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Hong Kong, living

This could change how we remember Hong Kong

saying goodbyeFrom the time we decided to leave Hong Kong in June to start over in Berlin, I relaxed my routines a bit and began to take time looking at Hong Kong with the eyes of a person that will not be here much longer. One area struck me as desperately underserved: the exit.

Having someone take care of you when you leave, which is WAY harder that arriving, btw, would would polish off the Hong Kong experience. The city needs a professional exit service. The process of tying up personal loose ends in ‘normal’ family life is already an ongoing challenge. But once we start to pack up, stress levels rise. To-do-lists become exponential, as every little transaction and every little errand will require our attention. And then, there are the leaving parties for the kids, the last teas, dinners and drinks with friends and associates of all kinds.

To add to the experience, there will be other leaving parties to visit. Our own attempt to create a leaving event bombed, by the way. Meanwhile,  most mundane stuff populated our diaries without asking for permission: the car ownership that needed to be transferred. The shipping documents for the dog that needed to be filled in. Stuff that wants to find a new home. Books to return, bank accounts to close. We need to find a new school for our kids at the destination, find a new direction for ourselves. Most importantly, we want to say good-bye. The obstacle-path of leaving Hong Kong in a mentally sane condition is asking a lot, I know. Just getting out of here without a long tail of unfinished business is all-consuming, and the valuable last six weeks that we would love to spend on things we care about melt away like ice-cubes in the sun.

I have done a few international moves in life without family. It helped to keep an inventory of life, finances, insurances, accounts, certificates, documents etc. before change hits. You will be able to hand that folder over to your future ‘exit agent of your choice one day, say: “Deal with it – I am off to creat memories… thanks!” Buy gifts, party, help your kids, tick off your bucket list, make it the time of you life – but live it! This is how you will remember Hong Kong – or any other temporary home.

I am sharing this because if there is someone out there who is good at all this and who wants to start offering an exit package as a business, it would flourish, no doubt. I am happy to consult you on strategy and branding to set this up. You will have plenty of support in this wonderful city!

Hong Kong, Humor, living, living abroad, Reader's favorites

How to leave Hong Hong

If you thought here is the answer to the debates that you’ve had since you first noticed that you are infected with the Hong-Hong-Bug, this article will let you down. In other words, I’m still clueless.

However, since you’ve come this far, you may as well read the rest of it. Maybe you have a friend who is looking to start a business. In that case, I volunteer as the test client.

My realization is simple. Almost 90% of the attention in an expatriation process (I’m making this up, but since the relocation-scene has been on my radar for the past decades, I feel entitled to make up numbers) is focused on arriving, finding accommodation, schools, associates, interest groups, friends, your favorite brand of mustard and how to use a de-humidifier. Once you#re settled in you begin passing on tips. It’s pretty much all there.

When the day came and it was our turn to leave, however, I felt like I was stuck in a lift alone, waiting for it to crash to the basement. Paralysed at first, then sentimental and in fight-or-flight-mode. My various to-do-lists are competing for length whilst I am wondering how to say good-bye. But it’s time to be practical, and here is the thing: there’s no business or service that helps you to get the hell out of here. Why not? In Hong Kong, you can get pretty much everything done, built, delivered, catered. But when it’s time to leave and you need to wind down a family life, you are pretty much by yourself.

I dream of a maternity-nurse-like person who keeps me company, helps my kids with their homework, takes photos and measures all the furniture I want to give away or sell, sorts through our clothing, engages with PCCW to clarify the last 15 bills, closes our accounts, gets curtains made for our new place in Berlin, manages the dog’s transportation, asks the car insurance to confirm that I’ve not had a crash, takes the kids to the dentist, me to the psychiatrist, organises my calendar for leaving events, applies to schools in Berlin, prepares our new setup and the tax issues that come with relocating, helps me make decisions, brings me a coffee whilst I am writing this article… you see where is this going.

Where is the Kick-Ass-Exit-Service with a representative who will come with ready-made lists, sitting down with me asking: what do want to do about the curtains? Shall we donate this bed or do you want to sell it? How about these books – donate? Those two kids – sell, crate, and ship separately? Your Swarovski Glass Poodle collection needs insurance? Consider it done. More coffee? Oh, the broken drum-kit? Don’t worry, we’ll have it repaired. I’ll pick up your family’s health records tomorrow, sure… you go see your friends!

As I mentioned at the beginning, if you feel inclined to start this business, I guarantee you will succeed and I am happy to be your first client. Yes, you can start today.

Hong Kong, living, Parenting

The One Thing Donald Trump Taught Me About Parenting

listening_dogI thought I’d resist the temptation of adding to the insane attention Donald Trump has been receiving from the media. But his success in producing followers helped me understand why listening to our children is a game changer when helping them grow into an independent adult.

I recently refreshed my understanding of P.E.T., short for Parent Effectiveness Training. This is a parenting training developed by the psychologist Thomas Gordon in 1962. His model teaches parents specific communication skills. When we apply those skills we will experience a significant change in ourselves as parenting effectively means we will have to learn to listen to ourselves as well as to our children. Parenting with compassion and understanding of our own needs gives us the authentic tools to help our kids and, with some luck, sustains our influence in their lives more reliably than rewards and punishment ever will.

To be specific: Gordon’s methodical approach to communicating with our children helps parents to precisely decode a distressed child’s message by active listening until the underlying problem is understood. If needed, a workable process in problem solving helps family members to meet their individual needs without anyone losing. Thomas Gordon’s underlying principle of unconditional acceptance will adapt into any other relationship because listening and understanding is a powerful game-changer.

Here’s a recent example: my son asked me whether his new school in Berlin will have lockers like his present Hong Kong school has. I could tell from his voice that his question was not really about the lockers. I said:

“It may have lockers, but I am not sure. Are you worried that there may not be any lockers in the new school?”

“Yes. I want a locker. If it doesn’t have lockers, I’m not going to that school! I am only going to a school that has lockers!”

“Hm… having a locker is really important for your school routine. You feel something is missing if the new school did not have any lockers?”

“Yes, I hate change. If the school has lockers, I know it will at least be a little bit similar to my school.”

“So you want the new school to be similar to your school and you are scared that when things are too different, it is hard for you to adjust. You don’t know what to expect, and that is scary.”

“Exactly.  All my friends will be gone. I have to make new friends. What if that is too hard?”

So we kept talking about his fear of making new friends, the fear of getting along with others in a new environment, which at age 12 – at any age in fact –  is so very important. His worry about having a locker was just an anchor for my son to articulate his true fear of change. Does the new school has lockers? was code for: Will I be accepted? Now that we brought to the surface what is bothering him, we can choose what to do next – e.g. nothing, talk, problem solve. What makes this effective is that his internal emotional stress is gone and we can look at his need for acceptance and integration with fresh, problem-solving eyes. Had I just answered his questions whether the new schools had lockers – i.e. yes, no, or: let’s find out– I would have lost the real issue right there.  How easy it would have been to dismiss his question as irrelevant and lose an opportunity to bond with him.

