When I moved to Hong Kong 20 years ago, I had good joss.
It can be scary to live with strangers, especially when you come from different backgrounds and countries.
During my first few days at the Chinese University in 1990, I was paired with another American exchange student, sharing a metal bunk bed in the newest hostel (or dormitory) on campus. Then once orientation ended, we were scattered around campus and placed with local roommates in older hostels. When I met up with the other other exchange students in my program, they reported positive things about their roommates. But they mostly hung out with other exchange students, drinking at the Wanch and Ned Kelly’s.
My case was different.
My roommates quickly became my best friends. We ate in dark Shanghainese restaurants and outdoor daipaidong stalls. They invited me to their homes (where they returned every weekend) and out to eat with their families, braving the crowds at the Shatin floating restaurant or eating off banana leaves at Thai restaurants.
During the week we ate at one of several university canteens (cafeterias) or they showed me how to roll maki, which they learned during their own study abroad years in Japan. We celebrated our birthdays with cakes from Maxim’s or Maria’s bakeries. I can still picture the fluffy whipped cream filling and the fresh melon, kiwi, and berries on top.
We rode ancient double-decker buses to the bowels of Kowloon, where we shopped at fabric markets and patronized stay-at-home tailors to have suits custom made.
Hong Kong is crowded and small, but when I wandered around by myself, I never felt lonely. My first year there was all the more special because I got to see it through my roommates’ eyes. Even now, we keep in touch through e-mail, Facebook, and holiday cards.