An expat's move from Hong Kong to Spain for a better family life

Expat interviews
  • expat in Madrid
Published on 2021-11-12 at 10:00 by Veedushi
Although Carmen misses Hong Kong, her home country, she is not ready to go back. She actually took the leap to Madrid, Spain, for a better future for her son, who was only two years old at that time. Her quest for a better life took her to the land of her dreams, where she is an entrepreneur and remote worker.

Can you please introduce yourself?

I was born and grew up in Hong Kong, and I moved to Madrid in 2016.

I am a Christian, a mother of a 7-years-old son, a wife of a Spanish husband since 2013, a remote employee for a US-based media company for over ten years. I have been an online entrepreneur since 2019, helping people explore and develop their potential and skill to have a remote working life and teaching people about online marketing.

What brought you to Madrid? For how long have you been there?

Love and fate brought me to Madrid. When I was in Hong Kong, I met my husband, we fell in love and were together for seven years, and then we got married in Hong Kong. When our little one almost turned two years old, we decided to move and live in my husband hometown, Madrid, for a better living environment in general and less competitive education for our son. It was back in 2016, end of March.

However, funny enough, Spain has always been my dream country to go to since my teenage years, and I picked my English name “Carmen” in my secondary school, which I didn't know is a very common Spanish name. My all-time favourite Taiwanese writer, Echo Chan, wrote many touching life adventure stories about her loving journey with her Spanish husband when they lived in Sahara, Madrid, the Canary Islands, etc.

Before I met my husband, I wouldn't have imagined falling in love with a Spanish guy and having my Spanish life. “Spain” was like a “dream” for me, mysterious, exotics, fascinating, but also far away to reach…however, it seems somehow Spain had started advancing into my life gradually without my notice. Today, it has become part of my life and will stay with me forever.

What made you want to leave your home country?

I love my home country Hong Kong very much, but we decided to move for the sake of our son's upbringing. We both think that Madrid's general growing up environment is much better than in Hong Kong for a family with a young kid. 

In the past decade, the Hong Kong education system has become more and more crazily stressful and competitive in a very unhealthy way. It is still hard for me to believe nor accept the phenomenon that toddlers and their parents must go through all types of interviews just for entering the desired kindergarten, and the schools act as a supreme court to have the ultimate power to say “Yes” or “No”. 

No one wants to be left behind, of course, so there are all kinds of “kindergarten interview trainings/ workshops/ seminars” on the market. A 3-year-old kid would have a portfolio thicker than a fresh graduate for the first job interview.

And this is just a start, during their whole school lives until they enter universities, they have tons of daily homework (from kindergarten), small tests, big exams, and extra activities are chasing them, no matter whether they are public or non-public schools. 

I won't say the Madrid education system and the teaching environment are perfect, but at least we are sure that our son can enjoy and have his childhood fully if he studies here. 

Since we had two options, stay in mother's hometown or father's hometown, we decided to leave Hong Kong and move to Madrid.

I am lucky enough that my company is flexible enough and treasures me so much that they are allowing me to work remotely in Madrid by adjusting my role and responsibility. This is a blessed and rare advantage for a new mother to leave her home country and start a new life abroad without losing her career development. My husband and I are always so grateful for this. 

Is this your first experience overseas?

Yes, this is my first experience living overseas. I was born in Hong Kong and have lived there only until I moved to Madrid.

Did you find it hard to adapt to Madrid? What were the main challenges that you've had, and how did you overcome them?

I would like to answer this in 3 perspectives, 1) Daily life, 2) as an expat parent and 3) developing new friendships. 

Daily life - it was not too hard to adapt to Madrid due to some subjective and objective factors. 

Objective factors - 

I live in a very friendly neighbourhood called Ibiza; my neighbours do not hesitate to talk with me even though we don't speak a common language. Moreover, people in the fresh markets, bakeries, butcher shops, etc., always teach me and test my Spanish in a lovely way. I enjoy the interactions with them.

In general, Madrid people are kind, willing to help, and love to talk, which really make a difference. So far, I haven't experienced any discrimination, which definitely makes it so pleasant to live.

