Culture Shock in Hong Kong


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Wet Market in Hong Kong - source of culture shock
Culture shock in Hong Kong may not be as traumatic as new expats would expect, especially if they’re from an English-speaking country. Hong Kong is a former colony of Britain, and as a result, the locals’ English proficiency is rather high. Moreover, the religious and cultural tolerance of those living here is quite broad; it’s even normal to see Indonesian domestic helpers praying towards Mecca in front of a post office on a Sunday, just next to Falun Gong followers practicing in front of the Court of Final Appeal on a daily basis.

Hong Kong has a population of more than 7 million people, so the crush of the populace can be daunting, especially for those who have relocated from a small or medium-sized city.

Then there are certain things in Hong Kong that are just plain different, and even the most well-travelled expat will need some time to adjust. For example, Hong Kongers are generally an American size zero, a British size four, or a European size 30, so expats will inevitably face situations where well-meaning salespeople with a limited English vocabulary confront one with, “No your size. You too fat!"

The good news is that there are plenty of resources to mitigate the culture shock in Hong Kong. Expats can join organisations such as Necescity (for men) or Sassy Hong Kong (for women) to ease into the local culture with the help of others who have been there and done that. Additionally, respective national Chambers of Commerce regularly organise events where expatriates can meet up with people from home, and share their scary Hong Kong stories. HK Magazine and CNNGo.com also provide accurate observations on the locals, and supply information about events as well.

Language barrier in Hong Kong


Hong Kongers are usually Cantonese and English speaking, with some degree of fluency in Mandarin. However, this bilingual nature actually makes it rather difficult for expats to pick up any Cantonese; people will insist on speaking English just because somebody looks like a foreigner. Those wanting to learn Chinese should try Mandarin. Cantonese is known to be difficult for foreigners to learn, and Mandarin is useful when liaising with colleagues from mainland China.

Need to know


There are many unspoken rules in Hong Kong, and it helps to recognise that new arrivals need to give themselves time to learn these things as they go. In particular, the way in which people manage the space around them is something that takes some getting used to. For example, when standing on the escalator one must stand on the right, because the left side is for others wanting to overtake. Additionally, Hong Kongers are always queuing (lining up). Visible queues are seen in front of everything, be it the bus stop, cinema box office, or Louis Vuitton flagship store.

As a new resident begins to settle in, they will start to acquire a basic knowledge about what to do and what not to do in the city. For example, garbage shouldn't be thrown out on the streets, but held onto until a trash can is found. There are subtantial fines for dumping rubbish, cigarette butts, or owners not cleaning up after their dog on the street. Also, Sundays are rather busy from Causeway Bay to Central due to the endless streams of demonstrations. Domestic helpers take their rest days to gather on the streets in crowds, and it won’t be long before new arrivals realise that it is best to take the tube (called the MTR) to avoid traffic jams.

Accommodation in Hong Kong


For those used to living in huge houses with lawns and garages, the sizes and the prices of Hong Kong accommodation might be a nasty shock. With such a dense population, it is expected that everybody has a very small share of space. Furthermore, real estate prices skyrocketed in recent years due to the financial situation. While they have started on a downward trend that looks to continue into 2015, expats should still be prepared to pay a lot and get a little.

Having finally decided on a small space to settle into, new residents should anticipate a frustrating few weeks of receiving deliveries and organising utilities. If anything is getting delivered or repaired, the best one can do is to rent a good movie, as most likely the service providers will show up late.

Food in Hong Kong


Hong Kongers eat out a lot, at least several times a week, and there’s an incredibly diverse range of restaurants in the city. Swoop in for a rushed weekday lunch in Central, indulge in a local fast food brunch in a Cha Chan Teng, enjoy a fancy dinner at an upscale club, or unwind with some pub grub in Wanchai.

New Hong Kong residents can keep up to date with all the eateries by surfing the popular dining guide Openrice.com. One thing that should be noted is that locals, mysteriously enough, love to take photos of their meals - be it gourmet cuisine or just a run-of-the-mill Happy Meal from McDonald’s. When sharing a meal, expats should be sure to give their friends enough time to photograph the food first before digging in.

At very formal dinners, it is expected that the host or the oldest person at the table would start eating before everybody else. However, if just sharing a meal with friends, there is no need to observe this. Moreover, when sharing a meal with friends, it is usually expected to split the bill, whereas the older generations tend to compete to treat everyone else. For business meals, it is usually rather clear as to who is treating whom (i.e. the client is usually getting a free meal). For dates, usually men pay for the meal, but women should offer to pay their share first.

Weather in Hong Kong


Many people find Hong Kong’s humidity unbearable. Stories even cite that British soldiers who first settled in Hong Kong died mainly from the smog and the heat, and not from battle wounds.

Hong Kong’s “wet blanket” is most prominent in spring time, and is followed by the extreme heat of summer. Many expats have trouble adapting to the stifling outdoor temperatures, and those that can cope with the rising mercury may nonetheless have problems with the constant indoor flow of air conditioning. All the malls and office buildings will be blasting cool air at max volume, so it’s necessary to carry a cardigan everywhere, and those that wear glasses can be sure they will be wiping the fog off their lenses several times a day.

Etiquette tips in Hong Kong


  • When receiving gifts from locals, don’t open the gift in front of them, as that is considered rather rude. Just thank them graciously and then put it away.
  • Don’t give clocks as gifts; these items can be associated with mourning.
  • If bringing flowers to a friend’s home, especially during Chinese New Year, don’t bring any white flowers, as this symbolises death.
  • When giving or receiving business cards, do so with both hands to show respect.
  • If an expat finds themselves in the middle of a crowd, say in the MTR during rush hours or walking through the Chinese New Year wet market in Victoria Park, they should move swiftly, otherwise the people behind them will start shoving.

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