Comfort zones

As I’ve mentioned before, trivialities like the weather have been known to set me off on deep, spiraling rampages of self-pity. I’ve tried to combat this failing with inspirational words and ideas, but I still frequently fail.

I was thinking about my propensity for whining again the other day, as I was reading a long post and discussion thread on the subject of traditionalism in American culture over on Rod Dreher’s excellent CrunchyCon blog. In the comments, ‘Chuck’ mentions the following:

Our culture is based on comfort. No one is going to give up the comfort of driving unless under extreme economic duress. No one is going live in a smaller house if they can afford a bigger one. No one is going to sacrifice their happiness for someone else's idea of a greater good and that cuts across liberal and conservative ideas.

I agreed quite completely. At the risk of sounding positively un-American (something I am most assuredly not), I have to admit that comfort, and the seeking thereof, has been planted deep down in my own psyche, and has grown long, tenacious roots.

Let’s just put together a little laundry list of some Things That Make Us Americans Comfy:

  • Big, big houses. With spacious yards, and rows of garage doors to welcome our . . .
  • Cars. Lots and lots of cars, and with them all the parking lots and drive-thrus and strip malls and other ‘conveniences’ that make them easier and easier to use. Walking? No, thanks.
  • And how about some loose, sloppy clothing -- sweatpants in the office? Sure! You wouldn't want to cramp me with ridiculous grown-up clothing like my grandpa used to wear, would you? It would be a sign that I'm not capable of thinking outside the box!
  • And of course we mustn’t forget the ubiquitous ‘comfort food’. No need to go on with this one; it’s been too well documented already.

My point here is neither to bash my homeland (it’s a great country) nor to rehash all the idiotic stereotypes so many people – many of whom have never actually set foot in the USA but still think they know all about it and hence are entitled to hate it – seem to hold.

But I do want to get at one of the weaknesses of the American character, or culture, of which I’m of course a prime exhibit. It’s this insistence that comfort come so very high on one’s list of priorities: simply put, why not indulge yourself with the highest level of comfort you can afford?

Well, for one reason, luxuries and personal preferences fully indulged soon become necessities. You hear lines like these: ‘Oh, I just must have a big room of my own in my house to spread out in and be myself.’ Or ‘I just cannot deal with heat and humidity without air conditioning. That’s just who I am.’ Or 'My children simply must grow up with a big yard to play in. I'd be cheating them if I provided anything less.'

These consumerist assumptions are widespread in the US, and of course elsewhere, too, including here in Hong Kong. People everywhere like to be comfortable.

But comfort levels can differ substantially: what's actually considered to be comfortable is heavily conditioned by culture. Let's take some of these differences on -- briefly, I promise! -- one by one. I'll restrain myself to writing strictly about what I know about comfort in the USA and in Hong Kong.

  • You will discover immediately that there is less space in Hong Kong. I remember the first time I entered an actual middle-class Hong Kong family home. It was in 1988, and I was invited for dinner by some people who'd just bought a 'nice new flat' in City One in Shatin. I rang the bell, they opened the door, and I went slack-jawed with shock. To my uninitiated American eyes, the living room looked like a closet, and the kitchen like a phone booth. City One flats now seem a bit small even by Hong Kong standards, but they're nothing unusual.
  • You will do some walking, and maybe you'll do a lot of walking. In hot weather. You'll sweat in the summer.
  • You will be surprised at how dressed-up people often are, even in the heat of the summer. If you work in a banking or corporate job, you will wear a suit -- even in the heat of the summer. You'll sweat some more.
  • You will discover that many -- most -- Hong Kong people voluntarily live with their parents until they're married, which usually isn't at a very young age. And some newlyweds will even choose to stay at one of their parents' flat until they can save enough money to buy their own, even though the conditions they're living in seem almost inhumanly cramped to you.

Now, if you're an expat in Hong Kong, or are thinking of becoming one, stop and think for a minute: how much is it going to cost you to 'make yourself comfortable' in Hong Kong? Is it really going to be worth it to re-constitute the living conditions you enjoyed back in the USA (or UK or wherever)? And if you do manage to 'find your comfort zone', will it only turn out to be a trap?

It's taken me many years to learn this simple lesson: comfort isn't as important as I thought it was. And it's certainly not worth it, financially or psychically, for me to try to make myself comfortable in an American way when I'm living somewhere else.

