We all have people come and go from our lives, but this effect is magnified for expats who need to not only make friends each time they move to a new country (usually fellow expats) but also cope with constant departures of fellow expat friends. There are definite advantages to having a group of expat friends and I try to make the most of the time I have with people. But every time someone leaves I feel bereft, a common feeling this past year as many dear friends have handed in their ID cards and taken off from Hong Kong International Airport with a one way ticket to their new home.
The situation differs between our previous home of London and our current home of Hong Kong. I’ve started to work out what might prompt people to move on, which doesn’t necessarily make saying goodbye easier, but does make the leaving announcements come as less of a surprise.
We moved to London in our late 20s, a move so common it is almost a rite of passage. My husband’s work colleagues soon became friends, but beyond that we found that it hard to make friends with non-expats. As an expat you are seen as temporary. Consciously or subconsciously some people will decide it is not worth their time building a friendship with you when you will ultimately leave. Locals also have their existing friends and family commitments and aren’t looking to extend their friendship circles. In retrospect, we too were this way before leaving Australia.
Luckily there was a welcoming expat community, with whom we shared common interests in dining out, exploring London and travelling around Europe. Most of our friends were fellow Australian expats living overseas for the first time in the UK on a working holiday (two year) visa. Particular friends arrived six months after us for a two year stretch and took advantage of every opportunity to get out and see and do all they wanted to do during their limited stay. They often invited us to join them and we always accepted, enjoying the opportunity to spend time with them and cross things off our London list. We’d heard departing friends lament all the undone things on their lists as their time in London drew to a close. An unexpected move resulted in them spending all their remaining time organising the move rather than having the last few local experiences. Thanks to our working holiday visa friends, this was not the case for us.
We and all our expat friends have since left London. For many of our Australian friends, a year or two in London would be their living overseas experience before moving home to settle down, get married, buy a house and have kids. Little did we know that this was just the first leg in our expat journey.
Now in Hong Kong in our 30s our friends tend to be here for an indeterminate period. With no one on deadline there are constant changes to the group as people move to or leave Hong Kong. We invite newcomers to whatever Hong Kong pursuit is coming up, drinks, a brunch, a hike, a junk trip or my book club. Sometimes that invitation is the start of a friendship which becomes so natural and easy that we soon can’t recall exactly when or how we met.
So why do people leave?
There have been quite a few departures in the past year for a variety of reasons:
Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket: We made friends with a number of Australians working in Hong Kong for Australian banks and telcos. Unfortunately, a spate of restructures in these companies saw many of these friends made redundant or transferred back to Australia. While I have so far survived an ongoing restructure at the airline for which I work, many of my work colleagues did not. I’ve attended a steady stream of farewell parties recently as these colleagues leave not only the airline but Hong Kong.
Opportunity Creates Serial Expats: Many friends have also become serial expats, leaving Hong Kong for job opportunities or secondments in London or Singapore. A few UK expats headed to Canada for job opportunities which put them a little closer to home and Australian friends who won the green card lottery headed to the USA to activate and use their green card. A couple of friends have fallen in love and followed their partners to the UK – ain’t love grand.
In the Family Way: A few couples have moved home to Australia or the UK, generally because they are pregnant or have young children. A full time helper/nanny is affordable in Hong Kong, compared to an unachieveable luxury at home. However, the pollution, lack of space and cost and competition associated with schooling in Hong Kong, and a desire to be closer to family seems to tip the scales in favour of moving home once couples have children.
Boomerangs: In more than one case, friends have have moved to Australia with children or job opportunities and then come back to Hong Kong. Some of this years overseas secondments are drawing to a close and we are looking forward to our friends returning. Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying adieu but rather au revoir.
The Domino Effect: Moving countries is a major life decision, and like other major decisions such as getting engaged and married, buying a house or having a baby, they seem to pass through a group like a wave. My theory is that one person finalising the decision to move acts as a catalyst to wavering parties as they see that it is a possible and achievable option. Cue the farewell parties.
Has this past year’s exodus catalysed me into leaving Hong Kong? Not yet. I still have a few goals to achieve at work, things to experience in Hong Kong and places in Asia to travel to before we leave the region. Having said that, I remain open to opportunities. Watch this space…