I recently returned to Hong Kong for a couple months to visit my family. My family has long maintained an expectation that I would be permanently relocating to this bustling East Asian metropolis now that I have graduated from UBC. For me, this is a step I am not quite sure I am ready to take yet.
During my stay in Hong Kong, I thought it would be a helpful experience to try applying for work in order to get a taste of the famously competitive job market and see how I fare. Hong Kong is known for the tireless work ethic of its denizens – something that does not exactly spring to mind when thinking about Vancouver, the city I have lived practically my whole life in. With the ethos of Vancouver very much ingrained in my character, I harboured some doubts about whether or not I would fit into Hong Kong.
For several weeks, I applied to and interviewed in a variety of different fields such as English education, which is a very common field for expats like myself to go into, as well as, public relations, which was a field I had no background in whatsoever. Despite my admittedly brief experience, here are the good and the bad sides of job hunting in Hong Kong.
1. Large number of opportunities
There are an immense number of businesses in a range of industries packed into Hong Kong. Some are well-established while others are still developing but together, the sheer amount of opportunities they provided was definitely one of the best things about looking for a job there. Even for a recent graduate like myself who was not specially trained in any field, there was no shortage of possibilities.
On the other hand, however, most of the opportunities were not particularly fulfilling or lucrative. In recent years, the demand for western expatriates has begun to dwindle, with employers preferring to recruit people from other parts of Asia. There is an expectation for people like me that the best thing to do would be teach English, a job that seems the natural next step for someone who studied English literature. In fact, most, if not all, of my interviewers wondered why I did not immediately gravitate towards that option, especially since it can be a highly profitable profession .
I’m sure they had no ill intention but after a while, I began to feel a little pigeonholed.
2. Work culture
During the course of my interviews at several different companies, I met quite a number of experienced professionals who were happy to talk about their own experiences. One of my interviewers was the only American in his workplace and he related some of the initial struggles he had with differences in work culture. Despite the unfamiliarity, he actually considered the changes to be an improvement after getting used to them. Although the culture is gradually changing with western influence, East Asian businesses traditionally tend to be more group-oriented. This results in an environment where you get the best of two worlds. There is a competitive atmosphere inspired by western culture that coexists with the idea of a united team that has members that support one another.
This can manifest itself in various ways. For example, the company that my interviewer worked for actually required employees to arrive ten minutes early to work for some tai chi exercises. These exercises were meant to help the workforce bond and prepare workers for the day ahead.
“It was definitely somewhat jarring at first,” my interviewer said, “I never experienced anything like this but I’ve pretty much adapted. You’ve got to adapt quickly in Hong Kong if you want to work here.”
The adjustment isn’t an easy one coming from a Western country and my interviewer made sure this was the first thing he mentioned to me about Hong Kong work culture. The disparity in work ethic is probably one of the tougher things to deal with, what with Hong Kong being known for its workaholic nature. Longer work hours doesn’t necessarily mean higher levels of productivity, as writer Frank Siu explains in his article. For many Hong Kongers, however, the two remain absolutely linked in their minds, something that can end up causing undue stress for those who are unfamiliar to it.
3. Standing out as a foreigner
With another company, I went for several rounds of interviews and at the end of the final round, the two interviewers exchanged looks before sitting back and surveying me thoughtfully. “You’re just so different from everyone else who wants to work here,” one of them said.
The upside of this is that I stood out a little more than the usual candidates they had. Experience gained overseas are always appreciated qualities in applicants because it provides more global perspective for businesses with a mostly Asian workforce. They told me that the majority of people who applied for their company were either from Hong Kong or other Asian countries. As such, my responses to their questions were new and different. Their usual applicants’ main concern tended to be what kind of benefits they would receive from the job rather than what they had to offer for the company. There tended to be a strong focus on company wages rather than the actual philosophy of the company.
Being different is not always a good thing. Yes, it made me stand out more but at the same time, some employers are not always completely willing to take risks on an unknown quantity. One of my interviewers told me very directly that they were not sure if I had what it took to keep up in a society so focused on work achievements.
It also adds an extra challenge when the majority of the existing team is from East Asia, which is often the case even in a place as global as Hong Kong. The employer needs to think about how well the different values and mannerisms of foreigner/expat would mesh with the other workers.
There were ups and downs to job hunting in Hong Kong and it can certainly seem intimidating at first. By the end of my stay in Hong Kong, however, it turns out I actually did quite well in my interviews and even ended up getting a couple of offers. I ended up turning them down because I just wasn’t quite ready to pick up and leave Vancouver yet.
The impression I got from Hong Kong is that it’s a place holding a wealth of opportunities for those with the gumption and the willingness to strive hard for success. I will likely end up returning there at some point, especially while I’m still young and capable of the “work hard, play hard” attitude that has become quintessentially Hong Kong.