Empty street after rain with a man holding umbrella and a smiling boy with glasses on a large window poster

Lessons from Hong Kong aka how to deal with misery when it strikes

It’s been almost a year into my life in Hong Kong and I’ve been balancing as if it were a decade. So many people abroad keep telling me how exciting it must be to live here and how lucky I am. How wonderful Hong Kong for sure is and that it’s an experience of a lifetime. While there’s a grain of truth in each of the comments, and I’ve dedicated my previous post to positive sides of living here, simultaneously they are also terribly flawed. But I don’t blame them. I’d probably say the same things as these are the typical assumptions outsiders tend to make about life in this metropolis.

Woman clad in a traditional dress in front of a street mural
Clarity isn’t obvious

Been there, know it

The most biased group are however those who have been to Hong Kong as tourists and feel that a short trip equipped them with enough knowledge to make informed judgments about how exciting or amazing life here is. Well, that’s normal too. We people tend to think that once we’ve been somewhere we know the place. This is, of course, terribly naive and couldn’t be further from the truth. I always say that visiting and living in a place is like comparing oranges to apples. Yes, they are both fruits but both taste totally different. It’s true that Hong Kong does have this incredible aura about it that attracts people who visit it like a magnet. Again, it’s probably down to all the things I mention here. It’s a truly amazing destination for your bucket list tick. But living here? That’s not always a walk in the park. Here’s why.

A woman holding an umbrella walking in a park
It looks romantic but it is not

Background

Whether or not you will succeed in Hong Kong, or survive here for longer than your initial contract will largely depend on many factors. Your work and company culture, financial freedom, social circle, hobbies, smoothness of life – all will play a role. People often tell me I came in the worst time – the pandemic, travel restrictions, the drastically changing political contours and all. Yes, from a resident’s point of view that might be true. In fact in the past two years, Hong Kong has seen one the largest brain drains and mass exoduses in its long and exciting history. To date more than 90 thousand of residents and expats alike ‘fled’ the city. And for good reason. But I look at it from a different angle. Mainly, I really needed that change. After six years in Malaysia, two of which were spent in mostly mismanaged lockdowns and isolation, luckily with brief moments of freedom during which I managed to escape to Tioman and enjoy possibly the last proper holiday I’d have in the years to come – no complaints, just stating the facts – coming to Hong Kong felt as a form of resurrection.

Man (blurred) walking in front of a fashionable designer window shop displaying a chic chubby woman
New life, new images

Learning came in disguise

However, little did I know what I’d be letting myself in for. C’est la vie. You can read up and prepare as much as you want, but the nuances of day-to-day life won’t be clear to you until you experience them. Living in Hong Kong today, under current circumstances and never ending restrictions, which prevent you even from such basic things as seeing family back home, takes its toll for sure. In fact, I could already feel something was amiss during the quarantine and today I’m happy to say that my gut instinct was right. Then the actual work and getting a better understanding of the society were added to the mix, and my perspective of Hong Kong has been taken on a roller coaster ride. It has changed dramatically and one of the overarching conclusions I’d make is that if one wants to thrive in this urban jungle, they must turn this into an ultimate learning experience. So what are the lessons that Hong Kong teaches you? Let’s dive in friends.

Shot of building opposite from indoors of a high floor flat with reflection on the opposite building
Look carefully. Look for learning opportunities.

Sink or swim

Hong Kong is not for the faint of heart. The first thing you’ll learn is to develop a thick skin. Work, the city, the culture, its people, the incessant hustle and bustle – all will put a strain on you. Living in Hong Kong is simply taxing and you’ll need time to build a shield. The culture is pretty much some of the most materialistic you’ll ever come across. At least in Asia for sure. People’s values here are so different to anything I’ve been exposed to before, and you, with your modesty and gratitude, will often feel like an odd ball. Don’t get me wrong, some of the Hongkongers are incredibly nice, kind and courteous. Overall though, the city is mostly driven by the urge for financial success and rising social status.

