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Hong Kong, Humor, living abroad, Parenting

Five Things I learned in Hong Kong


Taking an inventory of life to get ready for a major move brought about the question how living in Hong Kong has affected my outlook on life. This is what I can share:

One: Pragmatism

Over the 12 years I’ve spent in Hong Kong, I learned to be pragmatic. For example, when I arrived in Hong Kong, the fear of what pollution would do to my small children was at times almost paralyzing. Understandably, but not helpful. I learned to do the best I can to limit exposure and avoid the wasteful behavior typical for a HK life. Beyond that, I made peace with the issue. One day in Beijing turns Hong Kong into a climatic spa.

Two: Humor

When I arrived from London, where all I needed to do is step into the street to find something that made me smile or at least think this is comedic, I found it hard to walk through Hong Kong’s polished inner city and see anything that would tease my comedic sensibility. Whilst on the surface that has not changed, I have discovered that HongKongers have a great sense of humor in conversations and have a high tolerance for creativity and the absurd. It is not part of their public personas, but the moment you step into a meaningful exchange, there is an unexpected readiness for fun. Especially refreshing is that people in Hong Kong do not tend to take things too personally.

Three: Personal Space

Westerners love to complain about the lack of personal space in Hong Kong. I am one of them when it comes to privacy. How I would love to close the door behind me sometimes! However, as an individual, where can you have more personal space to examine ideas, learn a new skill or dig deep into a subject you are curious about? In Hong Kong’s urban efficiency, personal space is a vertical matter. You can dig deep or be highly inspired, have a meaningful conversation and a pedicure at the same time whilst someone else irons your shirts. Many people in HK (not me, sadly) display an impressive talent to mix glamor with intellect. It’s up to us where we adjust our personal sliders on any continuum – nowhere else have I seen such freedom. What more personal space can anyone ask for?

Four: Friendships

Meeting people in Hong Kong can be a bit like speed-dating at times: we have so many opportunities to connect. I held the common belief that making real friends is getting more difficult with age, but I have to correct myself. It is not true. Whilst, not every connection I feel with people turns into friendship, it is possible to make lifelong friends late in life. It helps that we know better who we are, have more tolerance for weaknesses and vulnerability and are kinder to ourselves and others. Whatever it is, being in Hong Kong helps to practice friendship.

Five: Parenting and Family Values

I was shocked to find an old journal in which I expressed how hopeless I felt a few years ago, as a parent of my primary school kids. It was hard to admit and accept. Everyone else seemed to have great answers to how to support their kids through transitioning from preschool into the primary school. What helped me most on my parenting journey was admitting how challenging I found it and, more importantly, staying curious. That is why curiosity has become one of my core values – if we stay curious and interested in who our children really are and how to parent kids who struggle, it’s almost impossible not to find parental guidance that works. Rilke said: Live the questions, not the answers. Contrary to common perception, Hong Kong’s parenting community can be extremely nurturing and diverse. But we have to open up and look for help when we need it.

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.

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!

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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Aprons will always be my passion – I just love them!

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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.

If you like what you read, please subscribe to my blog and never miss a parenting theme again!

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.


Hong Kong, living, living abroad, Parenting

Single Parent Family Resources in Hong Kong

shadow-familyA few months ago I published a post about the difficulty of being a single parent family in Hong Kong. It was the result of a discussion with friends and my personal experience of growing up in a single parent household and my sudden realisation that this is close to my heart regardless of my own personal circumstances. I remembered my own mother’s frustration of being what seemed the only single parent in a world of conventional marriages.

What struck me was that when your life falls apart in Hong Kong, (by an enlightened reader called Noah’s Ark as people mostly arrive in couples), the last thing you have time for is looking for help and explaining yourself again and again. Instead, challenges pile up: financial planning, getting back to work, guardianship, legal complications, visa issues, keeping the kids stable in school and living somewhere affordable. And that is just the beginning.

Doing this alone sucks. But in Hong Kong, rebuilding a life could be easier than it is now. With all the free roaming talent benefiting from trailing spouses and low taxes, rebuilding a life does not have to be the logistic and emotional drain that some single parents go through in Hong Kong.

Readers of hongkonqueror have helped to start Plan B, an initiative of associates who are willing to donate some time and expertise, give a helping hand or provide guidance to the single parent family or those who are going through a separation or turmoil, needing to restructure their lives.

Those needs are diverse: from financial planning, insurance, getting back to work after a break, housing,insurance, building a business, mental and parental support, life strategies, even sorting out your wardrobe and develop a fresh look with a new perspective.

