Hong Kong is a very popular country when it comes to expats. That’s why I decided that it is time to interview someone, who is currently living there to get some insights about the life in Hong Kong.
Kaylee from There are no foreign lands seemed to be the perfect person as she has been living there for a few years by now and has no intentions to move away soon.
Hi Kaylee, tell us about yourself…
Hello! I’m a 24 year old American who has been living in Asia for around 2.5 years now. I’m currently working as an English teacher / editor, while my long term career interests are in international relations, diplomacy, politics, peacebuilding… stuff like that.
My hobbies outside of work are basically travelling and writing (oh wait, writing is work, hmm…) I’m a big fan of going ‘off the beaten path’ and exploring cultures in a really in-depth way. That usually involves both engagement with locals and lots of reading and research about both history and modern culture because I’m nerdy like that.
What was your main reason for moving to HK?
Before Hong Kong I was living in Shenzhen, China. I had studied Mandarin Chinese and concentrated on East Asia at my university, so I wanted to experience the real deal after graduating.
Shenzhen is just across the border from Hong Kong, but the two cities are totally different worlds. Shenzhen is a super modern city and in a lot of ways a pleasant place to live, except for the fact that a) there was like no good pasta b) you need a VPN to access most of the English internet c) small children who’d never seen a foreigner before would often point at me in the grocery store and yell “foreigner!” (I wish I was kidding).
Hong Kong has amazing food from basically every country, free speech and press, and no one cares that you’re foreign. Even though some things are worse in Hong Kong, like a much higher cost of living and a far more competitive job market, whenever I visited Hong Kong I felt much more at home than I ever felt in Shenzhen.
So after my year in Shenzhen was up I decided to take a risk and give Hong Kong a try, and have in fact felt a lot more ‘settled’ here.
Was it easy to find a job right away or are you a digital nomad?
It was not easy to find a job actually. I tried to find one before leaving Shenzhen but couldn’t get anything. I ended up applying to something crazy like over 100 jobs, and going on like 12 interviews over a period of a few months.
Eventually a friend of mine let me know he was leaving his job and asked me if I wanted to interview for the position, and I was hired immediately.
Now I know that jobs here operate strongly on a connections basis, so networking is important. (Consequently, I’m terrible at it though…)
How about the cost of living?
Hong Kong is the second most expensive property market in the world (after Monaco) so rent being sky-high is not just a stereotype. Basically you pay a regular price for something that is teeny tiny, and just have to accept that there’s only going to be room for one burner and six square inches of counter space in your kitchen.
In terms of other stuff though, it is a bit cheaper compared to living in Boston or NYC. You can find good meals at restaurants for $5-$10 USD, and certain products can be found at a big discount (such as buying your Nikes out of a hole-in-the-wall shop that probably got them straight from the conveyor belt at a Vietnamese factory). However, if you want to buy high-quality, organic meals, or delicious steak, or fine wine, you should expect to pay high prices. Hong Kong imports everything and the Western products come from far away. I’ve heard HK is the most expensive city for expats, and I think it’s because many of us just have to have our organic almond butter.
Is it easy to connect with locals or are there any language barriers?
One of the nice things about living here as compared to China is that it is much easier to connect with locals. Everyone in HK studies English in school, though adults have varying levels of confidence in using it in casual conversation.
Some socialize regularly in English as they work for international firms and speak the language daily, while others probably understand you perfectly well, but will be shy about speaking until they know you better.
The local language here is Cantonese, while I have only studied Mandarin. People are always pleasantly surprised when foreigners know Cantonese, so I hope to learn more.
Many HKers can speak Mandarin too (being trilingual is a requirement for the top jobs) but they don’t necessarily like using it, so I try to avoid it. I have found that being able to read Chinese characters is a big help here at least, though you can get by without it most of the time.
Tell me about your favorite thing to do in HK?
Exploring, eating, and shopping. HK is a lot bigger than you’d think and many of its neighborhoods have very distinctive characters, so I feel like I have to go everywhere at least once.
Eating is a given, anywhere, but particularly in HK the food is awesome and super global. And gah, shopping. I try not to do it so often but malls are literally everywhere over here—I think I’ve got like four different ones within walking distance of my flat—so I’ve been continuously adding to my wardrobe since I moved here!
If we had just one day in HK, what is a must do?
Victoria Peak is definitely the most must-see thing in my opinion. It gives you views of the whole city that are just unreal. And of course grabbing dim sum is important too!
Can you share any funny/typical tradition from HK?
One unique local tradition that I think is great is the annual Cheung Chau Bun Festival, which takes place on one of HK’s outlying islands. Villagers build a giant mountain (as in 60-foot tower) of steamed buns to celebrate local deities. I missed it last year but I’d like to go someday!
What was the biggest challenge for you once you moved to HK?
Apart from just finding a job, it was probably the drop in income as compared to my teaching job in China. There I had my housing totally paid for and received a salary that was a bit higher than the average manager is paid; in Hong Kong I am at a very average entry-level salary and pay for my own housing.
I’ve had to rein in my spending a bit as compared to how I lived in Shenzhen. (Extra tricky because there are much better things to spend money on here, like pasta!)
What is/are a fun fact(s) about HK most people don’t know about?
Definitely the nature. One reason the urban areas here are so dense here is that around 70% of HK’s land is actually undeveloped.
There are lots of country parks full of hiking trails, as well as outlying islands with miles of empty beaches. I try to go hiking once or twice every month. It’s a needed refresher because the crowds in the city are crazy.
What would be your top advice for people who are thinking to move to HK?
Hong Kong is an awesome place for rich people, so if you’re a high-paid professional then go for it! However if you’re an English teacher like myself, be aware that you can get a much better deal salary-wise in many other Asian cities, so I would think carefully before choosing HK.
And whether you’ll enjoy it here on a lower salary really depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for.
What is the biggest difference between your home country/city USA and HK?
This is a bit tough to answer for Hong Kong because of the diversity of lifestyles. Many have a lifestyle that is close to what they’d be doing if they lived in NYC, from eating certain foods to taking fancy yoga classes and wearing Lululemon pants—while others grow up in rural villages and have never heard of Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, and honestly couldn’t care less.
I guess one thing that’s different overall would be the attitude towards British colonial history. After all, Americans are pretty fiercely proud of having claimed our own independence, whereas Hong Kongers didn’t have a similar turn of events.
Some even look positively on the colonial days here, which is hard for me to understand. Attitude towards politics in general is different. The West might jump to assume that of course most HKers would want independence and democracy, but when you talk to people individually you realize these beliefs are not really a ‘given’ like they are in the USA.