Writing on Walls

Having recently reached and passed two years of living in Hong Kong, we’ve naturally started thinking about how much longer we’re going to stay here. Our two year rental contract ended back in February, and the other day I finally got a message from the landlord: she wants to raise the rent by 11%. With rent already taking up 79% of my take-home pay, it would seem that in terms of staying in Hong Kong, the writing is now on the wall.

One of the crucial requirements that I identified before moving to Hong Kong was that we had to have two incomes. We would be living the good life as a DINK household, staying inside on hot, summer nights with the A/C on. As it turns out, the periods when JC and I have worked concurrently during the past 2+ years have been few and far between. Before landing my current job I frequently tapped into my savings and retirement money. I’ll probably need to do so again in the near future.

Speaking of my current job, I don’t mind saying that I’m now making less than USD$30k per year. When I first started looking for a job after two years out of the workforce, I wasn’t confident that I could land a job with higher pay. I was also unmotivated and fearful, and didn’t want to take on a higher paying job and its associated responsibilities. I went for the easy job with its accompanying low pay. Now, I realize that it was a mistake. What you put in to the job has no bearing on how much you get paid. I am working almost as hard as I was before, I am still dead when I get home, but I am making a quarter of what I used to (let me tell you, this job is not 75% easier than my old one). The other thing I’ve learned is, if you start low, even after a raise you’ll still be low. That’s why people in Hong Kong change jobs so much, because it’s the only way to get a raise. I should have aimed higher when I started out. Now that I’ve spent time in the work environment and regained my confidence, I’m pretty sure I could have done it easily. Anyhow, that’s spilled milk.

Back to the rent increase, though. I’m talking to the landlord now, but if she won’t budge, then the proportion of rent to income becomes 88%. Who in their right mind would continue in this situation? Not I (says the person who’s accepting 79% now and ∞ before). My options are pretty clear: move to a cheaper place (with its accompanying costs in time, money, and hassle), get a higher paying job (which would mean leaving my current company because there’s no way I’ll be getting a significant raise), ask JC to get another job (which she doesn’t want to do), or finally bite the bullet and go back to the U.S. Let’s discuss each option.

When I was stressing about money before, it didn’t occur to me that there was nothing stopping me from getting a higher paying job. It is a free market, and people come and go as they please. Since I’ve been at my job, people have been leaving pretty regularly. The notion, however, of investing in a job search, learning the new job, and then quitting soon after does not appeal to me at all, even though it’s somewhat normal here. Like with my current job, I would want to stay for a year, minimum. That’s a hefty commitment after being in Hong Kong for over two years and after originally intending to stay for only one.

Similarly, moving to a cheaper place would only make sense if we stayed for another year. It would be inefficient to expend the effort to find a place, find a mover, actually move, settle in, and then move out just a few months later. So once again, the question that presents itself is this: do we want to stay in Hong Kong for one more year?

This question is a little easier to answer for JC than it is for me. As I’ve mentioned before, she’s been really good with landing jobs and working, but due to various reasons (here’s one) having to do with the realities of working here, she hasn’t stayed long at any of them. Considering that it was my dream to live in Hong Kong and JC came only because she is my wife and wanted to help me fulfill my dream, considering that all her family and most of her friends are back in the U.S., and considering all the effort and sacrifice she’s made to try to make this work, I do not fault her at all for being ready to move home. And, just to be clear, she is ready to move home.

For me, despite knowing that it’s probably inevitable, I’m still having a difficult time because ultimately I still have that ingrained affection for this city that I was born in. There are many things that I will miss. At the same time, there are many things that I won’t miss. It’s not unlike how I miss and don’t miss certain things from the Bay Area, because like Hong Kong, I also have an ingrained affection for San Francisco, the city that I grew up in. Both places have their pros and cons, and I know I can be happy in either place. Financially, the U.S. wins hands down (there’s a reason immigrants still want to go there). It’s just that right now, despite paying through the nose for rent, I’m here in Hong Kong, I’m comfortable, I have a routine, and I have momentum – and it can be hard to overcome momentum.

As I was typing this out last night, I received another message from the landlord. I had asked if she’d be amenable to lowering the rent increase, and her response was that her daughter is getting married in the middle of the year and will probably want to take the apartment back (hmmm, ok). We agreed to keep the rent the same until our last day, June 30. So, what will we do? Having a deadline helps to overcome the momentum, and knowing that I have at least a couple of months to decide will give me time to organize my thoughts with some more writing on the wall. We shall see!