This article gives an honest account of things a person should know before moving to China, under which Hong Kong is also considered (due to its handover to People's Republic of China in 1997).
Lets get some things straight
There are many reasons why people may move to China or Hong Kong. Some make the move because they have to. This could be due to particular situations they may encounter in their career opportunities or in their loved one's career opportunities. Some make the move because they want to (yes, I mean you kung fu loving ones out there who are crazy about all things Chinese). To set the record straight, I myself came from the latter. In fact, there are a vast array of reasons why one may move to China or Hong Kong. But usually we can easily distinguish the 'have to' group from the 'want to' group. Believe it or not, those who relocate to china because they have to, are usually the ones with realistic expectations who do not end up disappointed (or shall we say "too" disappointed).
Lets put it bluntly. There is a thing called "Yellow Fever". No, we are not talking about some sort of viral organism that penetrates you from a moist area on your lower half, gives you chills, aches and explosive diarrhea. This is much worse. So "what exactly is this Yellow Fever?" I hear you ask, and rightly you shall! "Yellow Fever" is the obsession to do kung fu, eat Chinese food, date (strictly and only) Chinese girls, listen to Chinese pop music, watch online Chinese dramas and essentially try to become a Chinese! People (usually younger people) who are entrapped in this trance will usually defend all things Chinese and give praise to their ways with often not a drop of objectivity. Usually these efforts eventually are steered towards moving to China/Hong Kong and living "the dream". The aim of this article is to pre-warn, in particular, those with the aforementioned condition and also be of some use to those who have not lost their sanity and have retained some form of realism. Lets get cracking!
You have to ask yourself, "How open am I to the definition of 'culture'?". This is what determines how you approach certain situations you will encounter (note the use of the word 'will'). For example, in China (and increasingly in Hong Kong) and in fact many other south east Asian countries, jumping a queue for something, is done casually in front of your very eyes. The person behind you could at any moment, for any peculiar reason think that they can pull one over your eyes, which funnily enough does leave you completely dumbfounded. When train doors open, there is no such thing as "please allow passengers to exit first" although it is ironically and repetitively mentioned in the train announcements. People will race in (note the use of the word 'race') to find a seat and usually this is because of the ever present need in Asian society to justify one's spending to the highest extent possible. Now going back to those with "Yellow Fever", this sort of behavior does not exactly correlate with what you see depicted in all those Jet Li films, does it?
Lets list a few more examples for those who are still skeptical about this gloomy author. It is not uncommon to sit beside or in front of someone who will happily pick their nose for a good 15 minutes. They will pick it and do all sorts of things with their bits that you can't even imagine being done on the next Jackass movie. You will see this almost every day, every journey you take on public transport, while you sit in the doctors waiting room, while you are in the meat market or in fact anywhere. You didn't see this one in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, did ya? Spitting at will (at times with very close proximity to others) is another feature often complained about. It can be done anywhere at any time and is considered absolutely normal. In Hong Kong however, this happens less often than in China. In fact, this was the ultimate thing that really made my blood boil during my first six months in Macao and more so during my first year in Hong Kong. It becomes something that not only grosses you out, but soon angers you as to "how on earth this could be considered normal?". During my first year in Asia on the whole, I can confidently say that I aged five years more due to all the little frustrations that stung on a daily basis like a never ending supply of mosquitoes. Below is a video which shows other goodies to expect such as people defecating and urinating in public.
There have been many times where I have been sitting somewhere and constantly hearing a clicking sound, only to realize that someone nearby (or in worse cases, right next to me) is clipping their nails (toes too sometimes!). Imagine those goodies flying around on a crowded bus or train built with Asian ergonomics in mind. I bet now I have your attention, right? Remember, 'crowded' in Asia has a different definition to 'crowded' in most western countries. Farting, belching and yawning super loud next to others or whilst eating, are all considered normal in this part of the world. To really spice things up, you will get sneezed on countless times (cover my mouth? What blasphemy are you talking?) by children all the way up to seniors. Can you view these things simply as a "different culture" or will you take offense from it and consider it as a lack of manners? Take the idea of personal space. Simply put, it does not exist. Of course this is largely due to the overcrowding. But actually acknowledging the reasons and forgiving and forgetting are much more challenging than you think. Barging past, pushing from behind and refusing to move your shoulder are all little thorns that will prick you until you lose your mind and make you...well, lets just leave it at that shall we.
I will save you the debates, the why's and how's. The question here is, can you simply ignore it? It may not be as easy as you think. Will all the things that define you eventually unleash itself and cause confrontations in public? Some expats have gotten into trouble with the law because they have not been able to contain their frustration with locals who definitely do not have the same principles, ethics and hygiene standards (to name a few) as westerners. Yes, there is the new generation too. But even they have passively and subconsciously retained some of those unforgiving features of the last generation.
