Cross-cultural communication; making the socially awkward, even more awkward! (Or Is that just me?)

Did you know that A Koala Girl In A Panda Worldstarted out as a Facebook page? Here is a throwback from my early days as a baby expat.

Thankfully as time passed I started to feel a little less anxious and I gained some confidence and tactics for dealing with things that may arise.

I have been in Hong Kong now for four months. In some ways things are moving along nicely. It’s not my first time here and I thought I knew what I signed up for.

One thing that can derail my day however, is my inability to communicate and understand Cantonese. I like being in Hong Kong, but there are days I crave the simplicity of being in Australia. Tasks like shopping or ordering lunch were simple and required little thought. While most of the time things are fine, there are moments when I am reminded that I have a lot of work to do.

Despite being told when I arrived that “every one speaks English, don’t bother learning”, I have to disagree. The levels of fluency varies from person to person, and I have no control in who I interact with during the day.

In addition to this, I recently lived with two people who do not speak English. This situation makes me different from many other expats because Cantonese is inescapable, it follows me home.

In fact, my first case of culture shock was in Sydney, Australia, my own country! I guess that happens when a Koala girl marries a Panda Boy!

Despite being a frequent flyer to Hong Kong, my Cantonese is at beginner levels. Yes, I can only blame myself. I don’t ask for sympathy!

While I did join a Cantonese group class in Australia, the nature of studying in a group didn’t work for me; I found it too intense to absorb any thing. As I didn’t have any one to practise with on a regular basis, I decided my learning tactic would be to listen to Cantonese lessons, in order to memorise sentences. I know people who have actually learnt languages like this (they clearly have amazing memories!) but this method alone hasn’t suited my learning style, some thing I should have realised sooner!

To be fair, the lesson cd’s worked to a degree, but i find that no one in real life speaks exactly like the lessons- native speakers talk faster than some one who is learning and processing a new language. Learning to HEAR is also different to learning to SPEAK, especially when a language has six tones!

I studied Italian in high school and enjoyed it. I have forgotten some of it now, but if I read it, it starts to come back to me. This tells me I can learn a language. Italian always felt like an exotic version of my mother tongue. Cantonese on the other hand is a different kettle of fish; I have trouble HEARING the correct tones, let alone memorising them and speaking them.

In hind sight, I should have hired a private tutor and learnt Cantonese this way. I think I overestimated my ability to learn a language so drastically different to my own. I also forgot that my own learning experience should be fun, and relying purely on drills is not that, at least not for me any way.

Having said this, Hong Kong is not the worst place to be if you are an English speaker. It was ruled by the British for 156 years and despite the reclamation of Hong Kong in 1997 by China, you can still see the British foot print. This is what gives Hong Kong it’s delightful east meets west quirkiness, the thing I find so endearing. You can definitely get by in Hong Kong without it, however, I am finding a certain level of stress and restriction that comes with not being able to communicate when I want to, for such a prolonged period of time.

Despite this, some times things happen and you feel a bit stressed. Then some thing else happens and you feel a bit more stressed. Then before you know it, you are starting to feel out of sorts and dreaming of holidays on a deserted beach. All by yourself. Cocktail in hand.Or Two. Or three. All in an attempt to run away from the place that is now “home”.

I was reluctant to write this post. After all, Some people may misinterpret it as me complaining and I am not. It’s my job to learn Cantonese as I am living here, and with the exception of a couple of people, most are kind and compassionate if they can see that I am attempting to speak or struggling to understand.

Take one day in the last few weeks for example;

10 am: we were having a new television delivered. The delivery man arrives and he can speak English! Phew! I tell him where to put the television, and he has me sign off on the paper work.

As he is leaving, he tells me that the t.v. will be installed between 2 -5 pm. Despite speaking English, he is speaking fast and his accent is different to mine, so I have trouble understanding. By the third time of me politely asking him to repeat himself, he starts to look annoyed as if he is thinking “can’t you understand English?”, and I myself am thinking “I cannot even understand English!” I finally understand what he has said and I confirm that I will be home.

13:00; I am hungry so I go to a local store to buy lunch. I have to wash my new towels, so I need to grab some laundry detergent.

I find the detergent section and look at the wall of unfamiliar products. I am momentarily filled with dread as I have no idea what to buy. I am then momentarily filled with joy when I see the liquid I used in Australia, but this turns to disappointment as I realise it’s for a top loader and the machine at our rental is front loader. I put it back and think to myself “no worries,I will just look at these others.”

