Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hong Kong Chronicles: My first Hong Kong-er-versary

One year ago today, my feet touched Asian soil. I was neither a visitor but not yet a resident. My eyes glinted with the stars of my long-dreamed-of adventure. I had uprooted my existence and transplanted myself. The tentative roots bore bumps and bruises of settling into a new place.
This past year, I have experienced some tectonic shifts in my brain. A little wiser. Qualities sifted and refined. Flaws exposed for polishing. With a deeper understanding and appreciation for the gift of friends...from my native land and new friends in my current home.
I still take pictures like a tourist. I'm a resident adventurer.
My Year in Review

Then: I landed and lived in a village on one of the outlying islands, Lantau, until this past August. It was a great transition for someone who prefers small-town/country living to transition to big city life. I do miss village living...the croak of frogs, the chirp of crickets, and riding my bike with Molly in the basket. (I don't miss the VLR.)

Now: I live on an inner island in Aberdeen Harbour. While I can officially confirm that I am an un-urban girl, I do appreciate the convenience of living in the city and am challenging myself to experiment with urban themes over the next year.

Then: a major addiction to iced coffee, cola, chocolate, and all things sweet

Now: I drink hot warm up or just because. I love an evening brew of honey, ginger, and lemon steeped in hot water...soothing, refreshing, good for digestion. I'm down to one cola per week or every other week, chocolate has been nearly eliminated (migraine trigger), and my overall sweet intake is reduced.

Then: I used to hold out a fistful of coins and the store clerks would pick out the correct change.

Now: I know my money without having to read every single coin.

Then: Iced coffee and random breakfast things from the ubiquitous Starbucks

Now: Milk tea and a bun from the ubiquitous local bakeries

Looking toward Wanchai

Wanchai Food Market

View from the second level of a bus


Then: Arriving with two suitcases, sleeping on the floor until furniture arrived. I'm getting old and could only tolerate sleeping on the floor for two nights before I had to upgrade to a cot. Moving with two suitcases made me realize how little I really need. I had sold my house and possessions and stripped down to a little bit more than necessities. I enjoyed this process of simplifying and unattaching myself from “stuff.”

Now: A cozily furnished flat, but I have retained this lesson of simplicity. I actually work at not buying things. If I do consider buying something, it is with careful consideration as to where it will fit. I like the simplicity a small residence enforces.

Then: a neighbor cat volunteered herself as a temporary pet by showing up for an evening cuddling before we had to return her to real mama

Now: Resident Maltese, Molly, presiding...cuddling is doled out at a Molly-rate...whatever she feels is appropriate...or if I can catch her

Then: ducking and weaving around people and feeling like I'm playing a game of Constant Chicken while applying American rhythm to walking in Hong Kong

Now: I've tapped into a well of patience I didn’t know existed in me and have learned the rhythm of walking in crowds. Except for teenagers. Last week, I got walked into a truck by a teenage boy. I expressed multi-cultural disapproval with an Aiya! (Chinese) and mean glare (American). As I alluded to in the opening, flaws...such as my impatience...are exposed. I do have a sneaking suspicion that teenagers think they live in an alternate dimension. However, since they still exist with the rest of us, I must dig a little deeper this well of patience.

Then: walking through a pair of shoes in two months and having my parents send me shoes from the US.

Now: Finding shoes in a store near work that fit and I can actually walk comfortably in.

Then: as a language learner (Mandarin), I know I have had two conversations going on at the same time. No, not the kind you have with girls who have multiple conversation tracks in their head. The kind where the person you are talking to has one conversation, and me--entirely misunderstanding the gist of the conversation--has a very different conversation.

Now: I think I might be down to 1.5 conversations. I'm understanding conversational Mandarin a little better. But sometimes can wander off on my own track.

Aberdeen (on Hong Kong Island) near where I live

The Overall Transition
Then: Lastly, here were some observations I wrote to some family and friends regarding culture shock.

Learning humility from a new angle
This is another reason I like getting older...I'm starting to "get" things I've known intellectually but not with depth of personal understanding. Having moved around in the US, has exposed me to some of the subtleties of adapting to a new culture. Moving across the world has exposed me to the dramatics of adapting to a new culture.

