We just returned from a great and too-short trip to Hong Kong. How did I never know what an amazing city it is? I always had this vague impression that it was stuffy and banker-y, full of Brits and their bad food. It is indeed full of Brits and I’m sure there is bad food to be found, but it is so much more. It’s not like anywhere I’ve ever been but if I had to draw comparisons I would say it’s NYC and Hawaii smashed into a giant, interesting Chinese-but-not-quite ball of fun. Yeah, that’s the best I can do. Sorry about that.
The first thing to surprise me was the climate. I clearly need to spend more time looking at maps because I was somewhat shocked to discover that I had landed in the sub-tropics! It is lush and green and has that wonderful sweet smell of decomposing tropical foliage. (I’m being completely serious – I LOVE that smell) The islands that comprise the district of Hong Kong are beautiful and scattered about in gorgeous aqua water. And then there is the city itself - huge shiny skyscrapers and older colonial buildings packed densely onto these finite spaces of land.
Admittedly, one of the things I most enjoyed about Hong Kong was the ability to communicate freely without excessive use of Google Translate and wild hand gestures. Living in Korea I’ve become so accustomed to being unable to speak to pretty much every single person I encounter that I become almost giddy when I can talk to a person other than my spouse and be understood. The joys of ordering a meal, directing a taxi driver, going out for coffee – they are all enhanced when they can all be done simply by opening one’s mouth and speaking to another person who can understand.
Of all the things that living as an expat entails, the language barrier is by far the most difficult for me to contend with. Granted, all I have to do is learn Korean, but that is no easy task. I haven’t given up and I am trying but in the meantime I struggle to understand and to be understood. Those are two very fundamental human desires. After all, isn’t that what every bit of art and literature and music and every other form of human expression is really about?
This got me thinking about expats in general. While it is true that there is a wide variety of people living somewhere other than their home country for various reason, there is definitely a type of person who tends to be an expat. If I attempt to describe some of these traits I’m going to sound like an ass, so I will mostly refrain. But one undeniable trait that is shared by almost every expat you will ever encounter is wanderlust. They love to roam.
Roaming, while a sure way to learn about yourself and the world around you, is also a sure way to never have any roots. I’m not a person who believes that roots in one particular place are necessary to being grounded, but they do help. Roots usually mean a community of people who, over time, become well-known to you and you to them. Expat communities most certainly exist and they do stay connected but there is a revolving door of characters. Since expats have this innate need to travel and move around they very rarely stay in any one place for very long. Maybe a few years here, a few years there, maybe even a decade, but the majority are living in a state of impermanence. You may be surprised to know how many conversations between expats involve the words “when I/we leave here …”.
This is not to say that expats in general are not living in the moment. On the contrary, I think most of them are very much in the moment, even if they know that their location is temporary. But this desire to understand and be understood … is it somehow upended by wanderlust? Are these roaming expats somehow immune to these most basic of human desires?
Well, as an expat myself, diagnosed with wanderlust at a very young age, I can say that no, I am not immune to this desire. Clearly. Otherwise my time in Hong Kong being understood would not have been so exciting. But for me, my desire to know myself through exploration of our planet and its people overrides my need to be understood by others. After all, if I don’t understand me, what does it matter if other people do?
Having said that, I don’t know that I could be an expat in a country where I didn’t speak the language forever. I’ve encountered people who have lived in Korea 8, 10, 15 years and still barely speak any Korean. How they manage is beyond me. To be sure, many of them are married to Korean nationals and so have a built-in translator, but surely that must be tiring? I would hate to rely on someone else to do all my communicating for me.
For now, I love living here. I’m learning a lot about myself, this culture, and the world around me. I know it won’t, can’t, and shouldn’t last, so I’m enjoying it while I can. And now I know that when the frustration of trying to learn Korean with little to no success sets in and I’ve reached my limit of playing charades with taxi drivers, all I have to do is take a short jaunt to Hong Kong for some water, some lush greenery, and my beloved mother tongue. Tally-Ho!