I scale through the bottles quickly, trying to work out what is suitable but alas, most are labeled in either Chinese characters, or their country of origins language, or both…It seems only the stupidly expensive ones are labeled in English and I don’t feel like paying over $140 HKD for those bottles (Over $25 AUD)

I start to feel tense as all I want is a bottle of detergent but I have no idea what I should get as I can’t even read the description. The afternoon is getting away and I can’t afford to waste any more time, so I walk away with nothing. I need to drag my interpreter back with me next time. This is a new development as for the past decade I have been the supermarket shopper responsible for getting the groceries, and now I am struggling to pick detergent!

Next stop, the noodle aisle. We haven’t bought a dinner set yet so I decide the best thing to buy is a cup of instant noodles. I pick the tastiest sounding flavour (Tonkotsu Black Garlic Oil) and look at the price tag. It looks as there is a special offer written on the label (in Chinese) and I see a price, but I also see a #2, so now I am not sure whether the price I can see is for one or two packets. I end up taking one, just in case I go over my lunch budget.

As I am about to leave the noodle aisle, I hear a man shouting. I look around and while I cannot see him, I see people walking away from where I hear his voice. Others are unashamedly gawking. I have no idea what he Is saying. It’s most likely nothing but I think to myself “God help me if I am in an emergency situation, I will not know what is happening”

Not being able to understand the language means I miss a lot of the queues that people would normally pick up on in day to day life. It can feel very isolating to be surrounded by people, yet to not be able to understand what they are saying- it’s like you are in your own, isolated bubble, and personally, the only bubbles I like are in my chocolate…(hello, peppermint Aero bar!)

I walk to the cash register and I have taken the time to add up my grocery total on my phone. I never used to do this in Australia, but I am too slow working out Cantonese numbers; any thing above ten dollars requires me to interpret each number to English before I understand the total. I don’t have time to do this at a supermarket check out when the assistant tells me the cost, and I can’t guess based on appearances whether the person serving me will know English. On the bright side, this Is probably great for my budget!

I rush home and as I enter my new apartment building, I greet the security guard. She smiles and says some thing. She is one person that I will likely see every day, so I wish I could say more than hi, bye and thanks. Last time I saw her, another resident interpreted for me, but this time we were alone. I smile as I step into the lift and tell her my apartment number just in case, but I am 99 percent sure that is not what she asked. Out of the four security guards I have met so far, only one seems to speak English.

16:00 pm: the installer arrives and the first thing he asks in Cantonese is “do you speak Cantonese?” I can understand this phrase, but I don’t understand the language ! He struggles to communicate and I feel the tension again as I wish I could have a proper conversation with the guy. He is saying some thing about buying a new aerial cable but I don’t know if he is offering to sell me one or telling me to go buy one. The installer is nice enough but I feel stupid at my inability to communicate. I mean, I know toddlers who know more than me.

17:00; I want to stop thinking for a moment, so I turn the television on. I switch over to channel Pearl which, at certain times of the day, has English programs. I sit on the couch and watch Sesame Street in silence. I want to be indignant that the only thing on is Sesame Street but I secretly enjoy the fact that Elmo and Big Bird are in the house, despite the fact that I am feeling more like Oscar the Grouch.

Later that day: Panda arrives home from work. “Why are you so tired? What did you do today?!”

Like all things, you can learn from it, or let it affect you negatively. I have a huge respect for people in Australia learning English as I am that person here. I am reminded not to judge a book by its cover, as you never know where a person is on their journey. I am also reminded to be kind, as a harsh word to a person who is struggling with “simple tasks” like communication, can mean much more to them than you can imagine.

Have you had any good or bad experiences with cross cultural communication? Any tips ? Share with us below!

Koala Girl 🐨


Cheung Hing Kee Shanghai Pan-fried Buns.

Yesterday was a funny day. Warm, humid, but really grey.

I found myself walking through Tin Hau around hungry o’clock (so at 6 PM, Koala time!)

Maybe it was the gloomy weather or the fact that I had been fighting off the flu this week but I had the sudden urge for one of my favourite comfort foods, Shanghainese buns.

Initially I kept walking but in the end did a U turn back to Cheung Hing Kee Shanghai Pan-fried Buns.

And I am so glad I did.. delicious, soup filled pockets of yum! So comforting, I felt like I had received a warming hug from the inside out.

Bonus points for me for having enough patience and self control to allow the soup to cool down before devouring them.

And now, I cannot stop thinking of them. 😋

Note to self; find excuse to go back to Tin Hau this weekend. Any excuse will do.

(Pictured: the signature pan-fried buns)

The difference between a Hong Kong holiday and a Hong Kong life.

Did you know that Koala Girl started out as a Facebook page? Recently this gem of a post came up and with it a flood of memories about my first year in Hong Kong. I Remember the excitement of living in Hong Kong, but also recall the stress of learning to fit in with this new place and it’s culture.