And thanks to the technology we have right now, so many mobile applications helped me to easily adapt to a country where people speak a completely new language. 

My daily favourites are Google translation, Google Lens, City mapper, Google maps, Uber, etc. All these applications play a very important role in my adaptation. It is hard to imagine how I would survive in the old ages when the mobile phone had not been invented. So, they are the objectives factors. 

Subjective factor – thanks to my daily communication, my primary languages are still English and Cantonese. I'm lucky enough that all my in-laws speak English very well (which is pretty rare in Madrid), my daily working language is English, I go to an international English speaking church, and at home, I speak English with my husband, and I speak my native language Cantonese with our son. So, as you can see, I haven't really had much chance to speak Spanish in my daily life, at least for the first few years.

However, things started to change last year.

As an expat parent who doesn't speak the local language, I started to experience a new challenge as our son started his primary school life.

From the beginning, I think it is not bad that I don't really understand his schoolwork, my husband is fully in charge of it, and I can stay hands-off from his study. (so relax, isn't it? )

But then, as my son starts to be friends with his classmates, he wants to go out more often with them after school, and I find it hard to organise simple gatherings with other local parents. Also, during the school-parents group meeting, I have difficulty getting first-hand details, responding, or giving suggestions. 

Develop long-term new friendships

This one has been really hard, especially during the first three years. Before I moved to Madrid, I used to have very long-term friendships; my closest friends are from Primary, Secondary and University. We never thought that we would be apart from each other one day. But even though I moved out, we keep a very close connection through mobile apps, despite the time-zone difference.

The challenge has been to develop a long-term friendship with new people here. In the first two years, I met several like-minded sisters and brothers from different countries through the international churches I went to. We shared a lot of our up-and-downs, prayed and hung out together, and several new friendships started to grow. However, many of them just stayed for a short period for different reasons – work, study, internship. And after a couple of years, they moved back to their hometown, and we had to say goodbye. 

I think in just three years' time, I “lost” five close friends for this same reason. I felt pretty sad and discouraged to develop new friends for a while as I'm not used to having this parting sorrow so often. This is something really new that “shocked” me unexpectedly during my adaptation process to Madrid life.

It took me quite some time to adapt to this new friendship pattern. Today, I can take this calmly, enjoy meeting new friends and treasure every moment together. I also see the beauty of developing different friendships in different stages of my life. Although they come and go, the memory stays.

What does the life of an expat entrepreneur in Madrid look like?

My journey as an expat entrepreneur just started in 2019. Since most of the time I work on my own through the internet and my customers are all over the world (wherever they can access my business website or reach out to me) I don't have any special feeling relating to it in Madrid, as there are no geographic boundaries involved. Wherever it is, in Madrid or in Hong Kong, I would feel pretty much the same.

Is there any advice you would like to give to anyone who's looking to move to Spain and start a business or work remotely there?

I would say pay attention to the local laws for employment and taxation. There are many types of working models you can choose from, and each one of them has different ways to count the tax.

In my case, they are so complicated that we don't want to get into any trouble, so we just hire a tax advisory service. We have an assigned tax consultant to manage my full time and my side business tax submission and paperwork. 

This helps us save lots of time and also to eliminate the risk of breaking the laws, giving us complete peace of mind. I think for anyone who‘s going to move to Spain and want to start a business, this is a necessary step, at least for the first couple of years.

The first step for those who would like to work remotely in Spain is to communicate well with the company that hires you. If it is not their first time working with an expat, it will be easy for both of you as they already have an old pattern to follow. But if both of you are new to it, I would recommend you better understand the basic local employment law and regulations, including basic holidays, social security, salary payment terms, currency, etc. Also, you will have to open the right type of local bank account to collect the salary payment. 

Since remote working is becoming a trend as a post-Covid phenomenon, there are companies offering services to handle remote employment around the globe. One of the famous ones is

If it is a new experience for you and the company that is going to hire you, I would recommend reaching out to this type of service provider to save time and get the right things done.

Did the pandemic have an impact on your professional and social life?

