1. It’s ok to feel bewildered/lonely/scared sometimes!
I definitely felt all three throughout my first two days in Hong Kong. I put it largely down to jet lag and unexpected culture shock but I also squeezed too many new things and met too many new acquaintances on my first day. I would have been better letting myself chill, adjust to the time zone and familiarise myself with my surroundings first.
Lesson learnt: Don’t be too hard on yourself. And strike up conversation with some friendly locals if it helps. I ended up going to the same quiet bar three nights in a row and just chilling with some food a drink and got chatting to a friendly guy who worked there. He recognised me even on my second visit and it was nice to have an acquaintance to chat to about my day and swap stories with, even if I did only go 3 times.
2. Navigating is definitely not my strong point
With the help of Google Maps, travelling from my rented apartment in Tai Kok Tsui to my family’s apartment in Happy Valley should have taken me 1 hour by public transport. It took me close to 2 and a half. Travelling the narrow packed streets in the midday heat with a gigantic suitcase and a small wheelie bag in tow was not my finest moment.
After some bemused texts from my cousin politely asking what on earth had happened to me, I made it, albeit very hot, sweaty and confused, much to his amusement. When he came out to find me and saw me getting off a tiny bus and attempting to walk the wrong direction up a steep hill with my suitcases. He rescued me just in time. It’s a tale he’s fond of retelling, especially the ‘so why didn’t you just take a cheap taxi?’ question at the end…
Lesson learnt: Plan routes properly and ahead of time if possible! And don’t be cheap – use some common sense, make life easier for yourself and take a taxi if needed!
3. How to be completely self-reliant
Perhaps this ties in with the ‘thinking on your feet’ one below. (Or maybe it’s just common sense…) After dinner with a friend, I was heading back to my family’s apartment. Google Maps had been my crutch most of my trip but voila, my phone had died and I was thrown in the deep end. I hadn’t a clue how to get home. My family don’t live near an MTR station so that wasn’t an option and I didn’t know the bus routes off by heart. And I certainly couldn’t give my family a teary phone call and ask for directions.
After a minute’s frenzied walk up and down the street, I resolved to hunt down a taxi (easier said than done late at night with many people doing the same thing). I eventually nabbed one and jubilantly got in. Here came the next step: how do I say my address in Cantonese?? Luckily, I’d paid attention each time I’d taken a taxi home with my family and blindly recited the sing-song Cantonese sounds I’d heard them say to the taxi drivers each time. Mercifully, the driver nodded his comprehension and we were on our way. I definitely did a mental first pump. Blagging Cantonese like a pro. And yes, I did make it to the right address. Hurrah!
Lesson learnt: When you’re in a sticky situation, sometimes only you can help yourself! Think clearly and you might be surprised what you know. And if you’re anything like me and the lame battery life on my phone, bring a spare portable charging unit with you. (Unfortunately, I only discovered this once I’d got home).
4. Thinking on your feet (and not panic crying…)
Nothing would sum this up more than returning to my rented apartment on the first evening, knackered at 11:30pm and not being able to open the door, regardless of how many noisy times I clicked the key in different directions and wrested the door handle.
Thinking I’d managed to lock myself out and briefly panicking I’d be sleeping out on the streets of Tai Kok Tsui, I took a deep breath, thought logically and decided to go downstairs to the building security guy and ask for help. Feeling like a complete idiot, I had to explain to this man, who didn’t speak much English, that I couldn’t open the door to my apartment despite having the key. Hmm. I certainly sounded like a mad foreign girl.
Looking rather bewildered, he obligingly followed me to the lift and we made the awkward silent journey up 28 floors together. At my front door, I demonstrated that I really wasn’t mad and how the door wouldn’t open. He then gave it a go and proceeded to open it after several turns and a hefty twist to the right. Huh. Ok. Feeling a little sheepish, I thanked him very much in Cantonese, waited for him to disappear and then furiously practiced locking and unlocking the door before I was brave enough to close it behind me.
Lesson learnt: Remaining calm and having to think on your feet will always be better than panic crying alone in a corridor. A no-brainer in hindsight.
