I spent the last four years in Hong Kong. For those who have been to Hong Kong, you know that it is a city of spectacle – a city that never sleeps. In the evenings, the neon street signs are even brighter than the day. There is non-stop entertainment. It is a city that has something for everybody, whether you are the nightlife junkie, a luxury shopaholic, or a nature addict.

In my years I’ve spent there, I’ve had my fair challenges but I’ve also built a community. I worked in different jobs, went to a local university for my masters, made friends with locals and expats, found my partner, and really improved my language skills. In all that I accomplished, there seems to be no reason why I would leave. It was like my ‘new home.’ So when I told people I’m leaving Hong Kong after four years there, people were shocked. 

These are the reasons why I decided to leave Hong Kong and why I think it was not a good fit for me. How could I not fall in love with such an incredible city that has so much to offer? What could be missing?

“How could I not fall in love with such an incredible city that has so much to offer? What could be missing?”

This piece is based solely on my own experiences in my years of living in Hong Kong and what I have learnt in my interactions with people. It does not reflect the opinion of any other but my own. Please be respectful.

1. Health

My health was the #1 reason why I left Hong Kong. They say that without your health, nothing is worthwhile and I never realized that to be true until it happened to me. In the year I worked full-time while going to school part-time, I burnt out. It was a number of factors but it was a combination of working ungodly hours, lack of sleep, stress, the weather (specifically the heat and humidity in the summer) and the air quality. I was constantly sick because my body couldn’t handle the pressure and I was exhausted.

“It was a combination of working ungodly hours, lack of sleep, stress, the weather (specifically the heat and humidity in the summer) and the air quality.”

Since Hong Kong has high skyscrapers and an incredible amount of people trapped in a small city, there is also a serious pollution problem.  The air is trapped in-between the buildings, making air ventilation a serious issue. There were days where I really feel I could not breathe when I go outside.

It got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore and left for the summer to spend time with my family and friends in Canada. I wrote about the experience here.

2. Discrimination

Discrimination comes in many forms. Sometimes, it is explicit and other times it is implicit. In the education industry, especially for teaching English, everyone knows that Asians are at the end of the list. This is because of no matter where you are from, people are shallow and they look at your skin colour to determine your abilities. Since I am ethnically Chinese, I “look” the same as they do which makes me less authentic and inadequate to teach English.

“Since I am ethnically Chinese, I “look” the same as they do which makes me less authentic and inadequate to teach English.”

When looking for jobs, I found it really hard to even surpass the first stage of the resume. As soon as they see my Chinese last name, I am already automatically disqualified. If I can pass the first stage, land an interview, and miraculously get hired, I was faced with pesky parents who will look at me, judge me and question the team why their child is being taught by a “Chinese.” I found it really disrespectful as they have no idea where I came from and whether I am native or not.

I talk about this issue in my article on the Struggles of Ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong.

3. The Broken Education System

A lot of expats comes to Hong Kong and work in either language schools or international school. The usual feedback they give is that the students have such an impressive level of English. I, on the other hand, would disagree on this statement. I was very lucky to have worked both in the public and private sector and was able to speak to locals to understand the real issue in the education system.

“I was very lucky to have worked both in the public and private sector and was able to speak to locals to understand the real issue in the education system.”

When I first arrived in Hong Kong, my goal was to work with postsecondary students. My wish was granted when I worked with a non-profit organization that placed me in a vocational college. These students are not only known to be weak in their academic skills but are also known to have bad behaviours. They were placed at the bottom of the scale in Hong Kong and were frown upon in Hong Kong society for being academically weak. Locals are often surprised when I told them my students were pleasant.

The next year, I moved on to a private language school. I was shocked that they had writing classes for primary students and liberal studies for high school students. How was it possible that my adult students spoke only a few words yet primary students can write short stories? I was so intrigued.

“How was it possible that my adult students spoke only a few words yet primary students can write short stories?”

Through talking to locals and a bit of research, I soon learnt how Hong Kong’s education system really worked. The public system is really competitive in a thriving, busy city like Hong Kong. Your success came down to two things: 1) wealth and 2) early planning.

See, Hong Kong categorizes its school with Band 1, 2, and 3. Band 1 is the top schools, the ones you ideally want to get into if you want to get into university. It is usually the top students with the best grades. Band 2 is a mediocre school. You are not the best but not at the bottom ranks. Lastly, band 3 is the really the bottom. It is the students who have poor grades, cannot keep up with school and the “problematic” students in society.

“If you want to be successful and go to university, you need to have parents who will plan your future from the start of kindergarten.”