To sum up my lesson: It's a test of humility to change things about yourself when you think it's silly or inconvenient to change. But, you change out of love for your local community and willingness to be more compatible and acceptable in your new community. It's also a test of humility to resist the urge to change your new neighbors when they say or do things that seem weird, strange, or "wrong" to you. It's not automatically wrong. It's just different.

Culture Shock

Which leads me to some thoughts on Culture Shock. I've been asked many times about what I am adjusting to here. Well, everything. I mean everything. I think that is where the shock comes in. Even the most adventurous of us are creatures of habit. The sum of our personal being is the collection of our experiences. We learn new things by layering life experiences on top of each other. When something becomes familiar and comfortable, our brain begins filtering the familiar and processing it through the unconscious sides of our brain.

When you move to a new culture, it's like becoming a child again...your mind is flooded with conscious sensations. Then because everything is processing through the conscious and your unconscious is twiddling its thumbs, your system becomes unbalanced, begins to overheat, and overloads. Culture shock. (Or frizzling.)

I was reminded of a class I took about communication. We use a model that basically says everyone has a frame of reference from which they other words, we all have our own personal pictures through which we interpret the world. Problems occur when the frames of reference are not aligned or the pictures in our heads are different. What I have found with crossing cultures is our frames of reference are completely different. Even our thought patterns are different. I have yet to find something in the Chinese culture, language, and thought process that overlaps frames of reference I grew up with.

Now: These observations are still true...but, with sheer repetition, the environment begins layering its own experiences on top of previous experiences and form their own frame of reference. I realized I had become comfortable with my new environment as I was hosting a visitor new to Hong Kong. I was walking at a fast clip with the ease of someone who is familiar to the environment...get off at this bus stop, walk on the right side of walk, measure my pace to the rhythm of the crowd, the crosswalk is blinking and I know when you can still cross the street or when it's wiser to wait for the next light, I look the correct direction for traffic, I can point out the bus stops and which buses lead back home, and know generally where to find what you need. Yes. Hong Kong is making inroads into my subconcious and breeding familiarity.

I feel there is still so much to explore and learn. But, it's fun to look back and realize I have learned much, I'm finding familiar things...hey, I'm just finding things! The tender roots of transplantation are spreading, growing, and finding firmer ground one year later.


  1. This was one amazing read. You are a brave lady, and certainly an inspiration. Happy Thanksgiving from back home . . .

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Jess!

  3. Jenn,

    a beautiful and profound post....I loved reading this...I especially loved the part about being humble around change....

    love and light and gratitude on this thanksgving day to you and Miss Molly!


  4. Hi Jenn

    You have a talent in writing that I could never attempt. I have really enjoyed this blog post and learning yet more about your life in Hong Kong.

    Unless my life changed radically, I will never have the opportunity to live like you, but in my earlier/pre-children days I did travel a fair bit, and reading your experiences reminds me (fondly) of some of my trips to Thailand, Laos, Sri Lanka and Vietnam where the culture is so totally different to England. I can't say I was always at ease in these countries but I learnt that I could survive some quite difficult conditions/situations and I think I became a better person for it.

    Thank you for being you!
    Kristin :)

  5. Thank you KerinRose and Kristin - it's been fun to look back on the year and see how I've changed and grown because of this opportunity. Kristin - I'd really love to visit all those places...they're on my "list of places to visit"...

  6. Love your blog and this post! Very inspiring and humbling. Thank you and continued happiness and success in Hong Kong! :)

  7. Wow, you've had quite the journey so far. You should be so proud of yourself, it takes major guts to pack up everything previously known and jump into the new and unknown. Congrats on your first year....and good luck with the migraines, mine continue on fiercely these past few winter months as well.

  8. I cannot imagine moving to an entirely different country. I can barely wrap my head around moving to a different city! I totally admire you for stepping out of your comfort zone and embracing the journey.

    I can see why this is a favorite post of yours, Jennifer - it's such a great snapshot of life in transition, isn't it?