What does this have to do with Donald Trump? It’s by now common understanding that Trump’s campaign responds to people’s insecurities, worries, and needs. In the previous example of my son, I tried to show why it is so powerful to understand those needs correctly. I have asked myself, as many people, what it is that makes Trump so strong as a candidate and I’ve come to the conclusion – like others – that it is his skill of tapping into that emotional need of his audience and address their deepest insecurities. As adults, we all have experienced the anger it can cause when we are concerned about something, in desperate need for an answer, and the one person who could help does not understand us, ignores our worries or offers solutions that don’t help. Unhelpful customer service for example, or a doctor who ignores our personal worries about a health issue, or the well-meaning friend who rushes into reassuring us how infallible we are when in fact we worry about failing at something and needed to talk about that pressure in more depth. Not being understood creates aggravation, frustration and a sense of loneliness.

Trump’s skill of decoding the well-prepared questions from members of the audience in a recent Anderson Cooper forum was making this very clear to me. People wanted to know how he would address problems with immigration workers. He came back with a bonding, reassuring acknowledgment of having understood the question and then, instead of answering it, kept talking about himself. He did not really offer any workable solutions to the participants’ questions about immigration workers, their worries about global competition or about health care. He just used the questions to reassure people that he will take care of them. Is there someone who can take all that pain away and make everything ok? Yes, it’s me, Donald Trump.

Trump understands the frustrations of his audience.  He tunes into the fear and translates it into anger and hate. Here is someone who articulates the needs of those people with an emphasis on the emotions and the underlying belief that his authority can solve today’s complex problems. Except that he doesn’t. It is Trump’s talent to motivate those Americans whose specific worries are not addressed appropriately by politics. I admit that I do not know any Trump supporters personally, but seeing him interact with his audience was a textbook lesson in manipulation.

More so, harboring frustration makes a person easy to manipulate. Someone like Donald Trump can turn what could be a political debate into a sentimental movement, a good-and-evil worldview with simple promises no-one can keep. That makes him a strong candidate, but a dangerous politician.

So what we need to do with our children is get to know them, allow their emotions and worries to surface and to help them through difficulties. More so, help them build a tolerance for complexity. If we want to have tomorrow’s voters understand what really is in their interest, we have to start today. I believe that active listening, problem-solving, coaching or any meaningful engagement with our children could prevent them turning into adults who are easy bait for manipulation and simplistic solutions.

Trump would have probably talked over my son’s worry as well by saying: Hey, kid, don’t worry about lockers. There will be tons of lockers. I will put lockers into every school. That’s the way I am. I’m the kind of guy who makes everything ok. He would have understood that my son is worried about something and picked him up right there. He would have given him a solution that does not come close to really helping. A true politician could have sounded like that: Listen, kid, lockers are irrelevant. We have tons of locker free schools and they score much higher in the national competition. But we will make sure that every kid can go to a locker free school.

As parents, want to find ways in which to sustain our relationships with our children and help them to become critical thinkers, independent minds and to understand their emotions. I want them to become problem solvers. I strongly believe that this will protect them from being manipulated by promises that address fears to get a result that isn’t in their own enlightened self-interest. The best place for future Trump prevention is at home.

Read more about this here. Recommended: read about Thomas Gordon’s Parenting courses in Hong Kong.

living, Writers, writing

To Share or not to Share?

To share or not to share?

Every now and then people tell me they could never share personal things the way I do on the internet. I never quite know what to do with a comment like this. Some people seem to feel the internet is not for personal things.  

Private or Personal?

Superficially it is easy to agree with that. I trust that the majority of users with a sense for boundaries would instinctively keep private things private. The concept of privacy has undergone a strenuous journey, though. A few decades ago we were able to disappear, i.e. truly disengage, for any period of time by physically removing ourselves from home, office or the everyday focus of life, and then simply not leaving a phone number. But today, our personal lives seem to disappear like the dry part of a kitchen tissue that’s placed on a wet spot. Privacy is becoming rare and we feel we need to protect it.

It may be generational, but what I see happening is a confusion about what is personal with what is private. I address this point because – other than feeling like lecturing today – in my view there is an important distinction sharing something which is private versus something that is personal.

Private information is truly only for the people directly concerned. A medical condition or a relationship issue would fall into that category. Think of it like private property: only the owner(s) and those who are invited are allowed to be there. It is not open to the public. Your passwords are private. Private, by definition, means something that, whilst it visibly and objectively exists, such as facts and data, is not meant for the public.

Many people get uncomfortable, or even recoil, when others share private information too freely. I have vivid memories of an evening, a few years ago, with some women I hardly knew who freely shared sexual preferences that made me want to get a lobotomy.

Personal, however, is different. It really can only relate to one individual. A personal story, a personal preference or a personal problem… whatever follows ‘personal’ is related to one person only. My personal view belongs to me in the sense that I decide what to do with it: keep it, share it, change it… whatever. And the personal perspective also makes things interesting, otherwise you can stick with facts and statistics.

Sharing personal experience online

Here’s another filter I use for sharing personal things on my blog, along with most writers. It goes way beyond sharing personal experience and is all about making what’s out there relevant, useful, entertaining or, hopefully, fun to read.

I learned this first when I started out as a travel writer two decades ago. My editor reminded me to think about how my personal experiences would affect my readers, such as: when you come to beach x in August, you can witness how waves, testosterone, and alcohol can turn a scenic spot into a party venue for sun burnt teens. But get there between September and the first half of July and this 2-mile beach will be yours to hike, surf and relax. The reality was  that when I went in July prior to writing about it, I was shocked to see so many drunk youth. But my editor’s point was that writing I was shocked to see so many drunk youth would not do much for readers.

Under my editor’s watch I had to consistently turn my personal experience into useful travel guidance: how I dined in a restaurant, talked to the chef and found out that despite slow roast lamb being his most successful dish on the menu, the chef himself is vegetarian and makes pumpkin ravioli that is truly worth traveling for across the country to try. How I slept in a supposedly haunted country house is relevant when I find an angle that is most likely to interest other travelers too, such as the fact that the hotel’s priciest bedroom is facing the farm side of the estate where you will reliably be woken, if not beforehand by a ghost, then definitely by a rooster at 5am.

Sharing one’s journey of life – forgive the tired metaphor – is a similar process, but I decide what to share, and how. It is a great experience when readers tell me they were moved, inspired or amused or when something I wrote affects them. It means it was relevant to them, and that of course is personal too.

In my blog writing I allow myself to be personal, explore experiences, views, reactions and thoughts, and I get to know myself and others, possibly at the expense of being relevant only to some readers. But best of all, I am in my happy place. Here, I can say what I think. It means I have to think first, and that I truly love.

What’s the deal with oversharing?

Some people choose to share with the world where they are spending the weekend, what they are eating and yes, the cute kittycat… It is fashionable to nitpick those posts on social media. A friend recently complained how very irrelevant most postings are. But then, isn’t that the nature of social media? Agreed, some stuff out there is perfect troll-food or, at best, annoying, and also agreed that there are more effective uses of social media, which I make a point of supporting. But trivia will always happen. The self-nominated internet police may watch and criticize, but within boundaries we decide to share what we want to share and what not – it is the beautiful nature of an evolving medium that does not have an editor.

Open or closed?

I used to be extremely private until I realized that there is nothing hugely unique about my life’s journey. Many of us have similar experiences but perceive them differently, or, vice versa, come to similar conclusions from different angles. The only thing that makes anything unique at all is our personal perspective. I noticed, getting older, that a well reflected experience can encourage others to travel their own lives more consciously – and to find the better beaches.

