Expat Living reader RIVKY RYDER shares her story of arriving in Hong Kong and the emotions and anxieties she experienced as an expat in an unfamiliar city.
When I first thought about moving to Hong Kong, my mind immediately cast to a bustling metropolis, vibrant shopping centres and exotic foods. I imagined making new friends and tackling new challenges like the adventurer I believed myself to be.
Sure, there would be tough times, and I anticipated the dreaded bouts of homesickness everyone warned about, but I was certain I’d handle it with ease. No problems here! In South Africa, I always saw myself as an independent and capable young woman. There was never a problem with confidence. My social group was large, diverse and extremely rewarding and my job was challenging, yet not overwhelming. I had a pretty good handle on life.
Arriving in Hong Kong: the reality!
Then, my husband and I arrived in Hong Kong and everything changed. I was blindsided by a host of new emotions and unfamiliar anxieties.
Back in South Africa, from the safety of my own car and familiar surroundings , public transport had seemed like a portal to a bright new world. Yet, when I arrived at the MTR platform, I was awash with fear. The crowds, the sense of urgency and the labyrinth of stops and crossovers had me totally panicked. I didn’t feel like I would ever learn my way around.
Stepping out onto the city streets I’d dreamed about was an unforgettable experience, but not quite the one I had imagined. Sensory overload rammed into my consciousness and I was left clinging to my husband’s hand as we desperately fought our way through the crowds, dodging the dripping air-conditioners above us. We fumbled with our City Mapper app in an effort to find our way around, the buildings towering over us from every side. The heat, the crowds and the bustling traffic made me want to run back to my small suburban neighbourhood in Johannesburg. I couldn’t fathom ever taking to the streets on my own.
Every day in those first few weeks seemed to demonstrate to me how ill-equipped I was for my new home. From not recognising any of the groceries I needed, to being unable to communicate with the people around me, to forgetting to take off my shoes in the homes of people we visited, I felt like someone had pushed me onto a stage in front of a huge crowd without any script. What was I doing here?
I started to doubt the person I’d always believed I was: strong, confident and in control. “If I can’t even handle finding the right bus, how will I handle this whole new life that’s now mine?” Who was this new version of myself? I wasn’t sure I liked her at all. Meek, scared and unsure.
Every day, I struggled on, pushing myself to keep trying, even if I got lost; to keep meeting new people, even if I just wanted to stay at home; to embrace the culture and the differences of my new home. Some days I got to celebrate small victories; other days had me weeping with frustration at my apparent ineptitude.
A Seismic Shift
It wasn’t until more than a year later, when I found myself looking into the terrified eyes of a girl I had recently met, did I notice the seismic shift that had taken place without me even noticing. I was explaining to her how to use the MTR and which restaurants she had to try. “Don’t worry!” I heard myself saying. “It’s scary in the beginning but you’ll get the hang of it, and when you do, you can’t help but fall in love with the city. It’s an incredible place to call home!”
All at once I recognised the girl staring back at me in the reflective doors of the train.
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This article first appeared in the 2019 Home Décor issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.