This And That: 10 Things I’ve Learned After 1 Month Living Abroad
It’s been 30 days since my husband and I abruptly put 90 percent of our possessions into storage and traded our charming prewar Manhattan apartment for less than 500-square-feet of sleek Asian design in a high-rise building 8,000 miles away.
Each month, I’ll be recapping new observations since I moved to Hong Kong. Here’s how I’m feeling after the first four weeks.
1. Life feels like the college semester I spent studying abroad, but with bank accounts and better decision-making skills.
Now I come home after a night out and drink a bottle of water, instead of scarfing down two falafel wraps and a meat pie at 2:00 a.m. Hello, maturity.
2. Daily life can feel just like home or nothing like home depending on my mood.
There’s a street by my apartment that’s an outdoor market, so the first time I walked down, I browsed through all the stalls and food tables not understanding a word and feeling a world away from home. Another day I rushed down a market street near my apartment, and I noticed there’s a Pizza Hut, KFC and 7-11 so close to where I live. Funny, I thought. It wasn’t until I returned to the street for a third time that I realized the Pizza Hut, KFC and 7-11 are on the same street as the original market. I was just paying attention to the Cantonese signs one day, and the English signs another day.
3. Finding people and experiences outside of my comfort zone takes more effort than I anticipated.
Because Hong Kong is so global, it is quite easy to create a little expat bubble consisting of Americans, Brits, avocado toast, lattes and Zara shopping trips. It takes a lot more effort to go to a local restaurant with owners who do not or will not speak English to me and order something. Especially when there’s a Maison Keyser right next door.
4. I do not like working at a desk in an office.
See ya never, meetings and workplace gossip.
5. But having only virtual relationships with colleagues feels odd.
I consistently go for six-hour stretches without uttering a word or interacting with another human in real life. This is strange.
6. It is emotionally and physically impossible to argue with your spouse when living in less than 500 square feet.
I can’t figure out the mathematics of it but I think it has to do with physics or something. I can’t even attempt to shut a door out of frustration or anger in this place. The only “door” we have is a slow-moving, sliding glass panel. And letting that glide to a steady close doesn’t really have the same umph.
7. “Say yes to everything” is counter-productive.
I hate this expression. I’ve found that this year abroad is actually a time for being brutally honest about my priorities. That comes with saying “no” more often than I thought.
8. Things I least expected to be difficult are extremely challenging.
I thought opening a bank account would be seamless. Or planning the many trips we want to take this year would be no big deal. Turns out those endeavors have been rife with complications. On the other hand, I thought finding friends would be an arduous process, but we have met so many great people so quickly, I feel more social here than I do at home.
9. Making new friends is like a weird form of dating that’s far more gratifying.
But I’m doing it as a couple and it’s sort of like couple-dating another couple? It’s weird. But rewarding because finding new friends at any age is really exciting.
10. I grew up during my 20s in ways I didn’t notice.
Since childhood, I have always been a perpetually homesick person. I did not go to sleepaway camp. I spent much of my first year at college thinking about transferring closer to home. I typically don’t plan vacations longer than 10 days because the constant soundtrack in my head since I can remember has been, “I don’t like being away from home longer than I have to.”
I read once that homesickness was considered a “curable disease” from the 17th century through the turn of the 20th century. It was called “Hypochondria of the Heart” at one point, and extreme cases were classified as “nostalgia.” The way we use the word nostalgia today differs from its original intention, which was a medical term that meant an intense and sometimes dangerous longing to return home.
Needless to say, I assumed I would feel an onslaught of messy emotions when we moved to Hong Kong: homesickness, uneasiness, prolonged moments of culture shock.
But that has not been the case. And I think that’s due to three reasons:
First, I’m far more comfortable being away than I ever realized. I kind of feel like I’ve had a breakthrough in therapy but haven’t had to pay a single cent for the epiphany (which only adds to my overall satisfaction with the whole thing). Feelings of homesickness or uneven footing don’t make me sad like they once did. Instead, they motivate me. When I miss someone from back home, I get in touch. When I feel totally clueless in a situation, I go home and do research. And when I feel unsettled, I head to a coffee shop and write. Because that is my mental happy place, no matter where I am living.
Second, I’m married, and my husband and I are approaching living abroad as a team sport. So while he’s on Operation Why Can’t We Open A Bank Account In China? (Answer: the bank filled out the wrong forms), I’m assigned to Operation Where The Fuck Are Our Absentee Ballots? (Answer: the Board of Elections’ printer broke. Not kidding.). This experience is so much more fun and sane to figure out together.
Third, my cousin Alice and her family live here, which instantly made Dov and me feel at home on the other side of the world. Even though Alice and her sister grew up outside of London, and we saw each other infrequently as children, few things are as comforting or enjoyable as living by family. Plus, she’s one of only four or five people in this world I can talk to about growing up with mothers who emigrated from Iran to drive Volvos in western countries while listening exclusively to classical music and shopping for basmati rice and Persian limes.