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Personal Essay: Finding inspiration as a Canadian expat in Hong Kong

Frontmatter_October_PersonalEssay_Tarvydas_AuthorPhotoWhen my husband, a management consultant, was transferred to Hong Kong in 2000, I placed my job as a psychiatric emergency-room nurse on hold and packed up the house. And moved. For two years. To Hong Kong.

The noise, the heat, the hustle.

I’ll never forget the sensation of the taxi descending for the first time into Central District, a newborn baby strapped to my chest and a four-year-old clutching my hand. Immense neon signs rushing up to meet us; crowded, uneven streets; the panic of realizing too late I’d left my backpack, which contained my wallet, in the taxi. The relief when the smiling taxi driver returned them to our temporary executive apartment. A miracle, in a city of eight million.

With my husband away on business from Monday to Friday, it was my duty to set up a comfortable home in a metropolis that has been called the most thrilling city on the planet. In reality, the people of Hong Kong work extremely long hours, and expect the same of the hundreds of thousands of expats living there. It’s a frenzied culture of hard work and consumerism, the latter being perhaps the real religion of Hong Kong. But I didn’t have a job outside the home, and the contrast with this completely unfamiliar culture unsettled me.

In the expat community, I met other trailing spouses who spoke quietly of losing their sense of identity and self-worth, of filling the void with shopping, drinking, and partying. Of marital infidelities. These were careful conversations held in hard, asphalt playgrounds with eavesdropping children on the swings and slides. But there was little time to explore my own feelings and insecurities. I was too busy with domestic life.

The challenges of living in a city where I was not fully able to speak the language sometimes took a toll. Once, in an overcrowded grocery store, three old women visiting from the mainland grabbed the sides of my grocery cart and, one by one, picked up and discussed each item. They talked loudly in Cantonese and howled with laughter.

Ten minutes passed. I asked them to stop, but they continued rifling through my cart. When I raised my voice a little, one of the women reached over and pinched the fat on my arm, hard. The innermost aspect of my elbow, the tender bit. A red-blue claw of a bruise instantly formed.

“You can just fuck off,” I said.

I admit I behaved badly; I’m not proud of it. The three old women stared up at me and leaned in my direction: a trio of toughness. I abandoned my cart and walked home in the warm rain, dissolving. What was I doing in this place?

I logged into an online forum for expats and posted about my experience with the three old women, and shared a few laughs. The forum was a real point of connection because many intense feelings come up when you’re an expat in Southeast Asia. Feelings of dislocation, loneliness, and alienation. Feelings of sexual redundancy. Hong Kong is a city full of beautiful women, and images of nearly naked bodies are papered across almost every available space.

After I moved back to Canada, these feelings remained, and I started chanelling them into fiction. It’s easier to see things dispassionately from a distance, and once I had repatriated, I found I had a lot to say. I wrote a story about a character I called Fast Eddy, an investment banker on a drug and alcohol roll through Wan Chai, Hong Kong’s red-light district. I killed him off in the first draft, but the energy on the page was undeniable. I resurrected him and finished the story.

A few years passed. I wrote another story about Fast Eddy. Then I started writing about his community of friends: Load Toad and Leon, Sarah and Decker. Where did they meet for drinks? I decided on the Globe, an English-style pub in the city’s SoHo district, although that particular establishment doesn’t exist anymore. It’s now a high-end gastro-pub with a contemporary design. No surprise: Hong Kong reinvents itself every 10 years.

By reconnecting with my own experiences as a trailing spouse, I was able to create a fictional community of hardworking men and women, bankers and brokers, maids and househusbands, all trying to find their way through the space in which loneliness and alienation intersect. This was the experience that resulted in my debut story collection, How to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square. It wasn’t an easy experience, to live or to write about. The writing was a lot like living in Hong Kong – a city built on the hardest granite bedrock in the world.


Rea Tarvydas’s writing has appeared in The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead and Grain magazines. Her collection How to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square is out in October from Thistledown Press.