Photo Credit: Courtesy of Marie-Louisa Awolaja
Black Expat: 'Hong Kong Is Like Disneyland For Adults, But We Have Money Now'
Becoming an expat —short for expatriate, is one who resides in a country other than where they grew up— can take on many forms. Some move for a change of pace. Others for love. And sometimes an innocuous trip abroad can trigger an unexpected desire for a longer stay.
In Marie-Louisa Awolaja’s case, it was a professional development program provided by her employers that set her down this path.
The British-Nigerian legal project manager received an opportunity through her law firm to not only acquire new skills but also a three-month assignment abroad at one of several global offices. With options including Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt, New York, and Johannesburg— Awolaja was assigned to Hong Kong.
“I could have influenced the decision as to where they sent me, but I was just really open to moving somewhere else, learning somewhere else,” Awolaja shared with Travel Noire. “I literally said, put me where you think I’ll be most useful as a project manager. As soon as I landed in Hong Kong, it sort of just felt like home. To me, it feels like a mix of London and Lagos, which is really weird, but the energy reflects the two of them really well.”
Awolaja described the experience as life-changing from a work and personal perspective. She was so enamored with her new home that it didn’t take long for her to realize that a three-month stint wouldn’t be enough. Almost immediately she started putting out feelers, hoping to negotiate an extension on her project.
“It just wasn’t really feasible. My project ended, I went back to London, and they could see my heart wasn’t really there and that I missed it. So my boss in the UK and the head of my team basically put their heads together and somehow created a role, an opportunity for me to come back. Within about a month, I basically had the offer to come back to Hong Kong.”
It took about five months to sort out the visa and other necessary paperwork before Awolaja headed back to her new home away from home. So what is it about Hong Kong that captured her heart? For one, the food.
“Hong Kong is actually the restaurant capital of the world. The food is insane. You’ve got so much variety and also rent is so high for commercial and residential property. So while it’s tough I imagine for the businesses to stay afloat, it also means that you need to be putting out amazing stuff. It means people are constantly stepping up their game. There’s so much good food. But actually, I think my favorite thing about Hong Kong is how it’s almost like a slice of the world. You’ve got so much packed into such a small space.”
She continued, “Right now I live in Sheung Wan which is reasonably central and in 15 minutes I could be at the top of a mountain. I mean a small mountain, but I could go on a hike, and I’m at the foot of the hike in 10, 15 minutes, depending on if I walk or take a taxi. I could be at the beach in 15-minutes. You’ve got such a variety of things, depending on what you’re into. It’s also convenient. You can reach everything in a matter of minutes. So I’ve tried a lot since I’ve been here, and it just means you can squeeze more into your day.”
Awolaja acknowledged that there are a few differences between living in London and Hong Kong, most notably the demographic make up of the cities.
“Here, as a Black person, I definitely stand out. There are Black people here, but just obviously not that many. It’s a relatively small community, or we are all quite dispersed. So the fact is that you look around and you’re just a minority, whereas I suppose if you’re in London, it’s much more mixed.”
Hong Kong does have the upper hand over London on transportation. Awolaja lauded the extremely cheap taxi fares but at the same time lamented the high rental rates. On the upside, her community is filled with expats like herself which has made her feel welcome and supported.
According to her, the environment is reminiscent of “Disneyland for adults, but we actually have money now” she laughed.
Awolaja is preparing to move back to London for a new role within the company that requires her to live in the city. But now that her appetite for expat life has been wet, she is already considering future possibilities.
“Ideally, I’d move to New York or somewhere. I would love to live somewhere else. I think I’ve learned so much about myself living somewhere different, trying something new, learning a new culture that I don’t want to lose that. So it always feels like if I could take that and start over again somewhere else, I would love to just see what that would be like making new friends, making connections.”
Follow Lou’s Hong Kong experience on Instagram.