What three years as an expat taught me about Britishness
In Hong Kong, writes Cathy Adams, I clung to my London-ness like a comfort blanket, never having realised before how much I relied on my emotional connection to my home city
I’m writing this from my sofa. It’s not a particularly special sofa: it’s navy blue, from John Lewis, and lumpy from years of people wedging their arses into the cracks between the cushions. If you sit on the chaise longue too hard, it flips like a seesaw.
For three and a half years, this sofa was a sort of talisman representing everything that I loved about my old life: home, comfort and belonging.
I’ve just moved back to London from Hong Kong, that rocky, typhoon-drenched island off the coast of southern China. It’s nice to be home. I’ve gone from being Theresa May’s “citizen of the world as a citizen of nowhere” to being a somewhere person again.
And what a strange time to be back. The irony that I moved home desperate to belong somewhere again at precisely the same time that the UK is figuring out where and how it belongs itself, is not lost on me.
I left the UK at the start of 2015 with my now husband. He’d transferred with his company (HSBC – it seemed obvious we’d end up in Asia), and I’d jacked in my lovely job as an editor on a travel magazine. We’d been living in London for years since graduating and just wanted a change of scene. Friends had started to inch down the aisle and I couldn’t bear many more winters of X Factor. My East Asia experience was limited: I’d been to Shanghai in 2011 to meet a friend and had come back with an unshakeable sense that Asia was where things were moving forward, rather than stalling in Europe.
Hong Kong seemed a good choice. It was exotically far-flung, but at only (only!) 6,000 miles away it was close enough to be home in 15 hours; and as a former British colony, it had a reassuring vein of home running through it (crucially, the plugs were the same). Plus, as a travel editor, the prospects for fun weekends away in cities like Tokyo, Bangkok and Beijing was intoxicating. Hong Kong was hot, humid, hedonistic and so fast-paced I figured I’d have to sprint to keep up.
The problem? I’m a somewhere person. I never knew how much I relied on my emotional connection to my home city to inform much of my character until I left it.
Hong Kong – swaggering, sweaty, bombastic Hong Kong – is an anywhere kind of place. The friends I made came from diverse backgrounds and nations, with friends, ties and cultural touchpoints all over the world. By contrast, I came from a world of single culture: most of my family lives within two hours of each other (except one rogue uncle who lives in Malawi) and my close friends are the ones I’ve had since school. I first went on a plane at the embarrassingly old age of 15 (I don’t think anybody, least of all my Eurocamp-loving parents, thought I would end up flying a lot for work).
The first year in Hong Kong was tough as I clung to my Britishness, my London-ness, like a comfort blanket. In my 350 square foot, two-bed flat in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, I felt not so much fresh off the boat but flung sharply off it. The sights and smells of my new neighbourhood were almost literally intoxicating, and I couldn’t understand why the supermarket opened, begrudgingly, at 8.10am. I never knew where I was going, and I lost all the swagger I had in London about knowing the coolest, newest places to go. I missed my default lazy Sunday afternoon walking along the South Bank, popping into Tate Modern – in Hong Kong, there didn’t seem to be any museum really worth a repeat visit. (This is a well-known problem – for a global city, Hong Kong doesn’t have any world-class institutions, although the recent opening of the Tai Kwun arts complex and the upcoming opening of the M+ visual arts centre is changing that.)
In the UK, I fitted in. I knew this retrospectively because I’d never even considered that I hadn’t. It was a natural sort of belonging. My life revolved around the reassuring timestamps of ordinary British life: Strictly Come Dancing, the weird April heatwave and the John Lewis Christmas ad. I still counted down to Christmas based on that the release of that ad.
Eighteen months after we moved, Brexit happened.
I can still remember the exact moment I found out that the UK had voted to leave the European Union. It was mid-morning in my glassy office block, and colleagues and I had stayed up watching the count. Hong Kong felt very far away from it all, and to be honest Brexit gave us an excuse for a boozy lunch in some drab Belgian-themed pub and the opportunity to use the suffix “exit” to describe the leaving do of a friend moving away from the city.
My friends and family back home were at the coal face of it. My parents were sending me angry face emojis and announced they were moving to France (two years on they’re still in Essex – their plans to move are about as far along as Theresa May’s). Other friends who’d been up all night sent me bleary-eyed emojis and lightly indignant Whatsapp messages – wasn’t I glad I lived all those miles away?
At that point, the 6,000 mile chasm did feel just that: thousands of miles away. In Hong Kong, a very different type of politics talk was on the agenda for dinner-party conversation – would Hong Kong keep its independence or be squashed by China? – and I sort of hoped Brexit might have collapsed under the weight of expectation by March 2019 anyway.
Although in the year after it happened, I was glad to live away from the machinations and non-decisions and dreary refrains of “Brexit means Brexit”. Besides, as sterling fell through the floor, I’d managed to cream off more pounds for my Hong Kong dollars that ever before. I even tentatively posited that if the UK did leave the EU, I might as well set up home in Hong Kong instead.
