spots, and still giggle when my front-seat passenger struggles with the unrelenting seatbelt. Driving our minions to rugby, which took over our Sundays and took root in our hearts, became an extension of our weekend adventures.

I remember fellow expats telling me that, by end of our first year, our children would call this place “home”. I scoffed at the thought of it. But I was wrong. After returning from vacation last August, our middle son – the most reluctant to move abroad – announced, “It’s good to be back home.” Remarkable, I thought with a smile on my face, as I packed our family in our well-used car and drove us back to the south side.

Now, as we prepare to be driven to the airport, my stomach tightens. We will desperately miss the friends we’ve made over the past three years. We will miss the sense of adventure that Hong Kong offers, sometimes on a daily basis, with myriad opportunities to explore new streets, neighbourhoods, countries and cultures. We will miss the newfound familiarity of this place we call home.

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This article first appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.

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