Not everyone here has the same expat story, some- like the writer here, had a very long,sometimes difficult-often fulfilling journey that transformed him into what he calls a ‘The Non “Expat” Expatriate’. Take a peek into the life of a ‘different kind of expat’. He inspires us to think out of the box and to thrive while doing so.
OK, I hadn’t been to Asia yet, but I was minoring in Asian Studies at Loyola University Chicago. I’d always been fascinated with the Eastern philosophies, religions, cultures. I didn’t have an end in mind: I just wanted to learn more.
After graduating ,I immediately realized 1. I didn’t want to teach and 2. I wanted to follow my passion at any cost. My passion was basketball. I’d played for Loyola, and at 23, I just wasn’t ready to let go. Hong Kong was a city I thought I could play in. It had a small semi-pro league. There was a job in basketball development that had opened up, too, so I hopped on a plane with 2 duffel bags and moved to Hong Kong. A few months later, I signed a deal to play Club basketball.
I was a Westerner but not a typical Hong Kong expat. My salary was so low I had to live on Lamma Island. That meant 2 x 60 minute ferry commutes per day, plus transport from the office to the training facilities. And those locations varied every night – we trained at courts above wet markets. You’d have to take a lift filled with fresh poultry and produce up to the gym. It was mind-blowing. And exhausting. I first started travelling to Shanghai in ’98. We organized a 3-game retired NBA players tour. I remember being at the grand opening of BATS – the club at the Pudong Shangri La. That was THE new 5 star hotel in Shanghai at the time. Otherwise, Pudong was a blank slate.
My day job necessitated me to travel more and more to China. I wound up moving to Shanghai after receiving an invitation to study / live here full time for free in exchange for playing basketball twice a day with the Jiaotong University team. I lived right downtown in Xujiahui.Before Grand Gateway. When the only HSBC machine in the city was at the Portman. I joined the original Will’s Gym on Pan Yu Lu across from the Crowne Plaza. All I had was my gold card from Hong Kong. Other than that – zero income. It was risky.
I met lifelong friends here. The chief hangout: Bourbon Street on Hengshan Lu. The party street: Maoming Nan Lu, home of Judy’s 2 and DKD. Sunday softball at the Pudong American School. I remember spending the millennium party at Pegasus. The Parkson Grocery store preceded City Super. And then Park ’97 opened. I remember bringing Clyde Drexler and another tour of ex-NBAers to shop at Huating Lu market behind MeimeiBaiHuo (Maison Mode) on Changshu Lu and HuaihaiZhong Lu and then out for drinks at the Paulaner. In those days, 90% of cars on the street were Volkswagon.
It all ended when I got what was known at that time as “the Shanghai Cough”. Those who know, know. I had to pack my bags and move home.
After about 4 months back in the US recovering, I moved back out to Hong Kong. I had unfinished business. I got a non-expat job in media with AOL Time Warner. I was living in Quarry Bay in a low rise, old building, in a 500 sqf flat. It was on the first floor. HK$6k per month. I walked 50m to my office in Taikoo Place. Every night, the doorbell would ring at all hours and I would open the door and an unsuspecting man would be standing outside. Turns out the flat’s previous tenant had been, how shall I say, lascivious. And she’d placed a year’s worth of ads in a magazine. I had to have a sign put outside the door in Chinese explaining to visitors that “Ms Chan” no longer lived here. Wild.
I met the woman who would be my wife that year in Hong Kong. She saw that sign!
I got into the hotel industry. And I was back playing basketball. Back to where I started in 1997.
SARS: what an incredible time. My only regret: not borrowing money to buy an apartment. Instead, I wound up moving back to the US to try a startup. I missed Asia after my first month. I knew, definitively, that it’s where my heart was. I remember at that time, video chat became possible. I would spend hours every day chatting with Pam, who’s now my wife.
I made it back to Hong Kong again. The same hotel I’d quit re-hired me. I led the marketing and communications team. It was Li KaShing’s (Asia’s wealthiest man) group. I signed on with my basketball club again. But this time I felt home. I started doing television on the weekends. I was presenting the NBA on TV. Getting paid to talk about the thing you love most – what a privilege.
Work. Play. Work. Play. Work. Play. I guess those were my golden years.
