The way of boomerangs

The way of boomerangs

An American scholar spent a year in Hong Kong to learn what makes locals so culturally flexible

Young Post has a fine squad of multicultural reporters. Mabel and Barry grew up in Canada. Leon grew up in New York. Hei and Joyee spent a few years of their childhood in Singapore. Yours truly went to university in Melbourne, Australia.

But we all share one thing in common: we have all ended up working in Hong Kong.

We are all boomerangs.

No, we don't mean the curved wooden tool Australian Aborigines used to fling around to hunt animals.

We mean that most of us, who are originally from Hong Kong, spent a fair amount of our lives overseas before we returned home.

"Boomerang" is the term Dr Nan Sussman uses to refer to emigrants who return to their homeland.

Sussman is a professor at City University of New York. She specialises in cultural psychology - the study of people's cultural identity.

Before she did her studies, Sussman was a cultural trainer in the United States, advising Americans who moved overseas about how to adapt to their new environments.

After some of her trainees returned home, she found that they had very similar views. "I heard many of them saying it was hard to adjust to living in Germany or Japan," she says, "but it was nothing like coming back to America."

She always knew that many expatriates would experience culture shock abroad. But she didn't realise that people moving back home might also find it hard to readjust to their homeland.

This phenomenon puzzled her.

Then she thought about Hong Kong, a multicultural city that was handed back to China after long British rule.

"I knew Hong Kong people were moving out of Hong Kong well before 1997," she says. "But then I learned people are moving back."

For Sussman, Hong Kong proved like a gold mine for her studies.

In 2003, she brought her family here to spend a year doing research.

She interviewed many Hong Kong boomerangs, and she discovered a common pattern: Hong Kong people tend to be very flexible at adapting to new environments.

Sussman found that nearly 75 per cent of the city's boomerangs she interviewed fit into the category of "additive"; meaning they come back to Hong Kong with a set of newly learned values.

Yet they are comfortable switching between that new set of values and the traditions inherited from their Hong Kong identity.

But their Western counterparts seem to experience a "subtractive" feeling when they move back to their hometown. They often feel out of place in their original culture. Some of them may end up feeling depressed.

Sussman herself was a good example for that. She spent a year living in Japan, where she picked up the habit of asking guests to take off their shoes when entering her house. She continued asking people in New York to do so, but not all Americans understood why they had to remove their shoes.

"I did it for a year, and then I gave up," Sussman says with a sigh.

A thing that intrigued her was that Hong Kong people take work ethics very seriously.

She chatted with a Hongkonger who felt he underperformed when working in Australia.

In Australia, people usually work five days a week, and leave office at 5pm. This is not the case in Hong Kong, where people work long hours. So, back in Australia, he would stay in the office longer, because that's what a diligent worker would do. But soon, he was asked to leave on time, and "get a life".

Sussman says the person had to ask his colleagues how he could kill time as he had never finished work that early in his life.

"He actually had to learn what to do after work," she says. Finally, he managed to adapt to the new routine.

But on his return to Hong Kong once again, he quickly switched back to working longer hours in the office.

Through her research, Sussman found that people from a bicultural background tend to be more capable of solving problems. That's because they can look at a problem from different perspectives.

She also found Hong Kong boomerangs tend to be more engaged politically and socially. That's something that doesn't come as a surprise to us at Young Post.

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