A young woman leaning towards the sea from a street edge
Swimming skills necessary

Lack of sought values

There isn’t much space for everything that I personally value. Genuine passion and curiosity, spiritual growth, emotional maturity, humour, spontaneity, going with the flow, getting off the beaten track, learning by making mistakes, critical thinking, deliberate mental challenge and questioning authority are all somehow rare here. Not nonexistent, but hard to come by. At least not in the form that’s typically manifested in more democratic and less rigid societies. So if you need these things you’ll need to nurture them actively and learn to escape the Hong Kong’s rate race. At the same time, however, you’ll need to assimilate because isolation could lead to negativity, so it’ll be a bit schizophrenic to say the least.

Black sports car with ME 911 car plate
ME 911 – we get it

Trust? Forget it!

Speaking of values. Trust – to me one of the most essential values – is truly a rare commodity here. Or should I say redundant? I am a suspicious person, but in Hong Kong it’s been taken to a whole new level. In the West, it’s quite normal that once you get into business negotiations, some norms will be – more or less – respected. Not always, con men are everywhere and it’s up to you to spot them, but there is this underlying principle of seriousness, reputation and decency that ensures some reasonable level of trust. In Hong Kong though, you can forget about this.

Shot of myself in my flat sitting on bed looking outside the window partly covered by shades light coming through
Who can I trust out there?

Any dealings with locals, especially those involving money, will be void of trust and more often than not you run the risk of being strung along. No wonder one of the most common pieces of advice online for people coming to Hong Kong is ‘Don’t trust anyone!’. There’s also this stupid concept of losing face. So take an unscrupulous money thinking Hongkonger, add losing face to the mix, and you’ll be taken for an incredible ride! They’ll say anything, simply anything to you, for their personal gain or to make themselves look good. Therefore, sometimes even the simplest things from happy hour deals, looking for a flat to getting a facial feel like a cutthroat shareholders’ meeting. Well maybe that’s exaggerated but what I mean to say is that if you let your guard down, you’ll pay. Literally. Of course, it’s not always so dramatic, there are still honest people out there, but you really do need to be careful with everything.

An old man sitting outside resting. BnW shot
Dying values

Money talks loud

As if the lack of trust and values wasn’t enough, money, and how much of it you have, status and your social rank are the only things that matter. The less you have the bigger loser you are. And losers by the Hong Kong standards are probably the people that might be worth talking to as exposure to the other entitled, arrogant and rich folk could be mentally draining. For example, a waiter here is a low-grade job. So naturally, I mostly like to talk to locals who work in cafes and my go-to lunch spots as I value hard work and modesty. So a simple conversation with such people can go a long way. Sadly though, hierarchy, racism and stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in this society that it’ll be hard not to notice that. Take also the uniformity, conformity and the blind following of rules and honestly, 1984 feels realer than you’d like.

Blurred people in motion in front of a Dior shop
Luxury at ever step

Being different is risky

It’s also useful to know that being too different might lead to serious consequences. While in Malaysia people were largely brainwashed by religion and the false belief that the state would take care of them no matter what, here the religion that prevails is work, money, performance and status. Every country uses their own tools to make obedient, docile and tame citizens. And in every country it will create different results. In a way you can’t blame Hong Kong as such a colossal system wouldn’t work if its people weren’t properly trained. But deviations from the norm can be costly. Especially in the political sense. Pro-democratic activists often end in jail or,  if lucky, exile, so one will think twice about their urge to revolt. I believe this carefully planned ‘programming of the residents’ starts with some of the worst education systems the world has seen.

Black and white photos of fashionable women on a tram stop. One has a drawn mustache.
Silent revolt

Teaching beliefs and principles put to a test

One of the harsher lessons was that teaching, my beloved profession that I have been doing very successfully and passionately for the past 15 years, felt like coming to a different planet with differently wired people. The problem is manifold and I will definitely write more about this in a separate post. Talking about teaching in this context will require a more in-depth analysis of the local education system, social and cultural norms and factors that form this society, so I’ll do it when the timing is right. What’s more, if you read my blog, you know that karma and I have a deal, so I’m not going to bite the hand that currently feeds me. While there’s nothing wrong with presenting the true state of affairs, more observation, research and thought will need to go into that post. Stay tuned:-)

A performer miming on a street of Hong Kong
Endure what you must

Unexpected barriers

If I am to sum it up very briefly though, I’d say that teaching here poses a number of barriers that are (sometimes) close to unbreakable. There will be limitations to what you can do in class and expectations will be extremely different too. In fact, rather than a teacher, you will be seen as a service provider. Talk to me again about the money and performance culture. Sometimes you’ll feel really down as the years of hard work, courses and credentials will often seem redundant here. Therefore, the lesson you’ll learn will be that you’ll need to work twice as hard to make sure that your know-how and skills that you have been honing so fiercely for the past two decades don’t go to waste. You’ll try to be the best version of yourself. You’ll do this knowing that appreciation will be scarce, as I mention below, but you’ll do it regardless because you must stay true to your profession, your integrity and your passion for the work you do. The last thing you’d want to do is slack as a result of external factors.