The idea behind Plan B is to create indeed a bank of resources or a point of contact offering informal knowledge, experience, expertise and a helping hand to those whose life is falling apart, where and when it’s needed.

Readers, thank you for helping to get this off the ground. You shared the initial post many times and helped. Now, several of us are supporting parents here! and now.

Like all public endeavors in Hong Kong, Resources will benefit from your awareness and willingness to spread the word, give us ideas, share stories. Please help building resources by sharing this information in your networks. Stay in touch. Subscribe to this blog below or in the right sidebar and get weekly updates.

Thank you!

Caroline Roy

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

Hong Kong’s silent struggle: The Single Parent Family

single expat parentWhat do you call an epiphany that does not stop? This morning I woke up at 5, healthy, with husband and kids being  still asleep. I sneaked into the kitchen, made a coffee and sat down to take some notes for an article I intended to write later. I could not help but feeling privileged that I have time and means to do this.

I am aware of my blessings for a number of reasons. First, I rarely had the freedom to work on whatever I choose. In the Hong Kong world of expatriate privilege it is easy to forget that lots of women here are employed full time. Those of us who are trailing spouses may feel guilty for not generating any income. But many of us are able to recover from those thoughts as soon as we invest our time into meaningful projects, be they personal or professional, concerning children or charity. The point is, having a choice of what to do with a significant part of our time, is a gift.

We live close to others– mostly women – who do not have much spare time. The nurse that took my blood pressure the other day has a daily commute into Central from the New Territories, where she supports two school kids and two dogs. Or take the friendly old lady who sweeps Bowen Road every day from 8 am – 6 pm and then walks home to look after her husband, daughter and grandchild, or the receptionist at our club who always makes us feel welcome, whilst she herself is parenting two teenagers and has a husband who, like her, is working long hours. When I talk to these women, I find that each of them, like me, love what they do and, like me, are lucky to have the life they have.

Occasionally I envy women who have a career in medicine, finance or fashion because of their stimulating professional environment and their exposure to dynamic people, and I miss the satisfaction of running a creative project from my days as an advertising professional. And yet, being able to write and pursue what matters to me is priceless, and I know I could not do it all.

My ongoing epiphany concerns trailing spouses, mostly women, who get hurt when their life plan falls apart. This is a blind spot in Hong Kong – and I assume it equally concerns lives in other expat hubs. Don’t get me wrong: it always hurts when life falls apart, everywhere. But living away from an organically grown support network and having disrupted your capability to create an income to advance your partner’s career over your own adds to the complexity that comes with an expatriate family life, and it adds to the trauma when something goes wrong.

What do you do if you are a trailing spouse who has disrupted her or, less frequently, his own working life, have created a stable environment for your children in Hong Kong, when all of a sudden your marriage falls apart? What if your partner gets sick, dies or turns unstable in other ways? What if your spouse is not able to support you and the kids any more? How capable is your support network to help you stay afloat with dignity and rebuild your life? Who helps you with financial planning, your tax return, the banking nightmare of changing account holder’s names and securing the child’s spot at the school? Who helps you build an income when the other half is gone? What do we – as women – do for other women who are falling through the cracks of the locally assumed privilege? In moments like that, time, experience and attention become the most valuable currency.

Hong Kong has a number of mothers who successfully raise a family by themselves after a divorce, illness or death of their spouse. It is not something we see too often. But the fact that we do not see those women a lot is probably because they do not have that much time to socialize. They build businesses, careers or hold on to a job that secures a basic income. They work, pick up their kids whenever they can and compete with the parenting advantages of the many more privileged Hong Kong families, i.e. at least one reasonably well compensated breadwinner, money for extracurricular activities, involvement at the school and all those perks that come with a Hong Kong expatriate existence. It can work well. Hong Kong can be a good place for single women because of domestic help – a whole other topic – quality networks and its well-oiled infrastructure. But getting to that point after a setback is a long journey. There are moments in life when the conveniences and even friendships we have in Hong Kong are not enough. This is where we can help.

The point is that we sometimes need advice, be it legal, financial, strategic or psychological, when we are overwhelmed by change, sadness and setbacks. Years ago, when a psychologist shared with me that she sees a lot of desperately depressed people – women and men – I was ashamed about being surprised. I was new in Hong Kong, and I had fallen for the veneer of wellness and glamour. I should have been able to work out that there’s a price we pay for fast-paced, shiny efficiency of Hong Kong.

