It’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!