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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.

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.


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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Our kids (2-5 years old) aprons are awesome allrounders – bibs, pinafores, aprons, dresses… all in one! Saves laundry big time.

Hongkonqueror Readers pay less than 50% as long as stock is available. menslimc

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

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Humor, living, Reader's favorites

20 things I know for sure

What I know for sure

Back on the Blog!

I’m back in Hong Kong after two months of family travel. The four of us went to California, Alaska, Corsica and Berlin together, learned a lot and returned as a better team. I missed my blog, which has become my personal digital real estate, my laboratory, the space I come to when I try to make sense of things.

Here are 20 things I know are true after a summer of non-stop family travel:

  1. Privacy is a great privilege.
  2. Cheese, sandwiches and bananas look identical after 3 days in my son’s backpack.
  3. The logical opposite of Donald Trump is the Dalai Lama.
  4. Alaska disappoints nature lovers. Frontier land meets corporate America. If you like the northern nature experience, Iceland is the better place to go: educated people, stylish nightlife, and a great connection with nature.
  5. My kids are not snobs, yet. They disapproved of us when we struggled with a modest Airbnb apartment. “Mum, for many people in the world, this place would be luxury.” Good kids.
  6. Regarding travel and accommodation, however, this works for me: high end, low end or no end (i.e.: home, friends, family). Avoid everything in the middle. High end of course is great, because smart people are dedicating their resources to your well-being. Low end is good too: you know what you get and everything that exceeds your low expectations counts as value or adventure. It’s the middle end that’s dangerous ground for inner peace: it has to appear attractive whilst meeting the optimal profit margins. Inevitably, the shower collapses, breakfast is made with the cheapest ingredients and the gym holds the collective grime of dubious individuals. The middle is always too expensive for what it offers, so I’d rather stay home.
  7. You can meet great people everywhere.Capture-alaska
  8. The glaciers ARE melting. They stare back at us, shrunken.  Once turquoise and pristine, now a sad, sunken and dirty ice-monster, an instant diagnosis of the state of our planet. The glaciers, our casualty, reveal that we do not change fast enough.
  9. By the time a tourist in Alaska has had breakfast, he or she will already have thrown away their body weight in trash, or at least one styro-foam cup and plate, a plastic cup and various plastic utensils that come wrapped in plastic for the consumption of food, also served in plastic. I used to think Hong Kong was bad. Alaska is REALLY bad.
  10. Corsica is French, Italian and European. It is free of the global mainstream; no American or Chinese tourists. It felt like the holidays in the 1970ies.
  11. Berlin is THE place to experiment with real estate, start-ups and life style. It’s being discovered by the rest of the world as one of the few places that is affordable, livable and that gives its citizens a great deal of personal freedom.
  12. Food, shoes and accommodation need to work when I travel. For the rest: walk, talk and experience. Curiosity gets you to interesting places and saves the tour guide.
  13. It’s impossible to visit Alcatraz without obsessing how to escape, even though it’s understood to be impossible. Just like we do not really believe we’ll die one day, our mind does not accept that Alcatraz is final. I got as far as synchronizing the 50 seagulls I secretly tamed over a decade to pick me up and fly me over to Sausalito. I wonder why nobody did that before.
  14. Buy, intend to buy or pretend to intend to buy a place in a city: it’s a great way to get to know neighborhoods. I learned a lot about Chicago, London and Berlin that way. Why stop there? Ulaanbaatar, here we come.
  15. I want to become a good writer.
  16. The winner of family travel is my husband. He puts on a different pair of shorts, consumes a high-calorie-meal and is ready for the road. It takes him that little to connect with a place, whilst I feel that unless my and the kids’ entire wardrobe is organized on hangers by color and my cosmetics are prearranged in the sequence of use, labels facing front, I cannot breathe.
  17. I am neither an outdoor nor an indoor person. Looking at a mountain is the same pleasure as finding a good bookshop. There really is no preference.
  18. Going into any church takes stress away. So does walking on a beach. Again, beaches and churches have a similarly de-stressing effect. No indoor or outdoor preference.
  19. Friendships, family and relationships make us who we are to a large extent. Even when we are far away they work on us. No difference whether they nurture or trouble us. When we give our relationships the attention they deserve, they become powerful teachers.
  20. Taking time alone to unplug every day is a restorative potion for me. My kids are the same. It took me long to understand that they need this like I do. It should be a human right to be undisturbed for at least 20 minutes a day.

