Tips from a parent who wants her daughter to experience the local way of life.
My parents moved to this city a few years before I was born. I spent most of my childhood here, went through local and international school systems, was sent to University abroad, worked in many other countries, then came back. Hong Kong is my home. Throughout my childhood, as I saw family and friends come and go, I always got the sense that everything here is temporary. But I later learnt, that in this global society we live in, life everywhere can change in the blink of an eye. A job opportunity overseas, a decision to have an adventure abroad, or a necessity to leave the place you call home. And as my sisters and I traversed the world looking for a place to finally settle down, all roads would always lead back to Hong Kong.
I have been an expat in many countries and, throughout my travels, there is one thing I have learnt. No matter where you live, for however long (even if it’s just a short period of time), you need to make it your home. You do that by breaking your expat bubble, becoming one of the people and finally belonging to where you happen to live. So, as you bring your children up in Hong Kong, here are a few ideas to make them feel that they too can belong to this unique and exciting city.
Read more: How To Raise Multicultural Kids In Hong Kong
1. Learn the language (at least a little of it)
Hong Kong may have its own language, but more popular and widely-spoken languages like English and Mandarin are also very prevalent. The native tongue here is Cantonese. After attending a British primary school, my mother decided to burst the expat bubble my sisters and I lived in. She put us in an Anglo-Chinese school for part of our high school education. It wasn’t easy. But it gave us an opportunity to learn and speak the local language and make lots of friends that weren’t expats. You don’t have to go as far as to change schools, but it doesn’t hurt to have a few Cantonese conversational phrases past M-goi and Jo-sun in your pocket. I work in Hong Kong now and the warmth I receive when I speak Cantonese (however broken) is touching. It’s especially important right now when the city is struggling to maintain its identity.
2. Take advantage of the local education system and activities
It is worth checking out the government system when it comes to academics and activities. I am sending my three-year-old daughter to a local, government-subsidised kindergarten. Not only is she immersed in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, but she also gets a chance to make friends and play with her classmates in various languages. A whopping 20% of the Hong Kong government’s total expenditure goes into education, so you might as well take advantage of it. The government also provides soft play areas in various leisure centres across the territory. It’s a good setting for younger kids to mingle with local children from all backgrounds (and a sure-fire way to prick the expat bubble). Public libraries also hold children’s activities and story-telling. The good news is most government schools and activity centres are not expensive, or are completely free!
3. Get out of your comfort zone
So, after having a childhood of rarely needing to leave the Mid-Levels, to our horror my sisters and I suddenly had to cross the harbour to a place called Shek Kip Mei every day for school. Have you been there? Probably not, but it’s there, on the green line of the MTR. Sadly, the reality is, most of Hong Kong’s population live in areas expats rarely venture. I suggest taking your kids to explore areas beyond your personal work, life and school borders. Try visiting places like To Kwa Wan (a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood thanks to a brand spanking new MTR station) that can still give you a sense of life in Hong Kong for many. Walking around is like stepping back in time when buildings were short and colourful, and shops were family-owned and varied. There also is an art village converted from a cattle depot (Cattle Depot Artist Village) that’s worth a visit.
4. Understand Hong Kong through its history
Okay, so we all know that Hong Kong was once a British colony which returned to China in 1997. But how much do you really know about Hong Kong’s history and how it has shaped the hearts and minds of the city’s people? This is especially important right now as the city grapples with changes and struggles to hang on to its unique character. While it may sound like a touristy thing to do, exploring Hong Kong’s museums makes a great day out and will give you and your kids a better understanding of the city you live in.
5. Take public transport
Yes, I know taxis are cheap compared to many cities. But Hong Kong has arguably the best transportation system in the world. Hong Kong kids ride mini-buses, trams, buses and the MTR, and so should yours! Top up that Octopus card and use it as often as you can.
6. Appreciate your space and understand you are privileged!
The average living space for a person in Hong Kong is 170 square feet. While that already sounds small, the reality is that most Hong Kong people have less than 50 square feet of living space individually. In one of the wealthiest cities in the world, it’s a tragedy that the terms cage home, coffin homes or sub-divided flat describe the housing situation for so many. Another disturbing statistic is that about one in four children in Hong Kong live below the poverty line, according to the aid agency Oxfam. So, get your kids volunteering at local charities. It is a good way for them to step outside the expat bubble, have a better appreciation of what you provide for them and understand some of the struggles that many of the city’s children and families face.
7. Make your own bed!
In Hong Kong, many of us are fortunate enough to be able to have a helper to keep our lives and homes in order. Often, due to their efficiency and hard work, your children don’t need to even pick up after themselves or have any household duties. But far from doing them a favour, this inability to take care of themselves is a disservice that will just make their lives harder when they grow up and have to cook, clean and run their own homes. So, make them do their own chores, they will thank you for this in the long-run and you will be grateful that you are bringing up capable and helpful young people.
8. Eat at a Cha Chaan Teng
As the renowned chef, Anthony Bourdain, said “Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma.” And so it is in Hong Kong. The city revolves around eating out. This is a purely indulgent suggestion. I know kids like Chinese food, but have you ever been to a cha chaan teng?
Have you ever eaten the cuisine that is uniquely Hong Kong, cooked up in the colonial days when western food was too expensive for many of the locals? The setting is usually basic – stools, Formica tables, loud and brash wait staff, and food served on plastic plates and bowls. And the food may not be to everyone’s taste. But this is how most Hong Kong people grab a quick, cheap meal. You’ll find these little restaurants tucked away in almost every alley or street in the city. Give the owners and staff a shock, next time you pass one with your kids – pull up a stool and order a pineapple bun (better still, say “Boh Lo Bau” in Cantonese, which has nothing to do with a pineapple!). It’s not just the food, but the atmosphere and the other patrons will also help give your kids a glimpse into the lives of most Hongkongers.
And finally, it’s about you and whether you really want to stay in and bring your kids up in an expat bubble or not. Your attitude towards the city is what influences your child’s outlook the most, so if you call it home so will they.