By Nicola Nightingale
Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a British woman in Hong Kong and a French woman in the UK.
There was a moment more than a quarter of a century ago when it struck me that there are two very different Hong Kongs.
I was working from home and had to phone in to say I would be late delivering a piece of work. The excuse? There was a snake under my desk that refused to move.
My explanation was treated with incredulity and some amusement at its apparent ingenuity — and it was then that I had my revelation. The non-believer at the end of the line (yes, we used landlines back then) lived in a different world where the only snakes he met were metaphorical ones.
At the end of the working day, he left his air-conditioned office and drove in his air-conditioned car back to his air-conditioned flat near the top of a luxury tower block. That is the working week Hong Kong experienced by most expats, bar the car journey perhaps, since parking charges are prohibitive.
But there is another Hong Kong for those who prefer not to live on the 29th floor. It is one where they can leave their home without waiting for a lift. It is a place where they can see a little vegetation outside their window rather than the hygiene habits of the person in the illuminated high-rise flat opposite. It is also a place where expats with a less-than-stellar income can bow to economic necessity: the real clincher in the town-versus-country argument is that accommodation in the more rural areas can be cheaper.
On the down side, there is often a long walk to the nearest public transport and in the summer, when the temperature is over 30C and there is 95 per cent humidity, it is difficult to arrive at work, or play, looking cool and serene. Then there are the snakes.
Yes, they are beautiful. Yes, they are shy and rarely seen. And yes, they should be protected. But they are there. I was reminded of the fact by a neighbour, who posted a picture of this Burmese python — incidentally the only snake in Hong Kong granted official protection — which she happened to walk past on her way home one night. I was also reminded that it is probably best to use a torch when trotting along the same path at night.
The only pythons I have seen to date were dozing in the sun on the side of a track and looked about as active as a sunbather with a hangover. They are mighty, meaty creatures and they can swallow your cat — but at least they are not venomous.
The government’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department says that of the 14 venomous types of land snake in Hong Kong, “only eight can inflict fatal bites (if not treated in time)”. Well, that’s reassuring. Still, out of all those poisoners, I’ve only seen two cobras and they slid off pretty smartly, which means the department must be right when it says that “under normal circumstances snakes do not actively attack or remain close to people”.
Of course there are other beasts that make you jump, such as the wild boar, which seem to have decided that litter bins are the perfect source of amuse-bouches before a late supper, and my real bête noire, giant centipedes, but don’t get me started on those.
Previous stories in this series:
“I am not Chinese”
“I’m officially almost British”
“Cantonese should be defended”
“Deserving to become a citizen”
“When church meets state”
“I don’t suddenly feel British”
“Goodbye to subsidised education”
“To be an American in Paris”
Photographs: Alamy; Getty Images; Hui Bo Chu; Dreamstime