A young girl waving at me when shooting heron a boat
Enjoy random energy boosts

Break the barriers

And also, regardless of how difficult teaching in this context may seem, try to break those barriers, even if your success might be short-lived. Keep coming up with new ways of doing things. If anything else it’s an incredible opportunity to prove (though mostly only to yourself) that things don’t have to be prescribed and despite clearly defined ways, there are other possibilities. I have kept trying. Sometimes it will feel like swimming against the current. It’ll be hard, exhausting and there will be disappointment. Progress won’t be always evident but when it happens it’s incredibly rewarding. Someone I met here told me that ‘a job is just a job’. True, but if it happens to be your passion too, then you need to be prepared to pull that fight. I am a fatalist and I believe that this approach pays off. One day you will be rewarded for your commitment and it’ll be so bloody worth it that you won’t regret a minute of the toil.

BnW photo shot from a tram with people and taxi on the street and a window of shop that reads 'The only way is through'
The only way is through

It’ll get tiring and demotivating at times but it’s the only way for you to stay true to your profession and yourself.

Don’t expect appreciation

Commitment not honoured is respect lost. But appreciation and valuing someone isn’t Hong Kong’s forte. It’s not common to praise people and give them credit for their hard work so do yourself a favour and don’t expect it. If it happens, jump for joy, open the proverbial champagne and return the respect, if it doesn’t, move on. The truth is that regardless of the energy and quality you deliver, more than compliments, you’ll meet with complaints. You must learn not to take it personally. We all know that complaining about minuscule things won’t improve much and certainly won’t make you converse better in English. Learning a language is hard work that must come from within you, but well… The only place where you can openly herald this is a poster on your wall at home.

BnW photo of passengers on a tram shot from an opposite tram passing by
Stern looks? Get used to it!

Don’t adapt. Accept

The next thing Hong Kong teaches you is that you should never try to adapt to this lifestyle. Quite the contrary. After all, the last thing you’d want to do is become a hamster in a wheel. It may sound arrogant, but bear with me. Personally, I think it’s nonsense to try to adapt to a society with which you largely disagree or the norms of which make you feel uncomfortable. What you need to do is accept the situation and show respect. Definitely show respect. But never adapt because then you’ll become one of the cogs in the machine. And you probably don’t want that. This will require a lot of mental exercise and plasticity and ability to look for the good stuff that makes you happy. Accept that you are living in a society driven by money and performance. Then act accordingly. Find nooks where you feel comfortable and spend time there. Educate yourself, do stuff that takes your mind off the mundane, develop quirky routines, learn new things, keep your hobbies alive, talk to kind strangers and enjoy random moments of happiness. Double up that exercise and healthy diet, and above all don’t try to change who you are. It won’t be easy and you’ll feel obstacles, as you’ll read below, but that’s part of the game.

A tin worker in his modest hop smiling radiantly
Look for small daily doses of happiness in the humdrum life

When Philip of Macedon was about to attack Corinth (or Athens?) its citizens were absorbed in work. Diogenes, a famous Cynic who lived in a jar, began to roll it back and forth. When asked why, he replied that seeing everyone else indulge in the crowd mentality of meaningless activity he too felt inspired to do something pointless.