I grew up in a single parent family myself. My mom had a stable salary, a number of benefits including child-care until I was 12, a secure pension and health care. Extended family lived nearby. She was able to send me to one of the best local schools (free in Germany) and we traveled all over Europe. Despite missing a father figure and craving the two-parent normality, I was not a deprived child. But I felt humiliated by the need to explain the missing father at every social occasion, with every form to fill in, with every introduction to my friend’s parents or new teachers, and the label ‘illegitimate child’ quickly translated into a permanent coding of something is wrong in my life. It hurt when my mother had no time because she had to take care of all the administrative aspects of our lives. I was humiliated when men told my mother in my presence that she was certainly good looking enough to find someone who would marry her.

My mum chose to stay single. She found that being able to tick ‘married’ on the occasional application form was not enough reason to put up with having her dignity crushed. However, we could have used some unbiased advise and a regular ‘big picture talk’ about financial planning, my education, a few life strategies that would have helped me through the teenage years alongside a full time working mom. We suffered from my mother’s mental exhaustion when school became challenging for me or when I rebelled as a teenager.

Today’s Hong Kong presents different problems for the single parent family: job security for example. One particular divorced mother I’ve known for years is working hard to break into a career with hardly any child support from her divorced husband. The HK real estate firm she works for delays her commission payments in a way which makes it impossible for her to structure her well-earned income without running into cash flow problems every single month. Her employer expects her to show enthusiasm, commitment and a high degree of leadership qualities in her expat client relationships. In exchange they pay her a low base salary, she works six days a week and the firm sustains a volatile commission policy that could maybe handled by a second bread winner in a family, but not the main one.

Her story makes me think that women’s lives – with all the progress and privilege we collectively may have – are often still very vulnerable when it comes to career, income equality and basic financial security. Trailing parents may not choose to disrupt their working lives and give up the ability to support themselves financially for their partner’s career move, but they do it and make the best of it. Nowhere have I seen as much professional and creative talent roam free as in Hong Kong. But when things go wrong, as they do sometimes, we need specific major restructuring skills, time and emotional support all the same.

Hong Kong is a place where it is easy to forget that lives do fall apart – for whatever reason – like everywhere else. There seem to be fewer mechanisms in place that give people breathing space, perspective and time to pick up the pieces.

My epiphany is still only half finished, I feel. What is falling through the cracks is an understanding that when we perceive the world by ‘breadline vs luxury’ and dismiss everything in between as not worth dealing with, it’s like saying only ‘black and white, good and bad’ are the only criteria that count. In our daily lives we have to keep our eyes, ears and lives open and make Hong Kong – one of the most expensive expat places in the world, abundant with opportunities and yet merciless employment laws – a place where single parents can build quality lives for themselves and their kids. That is the diversity we need to make it a ‘real’ place.

The opportunities are here, and many women with diverse personal backgrounds succeed as entrepreneurs, professionals of freelancers. But to break in when life as planned falls apart is harder than it needs to be: there are abundant resources of knowledge and experience in Hong Kong, a great understanding of the power of networks and a willingness to help each other without judgment. I love that about the people I keep meeting in Hong Kong. It is what my mother never had. So let’s put that to work.

I want to make clear that I do not intend to create a single parent network. I want to create a resource for parents who need it when they are in distress, and who need support here and now. No matter what your status is, you can help:

If you are a lawyer, mentor, mediator, coach, counselor and passionate networker, a person with a little time and ideas, please register here. Donate some time, knowledge and expertise to those who need it.

This way we can help people in the expat and hopefully even local communities who do not have the time and mind space to negotiate, decide and research on their own behalf when their lives fall apart.

I have registered here as a coach to help. Please register if you feel you can contribute or share this article with those who can.

Read more on the subject on Wall Street Journal here.


The Sleepover

boy and device If the sound of this post’s title reminds you of the movie ‘The Hangover’, fast forward to the scene when the three friends wake up in a mess the morning after their excessive night. Stop where Bradley Cooper accidentally steps on a chicken or a tiger and just remember the ‘look and feel’ of the scene. This will save me some typing later and I don’t have to infringe on any copyrights.

My son recently invited two friends from his class over for a movie night and sleepover. I agreed to order pizzas, secured our Swarovski glass poodle collection and numbed my desire to maintain a semi-civilized living environment before the boys arrived, hoping my surrender and trust would work in everybody’s favor: a sign of good faith from a cool mom. In years of parenting I have never once managed to prevent young male visitors from trashing our home whilst maintaining a cheerful demeanor, so I figured I would just go with the flow. Shut up now, clean up later (not to be confused with the more enlightened hate me now, thank me later parenting principle).

My son likes these two friends because they like the same movies and they have the same sense of humor. One of them – let’s call him Tim – had, on previous sleepovers, covered an armchair in a yellow liquid of unknown origin and, another time, managed to throw eight organic large grade A eggs out of our living room window onto the communal area below. Months after the egg-bombing campaign I am still trying to process the bizarre discovery I made when we returned home that evening and found lots of eggs shells and yolks smeared over the podium below our window, no-egg-left-behind for breakfast and a completely incoherent conversation with the boys, who seemed baffled when I asked them what had happened.

