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Living and working in Hong Kong: a learning curve


Day One

Arriving in Hong Kong, you are immediately struck by the humidity that instantly attacks the second you step off the thank-god-its-air-conditioned plane.

Pic: thewamphyri/flickr

Stripping off all the layers you put on to get cosy on the long flight, you head through the airport with your fellow passengers of worldwide origins, to security. As an overly polite Brit (yes, the British are polite), you attempt to gently squeeze past the herd of mainland tourists in matching outfits to join the queue for immigration, only to be barked at in mismatched Chinglish. The airport official that is of debatable gender shouts at an unnecessarily loud volume that you are in the wrong queue and you must ‘go there now!’ whilst pointing vaguely in no direction in particular. Finally finding the right queue, which admittedly you did by following all the Western-looking people feeling a sense of non-Chinese comradery, you sigh at the long wait ahead of you and join everyone else in the queue in pulling out some sort of Apple device to keep you occupied. Look at that one guy over there actually reading a book, how 2011 is he?!

Eventually you make it to the front, smiling at the immigration passport-stamper man, only to be greeted with a bored scowl and if you’re lucky, a grunt which one can only assume is meant to mean ‘Passport please?’ and is in the place of a smile.

Then the hunt begins for your suitcase, which regardless of where you go in the world is always the last one to arrive on the carousel, undoubtedly filling you with the predictable ‘they’ve lost my bag’ feeling of dread. You stand and wait, and for some reason unknown even to you, move to different points on the carousel at intermittent intervals, irrationally feeling that if you can see exactly where they come out, you may somehow be able to have some influence on bringing your bag out next. Gradually everyone around you collects their bags, piles them up on their trolleys, which never seem to travel in a straight line regardless of how accurately you push them, and leaves as the carousel draws to an abrupt stop. The walkway taking you to the big outside has never looked so tempting, but no, you now have to accept that your bag is pretty much definitely lost. Fantastic.

Seeking out yet another airport worker, you explain a couple of times in varying degrees of slowness what has happened, and after a time of being stared at blankly they shrug and wave you towards the Lost Luggage desk. Whilst waiting in yet another queue worrying about the whereabouts of your knickers, a seemingly-not-so-random man takes pity on you, declaring that you were on his flight and for some reason a few bits of luggage had been taken off the carousel and put in a corner of the airport. Struggling to cope with this level of unnecessary stupidity, you thank the man and gratefully dash off to said corner, where your bag lays looking more battered than when you last saw it, but in one piece all the same.

You grab it, swearing inwardly at how this would never happen in the UK, and head towards Arrivals.

Month One

You have now been living in Hong Kong for a little under a month. You are still not used to the strangeness of certain things, although others that made little sense in the beginning, no longer baffle you on a day-to-day basis.

Pic: xopherlance/flickr

You are now used to the manner in which Chinese people are never in a rush, and amble through the streets as if they have all the time in the world. They resolutely walk in a straight line until you move, and then abruptly change direction despite you being stood in the way. You now walk around constantly dodging little Chinese women as they go about their obviously-not-pressing daily business.

It no longer annoys you that because the buildings are so tall, you can arrive somewhere on time but end up late due to spending 20 minutes in the lift stopping at every floor of a 60-storey building.

Being engaged in the working world of this manic city, you have been able to experience several things that many others, never being given this opportunity, will ever witness.

Whilst there are thousands upon thousands of things to do of varying levels of excitement in this busy town, working five days a week 9.30 until 6.30 provides a welcome distraction from the constant worry of ‘have I made the right decision’ and prevents the otherwise constant comparisons that one draws between home and where they currently reside. Despite these, obviously no one can deny that the experience, in the business and media hub of the world, is second to none.

But there have been a few things that have confused me slightly, and have left me feeling more than a little bewildered…

The first day at the magazine, and you arrive the traditional 5-10 minutes early, only to find the office near enough empty. Fortunately your predecessor has left you an adequate handover and, being a proactive young lady, you launch into your tasks for the day, relishing an opportunity to use the creative mind that has been more than a little underused in recent months. A little while later, your new colleagues begin to roll in, with no one batting an eyelid at their varying degrees of lateness.

You work hard all morning, enjoying the job and being given task after task by your I-want-to-be-like-her boss, completing each one at a good level in record time, impressing even yourself.

The clock strikes 1 o clock, lunchtime! A few people have left, but most are still working. Well they should be, they didn’t come in until after eleven. Reading the note from the previous assistant, you learn that you have the standard hour for lunch but that if you want to take longer, that’s fine. Frowning in confusion at this phrasing, surely you have an hour or you don’t, you head off to find somewhere to recharge the batteries, returning, like a good girl, after just less than an hour.