What about undersharing?

And yes, pitching it like this this means there is a possibility of undersharing as well: Some dismiss social media as a platform for themselves, yet keep feasting on what other people put out there. This is a personal preference and as such perfectly legitimate.

I would like undersharers to consider this, though:  there are a lot of people who share quality content, life hacks and expertise. For some it takes courage to write. It is encouraging for any person who creates content of value to get feedback. Instant feedback is one of the unique and fabulous features of publishing on the internet. When I published my first print book in 1997, I sometimes would get a critical letter (!) from a disappointed reader in 1999, telling me that a Bed& Breakfast I had raved about has just closed. This would make it into the 2000 edition. Times really have changed.

My point is, undersharers: as digital citizens, learn to appreciate good content, give feedback if you can, share things you like and by those actions make the internet a more relevant place for yourselves and those you connect with. Clicks are one of the core organizing principles of the editor free world. It is an easy way to help those who put themselves out there to learn from their online audience, and your response will feed positively into the selective nature of the internet’s google-shaped content offer. It is a unique chance to co-write our cultural history in digits and pixels.

So instead of simply removing yourself from the evil digital troll-forest, reward what matters. Define and shape the internet with your choices. It is a great time to get noticed.

And if you made it to here, why not subscribe now and get my very freshest and most relevant posts right on the day they are posted!


Hong Kong, living, living abroad, Parenting

10 Things On My Mind

It looks like we are going to make a big lifestyle-change. I’ve been pushing for it in order to give our kids a cultural exposure to Europe before they enter teenage life. We are looking at a move again, this time from Hong Kong to Berlin. Here are a few things I noticed before we are even ready to pack:

  1. This year, a lot of long-term expats are leaving Hong Kong. A relocation manager told me he has not seen as many long term residents leaving for Australia, Canada and the US on a short notice before.
  2. For the first time in Hong Kong, I don’t feel ‘left behind’… that awful sadness that used to creep up when friends shared they would leave. I finally feel sentimental about the best things in Hong Kong.
  3. I keep hearing how much Hong Kong’s corporate life is changing: many US-or Canada-educated Chinese professionals are joining Hong Kong’s work force with perfect Mandarin. It this really true?
  4. Expatriatism in Hong Kong is the strangest privilege: it gives you a break from real life. But like with all breaks, at some point we have to come back to chores and taxes.
  5. Speaking of break: it also reveals a lot about who we are. I don’t really believe in reinventing ourselves, however seductive the term may be. Maybe some of us reveal themselves. In the process, limitations are as important as overcoming limitations. It takes a discerning eye to know which limitations are worth keeping before breaking loose.
  6. As our expat life in Hong Kong is only a break for many, do make the most of it. Learn! It’s a great time to absorb or refine a new skill.
  7. Looking back on my time here, it has been a rich experience: parenting two kids, experiencing family, marriage and friendships to the full, deepening my yoga practice in my years of teacher training and beyond, experiencing Plan B. I learned a lot. Thanks to everyone, you know who you are. I include all readers of this blog who have continuously encouraged and followed me. You can all come to Berlin with me.
  8. I found parenting in Hong Kong is hard for two reasons: firstly, because in Hong Kong we, as parents, make so many choices: how much do we expect our kids to do chores, how much we buy into the competitive education, judge how to help our children, when to push them and when to let go, create a family culture with no extended family, dealing with a lot of excess, wealth and technology… many parents seem to sail through this. But I always struggled. My own upbringing was rich in learning just by being with my extended family and helping at home. It was necessity deciding that for me. I feel my kids have been missing out on that.
  9. I love Hong Kong for its people – I found people in Hong Kong amazingly easy to be with, except PCCW engineers. Sorry.
  10. When we moved here 12 + years ago, it was harder to stay in touch than it is now. It does make all the difference. The people we connect with are potentially for life. I love that idea. I also wonder how having lived in Hong Kong has change me. What will be the long term effects? Will the hongkonqueror morph into the Berlinguist? I have no idea.

Please, readers, come with me to Berlin later this summer. But first of all, subscribe, subscribe, subscribe… I would like to keep talking to you wherever we go next! Just ad your email below or in the side bar and keep connected with postings on the hongkonqueror!

living, living abroad, Reader's favorites, writing

How to get back to a Good Habit

good habit 2Despite being a dedicated writer, in the last months my family and other animals required my full attention. The habit of getting my articles in shape on a daily basis seemed unachievable. So how would I repair a broken relationship with a good habit?

We are indeed talking about a relationship. Whenever we need to get back to something that we value, that we know is good for us and that requires energy we do not seem to have, we are looking at a neglected relationship that we want to turn into a friendship again.

Writing for the hongkonqueror is an example, as it behaves a bit like our family dog: until lunch he rests from his morning walk. After that, he follows anyone who is home around and settles, ever so slightly sulking, on the floor in full sight whilst following everything we do with his eyes, head resting on the floor. To the innocent bystander it looks cute. As his pack leader, I know that underneath he is wondering: When are you taking me for a walk in the woods again? Hm? When? Do you have to sit there and stare at that square thing or can we go walkies nows? No pressure, just wondering… a dog can pull that guilt evoking presence off perfectly, but a half written blog post, a rolled up yoga mat or an inbox full of flagged emails can do the trick too. It is a phenomenon most humans walking on civilized earth experience at some point in their life: occasionally, what we value ends up on the back burner whilst we’re putting out the fires close to us. In coach-speak that would be looking after the urgent at the expense of the important. It happens. And it’s a big deal.

I found that three things work well in bringing a productive habit back to life. There are plenty more ways that behavioral psychology has identified, but I want to limit it to the essential ones. Before you get going, remember why that habit is important to you. If you need to do some self-study, I recommend Gretchen Rubin’s valuable insight into how habits work: Better Than Before is a book that deserves not just space on our shelves, but more so, to be read. I listened to the book several times on audio whilst walking the dog.

  1. Start small, but start. My yoga training & teaching days required a lot of discipline with regard to home practice and preparation. What always worked was to start and not to get hung up on how long I would practice. The most basic requirement was 90 minutes practice daily, but whenever I was pressed for time I broke it down and did standing poses in the morning and inversions at nighttime – a more realistic schedule for me. Woody Allen’s co-writer Marshall Brickman says, in reference to his friend’s famous quote Showing up is 80 percent of life, says:” Sometimes it’s easier to hide home in bed. I’ve done both.” So have I, and the showing up works better in 80% of the time. I remember a guy I met 30 years ago who mocked my running efforts with the words: unless you do it every day for at least an hour, don’t even start. He is sick, depressed and overweight now, because he put the bar too high when what mattered was to show up in the first place. It’s an easy mistake to make, especially with so much perceived perfection around us.
  2. Put those important habits into the diary and treat them like an appointment. Plan. Show up. It doesn’t matter whether we do the best workout, change the world, eat the perfect diet or write the most profound viral article on day one. Nike has made a success of JUST DO IT, because habits work exactly like that: once we made a decision, there’s only one way to go and that’s to go. Once you are past the reasoning, stop reflecting and do it. A habit forms over about an average of 60+ repetitions – that’s what it takes to rewire our brain to take a shortcut that makes it harder not to do something that doing it.
  3. Make change as easy as possible. Nudging is one of the most effective ways to overcome obstacles: Put the mat out, keep your running shoes handy, plan healthy meals way ahead and simplify, simplify, simplify.

