Surviving Culture Shock in Asia

Location is one of the key signifiers of how you define success.

Only a few local Hong Kong musicians reach international fame because Hong Kong simply does not support artists. Students are pushed through school and then take any menial job to support their family because housing is so ridiculously expensive.

In general, a student is most likely to launch a great music career because they have a fallback in case it never takes off.

But local Hong Kong students are too focused on career and the search for a rich spouse to marry; every few weeks a student tries to commit suicide by jumping off the university building, fodder for another media circus. And so all the local-born artists who are doing well are trust-fund kids.

Travelling in Asia for four months, I’ve come to accept that people are expected to work themselves to the bone. The airport in Malaysia lists ways you could be subject to the death penalty, upon arrival (details of which I no longer recall).

Four months is enough time to see the underbelly of Asian culture– the good, the bad, the ugly.

Here is the ugly.

Surviving Culture Shock in Asia

Cultures will shock and delight and mess with your mind. There is no turning back.

There are no-brainers, like how Chinese food is an umbrella term for noodles and rice and seafood, depending on how it is prepared and what region you are in. If you think you hate Chinese food, you probably only hate food of that region.

Then, there is the social structure in Hong Kong  which I gradually grasped.

Everyone who is local in Hong Kong has a grudge against mainlanders (who are supposedly rude and dirty), plus Hong Kong had access to education in Britain until ’97, as a British colony. Foreigners are either above or below the entire race — you could be treated like royalty or cheated out of money depending on who you speak to.

University students are revered if attending Hong Kong University. The job market is so competitive that fresh-grads brag on Tinder about their menial job that they hate.

It’s curious to me that students are pushed through school so quickly without being given a chance to explore, and so do not develop the drive to specialize and shine in what they do. Instead, they end up at paperwork entry-level jobs they hate, probably selling insurance.

Here is a hint: there is a growing demand for UX design, entrepreneurship, and software/computer engineering in Asia. People are scuttling around looking for talent in this area because of how fast your business will then grow.


The glitter and façade will fade. Each holiday in Hong Kong is a chance to spend money, the 1+1 (buy one get one) signs permanently nailed to storefronts. People are obsessed with stuff from Canada, USA, and Korea. If an object is from any of these places, you will know about it. Each weekend in Macau is a chance to gamble, the Portuguese church ruins and culture all but a tourist attraction.

Each temple is a spectacle; I went to one where the monks’ om prayers were played through the speakers. I wanted to see a temple where people prayed, not gawk at the statues with their phones stuck to their faces.

There are no rules. Our taxi driver in Taipei asked us to pay almost double the price of the number on the ticker, through some complicated math, citing the new rates and the night-time premium.

What Travelling in Asia Does to You: Culture Shock
What Travelling in Asia Does to You: Culture Shock

Society can be openly racist and sexist. It rubs against my penchant for equality. If you are a foreigner, or female, for example, your entrance fee to events and clubs are often waived. On a side note, I found that many people are homophobic, and, what is the word for prejudiced against transgendered people?

While leading the TEDxHongKong team as the co-producer, a man on my team (who only showed up for the day of the event) declared: “You ladies sit here, while we men do things.” He had been trying to take over since the start, blustering about how past events have been run.

Girls are encouraged to be dainty and soft-spoken, armed with the singular goal of marrying a rich man so they can quit the job they never had. Anyone who has an Asian-pretty face (large eyes and sharp chin) will be put under the plastic surgery microscope. And while none of my friends have gotten plastic surgery, I have heard some horror (and a few success) stories about cheap plastic surgery in Korea.

In Asia I am the equivalent of a rhino: more limber than an elephant, but a thousand times more offensive. Fine, I am about the same height as many males in Asia but nowhere as skinny. During dance class, the locking instructor shows us how to freeze and groove. Except he tells guys to be masculine and keep their hips frozen, or something. WTF? Let’s be real, I outweigh the instructor and the five guys in the class, except for one guy who is stockier. Keeping your hips stiff just means you look less comfortable with your body.

Okay, they are trying. There are gender studies at the uni where the lecturer is proudly transgender. But, as a general rule, I stayed away from gender equality and human rights discussions. They were offensive.

What Travelling in Asia Does to You: Culture Shock What Travelling in Asia Does to You: Culture Shock

I could list all the reasons that Hong Kong is the wrong place for me. But living in the hub of Asia means you can travel anytime you want, and that was my favourite thing about the city because that was what was missing at home.

I was feeling stuck, suffocated, like the decades might fly by and I’d never get to see outside of North America, even though my passport let me travel, unlike so many others in the world; I had this opportunity and it would kill me if I didn’t take it. I didn’t know where I was going in life, but I wanted to be certain that I could have a chance of finding a piece of myself during my travels.

Life is never perfect, and many of us will spend forever searching for that missing piece. Some of us will find it in the most unexpected of places. Others, we will find it much later, perhaps we finally find home.


Read More on Travelling in Asia:

What Travelling in Asia Will Do to You

How to Move Across the World

Photos: 1 & 2. Streets of Hong Kong; 3. Taipei; 4. Markets in Malaysia

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7 years ago

I’m not quite sure how to say this, but every time you write about your travels, I read it three or four times, because I’ll never go to these places (heck, I’ll probably never make it to *Vancouver*) and even if I did, I still wouldn’t see it through your eyes. The experience of reading is much, much, much less than the experience of going, but… it’s still pretty neat!