Ups and downs – resilience builder

One of the things you’ll need to quickly understand is that there will be ups and downs, loads of them. We could lead debates on whether long-term stability is good or bad for your growth but stability in Hong Kong sounds like an oxymoron. It can be an inconsiderate comment of someone, a landlord lying to you under the pretext of getting more money from you on rent, working with the assumption that as a gwei lo you are brain-dead and gullible, a blunt banker, unhelpful somebody, the incessant news of the never-ending idiotic border closure isolating you from your family and proper life. It can be anything. In Hong Kong the triggers are like Pokemons. You collect them as you move around. The bad news is that all these little things will pile up and sometimes you’ll feel like all you need to do is pack your stuff and get out from this matrix. Yes, you love the job, you value financial stability but you also love yourself and your mental health and you feel that perhaps working in a less challenging environment would be a wiser decision from the well-being perspective. But as with everything else, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Life can’t always be rainbows and butterflies. So you must do your part and focus on the positives and try to make the most of it.

Upside down photo of a large coffee cup against background with sea and boats
One day up, one day down

Burnout is a real thing

In Hong Kong I’ve been close to burn out pretty much all the time. No, I’m not a whiner, nor am I a vain sissy. In fact, I’m a highly self-reliant, independent, hard-working woman and I have worked my ass off to get where I am today. I used to work 18 hours a day to build my portfolio and chase a dream that seemed so distant back then. I had to take a lot of BS too. Who hasn’t? Nothing has been handed to me on a silver platter. But I made it. And here I am today – working as an English teacher in Hong Kong for a reputable company. By local standards my job is not a challenging one. But well, depends how you look at it. Sometimes working 12 hours on a computer is a breeze compared to 90 minutes of intensive barrier breaking. But as mentioned above, you must stay true to yourself and do what’s right.

Bnw shot - tired man sleeping on a bus on a rainy afternoon
Take a nap papa

Energy management

When your work is worthwhile and satisfying, your energy will know no bounds. Similarly, it’ll get depleted quickly when it’s not giving you the boost you need. Therefore, you must make sure that you don’t overload yourself, you don’t succumb to pressure from others and most importantly don’t say yes to things that could potentially make you more exhausted. Take it at your own pace and not only push the break when needed, but even go to a reverse mode if that means it’ll save you from a burnout.

Worker taking a nap on cardboard in a van
Steal every possible minute for yourself

Become tougher

The undeniable benefits of dealing with the challenges in Hong Kong will in fact make you tougher and a better communicator. That is in case you follow my advice from above and don’t succumb to pressure people intentionally put on you to make your life harder. I’m still at the beginning and every now and then I run into situations I find hard to comprehend. For example, my landlord is always a good source of those. One day he tells me he has upgraded the internet package. Someone who normally dreads every dollar spent suddenly, out of the blue and also out of his unexpected tremendous generosity upgrades the package without prior discussing this with you. Of course, he hasn’t upgraded anything. It’s a ploy that he uses, in his blind belief that you are absolutely brainless, to make a case for a higher rent or God knows what. And that’s exactly the moment where you have to be uncompromising. You can’t let people take advantage of you. Sometimes that means accepting the idea of letting go of something that would require your bending backwards unnecessarily.

Reflection of myself wearing all black summer clothes - shot without head
I am looking for my head.

Fun? In hindsight maybe

It actually feels nice when you tell your landlord plainly and without any emotional load that it’s very nice of him and you appreciate his sudden generosity but since you are fully face-to-face again an internet upgrade seems redundant, but perhaps your neighbour who you share it with would be keen to find out as he works currently more online then you. Done. What will follow is a question but one must be prepared to do what needs to be done. As fun as stories like these could seem, such games are mentally draining and will make you tick like a bomb and despite all the intentions to take it easy, it’ll disturb your peace. But remember, you are building resilience and in fact, doing something that in the long run will pay off. So, attach your belt and take the ride!

Panning shot of a taxi at night
Let’s go!

What is good is easy to get. What is terrible is easy to endure. Epicurus

Respect your time

Time is precious. In Hong Kong people know that and they respect and value it. You’ll learn to manage your time effectively. I mean you’ll become a ‘biological watch’ par excellence. I’ve never worn a watch, except for some exceptions where it was a gift and an accessory at the same time. But I don’t need it. I don’t even need a mobile phone to check time. My internal watch runs so flawlessly that I’d be a shame to lose that skill. It’s the same with the GPS. People say that drivers who don’t use it are better than those who do. In any case, when working I have become more focused and productive and I don’t waste time with mindless behaviour. On days off I just ‘am’ and I do whatever floats my boat. Often without having clear aims. Speaking of which….