Regular readers know I advocate reflection, and of course, that is an essential part of my daily practiced behaviors. However, when it comes to an abandoned healthy habit, it is important to stop reflecting after we made a decision and to make it as easy as possible to be consistent. Gretchen Rubin’s success in part is that she consistently publishes what she’s experiencing.

Habits are like good friends. We don’t think about whether we are friends, we are connected without a thought process and make that relationship a priority which will override the supposed urgent. Friends – just like good habits – claim our time and attention without us reasoning whether or not we want to invest into this relationship. They are here to stay, no questions asked.


living, writing

12 Things I learned from a Year of Writing Online

birthday-1073573_1280In a few days, the hongkonqueror will be one year old. Like many avid readers of others’ blogs, books and articles I used to believe people write because when they have something specific to say.

But sharing thoughts or stories is only part of the picture. The process of writing and publishing online holds a completely different set of rewards that I had not expected when I wrote my first post in January 2015.


Here’s what I learned in a year of hongkonquering:


  1. I commit to my own ideas and to my readers, not to clicks. This is my focus and the reason I write.
  2. I am glad I learned about traffic and search engine algorithms. I will continue to put this knowledge to a better use in 2016, but it is a completely different job than writing.
  3. Starting out in the print media decades ago gave me practice in learning from editors about the importance of a good editorial process.
  4. The discoveries I make when I dig into my personal thought process give me the material and purpose I work with, and nothing can replace that process.
  5. Although I write based on personal experience, I research where it will add to the credibility or relevance of a subject.
  6. Writing – next to yoga practice and dog walks – is the best way to tidy up my mind. It is endlessly liberating when I feel I have captured a complex issue and defined my relationship with it.
  7. Speaking of relationships: my connections with people have become more distinct and deliberate since I’ve been working on the hongkonqueror.
  8. I have grown a completely new appreciation for other writers of blogs, books and articles.
  9. Surrendering to the writing process brings unexpected results: PLAN B would not have happened the way it did if I had not connected to stories of single expats.
  10. I arrived at the conclusion that expatriatism is much more a mindset than a technicality or a circumstance of living. Some people never become expats when living abroad, and others started out as expats even at home. I will explore that subject in 2016.
  11. Gratitude to readers triumphed over fear: online publishing can be intimidating. But the feedback I get from readers is far more rewarding than the occasional criticism.
  12. Writing on the hongkonqueror has given me the writing routine I need to work on a novel… I have started in November and it wrecks my mind. It’s not a piece of cake. But it has become an integral part of my day.

I actively want to encourage readers who feel they want to explore writing. Here is a place to do this. Setting up your own blog can be – whilst easy in theory – a big job. It takes time. Check out the hongkonqeror’s writing challenge and publish your work here – that way you can explore if you want to take your writing further.

Hong Kong, living, living abroad, Parenting

My Mom, Jesus, Fundamentalism and Christmas


reading time: 9 minutes

When my mother decided to leave the church, having been raised in a family where men traditionally were either lawyers or protestant vicars, she incited a fierce debate, following on the heels of the scandal of my out-of-wedlock-birth 2 years earlier.

What drove the debate was not so the much the moral dimension of her decision. It was more that my mother’s life was already marked by one misstep, which was deciding to raise a child by herself at the expense of her academic ambitions and the professional career she had envisioned. Abandoning the church would add to the stigma of her daughter’s illegitimacy in a day and age when 98% of German children were either Catholics or Protestants. Even those family members with atheistic or agnostic tendencies were concerned that parting with a powerful institution like the church, which was associated with schools, childcare, hospitals and more, would make it even harder for the two of us maintain any kind of bourgeois respectability in über-conventional Wirtschaftswunder-Germany.

As it happened, the practical implications ranged from tedious to painful: every form to fill in was not only missing details about ‘Father of applicant’, but ‘Congregation’ offered no box for ‘none’. In those days, not being part of a religion needed to be officially explained: provide the certificate of your mother leaving the church.

It’s not Caroline’s fault family members often remarked, as I recently learned from my mother’s cousins, the last witnesses to my early childhood. But my young mother was stubborn to a fault. She would make for an incredibly empowering and authentic role model one day, but not for decades to come.

Despite my churchless status, in Kindergarden I had to attend the regular church service. At my conservative high school for girls I took the mandatory protestant studies course. I was not expected to actively participate, but was tolerated by the bemused teacher. I remember the teacher, Frau Huselmann, reading the story of Joseph from one of the five books of Moses: Jacob’s youngest and favorite son has six jealous brothers who try to drown him, unsuccessfully. Joseph is taken to Egypt, where he thrives, empowered by God, to fight the threat of hunger and misery. He later meet his six brothers again, who came to Egypt in desperate need for help and don’t recognize Joseph. Joseph makes himself known to his humbled brothers. They reunite in love and forgiveness. This very scene drove me to tears. But I felt like a thief, not entitled to be so moved by Josephs and his brothers’ transformation and their heartfelt reunion, because I was only a guest in the classroom.

Luckily I had two fellow students, Sorana, a Jewish girl who would later take me to her Jewish youth club (unsurprisingly, a rarity in Germany). There also was the humorous and smart Alexandra, a Greek-Orthodox student. The remaining 280 girls in the school’s grade group were Catholic or Protestant. Sorana and Alexandra reached out to me, untroubled by differences in background, but unlike them I felt I had nothing to offer up that would explain my own moral identity. I felt that I was looked at with either pity or puzzlement: no father, no religion, no guidance, and not much of an identity. Just a chaotic jumble of nonconformity.

I remembered at one point deciding to simply pray and find out who God is on my own, which was not too far from the tree of some liberal protestant teachings I had absorbed. There had to be someone for me up there too, I thought. God, as loving and merciful as he is, would not possibly make his care for me dependent on a club membership! But still, not having answers when kids at school asked me: Why are you not going to church? Where is your dad? was one of the most uncomfortable emotions I can remember. I later wondered whether religious education was meant to fill exactly that void: answers that kids can understand.

In the decades to come I learned that being part of the Catholic or Protestant denominations was not necessarily a sign that a person agreed with the literal teachings of the Bible. Instead, for many Germans the church, an institution that was in itself deeply damaged by Germany’s recent history, meant community – although to a lesser degree than in England and in the US. The church in 1970s Germany offered a place for people to reflect, to possibly repair their relationship with the origins of their culture, a legitimate need after the war, and to connect with their inner values. This last one even happened for me whenever I set foot in a church. Only few adults I met would ever take the teachings of the bible literally. This is not a trivial point. If the bible wasn’t to be taken literally, why read it? I think it carries a cultural narrative of stories, lessons and traditions that only come to life when read with the intention to understand the ideas that led to a particular narrative. Like every cultural and spiritual work, this interpretation can be done well or poorly.