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Okay. Enough of the stomach-turning stuff. Lets talk about work. Employment is second place in the complaint ranks among expats. In Hong Kong and (to a higher degree) China, disputes between expats and their employers are popular at-the-bar conversation topics. Expat after expat will speak of their employer docking their salary for jaw-dropping reasons. One guy I knew who worked in a kindergarten (of which there are heaps of everywhere) spoke of how each minute of being late equated to a deduction of 10.00 HKD at his work place. In this region of the world, it is not uncommon for sudden attacks of heavy rain to occur. When it does, usually it is forgivable for everything to just 'stop' (the Chinese believe that rain contributes to hair loss you see). But, when the kindergarten requested him to work overtime (or the plethora of other additional things they ask of you which are not your responsibility, such as making marketing posters), the mere mention of overtime pay was brushed off, if not laughed upon. In fact, there seems to be an ever present element of "getting something for nothing" here. Not something you thought the Chinese would be known for, was it? Hence, be prepared for your pay to get docked for various unfathomable "reasons" and to be expected to work overtime without additional pay, doing things which at times may not even remotely be related to your job description.
Another story to bulge out your eyeballs was from another friend who worked in a kindergarten (starting to see a trend here?). He spoke of how a child had hit their head on the edge of a table which was an old table made of steel and wood (not child friendly, but who cares!) with very sharp corners. He wanted to explain to the child's parent at the end of the day about what happened, but was ushered away by the admin staff of the kindergarten. Later he found out that the parents were told that the child rolled over during nap time and bumped her head on the edge of the bed. He soon left that kindergarten, shortly to arrive in another just like it. Long story short; when you arrive in China or Hong Kong, you will get a slap in the face. Ask yourself, "can you ignore these ways of doing things?" because many of them will likely go against your morals and principles. You see, there is a saying in China "money is religion". Can you not only live in a place like this, but also adapt?
Racism and Modern Day Slavery
In Hong Kong in particular, it is a norm for a middle class family (and definitely for the upper class) to have a maid. These maids have usually come from the Philippines or Indonesia. A simple YouTube search will unveil the whole situation for you. But lets poke at this subject which has been starved of attention. Once you learn about the unfair treatment of these workers and the racial mockery in which they are immersed on a daily basis, you will begin to re-evaluate the reasons for why you became interested in China and its culture in the first place. There is an infinite supply of news stories about Filipino workers who have been sexually abused, assaulted, mocked in public and cheated out of their minuscule pay by their employers. Workers often find themselves in situations where their passports are confiscated by their employer or at times, their agent (who has been known to take as much as 80% of their salary as commission). These workers are forced into situations where they cannot go to the police and cannot simply return to their home country because of a "debt" which they must pay. If you relocate to Hong Kong in particular, this is something you will see and hear about on a daily basis. Chinese families are getting wealthier and unfortunately believe that their wealth entitles them to treat others in this way. The belittlement of Indonesians and Filipinos by Hong Kong locals in fact, has risen from the pioneering definition of racism. Chinese locals will go to extreme lengths to whiten their skin. "White is beautiful" is the motto here. This is made clearly apparent by the obsessive use of umbrellas when the smallest sliver of sunlight shines through the clouds and the casual mockery and snide remarks young people make in regard to dark skin. You have to ask yourself if this is something you can stand hearing about day in day out.
Food Glorious Food
Chinese food has a very strong reputation for standing out from the crowd of other nationalities. You guessed it! I'm going to give you the ugly truth. In fact, Chinese food can be very delicious. But to get your tongue on something even acceptable, can be a real challenge in some regions of China and Hong Kong. Most expats complain of how hard the rice is and how bland it is with no seasoning or in fact, anything. That's the good news though. Next comes the frequent finding of egg shells, hair and other unidentifiable bits, for which if a complaint is made, you are given bad looks and labelled as a trouble maker by Chinese locals who don't realize how quickly expats can learn Chinese. Don't be surprised if you get something you did not order in a restaurant or cafe (even if you are with a Chinese friend who does the talking). Messing up customer orders in China and Hong Kong is ridiculously frequent (much like ordering from a Chinese dealer on ebay). There is a cafe actually that I really like, but literally 9 times out of 10, they would manage to get something wrong on my order.