Anything you know for sure after this summer?


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.

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

Find a mentor, be a mentor. It matters. Here’s why!

September 13th, 2015: I just started a new FB group called Hong Kong Expat Mentoring Group – if you feel inclined to mentor or being mentored, develop your mentoring expertise or want to talk about adult education, make the web a better place and join the FB Hong Kong Expat Mentoring Group.

Find a mentor, be a mentor. In matters.

What do you do when you need more than a good friend but less than a therapist? When you imagesneed expert listening, a new perspective and someone’s undivided attention and experience without spending money? You may find that talking with a mentor will give you a shortcut in stepping up in a specific area in your life, be it a personal or professional matter.

Some days I wonder how anybody in their right mind would believe they can get through adult life without having a teacher of some sorts. On those days my parenting sucks, I lack clarity and I approach any project with a degree of despair. I then know that I need to do something. I don’t like myself in those moments: my voice sounds harsh and unloving, I feel alone and tangled in a web of responsibilities, guilt and petty reasoning. Usually, a friend comforts me by confessing that they have similar moments, that depression is a regular visitor in their house too and that he or she found help in…, I feel comforted. Of course. I could accept help.

With parenting issues, holistic and strategic life questions,  professional development or any project that feels a bit big is a wonderful chance to engage with someone who is experienced in that area, who has been there or who has the skills, knowledge and judgement to help with insight. Think of it as someone who parents your journey for a while. Why don’t we all have an older, more experienced person who is there when we need more than a friend, less than a therapist and have a problem serious enough that it requires a guided thought process?

When my mother died ten years ago, I met many people at her funeral who I’d never seen before. Your mother has been a mentor to me, someone said, whenever I needed feedback I went to your mum. And I heard variations of the same over the following hours: I trusted your mom, she helped me figure out what to do, one could always talk to her… I put this down to some qualities that my mother had cultivated in her life: She was never judgmental, and her sense of humor, compassion and  integrity combined with an ability to be absolutely discreet gave people a safe space.

Ironically, I had myself trained to mentor people within a training program at the Oxford School of Coaching and Mentoring (OSCM) a few years before my mother got sick. I trained as a coach, and methods of mentoring was part of the required training modules. And yet, it had not occurred to me that I had an excellent mentor in my own mum. As her daughter I could not see that side of her until complete strangers pointed it out to me at her funeral. She became my post-mortem role model, and revisited the moments in which she guided others and myself though conflicts and helped people to see things clearly. She took the side of the absent, the weak and the misunderstood so often and with much courage and compassion. It makes me sad that her own daughter took so long to appreciate this. I wish I had looked closer when we were together.

In the past few days I have struggled with my parenting. I do miss my mother these days, because the way she listened to a problem would make me aware what I really felt and what attitude would get me out of the hole I was digging at a particular moment. I have no idea how she did it. I could be mad about someone’s behavior – including my own – and her empathy would take all that anger away.

It strikes me that in our digital age we may be the first culture in which mentoring is not a natural part of life. The fact that technology and social networks are becoming second nature to us, but not quite as much to our parents’ generation, may disguise the fact that our parents are wise in many other ways. Amongst expatriates it might be even harder to sustain a mentoring relationship, because our life is by nature more transient and far away from extended family and the parental generation. Finding a person who has experience, perspective and is able to inspire us when we need it is a tough one.

“Inspiration is a tool and a trap. If you are inspired by anyone, be inspired by people who have been exactly where you are now.” wrote author Douglas Copeland. This captures the nature of mentoring as opposed to coaching: you want ‘the elder’, the person who has been there, to help you gain clarity. But since the world is changing all the time, no one has been where you are before, right? Wrong. Mentoring works on a level of abstraction that unites us. For example, even though our parents did not have to peel us off our electronic devices to get us to the dinner table, they did have to set effective boundaries. And the parental approach that does make boundaries effective has not changed. Nor has the benefit of sitting at the dinner table as a family. And there are many situations where mentoring can be a life-changer.