Readers, any stories of your own adjustments to expat comfort levels?


comfort level

Hello Mr. T,

I think that first of all we have to get away from the idea of the "generic expat". I grew up in New England, 1/2 a city where the "two-family houses" and "triple deckers" were remarkably like living in a village in the NT today. Like many city dewellers, I did not drive or own a car and spent the time from my late teens to early twenties riding buses and subways.

So, for me, the comfort level of space remained about the same when I moved to HK, and the comfort level for transportation INCREASED because the MTR is so much better than the MBTA, the CTA, the BART, etc.

But, that said, what you write about comfort is interesting. If we agree to your proposition that in the USA people value comfort above all things, I put it to you that HK people value *convenience* which shares some qualities w/ comfort, but also has different attributes.

Ask friends who live w/ parents and maybe share a bedroom w/ siblings although they could afford their own place? "It's more convenient to stay home. The meals are laid on and I can save up to buy a flat later." or "Yes, I could get a bigger flat somehwere else, but I want to live on top of an MTR stop or nohwere else, it's more convenient".

When I visit my family in the USA, the space and evrything is nice but they are (and I am when I visit, car dependent, which is quite inconvenient. And where my mom lives, you can't order groceries online and have them delivered like here in HK. It's so inconvenient!!

Tales of expat adjustment.

1) When I was a fresh B.A. and living in Taipei (..."so many years ago") my friends gave me a kitten, to help alleviate my loneliness and homesickness. In those days, it seems that Taipei people didn't keep cats like many people in the USA do, so finding kitty litter was an issue (I did not want to let my kitten out into the street to get mange or run over). There was a "super market" in the basement of a department store in my neighborhood, but they did not sell kitty litter or kitty food. Instead, I bought gravel for the bottom of fish tanks, until a friend told me of a grocery store in a more "ex-paty" neighborhood where I could buy those things. So, after that I would make a bi-weekly trek to that distant store for the kitty supplies.

2) Using sesame paste found in the Chinese grocery (instead of tahini) to make baba ganoush

3) Learning to drink lots of hot water to maintain core body tempertaure in HK and Taipei in cold damp winter where there is no insulation or indoor heating.

Home comforts

Mr Tall,

I didn't find size of accomodation to be a big issue, but that was probably because I arrived on my own with just a backpack. I can imagine it would be a lot harder if I was relocated here by my employer, and trying to fit a family used to a large house into a small HK appartment.

I do remember developing cravings for cheddar cheese & Branston pickle sandwiches a few months after I arrived. I'd always liked them as an occasional thing to eat, but they seemed really important when I couldn't have one! Oh, and the made-in-Asia Kellogs Cornflakes don't taste right either!

I'd say language has been the thing that pushes me furthest from my comfort zone. I guess it's the worry about looking a fool in public, but if I had to shout out something in Cantonese on a minibus beyond a simple 'yau lok', that would make me nervous. Having two young children seems to have helped there, probably for the simple reason that I get plenty of daily practice at looking foolish, so it's not such an issue any more.

Finally, how much of your point on comfort above ("why not indulge yourself with the highest level of comfort you can afford?") do you think is an American-only trait? It seems more universal to me, though as skmama says, in different countries people may use different measures to define how comfortable they are.


More on comfort

Thanks to skmama and MrB for their insightful responses.

It's interesting to hear that neither of you found the lack of space to be much of an issue when you arrived here. I found it quite amazing, and I'm from a very modest socio-economic background.

And although I certainly don't want to lump all American expats together, would you agree, skmama, that you are part of an exceptional demographic subset of Americans that perhaps proves the rule about living space there? For example, this article (warning: .pdf file) from The Journal of Industrial Ecology (ahem, I admit I'm not exactly a regular reader of this esteemed publication -- thank goodness for Google!) suggests that an average American house built in the 1940s/1950s had about 1100 square feet of living area. The average in 2002: 2340. And this increase is concurrent with a significant decrease in the average number of per-house occupants. This study doesn't take into account people who live in apartments, mobile homes, etc., but I think it does say something quite clear about most Americans' expectations for living space. As the article's authors put it: "Virtually all segments of the American home-buying market are buying the largest houses they can afford." That is a very large market, and its members can afford some pretty big houses.

For MrB, I can see why HK's space limitations were less of a shock. According to this article on 'building small', the average new house is the UK is just 815 square feet -- about a third of the US figure, and surprisingly even smaller than the average for Japan, which is an even 1000 ft2. Does that really sound right?

