Read any article, city guide or blog post about being an expat in Hong Kong and you will be bombarded with the word ‘transient’. People love to talk about the impermanence of the city and how short-lived and momentary the expat experience is, full of friends that stay for a year or two and then move on, only to be replaced with fresh new faces with the same exit plan. And it’s true. People do tend to move on after a couple of years. Restaurants do change hands on an almost monthly basis. Bars close, then reopen. H&M moves every time they hike up the rent. Even the Starbucks next door to work is relocating this summer (cue mass panic).
Don’t get me wrong-it’s no bad thing. Hong Kong is not the place most people come to settle down or live happily ever after, nor we would necessarily want it to be. It’s a frenetic, buzzing, incredible ‘can-do’ city full of endlessly evolving opportunity. And yet, weirdly, I still feel a tiny little sense of injustice whenever I read about how whirlwindy and exhausting and ever-changing our expat lives are.
Perhaps I’m feeling put out because, in just three short weeks, my best friend and long time flat mate will be leaving HK forever (she says). She will be followed by another of my very best HK ladies a few weeks later and then bam!….my tight knit, gin and tonic drinking, ever loyal and beloved group of girls will be scattered around the globe instead of dancing at some rooftop bar in Central or sitting squashed around a table at the wet market.
As Hong Kong friends go, we have done pretty well. Our story dates all the way back to 2011 when, having all responded to the same TEFl.com ad, we met at the staff meeting of our new language centre jobs. All experiencing the usual trepidation about being thrown into life in the vertical city, we quickly discovered our mutual appreciation for all you can eat buffets, sneaky mid week gins and, as my dear Fionnuala would say, ‘the craic’ on a Saturday night. Four and half years, several different (much better) jobs, too many champagne brunches and a whole lot of Saturday night tales later, and we are very far from what I would call a ‘transient’ group of friends.
Sure, it’s true that we have never met up in the UK. Nor have we met everybody’s parents. We can’t embarrass each other with high school memories or dodgy teenage photos, laugh about university or remember ex boyfriends. But we will definitely be telling embarrassing Lang Kwai Fong stories in years to come. There is already a pretty extensive collection of for-our eyes-only photos from junk boats and beach barbeques, and we will definitely look back on these years as being some of the very best of our lives. But more than that, we will hopefully still be very much in each other’s lives.
Next August, when the first of my HK girls finally gets married and we can all relocate to England for a knees-up, two of her bridesmaids will be those very same girls she met as a brand new expat in this crazy city. And of course. Why wouldn’t friends you make as an expat be by your side as you marry the guy you’ve shared a cubbyhole-sized apartment with? They’ve done it too. Who else understands the trials of knee sweat and slow walking? (Skills that may or may not come in handy when walking down the aisle) So, while living in Hong Kong is a bumpy ride, full of turbulence, pangs of homesickness, feeling on top of the world one day, only to crash to earth the next and suddenly not be able to cope with the crowds and the change and the skyscrapers and the overpriced cheese, it is also an experience that changes things forever. We might only stay for a few years, but they can be pretty damn important years.
Not because we are living this up down, high low, work hard play hard, go go go, leaving arriving type lifestyle everyone talks about, but because we are just living. Not traveling. Not on a permanent holiday. Not even, though I can’t speak for everyone in Hong Kong, living an extended adolescence. I don’t tell everyone that Hong Kong is the best, most incredible, unbelievable, amazing city in the world (anymore). I don’t often think about how boring life at home would be. I don’t even feel like I have learnt all these profound and life changing things about myself (ok, well maybe I do a little bit). But I do know that I have stood still in Hong Kong. That I have built a life here. That the people I have met and the things I have done will dictate my future in some way.
For me, ‘transient location’ doesn’t do HK justice. It isn’t one big but ultimately temporary party. We won’t all go back home and slot right in. It’s not going to be just a ‘this one time, in Hong Kong…’ kind of memory. The transience of the place and of the expat experience does make for a rocky, super fun ride, but the friends and the lessons won’t leave when we leave. They’ll be around forever.