I finally decided to get serious about a career. And the trigger: Pam. She’d always been part of my life. We’d always been friends. And one day, magically, we made a decision after a long night of talking, looking out at the racetrack in Happy Valley from my living room window, sipping red wine, and listening to music, that we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. If you want the unabridged version of that story, it’s much more entertaining coming from her. I became the marketing director of a hotel that was a year out from opening. To that point: by far the hardest work I’d ever done. I stuck with club basketball and it gave me balance. But it was hard to balance everything.
We opened the hotel in the midst of the worst economic crisis since ’98. Hotels in HK were operating on 5% occupancy. Operators decided to shut down and renovate. Our owners were asking us: where’s the revenue? We were answering: no one’s travelling! International corporations were all instituting travel freezes. And yet, the Hong Kong owners insisted on creating business at any cost. I survived a staff scourge and we managed to drum up some local business. It was hard. I wasn’t happy. I quit basketball. A very, very painful period.
Pain turned to joy: our second daughter was born. A month later, I tore my Achilles tendon in a club basketball game. Joy to pain. Had to give up the game permanently. I was hopping around the hotel on crutches. Pam: “Are you done yet?” Yep, I was done.
I moved to corporate. Then I had the chance to take a new job in Taiwan. Fresh start. New company. Although my basketball playing days were over, the new job was in the sports industry, working for a company I’d always dreamed of working for. Pam and I moved our family. It was a local-hire role. I still wasn’t an “expat”! It rained for 40 days and 40 nights when we moved there. That transition was hard. Pam actually handled the entire move because I was at a meeting in Guangzhou. I got mad at her because she didn’t have the movers pack my wine glasses. She just looked at me and her look said this: “I handled the entire move with two kids while you were away and you’re asking me about wine glasses?” The words never came out. They didn’t have to. I apologized!
We fell in love with Taiwan. The people, the appreciation of culture, the attention to details, the parks in which people were free to play music and throw balls and run on grass and have fun, and walk dogs, and ride bikes. The food. The sport. My team. Pam’s friends. Our children’s teachers. It was a love-fest. We never wanted to leave.
Shanghai summoned. Once again, I was away on business and Pam handled the entire re-location. I didn’t complain about wine glasses this time. Our locale was affordable for the “non-expat” expatriate. Good space. I was blown away, though, at the expense of “Americana” in Shanghai. I call it the “Golden Grahams” benchmark: US$10 for a box of cereal. Madness. We stock up when we go back to the US every summer. We always bring a suitcase back for cereal. That I always end up eating! Some things never change!
Lifesavers: The Flying Fox. Kerry Sports. Finally being insured to go to Parkway. The Chun Store. Chapin House. Mercato. Pistolera. Jam 76 (now gone).
We got robbed. While we were sleeping. My daughters were terrified. So was I!! So we moved to a new compound. The landlord refused to help us with the most basic things. She had a gazebo in the backyard, which also had a private swimming pool. The entire base of the gazebo was a beehive. It was literally a 25sqf beehive. I’m not exaggerating. So while the house had a beautiful backyard, we couldn’t go back there because it was literally a swarm of bees. Going for a swim was out of the question. We asked the landlord to help find a solution. She ignored us. So we called the fire department. They determined they needed to burn the gazebo base. To do that, they had to call the landlord. Who finally came. That solved our bee problem.
The house had 20 ft ceilings but no floor or wall heat. That was a long, cold winter. We had to wear down jackets in the house. We decided to move after the lease expired. True to form, the landlord kept our deposit. We’d installed tiny locks on several of the sliding doors in the house to detract would-be burglars. She determined that warranted keeping our deposit. You win some, you lose some.
Joy: our first son was born. The week we were moving. No, Pam didn’t handle the move this time. Not fully, anyway!
Here are a few things I’ve learned from 20 years in Asia as a “non-expat” expatriate. 1. Chase your dreams. 2. Travel when you’re young. 3. Avoid your comfort zone. 4. Try doing live television with no training. 5. You can always buy new wine glasses.
Writer:Matthew Jung lives and works currently living in Shanghai with his family.He works for in a multinational in China and is often travelling for work.If he is not ,he loves spending time with his beautiful family.