The pandemic isn't impacting me too much in my daily work because I have worked remotely for over ten years. One of the slight differences is that we are now doing everything virtually instead of travelling for meetings and trade shows. There are days when I get fully packed zoom meetings all day long, among my team, my customers, regionally and globally with the headquarters. Later on, when we get into a better routine and pattern, we have fewer zoom meetings, and things get back to normal. I would say that it is pretty much similar to the COVID.

Since the regional team and HQ meet more frequently through the new zoom meeting habits, my work is recognised much more quickly and is more appreciated than before, which helps strengthen our relationships.

Regarding my social life, yes, it has been affected significantly. We haven't had any friends or family gatherings for almost a year. Now things are back to a new normal in Madrid. The main difference is that we are more cautious about hygiene; masks, hand sanitiser, etc., have become essential parts of our social life. 

What are your views on the way Spain dealt with the pandemic? What are the current restrictions in place?

Life in Madrid is pretty normal now, and many strict restrictions no longer apply. But we still need to wear a mask in public indoor settings and when we take public transportation. However, it is not mandatory to wear masks on the street or in any outdoor places. 

Regarding bars and restaurants, we can have a group of maximum 10 people sitting at the same table if it is outdoors and a maximum of 6 indoors, and they may open as late as their licenses allow. Restaurants, cafés, nightclubs, shopping malls, markets, shops, cinemas, theatres, museums and galleries, etc., no longer have to apply capacity limits. I have watched movies in the cinema several times already this year and see the changes from very empty sessions at the beginning of the year to pretty full-house.

Students go to school with masks with social distancing policy applied. Many companies resumed their normal office hours with a mixture of hybrid, in-person and work from home, depending on the nature of the job.

It was very sad during the first few months when COVID started to hit Madrid, especially when the streets were completely empty. I remember there were several times I had to go to the pharmacy during that critical period, and each time I cried on the way back because of the quietness. 

Seeing the city back to being lively and energetic again is a comfort. Restrictions haven't been reintroduced, although there has been a recent rise in the number of cases, which completely hit my nerve. But in general, I feel safe as many Spanish are still willing to wear a mask even it is outdoor and not mandatory anymore.

Besides, there are different requirements for travelling to Spain, depending on where you are from and how you are travelling there (by air or by sea). In general, you may need to present a vaccination certificate, a negative COVID-19 test result certification obtained within 48 to 72 hours before your arrival in Spain. 

There's no COVID-19 monitoring test required during your stay in Spain, and no self-isolation is required. Find more details here.

If you had to go through your move all over again, is there anything you would have done differently?

I would have obtained more details about dealing with all kinds of financial documents/ assets transition between Madrid and Hong Kong. It was quite time-consuming and complicated to prepare some Hong Kong legal paperwork while I was in Spain. During the process, I figured out that if I had prepared them before leaving Hong Kong, I would have saved so much time (and money to courier the documents back and forth) and headache.

What do you like the most about Madrid and the least?

I love the people in Madrid a lot. They are so friendly and kind, and passionate. So far, I haven't experienced any discrimination or unfair treatment (though I heard some stories from others, mainly international university students). The food is nice, the living cost is lower than in Hong Kong, but the living environment and quality of life are better than in Hong Kong (even just the air is fresher!).

What I really don't really like about Madrid (or Spain in general) is the low efficiency of any kind of civil and bank services. As expats, we have to deal with a lot of legal paperwork, including registrations, applications, for example, citizenship cards, bank accounts, marriage certificates, etc. The information available on their official website is not always clear and up to date. Even if you got the chance to talk to the staff in person or on the phone, one same question could lead you to different answers. 

I don't think it is a language problem at all because most of the time (99%), my husband handles all these procedures for me. He, as a local Madrid guy, also tends to get lost. I've heard many similar experiences from my other friends as well. So I think this is just the way it is. I don't like it, but I have to accept it.

Is there anything that you miss from your home country?

Yes. My family and friends for sure. And the food, especially some of the local Hong Kong food, which I cannot make on my own, such as all kinds of dim sum. Also, the Hong Kong spirit, the flexibility, the convenience, the energy, the courage, the freedom that we used to have. I miss the old Hong Kong very much.

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