An expat in Hong Kong

The Admiral’s Wife was conceived as a novel based on my expat experience in Hong Kong for three years. In the very first version, I created four women who bonded over qi gong and the expat life. Each woman had difficulties and collectively they supported one another through various traumas. Although that version is long gone, when I reread sections of it now, the emotions of that time come roaring back.

Hiking in Hong Kong 2005

So, what was it like to uproot yourself and live in a foreign country? When my husband and I returned from Hong Kong, friends and family would ask, “Did you love it there?” I always replied that we had an amazing time – which was true.

Here’s what I wrote in 2009 when contemplating a non-fiction account (never published) titled Thriving in the Expat Cycle.

“In July 2004 my husband’s company asked him to consider a three year assignment to Hong Kong. We hesitated only long enough to consult with our children and our mothers, then plunged into planning for the adventure. We rode the waves of fantasy and euphoria for the next few months. Everything was possible – travel, employment for me, new friends, new culture, learning Mandarin, new foods. We allowed no hint of difficulty to penetrate the excitement.

However, the bite of reality set in after a few months as I struggled to find occupation and purpose that would satisfy my intellectual, social and emotional needs. After thirty years in a full time career, I had no way to define myself in this new environment, nor did I know how to go about being unoccupied. Time for myself had always been a luxury seldom indulged. Suddenly I had nothing but time by myself.

Hong Kong skyline

Gradually I found my way. And at the same time my husband and I discovered a new definition for the word ‘home’ and renewed strength in our marriage. We made friends and worked hard to keep in touch with old friends. We kept in close contact with family and had the pleasure of sharing the intrigue of Asia with our children, mothers and others. We developed a personal appreciation for the concept of culture, understood what it means to be the minority, travelled to exotic locales, learned that business is done differently and dealt with our share of crises.

Our three years were both wonderful and, at times, difficult. Would we make the same decision knowing what we know now? Absolutely. Would we approach it differently. Definitely.”

Memory is selective. Looking back from the vantage point of 2022, what stands out for me is the gift of experiencing another culture, the challenge and rewards of adapting to a new way of life, the confidence that comes from building a different world for ourselves, the wonder of travel, the welcoming people we met, and finally, the joy of learning to write.

One of the outlying islands of Hong Kong

That story of four expat women is now The Admiral’s Wife a dual-timeline novel to be released in April. It bears almost no resemblance to the novel I once called East Rising Sun after the name of a qi gong exercise I learned with my friend Tita. Both Patricia Findlay (the main present-day character) and Isabel Taylor (the main 1912 character) experience the displacement of leaving home and moving to Hong Kong.

Here’s Patricia: “It was at about the five-month mark when Patricia’s enthusiasm had screeched to a halt, replaced by loneliness and depression and the realization that her life had spun out of its orbit. The gravitational pull of her personal sun and planets—Andrew’s children, her friends, her work, and the city she’d lived in for fifteen years—had disappeared.”

And here’s Isabel on the day their ship arrives in Hong Kong:

I won’t be able to count on Henry, Isabel thought, as she supervised the loading of their trunks and other cases into a delivery van. I’ll have to make my way here on my own.

The prospect was daunting. She should have known her husband would throw himself into his new responsibilities without worrying about her or their daughter. He would assume that Isabel could manage and be puzzled if she found their new circumstances difficult. If she complained, he would say, “You’ve just got to get on with it.” 

Isabel resolved to do just that.

‘Getting on with it’ was the task I also took on. I found friends and eventually the occasional consulting project. I took Mandarin lessons and volunteered. Ian and I explored the delights of Hong Kong, hiked its hills, golfed most weekends, and had some wonderful (in the true sense of ‘full of wonder’) travel experiences.

Living in a different part of the world changed us. Ian often says that it was the most profound experience of our lives. When you live in a place where almost everyone is Chinese, you experience being a visible minority. When you make friends with people from different parts of the world, you appreciate our common humanity. When you live in Asia rather than North America, you appreciate our global community in a very different way. When you can’t understand the language, you can more readily relate to the immigrant experience. When the news you read is focused on China, you become acutely aware of another world view. When you see the density and cramped spaces of Hong Kong, you understand how fortunate most of us are in North America. When you visit places like India, Vietnam, and New Zealand, you are overwhelmed by the beauty of our world and its peoples.

Hong Kong was an amazing place to live. Did I love it? I think that now the answer is yes.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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7 Responses

  1. Thanks, M. K.! You’ve inspired me to dust off the little gray cells and write a prologue for a mystery based on my years as a teenager living in northern Italy during the mid-60s. Fun romps on my Vespa scooter, discovering a secret military storage facility. Hmm…

  2. Thank you! Led me to think of our four years in Africa (1 in Northern Nigeria, 2 in Cairo, 1 in Uganda) following my University professor husband on Fulbrights. So rich, so frustrating. I haven’t written a word other than letters, but now have half a novel set in a fictitious West African country. Interesting how easily the background flowed while I struggle with the plot. We almost ended up in Hong Kong after the Cairo years, but opted to come home instead.

  3. Hello MK,

    The couple of times we spoke via e-mail there was i connection I felt about your international historical stories. I was honored when you invited me to guest blog about keeping the voice of an American Civil War nurse true to her era.

    It was a treat to hear about your expat experience in Hong Kong and the book you worked on about intercultural transitions. In the late 1989 my husband was offered a 3-5 year post to Santiago Chile. I was happy in my job and we had 2 tween age children. I was not keen to go. Charlie worked on me. It was a real professional coup for a 40 yo naval architect ( commercial not military). I got a job with the US state dept. we went. As you described, it was amazing and life changing for all of us but not a party or easy by any means.

    My experience changed my psychotherapy practice to one specializing in multicultural issues and international transitions. I was a SME for the Boeing company and other businesses.

    A few years after returning to Washington State, I did research for a book, 40 interviews with women nationally and internationally, who raised their daughter’s in a culture they weren’t born to. I never published it . A few years after that, My business partner and I wrote Mixed Blessings: A Guide to Multicultural and Multiethnic Relationships.

    Hopefully this long e-mail is not a blather. I couldn’t resist letting you know how your post took me down memory lane.

    Thanks. And be well.

    Harriet

    Harriet Cannon http://www.harrietcannon.com Tel +206 780 3843

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    1. What a great experience you had, Harriet. We should definitely have a virtual cup of coffee together sometime and compare stories.

  4. This article was an excellent reminder that not all adventures are positive experiences. Thank you.

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