Also, there are often news reports about people getting sick from contaminated foods or foods that have believe it or not, been counterfeited. For those of you who have children, you might want to research the number of times Milk has been faked and contaminated. The most impressive however, was a man who managed to make an egg with a selection of chemicals which I am sure you would not want your bowels to see the light of. I myself had once ingested a slightly weird tasting carton of milk which was later announced in the news to have been contaminated with Toluene. Luckily, the amount of contamination was not enough to cause harm (or so it seems). These counterfeit foods have been known to even make their way to reputable restaurants. In Hong Kong however, this happens less often than in China and there are "luxury" supermarkets that import products from the west or surrounding countries, but be prepared to pay ridiculous prices. For example, if after a few months your miss Greek Feta cheese, you can buy it for 104.00 HKD (that's 13.40 USD/8.00 GBP). In China though, unless you are relocating to Beijing or Shanghai (the more commercial and international cities) you can say goodbye to cheese altogether!
Hong Kong Property and Rent
Before you even think about plane tickets, look at this image and tell yourself "this is not where I will be living".
Yes, you heard correctly. Unless you are a big wig CEO of some company or a banker loaded with cash beyond your wildest dreams, you will not be living in what this picture frame shows. Hong Kong is an overcrowded city with limited property. As a result, rent prices are one of the highest in the world with very little space. For example if you are living in Wan Chai, it is not unheard of to pay around 16,000 HKD per month for a flat of 700 sqf. Comparing the size and price with what you would get in most western countries, it kind of takes your enthusiasm and vaporizes it. Many people resort to moving up north to the New Territories (closer to the Chinese border) where rental prices are lower (around 6,000 HKD for small 120 sqf studios). China overall is cheaper and more spacious for obvious reasons. The photo below is the kind of place you will probably live in. As for buying a house, prices tend to fluctuate rapidly and new laws regarding property are frequently made, therefore I will not get into that subject.
Things to do in Hong Kong
Things to do in Hong Kong and China are also plentiful and as much as it is classified as a very cosmopolitan city, it must be said that the choice is not as wide ranging as locations such as New York or London. Initially, in your first year it will be hard to understand the ways in which you can have access to sports and activities, even though the facilities are ample. The reason for this is that in most western countries, in each town there is a club for any given sport and those clubs can be found easily online. But in Asia, this is not the case. The use of the internet here is still relatively little and so if any websites for clubs do exist, they are usually not very good, have very obscure URL's and therefore not easy to find. Another reason for the difficulty in finding things to do in Hong Kong and China is that most often, clubs do not exist for many sports. Associations do, but these do not provide any assistance with finding a partner/team to play with. It is up to the individual to know people to play with, in contrast to "walk in" social nights arranged by clubs in the west for club members to attend and meet new people to play with. At times, I simple had to approach strangers and ask if I could join in (good old traditional way), at which point I was stared at for an awkward moment before being given a reply, as if I had just landed from space. However, once you get the gist of how things work in this part of the world, you can enjoy the many great facilities that are on offer.
Internet in Hong Kong and China
Internet in both China and Hong Kong do reach broadband standards, but usually at the bare minimum. If you can get 6 Mb/S from an 8 Mb/S contract, you are lucky. There are contracts with gimmicky higher speeds, but those speeds can never be attained due to the existence of a monopoly by PCCW's Netvigator, who don't bother improving infrastructure, simply because they cannot be competed with by the other smaller companies such as Three and Smartone. Mobile internet which is offered mainly by the latter two companies also come at a steep price with the very minimum on offer. Most of the nation is on the 80.00 HKD/month plan which gives you a maximum speed of 384 kbps! You don't even hit 1 Mb/S. If that doesn't make you feel cheated, I don't know what will. The broadband and mobile internet service providers in China are China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom. The Speed and rates are very similar and tend to change quite often (as do all things in China!). This is not something that should deter you from moving to China or Hong Kong but I think it was important enough to mention in this article as some people use the internet as their only form of home entertainment.
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Why You Should Relocate to China or Hong Kong
Apart from all of the above, all is not doom and gloom. If you are retiring and want to live somewhere with 9 months of sunshine and heat that caresses your bones throughout the year, Southeast Asia is the place to be! If you want to go to outdoor swimming pools that look like your dream beach resort, Hong Kong and southeast China are perfect for that! Hong Kong weather, apart from the extreme humidity, is actually quite good. Surprisingly, Hong Kong weather is much more unpredictable than that of a place such as the United Kingdom (which has a reputation for unpredictable weather) with sudden rain storms scattered throughout the year. But, temperature wise, it is almost always constant. If you want to avoid as much cold weather as possible, stay away from central and northern China.
Low taxation rates are another reason why so many expats choose Hong Kong (although, it must be stressed to not let this have a significant impact in your decision about moving house). If you are thinking to register a company in the future for your own business, registration and incorporation of a company in Hong Kong is made very simple through accountants who can take care of company formation for you for a reasonable fee. So if all the warnings in this article have not disheartened you, then why not immerse yourself completely with a new culture in China? Whatever you choose to do, whether it's short term, such as a gap year or a more long term relocation, you will learn a lot and gain some form of experience. whether or not it will all be worth it, is your call.