Anyway, MrB also suggested that people from all cultures will try to maximize their comfort, given the limits of their income. I think that's broadly true, as I mentioned in the article, but I suspect many Americans have taken the pursuit of comfort to another level. Take clothing as an example. In many cultures, if you've got the money, your priority is to adorn yourself in all the splendor you can, at least when you're in public. Other cultures/eras are/have been more conservative, avoiding ostentatious displays, but the well-heeled still wear expensive, formal clothing that reflects their status, e.g. full suits worn by virtually all white-collar men in the USA of the 1950s. Both showy clothes and formal clothes are often not that comfortable, but people's desire to show off wealth/maintain status takes priority (skmama, please note that I'm snuggling right up to Bourdieu here!). Consider a wealthy 19th-century American industrialist who put up with a significant degree of daily discomfort -- heavy suits, starched collars, oddly-shaped hats, outrageous facial hair, etc. -- in order to meet status expectations. Today, that industrialist's equivalent (let's say an IT mogul) is likely to be hangin' loose and feelin' fine in a T-shirt and cargo pants (although I admit that unless he's really, really rich he will still need to wear a suit sometimes). This is a relatively trivial instance, but I think it bespeaks a broader cultural trend. Comfort trumps public display of status/propriety/etc.

Now, the comparison between 'comfort' and 'convenience' is an excellent one, and I wish in retrospect that I'd structured my article around it! And what exactly is meant by ‘convenience’ here in HK? That’s an interesting question in itself . . . .

Anecdotal evidence

My brother lives in California, and our flat here (1100 sq.ft) is bigger than his house in Silicon Valley!

With regard to the UK house size: there's probably a garden attached to that 815 sq.ft house which isn't included in the size.

comfort and size

Hi Mr. T,

you wrote:
"would you agree, skmama, that you are part of an exceptional demographic subset of Americans that perhaps proves the rule about living space there? For example, this article (warning: .pdf file) from The Journal of Industrial Ecology (ahem, I admit I'm not exactly a regular reader of this esteemed publication -- thank goodness for Google!) suggests that an average American house built in the 1940s/1950s had about 1100 square feet of living area. The average in 2002: 2340."

Yes, I would of course agree. But I grew up in a city w/ rather old housing stock - the two-family I lived in was built in the early 1900s and was about the size of an NT "Spanish villa". The population density (according to Wikipedia) is 7,278.4/km² (18,868.1/mi²) which is denser than HK as a whole, but of course pales in comparison to Kwun Tong.

When I moved to HK I moved straight to Sai Kung and have lived here since.
Am I unusual? Well, millions of people live in East Coast metropolitan areas, Chicago, etc. with old housing stock.

I had a friend in grad school who grew up on a farm in MN and was shocked when I told her that the alley between my house and the neighbors where I grew up was about 3 feet wide. Her nearest neighbors in childhood were about 3 or 4 miles away. Who is more "typical"?

re: clothes and status. The IT mogul displays his status by not needing to comply with the corporate dress code, by flouting it? Also, he displays his status through the high-tech devices he carries about his body, rather than the clothes that cover it?

The 19th century bourgeois out-fit displayed status by indicating - "here is a man who does not need to labor with his body" hence the close fitting suit & snowy white linen. The 21st century IT mogul displays his status by the fact that his "work" clothes are indistinguishable from "play clothes" so he has more time or opportunity to "play"? Or perhaps his work is play?

re: comfort vs. convenience

They can (of course) overlap, but I think convenience is the experience of things working smoothly and efficiently without much effort. Comfort is a feeling of wellbeing and relaxation? Comfort relates to memories and feelings that are hard to quantify, whereas convenience can be quantified?

So, driving a around in a car w/ plushy seats in HK may be a more comfortbale experience in HK than strap hanging on the MTR, but it is far less convenient. The compromise between the two is the beloved Toyota Crown taxi?

Home-made mashed potatoes and gracy eaten at home w/ loved ones are "comfort food" - mashed potatoes and gravy eaten hastily at KFC are convenient.

I have a sister who lived in a newly built house in a suburb of a fairly large city in the US South. Her house is probably about 2300 to 2500 square feet. My flat is less than half that size, but here I have a helper to do the housework and pick up my kids from school. There, she and her husband have to run around and juggle dropping off the kids are day care and school and picking them up and doing all the household work. In many ways, I think my comfort level is higher, despite my smaller living quarters.

