For Daniel Nalesnik, founder of Hack Chinese, moving to Hong Kong from the United States was an experience with two sides: moments that were eerily similar to the ones he had back home (on the other side of the planet), and those that were wildly unexpected. In this article, he shares his impressions of the first 2 weeks as an American expat living in Hong Kong.
In 2014, I was working a corporate job in Boston, Massachusetts.
I started each day changing into a suit and heading out the door for a brisk walk to work.
On the way, I frequently stopped at a popular chain restaurant, “Pret A Manger” for a breakfast sandwich, and would then duck into the Starbucks below the office for an iced latte that I’d drink slowly at my desk.
Although my work hours were long (7 am to 7 pm on far too many days), I generally enjoyed my job. Yet I found it hard not to look back fondly at the time I had spent in Beijing and Shanghai a few years prior.
Starting a new life in Hong Kong
When a position in the company’s Hong Kong office opened up, my previous China experiences were looked upon favorably, and I was ultimately offered the chance to transfer in October of 2014.
While I had lived in mainland China several times before, I knew Hong Kong was going to be different. With a unique history, a larger international presence, and both Cantonese and English being more prevalent than Mandarin, I couldn’t wait to explore a new city and develop a new life.
I, like most ex-pats in Hong Kong, spent my first month in a serviced apartment.
Serviced apartments are somewhere in between a hotel and an apartment: the rooms more closely resemble apartments, but there are hotel-like amenities like daily cleaning services. The point is to provide an immediate place to stay, giving fresh arrivals a ‘home base’ to work out of while they search the city for a more permanent apartment to rent.
Immediately I noticed a few differences between Hong Kong and Boston.
In early November, the city was gearing up for winter, while it felt to me like a cool summer climate.
As I rode the elevator in my office building, the tiny TV screen reminded residents to ‘wear extra clothing’ during the ‘severe winter weather’. It was close to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius).
Me: holding my jacket in my hand, and still sweating. The people next to me: a suit jacket and an extra coat. Some even had scarves. (I remember this fondly because six years later, I am now the one wearing a coat as soon as the temperature drops below 70 F).
I arrived at work at 7 am on the first day. Certainly earlier than I needed to be there, but this was akin to my “first day on the job,” so I wanted to make a good impression.
I sat in the empty lobby for 2.5 hours waiting for others to show up.
Hong Kong is many things, but an early-rising city it is not! The typical hours in Hong Kong offices are 10-6 (or more likely 10-10!)
The time adjustment bit me again that first weekend: my jetlag had not yet recovered, so I walked to a street I had seen the day before with several coffee shops.
No luck: they opened at 11 am! (To this day I am still amazed at how some coffee shops can open so late. But thankfully I have found many that do open at more “reasonable” hours.)
Popular clothing retailers like Lululemon offer “Asian” sizes alongside their traditional sizes, which cater to thinner frames.
Starbucks’ beverage sizes are 2 oz smaller than their American counterparts.
Speaking of Starbucks, not everything about my new life was different.
Before my second week was over, I developed a “new” routine that would last me several years: I would wake up around 8 am and walk to work, stopping at Pret a Manger for a breakfast sandwich, and the Starbucks below my office for a latte to sip at my desk.
And unlike most places in mainland China, English is almost everywhere in Hong Kong.
While learning Chinese words is never a bad idea before going to the mainland, you can certainly get by without it if your final destination is Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is a unique city
Unlike American cities that are either completely American or a mix of cultures (like in New York City or Boston), and unlike cities in China with heavy ex-pat communities that have ‘international’ areas and ‘local’ areas, Hong Kong has something different: a culture that is a true blend of heritages, histories, languages, and customs.
The food often isn’t “western” or “eastern”, but rather what we would call in the west to be “fusion”: the best of both worlds in one.
Of all the cities I’ve lived in, Hong Kong is my favorite. If you ever get a chance to visit or live in Hong Kong as an ex-pat, I highly suggest you take it.