Expats' experiences of culture shock in Hong Kong may not be as dramatic as they would expect, especially if they’re from an English-speaking country. As Hong Kong is a former colony of Britain, the locals’ English proficiency is high. Moreover, the religious and cultural tolerance of those living here is quite high.
Hong Kong has a population of more than 7 million people, so the crush of the populace can be daunting, especially for those who relocate from small or medium-sized cities. Then there are certain things in Hong Kong that are just plain different, and even the most well-travelled expat will need some time to adjust.
Language barrier in Hong Kong
Hong Kongers are usually Cantonese- and English-speaking, with some degree of fluency in Mandarin. This bilingual nature actually makes it rather difficult for expats to pick up any Cantonese; people will insist on speaking English just because somebody looks like a foreigner.
Cultural differences in Hong Kong
There are many unspoken rules in Hong Kong, and it helps to recognise that new arrivals need to give themselves time to learn these things as they go. In particular, the way in which people manage the space around them is something that takes some getting used to. For example, Hong Kong locals may stand closer when in conversation than expats might expect. That said, they are generally a reserved people and this is not an invitation for bodily contact.
Socialising in Hong Kong
When interacting with locals, expats in Hong Kong should be aware of the concept of 'face'. Face is an intangible quality that represents a person's dignity and reputation. One can save face, give face, or lose face.
Expats should never embarrass, insult or contradict someone in public as this would cause them to lose face. Face can be given by complimenting and showing respect to locals in a sincere manner.
Tea is an important part of life in Hong Kong and expats will find that it is a constant at social gatherings big and small. An empty or partially empty teacup is sure to be refilled almost immediately, and when pouring their own tea, expats should fill up the cups of their fellow tea drinkers, too.
Eating in Hong Kong
Food in Hong Kong is often served in a communal style, with several different dishes placed in the middle of the table. There is some ritual surrounding dining practices in Hong Kong, although expats will most likely encounter them only in very formal dining situations. Some general courtesies include letting the host be the first to begin eating and always leaving something behind on plates and platters. It is considered rude to take the last piece of food and would imply that the host has underfed the guests.
All but the smallest of restaurants in Hong Kong should have knives and forks available as a substitute for chopsticks, but learning to use chopsticks properly is still a good idea while living in Hong Kong. Some basic chopstick etiquette: diners should not fiddle with chopsticks and, if not currently using them, should lay them down evenly on the chopstick holders provided. It is also important to never stick chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, as in Chinese culture this has the connotation of inviting death to the table. It is also impolite to point or gesture with chopsticks.
Weather in Hong Kong
Many people find Hong Kong’s humidity unbearable. The city’s 'wet blanket' is most prominent in springtime, and is followed by the extreme heat of summer. Many expats have trouble adapting to the stifling outdoor temperatures, and those who can cope with the rising mercury may nonetheless have problems with the constant indoor flow of air conditioning. All the malls and office buildings blast cool air, so it’s necessary to carry a cardigan everywhere, and those who wear glasses can be sure they will be wiping the fog off their lenses several times a day.
►See Lifestyle in Hong Kong to learn about options for shopping, restaurants and entertainment
"People in Hong Kong are very used to people coming and going. The population is very transient, so it is second nature to welcome newcomers in Hong Kong. However, breaking into a social circle can be difficult at times." Read more about life Hong Kong in our interview with American expat Leslie.
Are you an expat living in Hong Kong?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Hong Kong. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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