Life as an Outsider

How moving abroad revealed what life is like for outsiders

Friends, timezone, livelihood, language, food — everything in my life changed when I moved out of America.

When I wake up in the morning, I have to convert the weather from Celsius to Fahrenheit just to know what to wear. If I ask directions about how far something is, the answer is given in kilometers instead of minutes (I learned that giving directions with an ETA was a west-coast American custom).

My day to day is conducted in Cantonese. In Hong Kong I look like a foreign expatriate — which I am — but people are surprised when I speak the local language.

In America, it was easily discernible that I had some semblance of Asian heritage. Yet here, I do not look local nor Chinese among the seven million Hong Kongese. I appear too tall, my legs are too long, my feet are too big, and my complexion is too ambiguous with my black hair and round, hazel eyes.

When I’m among my fellow English-speaking expats, I feel Chinese because of my language ability. When I maneuver the narrow and astir boulevards alone, I feel like an outsider.

My days are saturated with a manifest listlessness rooted in the Hong Kong culture. Minimal conversation is considered too much between strangers over a cashier exchange, and I have yet to hear a single “thank you” or “excuse me” in public.

Manners are almost exclusively reserved for friends and family — everyone outside your immediate circle seems to exist against a gentle backdrop of lukewarm, speak-when-spoken-to reticence.

Traversing the city is marked by the rude indifference of the endless sea of headphone-donning passersby accelerating towards their destination. The congested metro is bristling with the elbows of overworked and preoccupied 9-to-5-er’s, though the expression “9-to-5” is a far too subtle understatement to the reality and expectation of extended workdays.

“Aggressive sprint” is the preferred tactic for locals catching a bus or train — the very real threat of an apathetic trampling is overshadowed in lieu of the absurd notion of missing a ride that invariably arrives every other moment. Everyone will scurry about in a hustling haste, but the actions seem more cosmetic and a consequence of routine, given the exceptional efficiency of the public transport.

The metro trains are notoriously infallible, though upon observing the commotion it seems everyone thinks the train they can visibly see is quite literally the last ride in the history of the universe: nothing can stop them from boarding! (God forbid they take the next train two minutes later!)

Living in a perpetual rush seems to have diffused an epidemic fear of the unpunctual — which I’ve seemed to have likewise unconsciously adopted.

The clockwork promptness of the public transport is reinforced by the absurd cleanliness of the train stations. Just as other countries’ train stations advertise, eating and drinking is prohibited in the station. Though unlike anywhere else in the world I’ve been, everyone adheres to this rule.

There is a fully explicit agreement between each and every commuter to follow the rules of transportation; it is simply part of the cultural edicate.

This mass commitment to cleanliness is a key piece to the hyper-efficient awesomeness of Hong Kong’s public transport. The admirable yet nonetheless taciturn compliance in which the people here respect the rules in the midst of the hectic scurry reveals an impressive pride which is both practical and ironical.

Among my expat friends, I am the lone American. I hear what people think — that is, what non-American people think — of America.

The opinions I hear of my country are not the most flattering. I abruptly left my lifetime immersion of fellow Americans and now spend time exclusively with people I once would have considered foreigners to me.

Delicacies seem far more delicate and spirituality is far more prevalent here in Hong Kong. From the food to the meditations to the temples, there is an underlying exquisiteness of the East that possibly stems from immemorial customs and the enigmatic aura I experience as an outsider.

I cannot say whether I prefer one culture to the other, yet the formalities I’ve observed here have reveal the crudeness of certain American traditions (Chinese dim sum as a dietary staple compared to McDonald’s seems hardly a fair juxtaposition).

Buildings and parks in Hong Kong are designed with “Feng Shui,” which translates literally to “wind water.” Feng Shui is advised upon by Feng Shui masters.

In short, it is an ancient practice designed to harmonize the energy of individuals within the environment with the energy of the surrounding environment (the “flow” or “vibes” of a place holds similar meaning, to translate it into California-speak).

For example, pathways are commonly curved instead of straight to prevent all the Feng Shui “escaping” the area.

The architectural and technological efficiencies of Hong Kong are influenced by a centuries-old Chinese tradition. “Energy” is cultivated and entrenched within the very framework of society, fastening antiquity to modernity.

My move to Hong Kong has been an education in itself. I left the tranquility of California and replaced it with an entirely new life in hope of avoiding stagnating.

A Chinese proverb I saw the other day makes me feel more comfortable in my decision:

“A man grows most tired when standing still.”

I am neither tired nor standing still. Rather, I am unequivocally ecstatic to wake up every single day in Hong Kong, and “on the go” barely begins to describe my life here.

When I ask myself how I feel each day, I can truthfully and comprehensively answer with one word: “happy.”

Phil is a travel writer and editor. He currently lives and works in Hong Kong. If you liked this article, you can see more of his ideas on his travel blog and Instagram.

Bestselling travel writer. Columnist. Author. USC Annenberg School of Journalism.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store