We do have social networks, and often those networks are a rich resource for solving a specific problem (Where can I recycle my husband?). But when we find ourselves in situations that require a more complex inner debate, we just need that particular conversation, that one person pointing us into a direction and that one aspect that helps us to go on.

“I always wanted a mentor but never found one.” a talented young friend told me recently. It is enlightened to crave a mentor, I believe, because it requires an understanding that, whatever we think we know, there is something else we do need to learn to progress in life. Another friend mentioned that she actually did have a mentor, a friend 10 years her senior, when she came to Hong Kong. This relationship made all the difference to her life in the new place far away from the familiar.

Have you ever found yourself in that specific void of needing someone to discuss a project, a work- or parenting challenge or a need for change in the way you approach things? Something that may not require therapy, but is serious enough to be discussed with a mentor figure. Alternatively, how about mentoring someone in your area of expertise? It usually makes us even better at what we do. I would promote mentoring as both, a way to help others and as a way to personally grow yourself. As expatriates, someone near us may need exactly your input. So if you can, become a mentor – it does matter and can change lives! Start by joining the FB group and exchange expertise.

I can personally offer advice in the following areas: What to do when a far-away parent gets sick or dies, How to reinvent yourself  and Start writing, keep writing and use writing for personal development.

Happy Mentoring!

If you like this article, please share it in your network and subscribe to my blog below.

For more inspiration, read the Guardian’s Woman Leadership Article on mentoring amongst women.

Hong Kong, living abroad, Reader's favorites

What happens when you stay in Hong Kong

_41905980_hug-apIt’s the time of year when people announce that they’ll leave Hong Kong at the end of the school year. It makes me realize that we have skipped the leaving part, but witnessed the coming and going and the returning of those who left with all the heartbreak and joy that goes with it.

Can one stay in Hong Kong ‘too long’? And if so, how much is ‘too long’? Like us, many Hong Kong expats initially intend to stay for 2-4 years. In the likely case that Hong Kong treats us well, we stay another year. Then, just when we’ve stopped obsessing about pollution 24/7 and begin to accept the city’s bizarre displays of wealth, its overpriced rents and our unique privilege of domestic help, at least one of our best friends is leaving because they or their spouse are needed back home.

You lose your best friend. Your kids lose their best friends. The universe you have conquered in the past years suddenly turns cold and foreign again.

I remember this sensation vividly when, about 6 years ago, my great friend Stephanie called me to meet and share some urgent ‘news’. On the way I took a crack at various options: pregnant was my first guess, won the lottery was the second, except they already live a lottery life, never played and here it’s called Mark Six anyway. Husband an affair? No way. She is unbetrayably awesome. “We are moving to London.” she said after the drinks arrived. Once my brain absorbed those words in their entirety, realizing what it meant to us when they left, suddenly my Hong Kong was drained of color. We would lose great friends, the people who arrived with us, shared those first years of discovery and whose lives had been syncing with ours so well. What are we doing here once they’ll be gone?

Well, yes, what were we doing here? We were experiencing Hong Kong. Living here means that friends are coming and also going. It can be a tiring experience when people you see every day are suddenly gone, and when they’ve become good friends, the Hong Kong you just mastered suddenly feels harsh, empty and unmanageable for a while. You get out, and the city has that what’s-in-the-fridge-after-a-weekend-in-Phuket-feel. Like everything in life, this does not last.

People do leave a lot. What about us? you wonder when that happens and when it suddenly feels like everyone is leaving except you. Shouldn’t we be going home as well?

In the first Hong Kong years people often told me: we came here for a few years but that’s 9, 10 years ago… or 17, or 35… the number kept crawling up. My personal idea of misery was hearing myself say a sentence like this one day. Then, it was absolutely not as bad hearing myself say we’ve been here eight years one day. In those years, I have learned to say good-bye and stay friends anyway. It took me that long to accept that I like living in Hong Kong despite the fact that it does not ‘align with my values’, just to borrow a fashionable criterion voiced by a fellow expat. Well, which place does?