At university I learned to methodically decode both historic source texts and the commentary that made those sources relevant for subsequent generations. I had to catch up on biblical references for my literary studies, and I had to take a further exam in Latin for my Linguistics degree. I recall my brilliant language professor enacting a drunken monk in his daily practice of transcribing ancient holy texts in his dimly lit chamber of an Italian monastery – losing his pen, accidentally tearing a roll of papyrus here, smudging over a few words there, not quite getting the meaning of some word or phrase and resorting to another goblet of wine which he would inevitably spill all over the parchment, and so on. The point being that the hapless monk represented part of a centuries long tradition of a flawed practice of re-scripting, translating, rephrasing, adding and omitting. My teacher’s act was meant to remind us that ancient sources and scriptures have a life of their own, are probably riddled with ambiguous spelling, lost meanings and dubious references. As such, all ancient literature requires a methodical interpretation, both as historical text as well as a process of reflection by the interpreting individual. If this is done consciously, a study of religious text, becomes – like literature – an education in our cultural history.

When I read about the controversies currently surrounding Islam, the refugee crisis in Europe and the bizarre suggestion to restrict Muslims’ entry into the US, I cannot help but think it is a cultural debate rather than a religious one for exactly those reasons. We celebrate Christmas. But does that mean we take the story of Jesus literally in every detail? It is tempting to look at the differences between Islam and Christianity and conclude that it is the actual teaching of the Koran that encourages Islamic extremism. But this makes as little sense as saying the Bible produces a Christian extremist. By extremism I mean abusing any spiritual text to judge, exclude or discriminate against people based on their different faith or practice. Even though I have discussed this topic with a Muslim friend for this article, I believe that we don’t have to be Islamic scholars to know that no extremist interpretation relying on the literal truth and infallibility of any spiritual scripture can make sense. The same is true for Hindu texts. The Sanskrit narration of the Baghavad Gita, often referred to as The Song of God, offers a range of ideas on one’s duties, on devotion and overcoming obstacles, is well worth reflecting on and can be a source of spiritual education for anybody today. I had to study the text as part of my yoga teacher training and I am still grateful for the time I spent in the presence of Arjuna and Krishna. An un-dogmatic teacher could choose Bible passages as the bases for similar reflections. Each and every time it is the personal engagement with the source that gives validation to the text, not the idea that the content is literally true.

Here is what I mean: A few years ago I had to write an essay about the yamas the ethical rules in yoga teaching. One stands out for what seems simple: asteya, ‘non-stealing’. My first thought was: how obvious – what is there to think about? All religions, all civilizations have this rule. Most of us don’t shoplift or find ourselves in situations that force us to do so – with the exception of ‘Mundraub’, the for once wonderfully short German word for theft of food for personal survival, which is legal.

But thinking more about this, I wondered if there really is nothing we take that is not ours? In an interconnected world like the one we live in, taking privileges all too easily can be addressed by asteya: seeing your doctor for a trivial ailment whilst someone else might need that doctor’s attention more, but could not afford it: could that be theft? Does our excessive use of car and air travel qualify, even though its consequences are not immediately felt? What about the fossil-fuel-intense products we use? We may be able to able to pay for them, but their price does not reflect the actual price that our environment and therefore less fortunate people or future generations are paying. Only because we don’t know see or know the person that is affected by our action does not mean we are off the hook. Stealing today is a sophisticated – and global – process. The fact that a particular action is not illegal does not mean every acquisition in our industrial and financial worlds is well and just.

The plentiful environmental dilemmas we live with may not literally be covered in ancient religious teachings either – please correct me if I am wrong, because it would be wonderful if there was a passage that said: thou shalt not ruineth the planet for your own convenience – but in its moral implication, we can look at plenty of ways in which we treat the resources of this world as personal property, even though they should merely serve as a baton that we pass on in a generational relay. Treating water and air as personal property is an example of this. You don’t have to be a HK chauffeur who is taking a half hour nap in the parked car whilst the engine is running. Just any wasteful consumption can fall under that category.

Agreed, one does not need the Bible or any other ancient model to arrive at this conclusion – especially because not stealing is an easy one to take literally. But our moral coding and the foundations of philosophy are connected to the faith-based origins of the ancient scriptures. And why shouldn’t they be? We look at temples, mosques and cathedrals, so why not at the intellectual architecture that shapes our discourse? What ancient scriptures tell us in Hebrew, Arabic or Sanskrit is not, perhaps, what we should literally learn. We have to learn what potential those narratives offer us in the context of our own lives. Personal reflection is a recycling process that forms an understanding of our own spiritual culture. And if we skip the interpretation of the narrative and its critical reflection, we may do an injustice to those texts.

I expect from any spiritual education that it helps me to accept the complexity of life, however privileged that life may be at the time, and that it helps me living the uncomfortable questions that come with its perks. Religious fundamentalism, whichever direction and belief is at its base, invites simplification and separation of people into different, often opposing groups. In an increasingly global civilization this is a step backwards. That is why I fear Christian fundamentalism as much as its Islamic equivalent, I would not wish to live in a world where gay people are excluded from certain privileges such as marriage, be this dogma based on Christian or Islamic world-views. I would not want to live in a community where birth control is morally discouraged and creationism is passed on as true. And these are just a few examples.

I thoroughly believe that the debates we will have to hold will have to include the origins of our beliefs, because they are our cultural coding. But like true compassion can only come when we can forgive ourselves, true understanding of other spiritual cultures can only come when we understand our own spiritual origins. It takes trust and respect for personal and private reflection. We live in the day and age of access to diverse, educated and inspired sources through exquisite journalism and literature, teachers, writers, film and our own observations. I cannot help but feel optimistic about that future.

Coming back to my mother: she created difficulties for me by not remaining a member of the church. But that was not her intention. She wanted to stay true to herself and at her 26 year old life, and the church as an institution had failed her by not staying relevant to her. But she did create a good climate for debate within the family. And, ironically, she was a Christian in action. I could also say that she was a religious person, a person with a strong sense of duty towards others, a deep belief in people’s integrity and someone who was capable of selfless service – all attributes that are associated with a spiritually educated person. In her lifetime, she became a mentor for many because she tolerated and accepted people for who they were, and she never judged.

I believe her secret and what makes me come back to her life again and again was her unbroken interest in other people, their languages and their ways of life. I recognize this as another expression of universal love and a benevolent spirit. It is also deeply un-fundamentalist behaviour. Christmas is a great opportunity to get curious again. Start with the story of Jesus. We are not members of a church, but I will dig out the story and read it to my kids this year again.

fashion, Hong Kong, living, Parenting, Reader's favorites

My Shot at Entrepreneurism

I did have a shot at eco-entrepreneurism before I turned back to the frugality of full time writing. I learned a lot, enjoyed the process and got a feel for what it’s like to design, brand and promote a product. The product – luxury aprons made from organic cotton canvas – is a great success, even though I never turned it into a real business. Readers can still buy bibs and aprons directly from here – at a 55% discount! Learn about what’s available and drop us a mail.

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living, Parenting

Saying Good-Bye to a Great Voice

voiceThere is hardly anything more grounding than arranging a funeral for someone we love. It is a keen reminder of how personal, historic and universal facts of life work together in creating our story.

Last week I had to bury my beloved 95 year old aunt, Marlis, a person so close to me that I hesitate calling her an ‘aunt’. Technically, she was my mother’s aunt. She was the one who saw my mother struggling as a 24-year-old unmarried student with a newborn at a time and place when women with babies were neither single nor university students. “Come live with us.” Marlis said, and we did. She helped her husband, a doctor, to run a surgery in their own house. Their home’s infrastructure absorbed us without fuss. There I learned to make cookies, stamp prescriptions and build doll-houses with pharmaceutical packing material; I was spoiled by my uncle’s nurses and patients and had a room facing a large garden with a little stream, a tiny fish pond and a fireplace.