Bokeh effect of lights at night shot from tram
Find clarity in fuzziness

Don’t plan too much

I believe in Hong Kong it’s necessary to learn not to plan everything so meticulously. You know, you can fill a lifetime with activities that this city has to offer. It’s an endless list of things one could do here. You have two options – do them and plan every minute of your day off, or don’t. I’m oscillating between the two but I’m learning to take it slowly. When I’m overworked, tired, I just move slowly and I mostly end up in my favourite cafe, with my nose buried in newspapers – a new past time for me. If I have energy, I’ll go shooting and when miracles happen and I get up at dawn, I’ll pack my mini backpack and set off to my favourite nearby places, such as Tai O or Lamma. But the planning, day tripping and all tends to be exhausting too, and FOMO is so typical of Hong Kong that it’s important to stay honest with your needs.

A man walks through a narrow street in Tai O wearing a traditional Chinese straw hat. Can in foreground
Tai O – peace and a distant memory  of old times

Replace FOMO with JOMO

Minimalism

In a materialistic place like Hong Kong you’ll want to be a unicorn and do the exact opposite. So I am. I buy nothing. And when I say nothing I mean nothing at all. Except things I really need like a toothbrush for example or some non-negotiables that contribute to the quality of my life but are rarely material things. In any case, I avoid shopping like plague. I started with minimal lifestyle already in Malaysia but when during my move had to give away 70% of all I had – and I had pretty much nothing by the general standards,  I realised I needed to do even more. Hong Kong will help you with that. You’ll live in a shoe box, unless you can afford a large flat, which I can’t. So managing your space will become number one priority. While I don’t own much, I could still downsize more. Even the idea of buying a new T-shirt fills me with the dreadful question – where will I store it? So yes, I did buy things I needed and do use them, but otherwise, I couldn’t be happier with having possessions that could fill two suitcases. If I could make it one, it’d be even better, but I’ll get there.

A woman walks in a normally busy street in Central on her own
Keep it simple

The things you really need are few and easy to come by. But the things you can imagine you need are infinite and you will never be satisfied. Epicurus.

Budgeting

As a self-reliant woman who won’t be inheriting nor owning a property and for whom mummy and daddy won’t patch things up whenever I please, the math is clear. Firstly, it’s all on me. And secondly, unless I save up for retirement, I won’t retire. You can read in my post about settling in Hong Kong that budgeting seemed hard at first, especially if you wanted to explore it all. Thanks to Epicurus I now know, however, that I in fact don’t need to explore everything at all. What’s more, living in a money-driven society, I’ve come to value modesty and the skill to fend for one self even more. So I need to be ruthless about budgeting. And you would be too, provided you belong to the same group and salary range as me. There’s absolutely no point in coming to Hong Kong for work and not saving your hard-earned money. There will be distractions, attractions, temptations, but you must suppress all wanting and stay totally committed to your financial goals. I’m grateful I’ve learnt this skill in my early forties and am confident that with such an approach I can keep working towards a certain degree of financial independence, though at this point I’d probably need to learn investing to reach the freedom I’d like. There is still room for improvement especially with my meal planning, eating out and cafe hopping but I am working on it… Somewhat.

An antique shop displaying an array of items outside - evening, lamp gives dim light
Things are unimportant

Gratitude

This is essential for survival. Yes. It’ll be hard. Hong Kong will get suffocating. It’ll make you feel bad. But you must be grateful and keep reminding yourself how blessed you are every day, every minute of the day, nonstop. There are people who have more than me. But there are also plenty of people who can only dream of what I have and will never get to experience such development. Essentially, what I mean to say is that you should never compare yourself to others. It’s very hard but it’s crucial for your progress and mental development. The only comparison I’d allow is when someone inspires you, motivates you and you genuinely look up to them and want to be like them because it feels good. Then by all means, use this inspiration to drive you. It takes a great deal of maturity and not many people are capable of this but as with everything else that requires introspection, it is totally worth it. So I am grateful for all I have and despite difficulties I try to look on the bright side of things. Besides, whenever I have the tendency to complain I slap my face and tell myself to shut up as the world doesn’t revolve around me. Honestly, it works every single time!

A man praying outside temple with his small dog
Show gratitude

Shut up. The world doesn’t revolve around you.