Theresa May’s 2017 speech, in which she derided the anywhere people who felt at home across the world, put into words the crude, untrue split between Leavers or Remainers. It was a defining moment for Brexit, and it was a defining moment for me. At the time, I was an “anywhere” and couldn’t understand how people like me had become anathema to the national feeling. Most worrying was realising that the UK I ached for was not the UK I would find myself in if I moved back.
And how I wanted to move back.
Around the time that May made her “citizen of nowhere” speech, I started to grudgingly accept that I must rather like living in Hong Kong – after all, I’d been there for two years. It was probably something to do with the lifestyle, which was hard not to love. Champagne brunches in the winter; all-you-can-drink junk boat outings in the summer. Life was just easier: the subway always ran on time and you never woke up to a cold floor in the mornings, even in winter. I made true friends that put up with my constant existential whining about Hong Kong (if you’re reading: I’ll always be truly grateful).
Plus, there were the opportunities. Expat life was like being back at university (when was the last time you heard a journalist compare Nottingham with Hong Kong?) but with a lot more cash. The people you met for drinks could introduce you to their entire network, and I met an average of six new people a week (in my six years in London, I think I met six new people in total). Somebody you knew was always doing something entrepreneurial – thanks to the city being one of the most open places to do business in. Everybody knew everybody, which was comforting, until it started to feel suffocating. I couldn’t escape my job, even though I adored it.
Eventually I came to realise that champagne brunches and low tax rates and the indifference I had for Hong Kong weren’t the things I wanted from my life; or at least not one full enough for me to accept. The fact I lived 12 flying hours away from family and my closest friends, who were getting married and sprogging with alarming briskness, weighed on me heavily. I had planned my own wedding long-distance and it felt like it was happening to somebody else during much of our 18-month engagement.
In Hong Kong, I always felt hollow at the fact that I didn’t speak the same language, or share the same culture – or even the adopted expat one. In Asia, I felt more British and stuck in my ways than ever, which seemed like the opposite of the person I thought I was in Britain.
And so the decision to move back wasn’t the proverbial lightning bolt. It was a slow blistering of the feeling that me, living in Hong Kong, wasn’t quite right. I frequently felt angry and upset and weak that I couldn’t settle in this most intoxicating of cities. The longer it went on, the more the issue of Brexit started to feel more and more abstract, and in some ways I was grateful for it happening: weren’t we lucky to live in a place that had at least some autonomy, however blunt, over the way the country was run?
And so three and a half years almost to the day after setting foot on Hong Kong Island, I ditched the territory for Gatwick Airport (maybe the most British of all airports – chaos inside, then surrounded by the gorgeous South Downs outside). I even left without my husband, such was my rush to move back.
I’ve been home for around two months now, working for The Independent, where I don’t need to be careful about how I talk about China’s nationality complex: I can now write the words “Taiwan” and “country” next to each other. I’ve realised that democracy means more than just voting for my next leader. It means being able to live in a place where I can speak freely, and be part of a dynamic and shouty media landscape unafraid to say what it thinks.
The first night I was back, jet lagged and drunk after a bottle and more of wine, I cried in front of my friends about it being “the end of an era” – and it is. I’ve transitioned with frightening ease back to my old life: I’m living in the same flat, I have the same friends, and I’ve gone back to eating the same thing for dinner. It’s almost like my three and half years abroad never happened.
But while nothing has changed, everything has changed.
The crude difference is that I’ve reacquainted myself with the UK’s sluggish public services and an increased level of danger – essentially the spoils that come with an open nation.
Tangibly, plenty has changed. In the three and a half years I was away, my London neighbourhood, SE1, has sprouted an outdoor food market, and some hip performance space in what was a car park. The UK has its second female prime minister. I can pay for the Tube using Apple Pay, and everybody uses Uber – if they’re not getting on the Night Tube. Half the high street has disappeared and isn’t it great I can pick up my Amazon parcel from a locker?
And intangibly, plenty has changed. I feel like a different person. I’ve visited some of the most densely populated cities on earth that aren’t well-known (yet) in the UK. I’ve embedded myself into a culture completely separate from my own and seen how the developing world views the UK. I’ve learned scraps of Mandarin and known bone-crushing loneliness. I’ve transitioned back to being the well-travelled one among my friends, whereas in Hong Kong I felt like the polar opposite.
I can’t say it wasn’t gut-wrenching to leave a life and friends I loved, although the idea of not living in my home country again tore at something even more primal – Brexit or no Brexit. I’ve at last accepted that I just didn’t like Hong Kong that much, however much I enjoyed the lifestyle.
Now, back in London, I have moments of such vibrating happiness to walk along some dingy street in Elephant and Castle I feel I might burst. I wait for a delayed train and my heart feels full (I know, weird).
I’m back in my city, and I’m back on my sofa.