• projectneighbours

Expat returning

project neighbours team shirbastian

I am from Hong Kong originally and that’s where I live now. Growing up, I lived in country Victoria, Australia, and then in Melbourne. Then I went back to Hong Kong and I’ve since lived also in the United Kingdom and in various places around South-East Asia.

My parents decided to move away to give me a better life. At the time, many families were leaving because Hong Kong was going to be handed from being a British Colony back to China. There was a lot of uncertainty whether individual freedoms would diminish.

I think these fears didn’t come true, which is why a lot of people came back. For me, Hong Kong was just more lively than suburban Melbourne; my neighbourhood was sleepy-city. There was a lot of idle time, which has given me a unique appreciation for having nothing to do. I’d love to go back and retire there, but for as long as I’m trying to make something of my life, I should be where excitement is.

When we lived in country Victoria, we were one of three Chinese families. It was quite apparent that everybody was white and I wasn’t. Australians are very direct, both children and adults. They’d say, you’re not white; you have funny looking eyes. It wasn’t malicious, but being pointed out as different is not terribly pleasant.

When we moved to the city, there still weren’t many Asian families around. My parents also had this mentality that they would like to integrate with mainstream culture, so we didn’t seek out other Asians. Standing out was partially self-imposed.

I see the logic to that; trying to abandon your own customs, foods, smells and replace them with the local language and a love of football. A lot of white and non-white Australians saw that as a virtue of a new immigrant.

When we moved to suburban Melbourne, there were also few Asian families in our neighbourhood. Overtime, where we lived, there were more Chinese families and boarding school students.

At the end of high school, I remember hearing Chinese and not a lot of English. In fact, few of the Chinese kids could speak English properly. It was interesting. I gave myself a pat on the back for reaching out and integrating.

When I came back to Hong Kong, I felt like I’d come out of a time capsule. The Chinese I spoke was no longer the current Chinese. My vocabulary was stuck in the early nineties; I’d been out of touch with the popular culture. I’d read gossip rags trying to catch up, but the first two or three years, it was difficult to hang out with Chinese locals even though we spoke the same language. It was like being in a sci-fi movie where things look familiar, but everything is slightly off.

At the same time, I certainly didn’t see myself as an expat. The expats in Hong Kong at the time were quite detached, even more so than the expats I have met in London and elsewhere. They never even went into the local neighbourhoods to buy groceries. When I started to work in Hong Kong, my senior, who was from London, would buy Coca-Cola and other products imported from the UK at the Marks & Spencer near the office. I never felt part of that group.

Over time, I accepted that I’m Australian-Chinese; not just Australian, not just Chinese. I’ve become more adaptable, which I think is one of the traits of people with hybrid identities. I can take my Australian dial up or down; I can take my Chinese dial up or down.

I think this is very natural. In certain circumstances, social or professional, I bring out different sides of myself. I always calibrate to my environment. It doesn’t mean I’m not myself; it just means I’m showing a different side. As long as I’m intentional and I’m being a part of a group that I want to be a part of, all’s well.

Sometimes things become too Chinese or too Australian and then I look for a way out. This might sound trivial, but, really, talking about football never excited me too much. Equally, Chinese people are very attuned to certain customs, like how one presents oneself in front of strangers; I kind of lumber through it.

I see myself as more than just someone bouncing between groups. I see myself as a creative and innovative person; being an outsider is beneficial to this cause. Wherever I go, I’m always thinking from the outside, questioning whatever is considered mainstream or best practice. This is when being able to draw on different things becomes relevant and beneficial. That’s when I wish I could be even more of an outsider.

Even at university, I always chose subjects that were very different. I combined physics, mathematics and law. I always tried to marry the disciplines, looking for innovation that comes from bridging things.

For a long time, I struggled. I saw myself as a jack-of-all-trades, almost a dilettante. I had a lot of interests and I was learning a lot of things, but I wasn’t making much progress in any area and many people charged me with lack of commitment. That was quite disheartening at times.

At some point I realized that it’s like in Dungeons and Dragons where players assume different avatars: a fighter, a mage, a paladin. There are also characters that are dual class, that mix disciplines. They tend to grow the slowest. They have different wells and they have to tend to each of them equally and fill them all equally before they can advance to another level.

It’s tedious, time-consuming work, but the eventual payoff is incredible. I became much stronger for it. It allowed me to contribute to different communities and to bridge those communities.

The question then becomes, how do you build credibility with different groups. My workplace is full of experts from different industries and being someone who can bring these different groups together is a great thing. Sure, there might be colleagues who regard me with suspicion because I’m not an expert in their field; they believe that I should let them get on with their own thing. I had to be proactive to get past that, and the team synergies then became very rewarding.

It’s never easy. Even when you combine two or more disciplines, people often expect you to fit into a ready category. When I combined law and science, the path set out for me was intellectual property. When I went another way, some people interpreted that in a way that wasn’t always flattering. It was hard to deal with in the beginning. But once I became a subject expert in an emerging area combining technology and law, I was able to bring it out of obscurity, and things became easier.

lonely to always be on the outside looking in. Back in the days when I was less busy, there wasn’t a day when noticing this didn’t affect me. Now, I have a strong group of friends and loved ones who keep me grounded, no matter how many facets I have to myself. I count my blessings.

Hong Kong is now my home. My Chinese is up to scratch and I’m keeping on top of pop culture references. My fiancée is from here, she’s never lived anywhere else, so we’re planning to stay, at least until we have children and start considering their educational opportunities. Then life might come full circle.

Unlike her, though, I don’t feel that moving and living outside Hong Kong is a challenge. I always have one eye on retiring in Australia.

At my core, I’m Australian-Chinese and that is never going to change, but I’m continually adding layers to it, like an onion.

Seb Ko is an expert on the use of artificial intelligence in litigation. He once appeared on TV to talk about it, but the producers shortened his segment in favor of someone talking about fat pants and over-sized fashion, literally a growing industry in Hong Kong. Here is the trailer for both segments. Full length is now behind a pay-wall, but you can catch Seb's appearance on youtube.