*

Knowing that your working day is to finish at 6.30pm, you begin packing up your bits and pieces a couple of minutes after half past, eager to get home and tell the boyfriend all about your first day. However, a quick and subtle glance around the office informs you that not only is no one else packing up their desk, they are all still glued to their computer screens, tapping away on their keyboards as if their lives depend on it. You sit, confused, for a minute or so before sending a sneaky text to the man friend, more experienced in the ways of this city, explaining your dilemma. He sends an amused reply explaining that everyone works late in Hong Kong, it’s not compulsory; it’s just their work ethic. Now even more torn on what to do, you open up a previous document and type out a few more paragraphs until it reaches quarter to seven. Fortunately, your boss chooses this moment to stroll past your desk, allowing you to quietly ask if it’s okay if you take off shortly. She smiles and tells you what you already know, that you only have to stay until half past.

Feeling like a naughty schoolgirl skiving off a PE lesson, you re-pack your bag as quietly as possible and escape out the door, rolling your eyes at yourself for feeling you had to stay an extra 15 minutes just because everyone else was. Some things are just so different here. At home, the clock would have just ticked over to 6.28pm and everyone would have leapt up cheering, dashing for the door and discussing their evening’s plans. You ride the 29 floors down in the lift wondering how many other things like that are going to catch you out.

Learning to Live

A few uneventful but enjoyable days at your new job have passed, with a little conversation passing between you and your thankfully English-speaking co-workers but nothing too in depth. On the third or fourth day, another new-ish girl who turns out to be Canadian invites you to go for lunch with a few others from the office.

Pic: Ixtlan/flickr

Admitting you know very little about Asian food but are eager to try some, they take you to a Chinese restaurant about ten minutes from the office. After an embarrassing moment involving you asking someone who didn’t work there for a table for four, we sit down and the friendly girl who invited you along declares that she’ll just order a few dishes and we can all share, so you can try a few different things. This is a fortunate turn of events as you have already cast an inexperienced eye down the menu and attempted to hide your revulsion as you read items such as ‘chicken toes’, ‘cow stomach’ and ‘fish balls’ masquerading as edible delights. (Not for the first time you are struck by how little the Chinese seem to beat around the bush. At least in France when you’re actually ordering snails, they have the decency to disguise it by giving it a posh sounding name.)

Unfortunately, as the girl begins to inform the waiter of what we would like to eat, you realise that what it turns out they have invited you for is congee. For those that are blissfully unaware of what this is, and I advise you to keep it that way, congee is for want of a better term, rice soup. But instead of the usual water or stock that goes into a soup, it is in fact egg. And it has a taste similar to that of supremely gone-off and eggy porridge. And trust me that description actually makes it sound a damn sight more pleasant than it actually is. And to make it all the more appetising, and it took me a while to ascertain what they were, it had pieces of beef brisket floating in it. (For anyone that doesn’t know what beef brisket is, it is ridiculously fatty pieces of meat; the bits that would be given to the dog if this was back home).

They were very sweet, encouraging me to try everything and only telling me what it was after I had tasted it for fear, accurately, of me not wanting to try it if I knew what it was. Needless to say, one mouthful of eggy mush and I decided that wasn’t for me, but I still managed to have a nice time despite barely being able to eat anything. This was entirely the chef’s fault more than my taste buds’ however as the noodles that I would have happily munched away on were ridiculously long and refused to be picked up by chopsticks, even with the Chinese people’s skills. They didn’t care, just dug in with their hands, but having been brought up in a nice English house that taught polite table manners, I preferred to nibble on the vegetables large enough for the chopsticks and then grab a sneaky chocolate bar on the way back to the office to satiate my growling belly. During the walk back, a Chinese guy who had been at lunch with us explained to me that congee is what they used to eat when they were ill, kind of our equivalent of eating chicken soup when you’re under the weather. All I could think however was that if I was feeling ill, the very last thing I would want to chow down on would be congee. I had never been more grateful for boring British cuisine.

So we’re strolling back up the too-steep hill in the too-humid heat of the day when I casually look at my watch and panic. It is quarter to three! We have been gone nearly two hours! Gulping hard and trying to refrain from sweating, I subtly alert the others to the length of our lunch, frowning in confusion once again at their non-committal shrugs. Blushing furiously as I return into the office, I send my boss a quick apologetic email explaining that I went for a Chinese lunch with some of the others and didn’t realise the time. She sends a chirpy response back saying that’s absolutely fine, that’s always the way with the locals – they take forever as they like to have a full blown sit down meal for their lunch everyday which can’t really be done within an hour. Apparently it was no bother whatsoever and I didn’t even have to worry about making up the hour of work that I’d missed. Marvelling at how different this situation would be had I taken a two-hour lunch break in my previous job in the UK, I throw myself back into work wondering if that egg rubbish will upset my delicate English stomach.

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