Whenever people ask me about living in Hong Kong they are always curious about the cost of living (well, whenever people my age ask anyhow… there is quite a wide range of questions from the less chronologically proximal demographics). The thing about Hong Kong for me was that it actually was not that expensive. Let me clarify: the necessary costs of living were not that expensive (anyone who knows me is familiar with my tenuous and ambiguous relationship with the need v. want conundrum).
I chose to live in a kind of unusual place, which was not super popular with Package Ex-Pats and true Hong Kongers. Lamma was too far away, they said. The gweilo ghetto, they said. Among other far more odious comments. But it all kept the cost down. I found a great place to live, surrounded be people who stayed removed from the Peyton Place style drama of the main ex-pat hub in Yung Shue Wan. I busied myself with off island activities. By off-island activities I must admit I mean work, at least for the majority of the time I as in Asia. So, I used my home – all 750 square feet of it (with three – yes THREE – bedrooms) – as my place of rest and respite. Unless I was hosting a party, which was known to happen fairly regularly.
So that was the equation. I had a fairly inexpensive living situation (about US$800/month), which was compounded by transportation costs (a boat was required to get off the island) that ended up being about US$300/mo. I pay upwards of US$1500 in San Francisco for about 500 square feet and comparable transportation costs (not matched by service at all, thank you very much Bart.) I spent about US$1100 on the most basic costs there and here it is about US$1800. Another important variable in this equation however, concerns salaries and additional costs of living.
In terms of absolute values, there is not a huge difference here. Though, I would say it is significant and there are other little things here, like banking fees are stupid (I am talking to YOU Wells Fargo), I pay a fee for Netflix (possibly worth it, though I think more expensive than just buying my pirated discs over there), vet care is more expensive, and there are a few other miscellaneous costs I foot here that I did not there. However, behold the chart below.
Perhaps now the conundrum becomes clear. Do not be led astray that we had no tax burden in Hong Kong, it was just a flat tax assessed at fiscal year-end. The first year they really kill you because you pay a “provisional” tax, so basically you pay your tax on the wages earned in the first year of your employment in full, PLUS approximately 75% of the predicted tax you will owe on income earned the next year. And they always have a very rosy outlook on your earning potential and pay rises. The idea is that then you would pay the outstanding 25% owed on the subsequent year along with the 75% you will provisionally owe on your third year and you are off and running paying about 100% per annum. It is not a bad system really. And the tax for someone like me with no deductions at all is about 17%. Flat. Always. But, you do have a lot more cash on hand to play with throughout the year. And though my tax burden here is more noticeable, at least it is not due in a lump sum – I got money back. #Winning. I also maintained some Hong Kong habits like being okay with small spaces (good freaking thing) and being totally detached and disinterested in returning to car ownership.
The prudent among you would replace “play” with “save” I am sure. And I had that plan for a while. My logic was that if I was going to work like a total slave, I would go home with this big old amazing nest egg and then… well, I didn’t know what then, but I would have money and that seemed important. And I did work like a slave: six day work weeks often filled with days where I would teach, in terms of actual CONTACT hours with students between seven and eight hours. If you do not know how gruelling that is, I cannot even offer an analogous situation to explain so you are going to have to trust me that it was absolutely insane. Oh, and I did not work on an academic calendar, so bugger off about telling me how I got vacation time. I had to absolutely wrangle for time like a snake oil merchant from the Old West.
But, it is probably not totally necessary to explain here that financial prudence is not my favorite thing, just ask my parents about my first budgets: lists of everything I “needed” money for with a nice, neat total that would have to come from… somewhere? While in Hong Kong, I decided at some point that I was wasting an incredible opportunity – no – incredible opportunitieS, and that to be somewhere like Hong Kong when all I did was work was dumb. So, I made a change. I began to see my money as something I wanted to spend. I traveled: Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Japan, China, Bali, Vietnam, Burma, India… often times going back again and again. I stopped worrying about money, of which I had plenty – and as I carry no debt, it was mine to do with as I liked. I cultivated a fabulous lifestyle, from which I am finding it very hard to divorce myself. It was grand.
But there are, as always, hidden costs. The ex-pat life is hard. I missed my family tremendously. The air pollution was deathly. And I have long expounded on the unfortunate dating circumstances for the 5’10” white girl in Asia.
So I made the decision to come home. Amidst consistent, sometimes logical (Eric), sometimes completely irrational (Olly), dissent and nay-saying, I made the choice to return to California. Though I knew I would miss a lot about Hong Kong and I would think about it a lot.
California. A state in the worst economic shape of its history and possibly the country currently. A state firing more teachers than they were retaining, let alone hiring. The state of my childhood, my adolescence, my coming of age, my long time friends and family. I was coming home. It was a little risky. I arrived with a cat, a lot of luggage, some money, no job, no house, no real plan.
But I had immeasurable intangible advantages. Friends to stay with indefinitely, even with the Evil Genius who is Matilda. A support network that extended from family to friends, to former teachers, former employers, former mentors. former professors, and places I would have never imagined. New friends. New acquaintances. Unlimited help for which I will be forever grateful.
And I had a vision. I knew, mostly, what I wanted. Back to the American classroom. Despite what everyone says about the deplorable current state of affairs, I love it there. I knew I wanted to return to San Francisco, though I was willing to be flexible for work. I had ideas.
Within five weeks of my arrival back to my homeland after more than five years abroad, I had a job, a home, and a new situation.
Nearly one year later (my repatriation anniversary is July 1) I have seen both huge benefits and some notable drawbacks to my decision. I am still certain that it was the right decision and that was definitely substantiated by my return to Hong Kong in February to see how it felt. But it has not been without some adjustments that have been slow in coming. Okay, let’s face it. They are not really coming. After more than half a decade of doing whatever one wants, whenever one wants (save for the little hiccup called work) I have found it hard to recognize that my inverse income to expense ratio is actually, well, actual. I do not like having to consider what I will spend money on. And I am not really that crazy of a spender. I don’t really shop. But, you know, I like to go out whenever and where ever. I like to be able to get on a plane and go and do whatever I like. I like to be able to buy any book that strikes my fancy. I like to eat good food. I like to drink good beer. I have a beauty regimen I never really considered all that extravagant, but I guess some people actually do paint their own nails. Or color their own hair. I hear some even do their own waxing. I. Just. Cannot. Seem. To. Make. That. Happen.
So why this long-winded review of known facts? I am embarking on a new challenge today. I am going to try to spend no money until June 30. For real. It is going to be a challenge. Of course, I am not counting the money I have allocated for groceries and transportation. But I have paid everything else I need to pay for this month. I am not going to be traveling (due mostly in part to this knee situation, which I wish was a new situation) and though I think it will be challenging, I am going to give it a go. My prediction is that the first week of July is going to be really costly, but you never know, maybe I will actually create a new situation.
Okay, yeah. It is doubtful, but I am still going to try to do two weeks with no superfluous, or even justifiably superfluous, spending. Wish me luck.
Oh yeah, and I am on my way to (re)interview for my job this afternoon, so perhaps that is a little of the underlying impetus for this challenge on the chance that they do not rehire me. That would really be coming full circle for the end of June, wouldn’t it?