What aspect should a parent focus on following an incident like that? The waste of food? The mess it makes on communal property? Ignoring the value an egg has, the cost of organic eggs even, or the totally inappropriate assumption that it is ok to throw eggs out of any living room window, anytime, anywhere? For weeks, whenever I arrived home from shopping, I made sure to announce to my son, “I got a dozen fresh eggs, just in case Tim wants to stop by”, but the sarcasm went unappreciated. When Tim does show up I hard-boil and peel the eggs, half hoping he does throw them and savoring the image of his disappointment as they fail to explode on impact.

This time my son had carefully chosen a movie, made popcorn and prepared cold drinks so the boys would first spend some time together and later eat and have their movie night. He is a well-prepared host when it comes to events that center on popcorn, carbonated drinks and lowbrow entertainment.

Forty minutes after the kids had arrived he came into the kitchen where I was making dinner for my husband and me: “Mom, all they do is look at their laptops. We are not talking or doing anything together”, he said, disappointed. I walked over and saw the two boys with their laptops, headphones on, feet up, in a state of oblivion to the fact that they were at someone else’s home. I peeled them off their devices and forced them to go outside for half an hour before they could have their pizza. Meanwhile, my son apologized profusely for my embarrassing maternal interference. Appearances had to be maintained.

I realized how little I appreciate boys in combination with living rooms, screens and sleepovers, felt a bit guilty for not seeing the divine human being inside these glassy-eyed creatures on the sofa, and moved on. In my defense: yes, I did try to have a conversation with them. “What are you looking forward to doing in Middle School?” I asked them as it is a big topic right now, but they just appeared startled and confused at the interruption, then returned to whatever device happened to be available.

Later in the evening, the movie was finally on – ‘Click’, if you must know – and so were their laptops, an ipad and an iphone. “Are you actually watching this movie together?” I asked. I think answering that question presented a challenge for them, as they were not able to identify what they were doing themselves.

And why DID they bring their laptops? Is it the fear of awkward silence in case there would be a conversation? Is it like throwing down a challenge: “Let’s see what you’ve got to offer… it has to be better than being online.” Is being seen behind a laptop cool? Is looking into a real face too much work?

Once more, I literally amputated their devices, suggesting that, since it’s movie night, they might actually watch the movie together, quietly wondering whether that suggestion would reveal my old age, and went downstairs to the communal area, where I bumped into a group of the kid’s school friends running around outside. “Can your kids come down and play?” one girl asked me. My son happened to be standing by the window upstairs looking down at me. “Here are some kids who want to play with you guys!” I called out. My son was mortified that I had said such a thing out loud. It was as if I’d asked him, in front of his fifth grade class, whether he needed a nappy change. “How could you embarrass me like that??!” he hissed at me later. As if his friends would notice anything that wasn’t happening on a screen.

When my husband and I came up after a little walk with the dog, the living room resembled a Silicon Valley startup, with pizza slices in the most unlikely places, stacks of trash, soda cans and three silent young males in front of multiple screens again. A good old-fashioned pillow fight could not have created more of a mess. Except that when our parents walked in on us back in those innocent days, they found happy, rosy-cheeked campers – at least that’s how I remember it. They have no idea how good they had it.

My husband and I were too tired to discuss what had gone wrong with our role-modeling, but were quietly aware that we must have missed a few modules in our parental training involving trust, guidance and healthy boundaries.

I reminded the kids in what I consider relatively kind words to brush their teeth, set them up for the night and reminded them to go to bed at 10:30 pm. The moment we put our own lights out, the boys started on a giggle marathon. I was too tired to interfere and my reasoning was: if they giggle, they are probably not throwing eggs. Or are they? Are eggs important? Is sleep important? Giggling is good, right? No one is hurt, sad, left out… let them giggle. The giggles lasted until 2:30am. Not so sure they were giggling at 2:30 pm the following day.

Conclusion: neither our apartment, nor our kids, nor our kid’s parents are equipped for the ‘social’ monstrosity that is the modern sleepover. There’s neither sleep, nor is it over soon enough. Instead it creates the perfect formula for meeting nobody’s needs for the time it lasts and for 24 hours afterwards.