Hardly anything affected my young life as much as my aunt and uncle’s generosity both in spirit and in deed. They took time to read, draw and paint with me, they took me outdoors, they taught me to appreciate music, teaching and travel. It was an old-fashioned setup compared to how we raise children today. Life was analog, knowledge was solid, food was local.

Until Spring of this year, Marlis and I sat and read together whenever we were alone. She was a passionate reader with a perfect intonation when she read out loud, which she loved to do. Listening to her was a joy. Whether we read literature, philosophy or a newspaper column, my experience of the text was richer and more colorful when she read it out loud. The funny parts were a bit funnier. Thoughtful passages gained more depth. Marlis’s voice was her art. And that voice never really aged.

I thought about the human voice when I stood at my aunt’s coffin to say goodbye to a long and fulfilled life. Our voices set us apart. A voice is as unique as a fingerprint. The voice of a person, I thought, is a deeply personal expression of his or her inner life. It conveys the full range of our feelings often with subtlety and nuance, it carries meaning, intention and expression more than the actual words we choose. Despite how sophisticated an instrument it is, it seems to me that we pay little attention to voices. And maybe that is its magic. The voice is so true that it needs no embellishments.

We can get face-lifts, replace hip joints and have hair implants, but the voice is a territory that modern self-improvement industries have left alone. A person’s voice is a sacred place. I’ve always had a strong preference for audio-sensations over visual or, using the words of a Swiss specialist in sensory diagnostics who I happened to see decades ago, I am an “ear-person”, an Ohrenmensch. My aunt and I were a lucky match.

With Marlis, an unusually gifted voice died. I never made any recordings of her although we talked about it often. It fell through the cracks, for the better maybe. Nonetheless, I see now, looking back, that my aunt’s voice was the source of her creativity and art. She was able to elevate a text, a poem or a story into a sublime experience for those who had the privilege to listen. She could do this until she was 94 years old, despite growing increasingly frail. In those moments, she was fully present, just as present as she was when she read to me as a child, in her home, so many years ago.

Of those countless afternoons and evenings throughout my life – until March of this year! – I remember quite a few. My aunt’s voice was her heritage, and she used it well. A voice is a great way to stay alive in memory. Thank you, my dear. I will hear you as long as I live.

Hong Kong, Humor, living, living abroad, Parenting

A Moving Experience

by Caroline Roy

movingAfter publishing f**k, I was convinced that having written things down would have sealed my perspective on the conscious use of language. Little did I know. Last Monday I moved house again, and I discovered that in the right circumstances I could easily revert to what’s called ‘bad choices’ in PC-land.

I thought this would be the easiest move ever. Our block is slated for renovation, so we accepted the landlord’s offer to relocate from our small apartment to a slightly bigger place in the next block… how hard could that be? Both apartments below the third floor. A promising crew. We would even get the keys a few days in advance to bring ‘just our clothes and kitchen stuff’. The movers would take care of the furniture. As I had emptied our household of clutter a mere nine months earlier after a challenging relocation from the Peak to Wan Chai, this move next door should have been a piece of cake.

Speaking of nine months: I may not be the first one to compare moving house to giving birth. But it is such a perfect analogy – think: labor, followed by the lengthy process of pushing and negotiating small spaces, followed by mess and depression – that I decided: next time I move, I want an epidural.

With my conveniently absent husband and my virtuous helper plus her friend we began carrying suits, shoes, kitchen and bathroom items in 33 degree C weather on Saturday across Bamboo Grove’s legendary podium whilst other families flip-flopped past us to go for a swim. Despite sweat running down my forehead and the metal of overloaded hangers cutting into my hands I was still aware of the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God glances that our neighbors cast our way.

Between remembering entrance codes of doors that would open and shut randomly, the three of us struggled and labored to maneuver our burdens from one block to the next. Meanwhile, our family dog, who desperately needs to feel part of everything we do, but who of course cannot carry a goddamned thing, was beside himself with joy during the entire process. Not to be unfair: He would have helped with enthusiasm if he could have.

Not so my two entitled children (all our friends are travelling or busy for the autumn festival, mom! It’s a HOLIDAY!) I pack, carry, keep doors open with my food and wait forever for lifts, wind up taking stairs after all and lose ______________ (please insert whatever item comes to mind; chances that it happened are 97.2 %) on the stairs. The kids finally have a mercy-attack and bring their own clothing, books and instruments, art supplies and shoes… and their new rooms immediately look like any normal kid’s room looks after an explosion. All they really did was relocate the mess. How, I wondered, would furniture fit in here?

Two movers helped moving white goods for us two days before the official move. Can they also move some other stuff ahead of schedule? I asked the company. No, I was told, they have an appointment after you. Maximum ten boxes. Agreed, after lengthy fruitless negotiations. I dutifully prepared eleven boxes, lined them up feeling super-guilty that it was one more than the agreed amount.

The movers arrived clueless of this hard-fought concession. They didn’t know what was agreed. I explained that they are only here to move white goods and ten boxes. After this limited job is done, they tell me that they actually do have all day and will start packing in the apartment, whilst I was already in the new place, putting clothing away. Ok, an unexpected change of plan. I needed to stop and think but didn’t, as my decision making capacity for the day was already weak. So I simply nodded.

40 minutes later, back in the old flat, I find that they had boxed the entire contents of my ‘drop zone’: critical items I will need immediately, including moving documents, key sets, cheque books, dog leash, wearable shoes, bills, chargers. It’s now hidden in a pile of boxes helpfully labeled in Cantonese, mixed with the contents of our dining room, cutlery and ipods in a way that may be obvious to a Chinese mover, but not so obvious to the movee (note: this word exists as of today. As in coach & coachee, tea & coffeeee, mover – movee. Duh.)

Meanwhile the dog needed a walk (but we had no leash for him or shoes for us), the kids kept asking where the remotes and electronics had gone (but we neeeeed it!) and I suddenly resented the movers for not having boxed up the dog and kids instead. After ripping open a number of boxes, we managed to recover the drop zone documents, mixed up with unsigned school forms and music from my son’s acapella group. We moved tons of boxes over to the new place and I organized storage space so we could begin to unpack.

Moving day itself is freakishly long. I discovered that I’d forgotten to transfer our gas account. Cold showers are fine – really. I may stick with it. I was dismantling, packing, unplugging, re-plugging, trying locations for this and that, interrupted at intervals of three minutes by a mover (“Miss, where you want the glass poodle collection?”) and kids again (“Mom! Where’s the iphone charger? I need it now!!”) and the dog (barking because he’s managed to get trapped between two heavy security doors), and Furby (“jupppieee, I am hungree”) and waterfilter-fixer (“Madam, do you have screw like that?”) and building manger (“Missis Roy, we have the handymen here for the plumbing, can you sign here please?”) and guinea pig (“ueeeep, ueeep”) and Furby again (who, despite a commitment by a boy in Kowloon to pick him up before our move, was not collected. They probably read Living with Furby) and reconsidered. Offspring is relentlessly useless (as in: can we repaint my room, mom?) and organic vegetable deliverer (I at apartment, mam, but nobody – yes, I forgot to give note of address, sorry, come next door) and handyman (“Miss, how about the curtain? Hang?”) – I don’t know, who are you, which apartment are we in… whatever. Hang, I guess… and other child (“Can I have my friends over for dinner tonight?”) and other child (“Mom, there’s a baby lizard in the living room, can we protect him so Fluffy doesn’t eat him?”) Yeah sure, I heard myself responding to all this… and who are you? I thought I only had two or three kids, but there seem to be at least seven needy individuals under age twelve in the new apartment who demand food, drink and entertainment.