Once I realized that we know a lot of people who will be here longer than we ever will be – be they old friends, favorite restaurateurs, die-hard-locals, professionals, and all the people behind the great services from pedicure to club staff, and on top all those people who make Hong Kong work for us.

You know you live here, really, when your paths cross more than once, and with everyone you meet there’s only one degree of separation. In other words, there’s history. The fast pacing of transient Hong Kong obscures the appreciation of its consistency under a busy surface at times, but I believe that exactly that consistency plays a bigger role in our well-being than we realize. Put simply: trust that the longer you’ll be here, the better it will get in that quiet way you don’t write home about. Just look closely. Begin to see the people who are here, with their life-stories, and Hong Kong will become home.

Engage and help: read about PlanB

Leaving Hong Kong? You might find this interesting!

living, Parenting, Reader's favorites

In Good Faith


These days I wake up thinking about a nine year old boy that I had gotten to know last Saturday at his own funeral. My children’s schoolmate had died as a result of a rare brain dysfunction. The sad news came on a Wednesday, nearly 2 weeks ago, and had instantly turned the school into a mourning community.

I did not personally know the boy, but I’ve seen him at school and knew he was an unusually popular kid. Some people have a gift of turning everyone into their best selves just by their presence. This boy was one of them. It became evident just through the way my children talked about him. He had touched people’s lives not just by what he did or said, but by who he was. In the world of his generation, where so much is about doing, saying and having the right things, being known for who he is tells us something about his character.

I had been wary of going to his funeral. For days I have been trying to imagine the incredible sense of loss and pain that the boy’s family must be experiencing. What can possibly prepare parents for losing their son, a sister for loosing her brother at this young age?

I was not prepared for the sadness, comfort and perspective that the funeral service created in my own heart. The honest and passionate tributes by those who were close to him, the telling photos and a reflection of his genuine faith left me with a feeling of knowing him well. We learned that his sense of self was deeply rooted in his love for God, his love for his family and for his friends. His life was nurtured by his relationship with God. He wrote about it. He was most articulate. He was born with faith and it seemed that he had lived the life of a Christian in the most genuine possible way. His classmates had made a video for him that paid tribute to his inclusive, positive and humorous personality, his generous spirit as a student, an athlete and a musician. The passion in the contributions by his friends told the story of an unusually spiritual young life.

Although I grew up with Christian values, I have myself not experienced a dedicated Christian education. For me it is difficult to use God in my vocabulary, because this word usually comes with so much need for explanation. When I was a child, many members of my family turned their back on the institutions of belief. Spirituality had either become a private matter or was exchanged for the zealous atheism that has turned into a religion itself.

I have great respect for people who are able to live a spiritual understanding that is grounded in a practice, in self-knowledge and enquiry, which is intrinsic and independent of the simplistic narrative that make institutional religion so debatable. But this has created difficulties in bringing up my own children: giving children a spiritual vocabulary is not easy when there are no stories to tell. How else will young people access this transcendent aspect of our existence? For me, the question whether God exists or not, has been mostly irrelevant – which is why I would count as an agnostic rather than an atheist. The relevant question for me is whether a person can develop an understanding of their own existence in unity with the world around us. Are we random individuals or are we aware of our connection with the world and the universe? It seemed to me that my children’s school-friend was one of those people who had a strong sense of integration. He could touch so many lives with his inclusive spirit just because he had this understanding of being a part that mattered. I felt that his integrity was an expression of his faith.

I looked at our little family. Not being able to give guidance to my kids – other than talking about God conceptually – may be the biggest flaw in not living a faith-based life. I asked my children what they believe made their friend’s life so exceptional and his family so strong. That he believed in God they said both at the same time. That is probably right, I answered. So why do we not believe in God? my son asked. Good question. I explained how I see God as an experience rather than a moral authority and that I am not used to worshiping in a church. Do you feel I am taking something away from you because we do not go to church? I asked them. They both agreed that they would like to learn more about all this. Our conservation showed me that whether we ‘worship’, believe or consider ourselves to be agnostic, adopting faith as a mindset can be a conscious decision on how someone wants to live his or her life. It is by no means a denial of science or of the contemporary understandings on how the world works. Faith can be a decision about how we want to look at this world.

