Hello everyone! I am excited to begin a new weekly feature here– sharing stories of expat experiences, from people all over the world. Louise is a British expat living in Hong Kong, and she writes at Loula Natural. I asked her to share with us about something she has learned lately through her expat experience. I hope you enjoy this reflection, and be sure to go check out her blog!
My story begins in the UK. My dad is from Coatbridge in Scotland and my mum is from Croydon in England. I was born in Baghdad in 1978, and when I was one, my parents decided to move to Hong Kong. A few years later my brother was born, and we had an amazing childhood and teenage experience as expat kids. I of course did not consider myself as an expat as I only knew Hong Kong as my home and I loved it. We travelled the world on our holidays and went back to visit family in the UK in the summers.
Hong Kong was a British Colony at this time. I never learnt Cantonese (the local dialect) or indeed Mandarin, as after I finished school I was going to University in the UK. (It was what everyone did in Hong Kong– you finished school and went to Uni in your parents’ country of origin!) I was really excited about it. I was going to be an actress and my future was bright and clear. I was going to conquer the world.
I moved to London in 1996 to begin at university. I had one of my best mates at the same uni as me, so I was set up and ready to go. When I left my parents I felt excited and nervous but confident and motivated.
It didn’t take very long for all that to change. When I look back over my life in the UK, it of course had its ups and downs, however I think I only really ever regained that same confidence every time I came back to Hong Kong for holidays or indeed when I surprisingly moved back here with my own family two years ago.
I am British in nationality, passport and in accent. However in my heart I am a Hong Konger, through and through! So people I met in my life in the UK would get very confused when I would answer Hong Kong as to where I was from. I really, really received these responses:
“Wow, your English is amazing!” (Thank you- it’s the only language I speak.)
“What is it like living in Japan?”
“I had no idea your parents were British, I thought that the only way you could have grown up in Hong Kong was because you were adopted by Chinese parents.”
“What kind of school did you go to?” (An incredible one!)
“But you are not Chinese?!”
I never felt like I fit in. I had no idea about general social and cultural norms. I was clueless about politics (I had to vote pretty soon after arriving,) television, celebrities… And also the music, fashion and drinking culture was all completely different. I may as well have rocked up in a foreign country where I didn’t even speak the same language. I found it very hard to meet any kindred spirits.
I did, however, love London, and lived all over the city (Kingston, Limehouse and Hackney.) I loved East London because you could blend in and get on with it. I loved the vibrancy of it and the fact that lots of people were from somewhere else. I made friends who were interested in travel and the world in general and I found some real friends for life (who I now miss terribly- you know who you are.) However, I never ever felt like I was at home. I guess a large part of that was that even though my brother was in London too, my parents were still in Hong Kong– so I still considered it home. I have other friends whose parents moved back when they did, and so they were able to feel settled.
I just always wanted to leave the UK— it seemed to be the source of my misery, cold and dark. I couldn’t see myself ever being able to afford a house in London. I saw our lives having to move to the dreaded suburbs (which as a city girl still makes me shiver with dread!) I never felt good enough, and constantly feeling self conscious, I steadily put on weight and constantly faced rejection from the acting world. I decided to do something about it, and changed career tracks (becoming a naturopath) and decided to move to Australia. I put all my focus into getting myself there and along the way met and married my husband (having my daughter in the middle!)
I was finding my groove and really enjoying life and success in what I was doing. I loved my job, hackney and our family life. When I became pregnant with my second baby and my mum needed support with her health, we made the decision to move back to Hong Kong whilst we waited for our Aussie visas, which were increasingly harder to come by.
Sadly, my mum died just before we moved back. Yet I was so relieved that I would soon be there for my dad. I had my son in Hong Kong and had the home birth I wished for. I am completely happy here. My business is thriving, my confidence is sky-high, I am finally able to release my protective weight and resolve my self-confidence issues. However my husband (who is Irish) is struggling with the cultural and social differences. It is hard, and I understand that– we will probably stay here for him and my daughter to get permanent residency and then see what happens. I cannot see myself back in the UK ever, but then I always said that about moving home to Hong Kong (hence I never learned Chinese- which is embarrassing now!)
My take-away from my experiences is that it is rarely ever your geographical location that is the reason for your emotional and spiritual unrest. You give yourself feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. I was a child in Hong Kong, and London gave me adulthood. I am a product of both places, even though I still say I am from Hong Kong. I would never regret anything in my life, as it gives me the experiences to write about and share with you all.
If you are an expat and you are unhappy, find your happiness within yourself and you will find it in your surroundings. You can feel different and you will find amazing people along the way. Enjoy the experiences and the adventure- there are things about London that I miss all the time– so, no place is ever perfect. Have an adventure and have a laugh.
Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us, Louise! I definitely related to feeling like a foreigner when you returned to your home country to go to university– it was such a bewildering experience, and I know that is the case for so many “third culture kids.” So glad you are back “home” and thriving there, and giving your children an experience similar to the one you loved, growing up in Hong Kong.
P.S. Do you have an expat story to share? I’d love to feature you, so just send me a note!