At some point, I had reached a stage where I didn’t know which day it was. When the workers disappeared for lunch I organized my husband’s socks and underwear whilst he was exploring the autumnal affluent neighborhoods of Chicago on the last leg of his four-month sabbatical. He really married well…. Suddenly I heard my daughter next door: “NO!! NO, FLUFFY!!! MOM!! COME HERE!!! ” I saw that our dog had seized the opportunity created by all this chaos and disarray to visit the guinea pig. It looked like he was going to eat her alive, but I don’t know, maybe it was just affection. With our dog it’s hard to tell the difference.

NOW TV arrived to fix, well, NOW TV, but there was no wifi or gas yet. The handyman installed the kitchen shelves 2 inches too high, which in the grand scheme of things of course is trivial, but not today. Today it sucks and I became convinced it would bring down our quality of life by 98%.

Finally we were ready to unpack plates and glasses and wow, all of it was there in one piece. My helper’s friend was fantastic and sorted through our boxes like a pro. I could exhale for the first time that day and get back to my clothes. Keep, keep, donate, maybe, too small, too small, too small…. I returned to the dining room just in time to find my helper’s friend pulling out a flattened cardboard box from behind a pile of heavy boxes. She tears and bends, and I suddenly realized that what looked to her like a folded box was actually holding a valuable oil painting. “STOOOP, stop, stop”, I screamed, “What are you doing? “It’s empty, Mam, the box. Throw out.” “NO, it holds a painting.” “Haha, sorry Mam, will not throw then, ok!” she says cheerfully. Hadn’t I asked the movers to pack those oil paintings in crates? I wondered how much of our modest art collection was already in the dumpster.

PCCW saved my life by installing NOW TV just in time for the kids to get back from swimming. Shower, movie, bed – some semblance of normalcy. All good. No dinner though. No gas. No food. Call for pizza? No cash in wallet after tipping everyone. No wifi for ordering online and paying with visa. No energy to go down and get cash. We did something, and I cannot even remember what. Too tired. I spared a thought for people who are in really difficult situations, refugees and migrants, and I began to regain my perspective. I looked around the domestic chaos and thought: luxury. The exhaustion was real. But tomorrow, I will get recycled. I will just write it all down.


Hong Kong, living, Parenting

The Power of shutting up

feeling excluded

by Caroline Roy

A few days ago I witnessed the following dialogue between a pre-teen and her mother who were waiting next to me at a traffic light: Daughter: “… and they did not invite me to sit with them at lunch.” Mother: “I told you to do your hair up in the morning, you would look so much better. You’ll see, that can make a big difference.”

I can feel for both, mother and daughter. Now that I have spent some time to re-sensitize myself for communication traps in our own family, I hear the mother’s own fears – fears I can absolutely relate to – through her words: is my child unpopular? What if she keeps getting excluded by her peers?  I have visited exactly that uncomfortable place just a few weeks ago:

Son: “I hate this weekend. Nobody wants to hang out with me. Everyone is busy.” Me: “Of course everybody is busy. I told you so often to make plans earlier. Get your friends’ phone numbers and make plans at the beginning of the week, not on the day you want to do something!”

My own lack of empathy, my need to jump in and dismiss my son’s experience as a mistake he made, is not much different to the mother’s response to her daughter.  But what about our child’s inner voice: something’s wrong with me. Otherwise the popular kids would have invited me to sit with them at lunch… maybe I’m a weirdo. Everyone is having fun except me.

It’s not surprising that mothers get unnerved by the idea that their kids feel lonely. Most of us have been in that place when we grew up. There may be exceptions. But feeling left out occasionally is one of the most terrifying experiences of being human – and one of the most common ones too. We are hard-wired to be alarmed when we get rejected, because on a primeval level we know that we need our tribal peers to survive. We want to fit in. We have an instinctive need for acceptance.

Meanwhile, motherly fear of our child’s social exclusion turns us into a verbal steam engine: Told you! Had you done what I said this wouldn’t have happened. Pre-teens often doubt their self worth when they experience rejection, frustration or loneliness. Some may have a perfectly healthy perspective on the ups and downs of growing up and shrug it off. But often this goes deeper.

How can we tell what we are dealing with? If we jump in and tell our child: “told ya! I gave you a solution but you wouldn’t listen. Now you suffer!” we starve the conversation of what it needs to grow: empathy. If a friend told me that she finds it difficult to make plans, I would recognize her need for sharing something she struggles with, no doubt. I would respond in a ‘tell-me-more’ manner, seeking to understand. However, with my own son I exhort, urge and stop him from sharing more.

Suffocating a dialogue certainly doesn’t help our kids to get to know themselves, nor does not build trust between them and us. The ‘toldya’ response wastes a great opportunity to connect when kids go through their first independent social experiences, including the pain that occasionally comes with it. I deeply believe in developing self-knowledge as one of the key qualities to live life well, especially in complex environments. As so many things, helping our kids to continuously develop their understanding about who they are can be surprisingly simple.

One thing we can all do is to remember that vulnerable stage in our own lives at age ten or so. When we were not wearing the right brand of jeans (that’s me), were not invited to that in-party (also me), and as a result did not feel welcome in a group. I have a handful of memories that I can access, and I can catch myself when I want to fix my kids’ problems. It is painful nonetheless. But then, we are human, and our emotions are an important resource to learn what it is to be human. I told my kids the story of a girl in my class who was allowed eight girls on her party. She did not choose me. And when I heard about how awesome it was the following Monday, I did not know where to look. I was embarrassed and convinced that I would never ever in my life be worthy of having fun.

Yesterday my son told me that in our building some friends who seem not to want to hang out with him as they used to. I asked him what happened, and then I just listened. This allowed him to talk about it until he gets it: they are crazy about football… and I hate football. They are always playing football, but I like music and basketball. Maybe that’s why we grew apart… At that point, the edge is taken off the subject. He may still feel excluded and that can be frustrating. But at least there’s perspective. He owns the reasoning process. He can draw conclusions without me criticizing or rescuing him.

Being prone to reasoning rather than listening when I see my kids struggle, this is a big lesson for me. Sometimes, shutting up makes all the difference. This way, we can find out whether we are dealing with a typical teenage situation or whether we need to dig deeper. We create that sacred safe space.

With friends, we would not think twice about doing that. But kids can reconnect us with our own deepest fears – especially in the pre-teen years, when they experience peer dynamics. Yes, going back to those moments in our own lives may be uncomfortable, but worth the effort.

I am making a promise to myself today to be true to my trust in self-study with my own children. Hopefully, they give me another chance.

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Hong Kong, living, living abroad, Parenting

What’s your Plan B?


by Caroline Roy

When we moved to Hong Kong in January 2004 from London, it looked like happy couples surrounded us. Admittedly, I chose to see it that way, as we were on our honeymoon with Hong Kong, with our first baby, good friends and a promising career path for my husband. We felt we won the lottery with our helper and were happy to have time as a couple.