Oh, and let’s not forget the feeling of anxiety after coming from Australia, a place where I “knew” what my plans and goals were for the next year, to coming to Hong Kong, where I was the trailing spouse and was completely clueless as to what I was meant to be doing.

Sigh!! Such an exciting time of my life. So full of hope and expectation but also in a state of learning as I was stretched in new ways. I desperately miss this time of my life but unfortunately time waits for no koala!


K.G x 🐨

The difference between a Hong Kong holiday  and Hong Kong life. 

I have been in Hong Kong for almost a year. I have no idea where the time has gone.

One thing people have asked me since making the big move is “is Hong Kong life what you expected?” Funnily enough, depending on the person, the tone of this question may be different; people from home ask in a hopeful sort of tone, where as local Hong Kongers are more jaded, almost like “is this still your favourite place now that you can’t escape?”

Hong Kong holiday activities:

While our Hong Kong trips were hardly relaxing due to the amount of personal commitments, Panda and I would make time to do ‘touristy’ things in between, like theme parks, trips to the islands, holiday eating and of course, this being Hong Kong, shopping. While Panda and I were not joined at the hip, we spent most of our time together.

Hong Kong life: 
When I moved here, the most exciting prospect for me was the travel aspect. Other than Hong Kong we haven’t travelled to many other places.

Hong Kong itself has lots of amazing places, plus the ‘Fragrant Harbour’ is surrounded by plenty of other destinations. Singapore, for example is only four hours away. In Australia, we are pretty isolated in comparison. On public holiday long weekends here, many people evacuate the city, hopping onto planes, travelling into neighbouring countries for the week end.

Since moving here, I can’t say we have had those new travel experiences. Why? Hong Kong life is crazy busy! Panda works long hours, and even when he is home, he is working, Hong Kong style. I myself even have more commitments here in Hong Kong than at home. Between my commitments, his work commitments, occasional sickness due to chronic illness and weekly family commitments, we don’t see a lot of each other.

Sunday afternoon is down time. We have enjoyed visiting Lantau Island and Stanley so far, and are hoping to add some more day trips to the list soon. Everything is so close in Hong Kong! Add to this the fact that there is always some sort of festival or cultural celebration going on, so there is always something to do here. The time we spend together now is more planned, so inadvertently, by having less time, we now have more quality time.

One thing about spending less time together is that I lost my Cantonese interpreter. Normally the most complicated discussions I would have might be what I want on a menu but now we are living here, the discussions have become more difficult and I am by myself. I would say travelling around HK without canto wasn’t too bad, but when dealing with unavoidable things like security guards at apartment blocks and visiting repair men, it can become tricky.

Another difference about being a Hong Kong tourist and a resident is what you are doing during your day to day activities . Less open air tourist buses, more trying to work out which bus will get you from one appointment to the next on time. Less visiting Disney Land, and more visits to the libraries. Less shoe shopping, and more shopping for essentials, like groceries and furniture.

Hong Kong holiday shopping:

I am not a big shopper, this is Panda’s forte. Don’t get me started about his sports t-shirt collection, it is out of control!

In Hong Kong over our holidays, I would relax the purse strings and buy a few pairs of shoes. I love shoes In Hong Kong; they are cute, less conservative and a good price. The other thing I would splurge on would be shirts from Marks and Spencer (M&S). Not so cheap but M&S are not in Melbourne, so in koala logic, this is completely justifiable!

Hong Kong life shopping:

I will admit, I have bought shoes and shirts already, but there are only so many I can buy. In our “Australian” sized home, we had three ward robes in which to store our frivolous spends, but here in Hong Kong we don’t have that luxury of space. We have one wardrobe between us and no room for another. Come to think of it, it was outrageous how much space we had in AUS.

A lot of money has been spent in IKEA and Price rite (or as Panda calls it “The Hong Kong version of IKEA”) I love storage solutions and printed serviettes, and Panda loves Ikea’s Swedish meat balls so this is a win/win situation.

Now we have sorted out the furniture situation, our next big spends will be air and water purifiers, I expect. We are in Hong Kong after all.

Most of my effort however, has been put in to grocery shopping. For the first few months, I would spend my afternoons searching for good coffee joints and supermarkets. Being the one who cooks meant I had to work out what foods were available. Of course different stores have different items and it has taken trial and error to work out where to go and what tastes good. What you can get easily in Australia is either not available or very expensive here. In the first few months, the International supermarkets were both a source of great delight and torture; finding an item you never expected to see, then seeing the price.