When a child dies, God is calling the non-believer’s bluff. How can we comprehend what is happening when a person we loved, at that young age, is called away? Faith, I felt, made this remarkable child’s family tell us that they found comfort in the fact that their son’s life had been a fulfilled and happy life, a complete life. It was a life that was understood through their faith. Their enlightened way of framing their mourning made a deep impression on me. This funeral has touched and moved me in most unexpected ways, and it felt like an honor to be there, spending time in the presence of an exceptional child.

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Hong Kong, Humor, living, Reader's favorites

Three Reasons you Should Dine Alone

I am fully convinced that my Hong Kong restaurant concept, finally, will make this part of the world a better place. We all need mind-space, time to think and an air of dignity when we spend time with ourselves.

Like fellow lovers of urban life I find that being surrounded by people is stimulating and fun. Yet occasionally, my mind needs a break from engaging with others. Occasionally, I would like to think about something in-depth before I talk about it (for example ideas like this one).

Personal space is not a priority in Hong Kong – or similar financial capitals where space is premium. Try be alone sometime, for example for lunch or dinner – and the city conspires against you.

Here’s what we need: a restaurant that happily, if not exclusively, serves customers who want to dine alone – comfortable tables for one, please, and no self-conscious guilt when a chatty group of four waits in the entrance whilst you are half way through your entrée and suddenly know: five people want you out. Your waiter reassures the other four that the a table will be ready in a minute and you know can only be yours.

In this new restaurant chain (yes, open two or three at once), like-minded individuals who appreciate a quiet, stylish ambiance and care about how and what they eat, the only disturbance customers may experience is the thought they spare the many people who didn’t make it on time to enjoy the solitude of lunch or dinner. You can decide whether you write, think or by doodle on the paper tablecloth which the restaurant provides so their creative customers can take home the fruits of their mind. You may regret, but will not need to justify spending the entire time on Facebook whilst eating fries, ignoring the permanent call for self-improvement that surrounds us. Not here, not now. This is your space, your time, your thoughts.

I can hear an immediate call for a feasibility study, and that is absolutely fine. Go ahead. It’s certainly a different business model to a conventional restaurant, but I doubt it will be less profitable. The ratio of income via alcohol, multiple orders etc. will possibly shift towards take away food and some merchandize (coffee, baked goods, magazines, aprons, expensive pens… whatever).

P.S. I just researched  that I am in good company in wanting to dine alone: London restaurateurs have already picked up on this trend, so hurry up, Hongkonger restaurateurs, go for it. I want to book my table!


Hong Kong, Reader's favorites

12 Reasons to visit the Roy-House

Now that we are done with our move, we get to the fun bits: selling stuff and replace it. Here’s what’s on offer at the Roy household – we are holding an open house next Sunday:

1.  A large box of cables that no-one in our family can identify, leave alone put to use;

2. A rabbit fur toilet seat, soft, comfortable, barely used;

3. A husband (nice guy, easy to look after, but sort of in the way here);

4. The complete works of Shakespeare in comic version, almost new;

5. Our beloved organic corn-dog-processor;

6. Miele Home-Slaughtering-Appliance, model ‘Adolf’, (original: Heimschlachtanlage Adolf), barely used, easy to assemble, with adapter plug for HK outlets;

7. Four boxes (three full, the fourth only ¾ full) of my husband’s diaries, titled ‘Why does this always happen to me?’

8. The doubles of our famous Swarovski Glass Poodle Collection: Hillary large, Aurelius medium (2x) and Esophargus – standard size, one ear missing but otherwise presentable;

9. Two complete gerbil skeletons, great show pieces when conversation is stuck (drinks- and dinner parties);

10. An original portrait (oil on canvas) of Winston Churchill by van Gogh – goes to the first person who will pronounce ‘van Gogh’ correctly;

11. Collection of MAD dating 1968-2013, 100% complete, traces of use;

12. My husband’s shoe horn (hardly used since he started yoga).

Humor, living, Parenting, Reader's favorites

Living with Furby

Furby by Hasbro

Furby. Valued member of the Roy Household.