Then, on December 26th, 2004, a devastating tsunami wiped out thousands of people in south East Asia. Amongst those was one entire family we just had gotten close to. I will never forget the memorial gathering we hosted for them in our house after my new soul mate, her husband and her beloved baby all had died together in Phuket.

Another friend lost her husband and her mother in that catastrophic event. The trauma of loss and chaos was present in many moments to come in Hong Kong. We were reminded that glitz is at the surface only. Underneath, the same themes that have concerned human beings for centuries are at work every minute we are walking this planet: the search for purpose, the fear of death and death itself, and our inborn respect for those unpredictable forces we will never fully understand.

Loss and separation can be extra difficult for people who came from far away to work and live in Hong Kong’s super world of appearances. From expatriates and Hongkongers alike I hear: when you lose a partner through accident or sickness, people shy away, not knowing how to be with you, what to say, and how to integrate a grieving person into their lives. Divorce presents different social challenges and it can get legally complicated too. If you are here on your partner’s dependant visa, you may have to leave. But then, the kids will almost certainly loose their relationship with one parent. Some sudden singles are very successful in managing all that, but it takes extraordinary resilience, talent and the willingness to sacrifice.

The question what do you do if your family unit falls apart in a real or a personal tsunami never quite left me. It took us six or seven years to even talk Plan B. We were so absorbed by other, legitimately important questions, that addressing our personal Plan B fell through the cracks. For years I had no idea what I would do, should anything happen do my husband. I was clueless about finances. Would I be able to survive in Hong Kong until they finish school or would I need to relocate? Where would I go? London was already too expensive by then. I had not lived in Germany for 25 years – what would I do there? Uncomfortable thoughts at the beginning, but we nonetheless developed a Plan B.

Once we created our plan b on all fronts from writing a will, thinking through various school scenarios, an alternative place to live and a retirement strategy, both of us felt that a nagging, subtle source of stress had been removed. Even better, we could make some strategic life decisions such as moving and buying real estate, because of insights we did not have before. My motivation and energy for tying up lose ends – entirely learned behavior, as I am neither a pragmatist nor a closure type – grew exponentially. I still have a lot to learn, but we are in a good place when it comes to planning and understanding who we are in practical terms as well. Now we enjoy Hong Kong more, because we know what to compare it with. Even this blog is a result of creating more time to write, one of my priorities that always came short.

For three months now, resources – now renamed Plan B – have consulted and met with single expats and locals in need and have helped to clarify affairs on various fronts. It has been an eye opener how uplifting, energizing and liberating it is to create clarity in life – regardless of personal circumstances.

Living with clarity over our physical, family and financial health, our legal status and also our cultural identity can turn things round. Advisers, consultants and coaches all make the same experience: the self-sabotaging state of denial works for a short while only, but soon it is draining and prevents us from progress in whatever field is we want to grow. But once you start addressing the fundamental questions in life, you gain new depth and energy.

What makes a good Plan B? It may only be a different perspective, an adjusted expectation, an alternative strategy to what you are doing now. It may be an alternative place to live, a new career, a different school for the kids, and an unused source of income, a different retirement plan, a decent health insurance and most importantly good friends. Once you found your personal base in this complex world, you can think about how to turn your Plan B into your second Plan A.

Hongkonqueror readers have helped to build the hongkonqueror’s Plan B, our new charitable group of Hong Kong volunteers with diverse professional and personal backgrounds who are here for single parents and expats in need. We help to create a working Plan B when Plan A didn’t work out.

We are presently looking for more volunteers with legal and immigration expertise.

Humor, living, Parenting


by Caroline Roy

Two sixth graders in the back of my car.images

Sixth Grader One:

“That teenage boy on my bus uses the f-word all the time. F**king this, f**king that, like: shut the f**k up, I want to f**king read!”

Sixth Grader Two:

“How stupid. Why would he want to read?”

A recent conversation with friends in Berkeley confirmed that parenting High Schoolers in California is not without parental challenges either. “How do you handle swearing?” I asked the mother of three, a passionate linguist. I’m always curious how families approach this affair.

“We don’t allow it, generally…” She answered. Then she adds “…unless there really is no better word.” A lawyer by training, she will no doubt force her kids to defend their verbal choices well before they’re allowed to settle for the f-word.

Of course, I thought, she found the perfect approach to the f-word dilemma:  find the best word, anytime, and when it happens to be the f-word, you better be able to make a good case for it. She trusts that her kids exercise judgment in their use of language. So far things look good in her family.

I always felt that as a parent of preteen school kids it’s my job to model the use of appropriate language and disapprove of the four-letter word, even in moments I agree with its sentiment. Not easy for a liberal European. A middle schooler’s mental news-ticker is designed to challenge that when… +++laptop covered in sticky mess +++ clarinet forgotten in bus +++ spilled drink over fresh pair of shorts in compromising place+++ didn’t make basketball team+++… Those are the moments when extreme frustration seems to win the upper hand.

Nonetheless we encourage our kids to use language without profanities. The more we educate ourselves, the more complexity we discover and the more choices we create in words and in deeds. One logical conclusion would be that at any given time we should find a more specific word than f**k.

However, when I observe teenagers – that spotty, sleep-deprived and out-of-sync-with-everything-except-their-iphone-species – I conclude in teenage-land, the f-word is not really a word. It is a form of exhale, a reflex that’s triggered at a certain level of complexity that we humans have to deal with. Some teenagers seem to be unable to control that reflex: the f-word involuntarily lashes out like a frog’s tongue lashes out when an insect flies past. As grown ups, we’ve either trained ourselves to suppress such involuntary responses and go shopping or, more exotically, we learned not to resent complexity, embracing it even, by choosing a different mind-and soulset altogether. (Is there such thing as a soulset? If not, I hereby create it.) But at a young age, when those options are not yet available, collapsing one’s momentary worldview into four letters in the face of shock, horror or frustration seems like the obvious coping mechanism. It does justice to a mind that has had too much, that wants to be left alone or just wants to f**king read.

One reason, though, why we should remind our kids that it’s not a f**king awesome idea to publicly speak in the teenager-on-bus-manner  is that it is either deliberately in-articulate (see: mafia, American movies, American husbands) or that it reveals deprivation and laziness. It says: I’m either underprivileged or I don’t bother making an effort. Do you want people to perceive you that way? The kid’s answer may be yes. That’s not great. But at least it’s a deliberate choice of style and we tried making them aware of the effect that language may have on other people.

What we cannot do is pretend that intelligent people don’t use the f-word. We don’t even need to look as far as Hollywood. One of my more articulate friends was so fed up with the way Hongkongers use the word ‘busy’ as an excuse to mess with priorities that she seriously considered having t-shirts printed that say ‘f**k busy’. A point well made in just eight letters. All her kids – and mine – were present when she brainstormed her initiative over a family breakfast. And all of us are still fine.

My Berkeley friend made her point well too: develop your vocabulary. Experiment with words, all of them. But use them better. Use words as well as you can, and you get away with murder. But don’t say f**k just because you are lazy. Unless, of course, you just want to f**king read!

Just for fun, watch our teen’s linguistic diet here.