A legal alien in Hong Kong…

Flying with children is a messy business.  Suffice it to say that I’m the mother you glare at when travelling without children yourself (or, alternatively, the one you are pathetically grateful to, for having similarly or even more atrociously behaved off-spring than your own).   Small children and planes  just don’t mix.  The sooner we can find a way of sending them over the Internet or via Amazon’s Super Saver Delivery, the better.

Whatever precious moments of peace I had on my maiden voyage, I spent thumbing through the list of places we might be living.  Having never actually been there, I didn’t have much to go on.  Central sounded, well…in the middle of things, and Midlevels and the Peak gave an equally helpful descritpion of themselves.  Repulse Bay didn’t  exactly recommend itself (although, I have since discovered that, much like Wank in Bavaria, it is actually much nicer than it sounds) and I absolutely couldn’t bring myself to have an address in Mongkok for similar reasons.  Happy Valley, on the other hand,  sounded much better.  I’d read books about the Happy Valley set in Africa (a set of decadent British colonials living in Kenya in the early 1900’s, known for their predilection for drugs, alcohol and sexual promiscuity) and wondered if I would encounter similar levels of decadence here in the 2000’s.  Well, well, well…more of that later.

Most of the time,  when I look back on the very beginning of my time in Hong Kong, I prefer to edit out all that gnawing homsesickness, the massive insecurity and the crippling worry.  Will I or my children ever make a new friend again?   Will everyone forget what I look like?   Will I suffer endless bouts of FOMOIL (fear of missing out in London)?  If I die here, will anyone ever notice?   And along with all of these slightly daft but understandable worries  about starting a new life abroad, there is always ONE, which is more daft than all the rest.  Having compared notes with enough women who have gone through the same thing, I am glad to report that nearly all of them also had one completely unreasonably neurotically nutty worry – the sort which would get you an NHS referral to a pyschiatric centre immediately – and which demonstrates (in retropsect) just how dangerously close to the edge of reason we all were.

Well, it would hardly be fair to be starting this squib without telling you mine (gulp).  It started as part of a dream I had in the early hours of a week-day morning, approximately two weeks before my move to Hong Kong and continued recurring for about a month afterwards…..


The Lady in question was always the same: tall, long-legged and small-boned.  Her body was seamless;  there was specifically no British bottle-neck or Continental shelf between hip and waist and she moved with the fluidity of my son’s slinky.   She was wearing one of those chinese dresses with a million buttons, which ought to put any man off the idea of undressing  her.  So far, no big deal, good for her etc, except  for the fact that she is slinking around with my husband.

The dream unfolds to reveal the hitherto unplumbed depths of my husband’s patience.  He leans forward and begins, with meticulous care, to undo those million-and-one buttons.  Not a hint of frustration or impatience either; he seems to savour the process like someone eating a particularly rich but delicious dessert.  I think hopelessly about the buttons.   All I can think about are the buttons.  How could I possibly have been reckless enough to have invested in a wardrobe, so utterly predominated by zips!   If only my clothes had had more buttons, then maybe….

The dream spares me the visceral details of the sexual act.  No doubt there’s some sort of hold-up with the buttons, for which I am grateful.  And perhaps my imagination has enough self-preservation not to fast-forward.  However, there is no doubt about one thing: before I re-surface from the nightmare, I am certain that my husband has been touched by some exotic magic, some allure to which I am not privvy and from which he will not return; that it is too late and that I have lost him forever.

Quite often, I would wake up and be horrribly cross with him for hours about his fictive infidelity.  After a while, the poor man started to complain that he was suffering all the downsides of having an affair, without getting to enjoy any of good bits.   Thankfully, he’d endured three doses of pregnancy-related neurosis and had developed the firm, calm, controlled voice of a dog-handler, whenever I mentioned the fictive siren whom he was supposed to be seeing.  Either way, the man clearly has the patience of Job and this dream is an embarassing reminder of just how insecure and mentally hinge-less I was in those early days.

Perhaps the spectre of infidelity is every happily-married woman’s nightmare.  But I think it’s the general loneliness, which is most acute in those early months, when your husband is also standing in for your mother, brother, father, best-friend, bank manager, boss,  butcher or anyone else with whom you might ordinarily interact.   And since many husbands have to travel frequently every week to cover the region, after a glass or two of wine, a lonely newcomer might be easily be wondering whether it’s regional offices or infact orifices that he’s travelling to.

Anyhow, this is all largely irrelevant except insofar as it reveals to a certain extent, how much emotional baggage allowance one needs when moving to a new country.  Back in England, everyone loves a good moan about how bad ethnic minorities and foreigners are at ‘assimilating;’ as though they should melt immediately into the English way of life, like plain-clothes policemen.  And even I used to love a good grumble about how foreigners kept themselves to themselves, didn’t speak my language or seem to like England very much at all.   Now, I am a foreigner myself (and having struggled through a years worth of chinese lessons),  I am naturally a whole heap more tolerant about it.  Some people (like me with Chinese) are just genetically disadvantaged when it comes to learning languages.   Yes, so there is a definite obligation on behalf of us foreigners, to make an effort to integrate and accept the indigenous culture, if there’s any hope of being accepted there ourselves.  However, quite often we under-estimate the human misery of being an initial ‘alien,’ and also how much each our own culture has inescapably shaped our whole identity. And whatsmore genuinely integrating into another country’s way of life ( and I don’t just mean eating Dim Sum and drinking tea occasionally) takes a lot  of time.

For a while, I overcompensated;  every time a spotted a foreign-ooking person anywhere, I would  make an effort to be extra friendly, which usually just elicited weird who-is-that-blonde-nutbar-who-is-grinning-at-me-comme-un-idiot looks.  Clearly that isn’t the answer.  But I reckon a bit of tolerance goes a long way.   However politically correct you want to be, it’s pretty hard to eradicate your own cultural context and reprogramme youself with a completely new one in a jiffy.

Recently I read an article in the British press about the globalisation of culture and how it heralded the disappearance of a British cultural identity. To those Brits who are genuinely worried, I say this: pack your bags and go live abroad.  You’ll be surprised how British you really are.

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