Distance from social media

I know many people today are buried in their phones. Since Hong Kong is so populated, even after the exodus, you will notice the exposure. On buses, trams, MTR, streets, during meals, all the bloody time. You can’t escape it. But if you are different than the majority, which I certainly am, you’ll want to limit that and go against the crowd. You may suggest that I am a hypocrite since I post my photos and blog contributions on social media too. Well, maybe you are right. But I feel that unlike all the crap there is, from people seeking validation, I at least bring value in the form of visual art and written content.

Two women and a girl engrossed in phones sitting with backs turned to each other
Digital lives, digital people

Although I am sure that those people who post selfies or pseudo successes feel it’s valuable too. Therefore, if this annoys you, cutting the cord is the way to go. There’s so much rubbish coming from people who you thought should be more mature and mentally developed, that it makes me think twice before I click on those icons. Social media the way it works nowadays is not something one would need in the harsh Hong Kong waters, swimming with sharks on a daily basis. So God knows if I’ll even publish this on social media.

 

Don’t regret and make the most of it

Do I regret coming here? Absolutely not!!! Once you decide to do something in life, you must stick to it and keep your head above water. But there are questions one could ask. Is Hong Kong a place you should move to if you had a chance? I’d say by all means – do it! But make sure you do the math and your expectations are clear. Some will come for the experience itself only. Some will come to make money. Some need a change like I did. Some need all of these combined. Would I do it had I known what I know today? That’s a big question mark. It depends whether I had more options or not. But since I’m a happy masochist, I’d mostly likely do it again just for the sake of the experience and learning.

A woman secretly drinking coca Cola on a tram without a mask on her face, crouched as if hiding on the back seat
Incognito and clandestine. Do it your way

Love that learning curve

Today I don’t think that every experience counts in life anymore. But those with a steep learning curve definitely do. As much as my passion for teaching as well as my whole being is put to a test here, I also know and value the fact, that this truly is an incredible learning experience, indeed once in a lifetime opportunity, that will stay with me for life. Especially if I keep my optimism alive, I’ll feel like I’ve achieved something that not many people can do. Survival in Hong Kong is a skill itself and those who have it will know what I’m talking about. There is a reason why they say that going with the easy, well-trodden path leads to stagnation. And while some of the challenges were hidden to me before I made the move, I know I’ll come out stronger, more resilient and grateful for all life has granted me with.

Indoors of an art painting shop
Every skill counts

Summary

So friends, do you still think that Hong Kong is an exciting place? Well, it truly is exciting, amazing, fabulous, unique and all that jazz and I am immensely grateful for being here. But it’s also a mixed bag and definitely not a place for everyone. It’s only up to you how you deal with the challenges it brings.

If you enjoyed reading this, have questions or feel like you could share a couple ideas with me, just comment below. As always, I won’t let any comments unanswered. Hope you are safe and sound friends wherever you are!

8 thoughts on “Lessons from Hong Kong aka how to deal with misery when it strikes

  1. Very much enjoyed your article. And the lessons you shared. Each place I travel to (and stay for an extended period) becomes my teacher. I’ve not yet been to Hong Kong but it was nice to receive your lessons without traveling there

  2. Such a detailed and interesting perspective about your life in Hong Kong in the last 1 year! I totally agree that visiting and living in a place is like comparing oranges to apples. Love all your lessons and you have delved deeply into each. I wish you the very best and look forward to your next writing

  3. Wow, it has already been a year for you – I remember reading your posts when you moved there…time flies. I’m glad that you’re enjoying your life in HK with all +&- that it brings, just like everywhere. There is no a perfect land, but it’s important that we find happiness where we live. I’ve been to HK and liked it, but agree that it’s very different to live somewhere and to visit the place for a while. And it definitely it’s a place for everyone. Gratitude is something that can help us to see the good in every darkness. And every day there is something we can be grateful for, we just need to be willing to find it. Wish you many happy years in HK, or wherever you decide to go…

    1. Smiley, your comments always make my day. You got the essence of the post so perfectly. Yes, time flies. Getting used to Hong Kong isn’t as easy as I thought it would but it’s certainly interesting, rewarding and motivating. Thank you so much for your support and wishes. Hope you have a lovely summer break!

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