Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hong Kong Escalation

I am well aware that I am not the first, nor the last ‘Gweilo’ (Cantonese slang for ‘white ghost”, a term often used to describe Western ex-pats) to attempt to comment on life as a foreigner in the dynamic city of Hong Kong. This city is famous for its ex-pats and there are many of us. Though, I’m not interested in commenting on categorising ex-pats, it has been done to death. I am selfishly interested in how I have changed, emotionally, living in this city.

Today, as I ride up the escalator at Immigration Tower, to renew my Hong Kong identification card, along with literally hundreds of other people, of all ethnicities, I am overwhelmed by a sense of the familiar. The sort of feeling I would have had in my hometown of Sydney, running errands at the local shops. Now this might not seem so exciting to you, but to me, it is simply quite profound.

This exact trip, the never ending escalator ride (the only way to get to the eight floor), the deafening, almost birdlike sounds of hundreds of people simultaneously chattering away in different languages (Filipino, Hindi, Cantonese, Mandarin to name a few), the endless queues, the taking of a ‘number’, the long waiting, the taking of another ‘number’ the interviews, the protocol, the fingerprinting, was, to say the least, a little intimidating. I was simply another person, where I was from didn’t really matter, desperate to obtain my working Visa, so I could pursue my career and possibly get a taste for all the opportunities that might be in my future.

This foreign country, Hong Kong, once shrouded in mystique and overwhelming to the senses, was now my surrogate home. Who would have thought that I, a young Australian woman, with no local language skills and absolutely no contacts, could break through the barriers simply by unerring determination and focus? It took hundreds of emails, cold calls and interviews to do it, but I did. I made my way through the minefield and found a golden opportunity with an American media firm (my University degree is in Media and my work experience in advertising).

The fact is that I am not writing this to praise myself, (though I do use my experience as an example to people that if you really, really want something, it is yours for the taking, just be patient and don’t give up). Rather, I am really commenting on how amazing it is, to have experienced a country where you can break down barriers and people are open to foreigners, so long as you truly have something to offer. You really can be from anywhere and it doesn’t matter. How you treat people and the experience you bring, all counts far more that this money-driven, capitalist town might have you believe.

Of course, I’m not saying things are perfect, or that I haven’t had my moments (sometimes daily), where pollution, lack of grass, customer service, stinky, unrefrigerated street meat mongers and trivial annoyances don’t get me down, but I have learnt to hold my tongue for the most part.

Let’s face it, Hong Kong has been good to me and who am I to complain by making broad strokes comparisons to the hometown that I haven’t lived in seven years. I have had an amazing working life here, traveling all around Asia. Working with so many different nationalities, my old Sydney friends would see my office “team” photographs and think I worked at the UN.

The days of being intimidated by Hong Kong have subsided, replaced by a familiar fondness. I will be forever in awe of the buildings and the sheer density of the population, but I have realized what has really happened, is that I have grown up and matured in this place. I have been pregnant and given birth to both my kids here. In an interesting twist, the delivery of my children was at a hospital on The Peak, the very first touristy spot I visited on my first trip here. The place my then boyfriend, now husband, took me to, to “sell” me on the idea of moving to Hong Kong.

I guess I was sold then and I’m sold now. Hong Kong will always be a part of me, and I am thankful for all the perspective it has given me. When the time comes to leave, it will be bittersweet. May the journey continue.

Sarah Fischer Letts
Hong Kong
May 2008

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