5. Language barriers aren’t true ‘barriers’
After my first testing day in Hong Kong, the Wi-Fi in my apartment stopped working so the landlady sent someone round to fix it. As I opened the door to the young Chinese guy, his face practically fell when he saw my western face. It was soon clear that he didn’t speak much English, hence the crestfallen face at the door. After I desperately tried to explain the problem simply (and hoping the landlady had already done it over the phone in Cantonese), he set to work.
Then he discovered the actual problem. Turns out I needed a new modem and he had to come back and fit it at a particular time. Now try to explain that to someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you. Some confusion, clock pointing and miming later, we eventually got there. I said many “mm goi saai”s, some very limited other Cantonese words I knew and I gave a big smile to show my appreciation to the nice guy. All was good and well in the end.
Lesson learnt: Just a few words in the local language, along with some patience, will go a long way to breaking down barriers and will definitely be appreciated. And hey, if you’re desperate, some miming can help.
6. Don’t force yourself to do things just to get traveller ‘brownie points’
In Hong Kong, I tried street food for the first time at those little in-the-corner street stools (Dai Pai Dongs). Not famed for their hygiene, and after hearing some mild horror stories, I was a little sceptical. However I soon found myself at a tiny little booth BBQ’ing skewers of meat under a bridge in Mong Kok very late one night.
With the help and encouragement of a Cantonese friend, I navigated through the Chinese-only menu and got myself some of the more recognisable treats. Dirt cheap, very local and reasonably tasty: I’m glad I did it. The paranoid germ-o-phobe in me did pause when the man selling the food couldn’t tell me anything about the chicken except that is was ‘special recipe’.
I did draw the line at pigs’ intestines though, much to the amusement of my friend. Each time we passed a restaurant or food stool and I’d ask ‘what’s that?’ and her reply would start “Hmm, how do I say it in English. It’s the part of the [insert animal name] that…” I knew I’d reached my limit! Being borderline vegetarian, I definitely wasn’t going to be dipping into some chicken’s feet or sheep anus anytime soon. I was totally ok with that.
Lesson learnt: I wasn’t go to do something I really wasn’t keen on just to boast back home that I’d done it! I was quite content with my $6 (50p) chicken skewers.
7. Airbnb is great, if done right
This was my first time trying Airbnb so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I picked an apartment with a beautiful full window view from the 28th floor with it’s own balcony too. Perfect! I knew the general area of the place so had no qualms about that and the lady who owned the place seemed very friendly. Indeed, when I met her, she was delightfully friendly and helpful. The apartment itself was like the photos, although it didn’t look quite as clean. However my big bug-bare was the almightily bad mattress. Perhaps I’m just fussy (I do have a bit of a dodgy back) but I just could not get a decent night’s sleep, especially with the sporadic air conditioning which made the weirdest rattling sounds throughout the night, even when it did work (which was hit and miss).
And the area itself? Call me paranoid but I’d never before been stared at so much. I later found out that Tai Kok Tsui is very much a working-class area and westerners don’t really venture there, which probably explained the stares. (But it was so close to Mong Kok, which I knew reasonably well, so this surprised me!) Granted, I never felt unsafe but I felt quite isolated and alienated compared to the rest of Hong Kong. When you’re 6,000 miles away from home by yourself for the first time, it’s not the greatest feeling.
All those things coupled together prompted me to ask for a few nights rest-bite at my family’s apartment. Being the darlings they are, they immediately offered to have me stay with them for the rest of my trip, pronto. After a little bartering, I graciously accepted and was hugely indebted to their hospitality and for treating me just like I was their own daughter.
Lesson learnt: Airbnb is great if you want to feel like living as a local but it’s not (obviously) a hotel service. There will be things you can’t pick up on in photos and you can’t expect an immaculate service. It is someone’s home after all. I would also think more carefully about location and not rush into choosing a place just because it has a pretty window view! Still, I would try Airbnb again at some point.
8. I want to make Hong Kong my home
Or at least give it my best shot. Despite all my amusing stories and mishaps, I had a great time rediscovering Hong Kong (and discovering some new bits too). I came back to London completely resolved that, despite it’s flaws (like any city!) Hong Kong is where I want to make my home one day soon. Exactly how and when, I have no idea but we’ll see!