I guess, like so many things, childhood rituals are lost on the young. Grown-ups should steal the sleepover and optimize it for our own social calendar. I can imagine having a pajama party with best friends, minimum age 40. Share a movie, some finger food, wine, great conversations before dropping off to sleep until one of us wakes up and makes breakfast. That I would like. When living pre-kids in London, this occasionally came in the form of cottage-renting-in-the-country for a weekend. It is a great way to spend time with friends. My cut-off age for almost everything worth experiencing these days is forty or even fifty, here’s why. My egg-throwing, live-event-even-though-it-is-already-a-movieignoring, perma-oblivion-coded little friends, you have a long way to go.

Please share your sleepover stories in the comment section!

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Mother’s Day

I took this photo of my mom on her death-bed, a hospice-nurse next to her holding my then 4-month old daughter, in Summer 2005. We had been spending every day together for about three months when the photo was taken, till she died of cancer on August 22nd that same year.

My mother’s cancer had progressed over a number of years, and she fought it with spirit. I was fortunate enough to be able to interrupt my working life, and have a supportive partner, and was able to be with her for long periods of time during that painful and frightening phase of physical decline.

One particular memory gives me a lot of joy. By December 2002, my mother had undergone another set of aggressive chemo-therapy. This was just before we spent family Christmas together at my grandfather’s house.

It was evident that the lively holiday gatherings, long evenings and endless conversations were exhausting for my mum. I remember looking at her often, how she sat in an armchair, tired. I would like to tell her that I am pregnant, I thought. Back then my husband and I just had consolidated our households in London before we each left to visit our respective parents for Christmas.

The following January my mum was admitted to a rehabilitation-centre with excellent care. It was possible for me to talk to her doctor over the phone after I was back in London, and he told me: medically, we cannot do much for your mum any more. She will have another three or four months. We can help making this time as pain free and pleasant as we can. If you want to be with her, come now.

A day later I took a pregnancy test. It was positive. It felt real. I called my mum and said: I will come and spend time with you. We will just be together as long as you wish. She was overjoyed when she heard about my news.

By February I was able to leave London and stay with my grandfather, commuted to mum’s clinic daily and otherwise looked after him in his house. In this fragile stage of early pregnancy I often felt tired, and the slow pace at the clinic was so right for my mum and me that we often laughed at the ‘inmate-habits’ we began to develop: herbal teas, heath food, no alcohol, gentleness in everything we did and many, many naps. We shared the joy of expecting a new life without too much discussion of death.

In March, something strange happened. After so many in-depth analysis of mum’s cancer spreading, I stumbled upon a well-hidden scientific article about a new US-tested method of blood transfusion for post chemo cancer patients that would give them a shot at getting better. I found it in a science paper that I usually never read. The doctors in Germany had not heard of this research, but they were willing to try it. Within a few months, my mother’s metastasized cancer cells went into remission and her immune system triumphed over her sickness. She was getting better each day. By May she was cancer free and the doctors declared her to be a medical miracle.

She was able to experience the rest of my pregnancy and first three months of my first baby. I then had to say goodbye, as we moved to Hong Kong in December. But she came to visit us in the following March, took hikes with me and we both thought: wow, if any one had told us a year ago that we would hike together in China, we would never have believed it.

I would see her again in the summer during a long break in Europe, and she was relatively stable. But I could see that she was exhausted and was not really sure how to live that new, fragile life. We were all aware that her cancer would come probably come back, and it did.

A year later, I took the photo you see of my mum on her deathbed, with a nurse holding my daughter. She had been given more than two extra years. Nobody will ever know whether we owed that extra time to her prospect of becoming a grandmother, to the experimental blood transfusion or to the combined care and love she received. Whatever may have played a role in overcoming her medical issues, I am convinced it is best to simply accept it with gratitude.

The months before her actual death were filled with stories and love for her young grandchildren. Having a baby with me on my visits was perfect. My mother and my baby were connecting through a mutual sense of wonder at the other: One of them at the beginning of life, one at the end. One of them saying hello, one saying good bye.

In the final three days, when my mother’s body was transgressing from life to death, she faded away, but I felt she worked, we all worked, to let her go. It reminds me of labor and giving birth, I said to the nurse. That is the most accurate metaphor, the nurse answered, the dying person is going through something very much like that.

The day my mum died, my son was not even two and my daughter was five months old. My mother and I had a chance to bond over many things, but not much over our roles as mothers.

Having become a mother myself allowed me to understand the mysterious mental states that inform motherhood: guilt, joy, fear, anger, wonder, and most of all love. I have missed not being able to continue to share my mothering world with my own mother. I believe that being a mother enriches our relationships with our own mothers. I miss my mum. My children bring me closer to her.

So the relationship with our mothers, I believe, never really comes to an end. Whether they are with us or not, we connect with their worlds in so many ways as we become ourselves.