One of the best things about parenting is the fact that you don’t have to make stuff up. All you need to do is let stories tell themselves:

My daughter convinced me to buy a Furby Boom. A Furby is an interactive toy that resembles a hallucination of yoda in baby doll proportions, see above. By its design, the most subtle motion in the vicinity of 25 feet triggers the creature to shout mechanical commands like: I’m huuuuuungreeeeehh, gimmme fooood now, now, NOW!! Its pitch directly penetrates the neuronal parental stress centre. Never mind. The toy’s features include a) teensy-weensy screws for the batteries requiring the fine motor skills of a tiny little swiss watchmaker, b) impossible to switch off and c) totally-unmanagable-unless-you-study-the-37-page-manual-your-excited-daughter-threw-out-with-package.

We tried EVERYTHING to shut it up. The more we lured it into silent mode, the more the sly thing would talk back – cutting hydra’s heads off must have been a piece of cake in comparison. My daughter squealed with delight. Three weeks into living with Furby, my husband and I were allowed to dine in silence as, for entirely unknown reasons, Furby had settled down behind the closed doors of our dining cabinet.

For the first time in weeks our place resembled a home again, when suddenly the cabinet shouts: Ooooooh nooooo! Don’t do that to meeeeee! Play with meeee! I am sooo looooonleeeeey! I took Furby out and put him into the fridge. There it sat, between yogurt and left over chilli, probably striking up conversation with a ketchup bottle in the freezing darkness. Who cares? I learned that I can be cruel and that fridges are soundproof.

I also learned, after our dear helper almost died of a heart attack when she opened the fridge the next morning, that we should have gone to Hasbro’s FAQ-section before the purchase and simply read this:

Q: How do I turn Furby on/off?

A: Furby does not have and on/off switch. To make Furby fall asleep, try the following: pull tail and hold for 10 minutes, place Furby on its back for 28 minutes and then place Furby face down in a quiet room in the West Wing.

Put differently, purchasing a Furby is adoption without social services or the genetic uncertainties. The website tells you that each interaction will affect the personality the Furby becomes [SIC]. Now, this seemingly harmless feature can make matters worse for parents like us who are not 100% sure about their parenting style. You can really mess up, unlike with your natural kids, where there’s at least a small chance that they turn out a bit like your well rounded sister Catherine on the merit of genes.

My daughter had deserved this treat, though, just for melting down my solid reservations against accumulating unnecessary ‘stuff’ that’s neither beautiful nor useful. Furbies manage to combine the opposites of both criteria to such an extreme that easily creates its own category.

As a therapy for furby-affected families I suggest counter-inventing some stuff with furby appeal that has at least one useful feature. For example:

  1. Silicone replicas of worn clothing cluttering the floor of teenage bedrooms. Whilst maintaining the preferred messy look & feel of the room that was once your home office and which you gave up for your son in the hope to raise a mentally stable kid, the replicas free you up to put his actual clothes into the wash and hence maintain a minimum of the household’s status quo.
  2. A device that triggers a laugh track when you need your kids’ attention. This works particularly well when your children are mentally coded by US sitcoms.
  3. A family blame taker. It may look like a Furby, but instead of having all the freedom of the original, it gauges tension in the family and, before things get out of control, shouts: “It’s all my fault! Myyyyy faaaault, so so sorry!”
  4. Nutritious whole foods disguised as junk food to assure the kids succeed in the daily who’s-allowed-the-unhealthiest-snack-at-school – competitions at recess, yet unknowingly stuffing themselves with fiber, vitamins and protein.
  5. A Diary of a Whimpy Kid book whose immensely popular hero suddenly loves chores, homework and violin practice and hence makes those things coooooool.
  6. A pink full time nanny covered in black and yellow dots, just for Furby. She can stay with him in the West Wing.
  7. A west wing.

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