 Hong Kong holiday eating:

One thing we did more than shop, was eat. It was easy to over indulge in Hong Kong. While catch ups in Australia may entail a home cooked meal in a friend’s home, or a coffee catch up, here catching up with friends and family normally meant dining out; think yum cha, lunch dates and big dinners. Add to this the daily temptation of street food snacks and mid night beef brisket noodles and you ended up looking and feeling like a big, fat char Sui bao by the end of the trip. Still, this was the price you paid since you knew in 2 weeks when you stepped on to that plane you wouldn’t be able to indulge in your favourite Hong Kong delicacies for a very long time, and we could always ‘detox’ once we got home.

Hong Kong life eating:

It took a couple of months here to remind myself that I was not on holidays and that all this glorious food I had been dreaming about for some time, wasn’t going anywhere (and neither was I).

While I am attempting to eat my version of what it is to “eat well” (less rice, fatty meats, fried foods and gluten – all HK staples), I find it difficult to maintain the diet I had at home for various reasons. This is one adjustment to be made, but it’s an important one. I am still trying to work it out almost a year later. Yes, I am a slow learner!

All this aside, I realise how spoiled we had it in Australia for variety, freshness and quality.

Most things we eat here are imported or if I can get it, organic. Of course you can buy produce at the local wet markets, but I am never really sure where it has been come from or what it has been grown with. I have heard enough food scandals from surrounding regions to have a healthy scepticism. I don’t remember having to think so much about what we were eating in Australia or even before while we were holidaying here. Part ignorance or maybe I am only thinking about what I am putting in my body now. Having said that, the panda family only buy from the wet market, and they haven’t grown a second head yet.

Some closing thoughts:

Back to the question first posed at the start “Is living in Hong Kong what you expected?”

To be honest, it is not what I expected. I am generally a glass half empty kind of person, so while I wanted to move here, I still prepared myself for the worst. Fortunately for me despite the adjustments and difference in lifestyle, living here is even better than I expected. I would rather be here than anywhere else at this point in time.

Of course, frustrations creep in, but I am enjoying being in a different environment, and the positive things going on for me at the moment are Hong Kong centric. There are things to be grateful for and as long as I keep my mind open to learning, growth, and a child like wonder for all things different, I am sure I will continue to enjoy being a Hong Kong Koala.

Koala Girl xo

Are you living in a country other than your own? Have you lived somewhere other than “home?” Where would you like to live? Share with us below!

HAHA PANDA- Landmark.

One of my favourite things about Hong Kong is that there is always something new and fresh going on. This makes it an exciting place to live and frankly, it’s a bit addictive always having something to do or something new to look at.

Shopping centres will regularly have displays as a point of interest and I was pretty chuffed to see the HAHA PANDA exhibition this week at Landmark as a part of their “A year of play” celebrations.

The display by Dennis Chan will be there until May 24th I believe (but check Landmark website for more details)

Coconuts about these tarts!

Sweet, golden, buttery yumminess.

I met my first coconut tart 13 years ago. I thought that I had already had a good introduction to Hong Kong cuisine but the best was yet to come that fateful day as Panda and I strolled down Electric Road during my first visit to Hong Kong.

Walking past an otherwise non remarkable bakery, I noticed a glass cabinet sitting out the front with a selection of pastries enticing passerby’s. Curiously, I glanced over at the golden goodies as I asked Panda what each item was.

More than happy to introduce me to Hong Kong styled bakery goods (and more than happy to eat them himself) Panda bought a couple of pineapple buns, egg tarts and coconut tarts.

Not to enthused with the pineapple bun (and disappointed by the fact that it actually contained no pineapple at all) and a bit overwhelmed that the egg tart really did taste like egg, I quickly moved on to the coconut tart. The rest was history as I quickly gained a new holiday addiction!

Having lived in Hong Kong for some time, I have had the priviledge of sampling quite a few.  This is both a good and bad thing since the mediocre tart that started my journey now pales in comparison to the best tart I have tasted. This raised the benchmark so high that it effectively rendered all the other coconut tarts average, or at least for me.

And where did I get this glorious tart you may ask?

Maria’s Bakery on Prince Edward Road West in Mong Kok, near the busy flower market area.

Walking past one day I noticed the bustling activity inside the bakery. Usually a shop full of  locals is a good sign so I obeyed my grumbly tummy and went inside.

Grabbing myself a tray and tongs, I browsed around, piling buns onto the tray like I was at a buffett.

Lucky for me one of tbe things I spotted on the way out were the coconut tarts on the front counter.

So what makes this my favourite choice of tart?

  • the biscuity, buttery crust (not soggy like a  puff pastry base) 
  • the chewy, golden brown,  caramelised top.
  • the moist, coconutty centre that is a thing of dreams. 

So good were these tarts that Panda, a guy who doesn’t have a huge sweet tooth and can take or leave a pastry,  asked me to get two for him next time. Now that’s a compliment! 

Thank you coconut tarts for giving me a warm heart and belly each time we meet.