If you want to be successful and go to university, you need to have parents who will plan your future from the start of kindergarten. Hong Kong is infamously known for having 2-year-olds to go to interviews, where schools interview the parents and observe the student’s obedience, in addition to asking basic questions. The way I describe it: Start high and stay high. Start with a band 1 kindergarten which leads to a band 1 primary school and secondary school. This is the ultimate “success” route and most students who land up in universities are generally band 1 students.  Being in a top school would make you more welcomed in a similar reputable school.

The system is very selective and it is reflective of Hong Kong’s society. The rich only get richer while the poor only get poorer. If we label students and put them in “boxes” and take away their ability to grow with other levels of students, how do we expect them to know how to mingle and work with people of different backgrounds?  The truth is they don’t. Their social circle is really closed off and only certain people get access to the best resources.

If parents have money, they take their children out of the system completely. They put them in international schools, where English is the medium of instruction, and allow them to have a more balanced lifestyle, rather than hours of homework. Some other rich families put their kids in a local school, let them improve on their Chinese, and then send them off to a boarding school in their teenage years. Even twenty years later after being colonized by the British, white privilege still prevails. A UK education is still preferred up to this day and many affluent families prefer sending their kids there for boarding schools and post-secondary education.

4. People

Coming from Canadian society, basic manners to me is like ABC. It is a stereotype that we apologize too much and say sorry way too much – but it is actually true! Every minute, I find myself saying please, thank you and even sorry in other languages. I’m completely influenced and this is the way I have been raised so it is second nature to me.

“Unfortunately, even though I brought my manners to Hong Kong and showed my ultimate gratitude to people, this is often not reciprocated.”

Unfortunately, even though I brought my manners to Hong Kong and showed my ultimate gratitude to people, this is often not reciprocated. I barely find people saying you’re welcome after my thank you(s), or people saying sorry in general when they push you on the subway. Oh, and the worst part is that people do not care to move out of the way even if you are behind them. They walk slowly in groups and are not considerate at all.

My friend also concluded that efficiency trumps mannerism. The most important thing in society is getting things done. This really bothers me because I really wonder how parents and school teach their children. I can only conclude that since rising above academics is placed with utmost importance, being kind to people and having manners is not important at all.

5. Rent Prices

Affordability is a huge issue in Hong Kong especially in finding housing. It is one of the most expensive places to live in the world. You will be paying a lot of money (a minimum of $800 USD for a decent small room) in a shared apartment. If you want to live by yourself, a studio of about 100-200 square feet will cost you $1200 USD/ month to rent in the city centre. It is insane and barely affordable for the average middle-class.

” If you want to live by yourself, a studio of about 100-200 square feet will cost you $1200 USD/ month to rent in the city centre.”

I found it particularly difficult because with the budget that I had and was willing to spend, it was hard to have all of the following:

  • a comfortable space
  • a reasonable room size
  • a safe neighbourhood
  • unbroken parts
  • a good landlord

It seems like somewhere along the line, something would be compromised. It is impossible to have it all so you have to really prioritize what is important and where is the money worth the most to you. Do you want to be living by yourself or with others? Do you need a living room or a kitchen? It is always a lot of choices and compromise.

“It is always a lot of choices and compromise.”

Not only is house availability scarce in the city, it is hard to find something of a reasonable amount to pay. Some people move out to the islands for better prices but you have to take a boat every morning to work. For me, I think I will get seasick but that is what you sacrifice for a better living environment.

6. Fitting In

When I first came to Hong Kong, I thought that I would naturally ‘fit in.’ I am of Chinese descent, my parents were from Hong Kong, I speak Cantonese (although I can’t read and write) and I understand the customs and traditions. Basically, I grew up with these things so how can I not feel belonged?

Well, I soon learned that I was wrong. Language fluency and cultural understanding were two different things. I spoke the language, but I did not grow up in Hong Kong and I didn’t understand what it is like to grow up there. I don’t know what it is like to go to a school interview at the age of 3, to have to do hours of homework in elementary school and to have the pressure to excel in national exams to go to university. I don’t understand the work culture and its expectations of staying late in the office, to be a slave at work nor how to have a “life” after work since everything is still open.

I found myself staring and observing a lot of times when I am out in Hong Kong, and fit myself a misfit. On the outside, I may look like everyone else but inside, I don’t feel alike at all. I can’t relate to their experiences and certainly don’t admire their lifestyle.

“On the outside, I may look like everyone else but inside, I don’t feel alike at all.”

It was not a lifestyle that I saw myself living. It was not a fair trade. If I had to lose my health, patience and happiness to survive in a place, then it is simply not worth it.

And for all these reasons, I called quits on Hong Kong in April 2018.

Hong Kong, thank you for teaching me so much about life and what your city is all about. It was not always easy, but definitely an experience.

I’m sure we shall meet again. Until then.

Written by Charmaine | The Canadian Wanderer
Charmaine is a Canadian who has spent six years abroad and has recently moved home to Toronto. Prior to that, she has lived in Hong Kong, Singapore and France.