Top 10 Ways to Tell Someone was an Expat in Hong Kong

By: Beth Williams

Hong Kong is a wonderful place to be an expat, but after a while you suddenly find yourself picking up weird habits from the locals. Even once you repatriate to your home country, you'll find that some of these quirky mannerisms have followed you home. Here are the Top 10 Ways to Tell Someone was an Expat in Hong Kong.

1. You see a long queue and instinctively join it for fear that you are missing out on something.

There's no doubt about it-- Hong Kongers love to queue. Whether it's for free samples, a chance to win a prize or even for their nightly dinner. You can always tell if a place is worth the visit by the queue length outside. 

2. You use la to end of all your sentences and often yell out aiyaaaaa to show almost any emotion.

Cantonese is famous for their ending particles. In a tonal language like Chinese, it’s near impossible to use tone to dictate the mood of a sentence without changing the meaning of words. Therefore, there are a wide variety of ending particles that help show the mood of the speaker. Understand la?

As for aiya, it’s the ay dios mio of Cantonese.  You can use it to mean “Oh, my God”, or to show anger, frustration, pain, irony and so much more. It’s become so popular that other cultures have begun using it, so maybe now you have to hear people say it even outside Hong Kong. Aiyaaaa! 

3. You sit down at a restaurant and automatically begin cleaning all of the dishes and cutlery.

It’s customary in Hong Kong, especially when enjoying dim sum, to be presented with a big bowl for washing your dishes. Yes, they’ve already been washed but often while being crammed with loads of other dishes. You’ll often find a film of grease or remains of dried food on your dishes or utensils, which is why most people opt to re-wash them themselves.

4. You walk into a crowded restaurant and proceed to sit down at any open chair, even if you know no one else at the table.

Hong Kong is crowded. Space is a precious commodity here, so it is not uncommon to be seated at any seat available, even if it puts you at a table where a group of friends are celebrating a birthday.

5. You go to any fast food restaurant and leave your tray on the table after you’ve finished.

Conveniently, everywhere in Hong Kong is full service. So as soon as you’re done eating you can carry on your way and a worker will come clean up your tray and trash.

6. You use the “hang ten” hand sign to mean the number 6.

Instead of defaulting back to thumbs up position or holding up one thumb in addition your other hand when counting to the number 6, Hong Kongers hold up only their thumb and pinky, like the “hang ten” symbol, to represent this number.

7. You think Welcome should have 2 “L”s.

One of the most popular grocery chains found around Hong Kong is called Wellcome. Yes, that’s with 2 “L”s.

8. You burp, fart, or pick your teeth in public and think nothing of it. 

It’s common to see people do all of the above openly in public, and yet no one even bats an eye. While these habits might be considered rude or gross in many Western societies, here it’s completely acceptable.

9. You find yourself using the word “toilet” instead of washroom, bathroom, restroom or any other alternative.

If you’re in dire need to relieve yourself, most people won’t understand if you ask for the “washroom”, the “bathroom” or even the “restroom”. But as soon as you say the word “toilet”, they’ll magically understand what you need!

10. You walk continually looking down at your smart phone.

As soon as you’re old enough to talk, you’re old enough for a phone in Hong Kong-- and not just any phone; everyone and their mom have a smart phone here and are constantly glued to it as they walk through crowded malls and cross car filled streets.

Have you been an expat in Hong Kong? Do you do any of these things?

About the author

Expat Blog ListingBeth Williams is an American expat living in Hong Kong. Blog description: Originally from Chicago, Beth got her first true taste of travel when she studied abroad in Japan during her final year of university. She ended up loving Asia so much, she found herself moving right back and is now in Hong Kong.
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Contest Comments » There are 24 comments

Kim wrote 3 years ago:

This is great! I love reading about places that I absolutely know nothing about! Good luck!

Sarah Bennett wrote 3 years ago:

Aiya has followed me around since I left China too - it's so much better than "oh my God!"

Suyun wrote 3 years ago:

I have been to Hongkong, but never had these organized! Thank you for sharing!

Sara wrote 3 years ago:

I vote for Beth! I've never thought about going to Hong Kong, but this is some interesting things to know!

Audrey wrote 3 years ago:

These made me chuckle. ;) Even though I was only in Hong Kong for a few weeks, I did start grabbing any empty seat I could find at a restaurant - even if I didn't know a single person at the table. You're right, space is such a commodity!

Amelia wrote 3 years ago:

Insightful and amusing, always great to read. A great note for a rainly hk day :)

Luke wrote 3 years ago:

Yes, I have picked the Aiya, but don't add la to anything. I actually picked up the "I need to we we" from my students. Good luck :D

Lauren Cryer wrote 3 years ago:

Wonderful article Beth! I definetly do 8 out of 10 of these things. I still wonder why Wellcome has two 'L's....

Bex wrote 3 years ago:

Ahhh - THAT'S what the big bowl on the table was for with the Dim Sim! I wish I'd read this piece before I visited HKG in the summer :0)

Kate wrote 3 years ago:

I laughed out loud at Wellcome :) You are a very talented writer, Beth!

Jackie Williams wrote 3 years ago:

Interesting tidbits of info. that give me a different view of Hong Kong.

Rachel wrote 3 years ago:

Great list! Laughing and nodding as each one of these relates to me, and every expat I know in HK.

Heather wrote 3 years ago:

Definitely found myself cringing at number eight. 100% Westerner here ;) Love reading about Beth's travels through, even little stuff like this. Another awesome post from an awesome blogger!

Charlie wrote 3 years ago:

Fantastic article - thank you for all your blogs Beth!

Megan Claire wrote 3 years ago:

"You walk continually looking down at your smart phone" - love it! It's actually been outlawed now in New Jersey (US) to walk and talk on your cell phone - oh what would we all do??!!

Mark Wolek wrote 3 years ago:

Excellent blog just like them all of the ones on her site!! Makes me want to visit Hong Kong even more

Helen wrote 3 years ago:

Aiya! I remember Uncle, from the cartoon Jackie Chan adventures, saying that, so I heard him say that as I read it. A very fun post from a very fun girl. Go Beth!

Laura wrote 3 years ago:

A wonderfully entertaining read as always! Some of these little habits will follow me home, I'm sure! :)

Tammy wrote 3 years ago:

Wow! Lots of new things I learned about Hong Kong that I never knew! This is a must read for anyone going to Hong Kong for sure. I am going back to re read it again because I enjoyed it so much.

Laila wrote 3 years ago:

funny article! I like the spanish translation to explain the Cantonese phrase :)

Chris wrote 3 years ago:

Wonderful blog post Beth! I've noticed these when my friends come back from HK. It all makes sense now. Aiyaaaa Jacky!

Sally wrote 3 years ago:

I CAN FART AND BURB IN PUBLIC? Why am I not already living in Hong Kong?! That sounds awesome!!

CJ wrote 3 years ago:

All of these are too true! I got a little nostalgic when I read this. Keep on writing, Beth!

Elizabeth Williams wrote 3 years ago:

Very interesting blog, Beth! It sounds like you are having quite the adventure in Hong Kong. I hope you continue to have fun and learn new things!

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