In your discussion of Expat comfort levels, you neglected the issue of servants. For families where both mother and father work, the presence of a domestic helper really increases their comfort levels.

More convenience, less comfort?

That's a fantastic post, SKMama! Let me see if I can pick up on a couple of your excellent points.

First, I remember reading recently that over half of Americans live in suburbs/exurbs, so neither a city dweller like you, nor a 'farm kid' like the MN grad student, nor a small-towner like me is 'typical'! That's another whole topic, actually . . . .

I think I agree completely on the clothing issue. Status signals are no doubt at the heart of it. My point is just that people of high status are increasingly unlikely to put up with personal discomfort in order to signal their status.

Love your definitions/examples of comfort and convenience.

You're certainly right about domestic helpers making things easier. But I'd classify their help as mostly a 'convenience', not necessarily a 'comfort', according to your definitions. Why? I have no clear rationale; it's just my gut instinct. Maybe because having a DH around all the time in your home isn't the most 'comfortable' feeling if you've grown up without any household help, but it sure is convenient having all the cooking and cleaning done for you. In fact, a look at the Many Threads of Anguish over at Asiaxpat's 'Domestic Helper' forum suggests there's plenty of discomfort associated with hiring and managing DHs. But only a few ever suggest simply giving up on having one . . . .

So maybe it's simple for expats new to HK: just tell them 'You're likely going to be trading some comfort for convenience . . . '.

comfort vs. convenience

At a certain point I guess we have to agree that one person's feeling of convenience might be another's feeling of comfort, and what we grow up with has a lot to do with our "comfort zones".

When my daughter visited one of her friends to sleep over, she felt sorry for her friend who had such a big room "it felt scary in the night with all that empty space around me."

Or the hardness of beds - some people grow up w/ a really hard bed and hate a soft bed because it's "mushy". Other people grow up with soft mattresses and wonder how others can stand sleeping on a plank.

My step-dad was raised to believe that Fresh Air was very important and as a boy his windows were were always open at night to the pleaeant New Hampshire winter air. He always liked to sleep in a cold room in the winter, I mean cold, 2 C or less was FINE by him. This was not comfortable for my mom, but it was certainly convenient for their heating bills in the early years. :)

Having a helper is certainly convenient for me, and many times also a comfort (I know that my kids are being well looked after when I'm at work). Having dinner ready and the laundry done when I get hom makes my life both more convenient and comfortable.

That is not to say there is no discomfort in the relationship- but, I would say that it's less discomfort than living with a roomate or flatmate (as I did for about the first 12 years of my adult life). In fact, when people ask me "how is it to have a domestic helper" I tell them "it's kind of like having a flat-mate, except they clean up your messes and you can ask them to do things."

I can imagine the Threads of Anguish about domestic helpers on the expat bulletin boards, but how do they compare to the good old alt.flame.roomate in the mid 1990s or just general complaining about roomates or flatmates in a pub frequented by young people? I have stories about:

*The Flatmate Who Rarely Came Home
Her mom and her boss would call and ask me where she was (didn't show up for work, didn't call home) and I did not have a clue. I worried about her a bit, but eventually had to ask her to leave then she didn't pay her rent.

*The Flatmate Who Lasted One Evening
She could not deal with the sound of mice running around the ceiling of the flat.

*The Flatmate Who Only Ate Steak and Cheerios
He ate the Cheerios with his hands - me and two other flat mates were so grossed out by him, but there was no reason to kick him out - he did pay the rent.

*The Flatmate Who was OK But then Subleased to Scuzzy Guys
He was nice, but he left in the summer and subleased for 3 weeks to some scuzzy guys (two in his room) who would cook rice and it always bolied over and left a scummy hard puddle on the stove top that they Did Not Clean Up. They also left food out, which brought an infestation of roaches.

I have more stories, but you get the idea.

comfort & convenience

good morning guys.

comfort: state of being free from suffering, anxiety, pain, etc; contentment; physical well-being.

convenience: the quality of being convenient or suitable; freedom from difficulty or worry.

Both extracted from Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary, 1980.

I would simply say “make yourself comfortable, enjoy your life, and most importantly, be considerate”. Some irresponsible citizens are enjoying their comfort & convenience at the expense of others. Playing music loud at home and late at night. Parking the car along the double yellow line on the street. Blocking the doorways on the public transport. To name but a few.

Some like their home big and vice versa. When I was aboard (six years), I elected to live in a 400 sq. ft. apartment that resembles my home back in Hong Kong.