In this month’s Global Parenting feature, Our Globetrotters (OG) caught up with fellow Australian Gwen (G), who, along with her husband Jose and two young girls, moved to Macau in 2011.
Here is their story about living in this tiny part of the world caught up in the extremes of international moving for expats.
Macau is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China, situated 60km southwest of Hong Kong. It is a former Portuguese colony, with sovereignty handed back to the Chinese in 1999.
It is the most densely populated region in the world and also one of the richest, with gambling and tourism as its main industries. The main language is Cantonese, but there remains a small Macanese population and a lot of Portuguese influence in things like language and food. There is a large immigrant and expat workforce in this rapidly expanding city – OG.
OG: So Gwen tell us how your family ended up in Macau?
G: We are both originally from Melbourne, Australia, and my husband is a commercial airline pilot. He has worked in a number of locations around Australia then he was offered his first overseas job working with Air Macau in 2011. He completed a six-month probation period then I flew out to join him with our young girls when Chantal was six and Maleah was two.
OG: What was your first impression on arriving?
G: During the time Jose was there on his own he did not paint a terribly good picture, so we had a fairly good idea of what to expect and managed our expectations!
It wasn’t as bad as he described, but it certainly came with some real challenges upfront, isolation and language barriers that I did not expect. Jose had liked Singapore and thought it would be more like that but it wasn’t – he didn’t like the country or his workplace – the whole experience really!
OG: So what were the living conditions like? Where did you live?
G: Macau is made up of essentially three islands. The middle island (Taipa) is much better for expats, with much newer, larger housing with big kitchens and more community.
In our first year, we lived in the wrong place on Macau’s main island, and I ended up feeling quite isolated.
There’s a very big difference between what would be classed as local housing compared with expat housing. I would drive the kids to school on Taipa and stay there all day doing activities; it was the only way to meet other expats.
After the first year, we moved to Taipa, and things were much better there, but housing is getting to be incredibly expensive as there is a real shortage. The Chinese will buy up apartments but are happy to have them left empty and not rented out.
For a rich country, there seemed to be limited investment by the Government back into infrastructure. We had a small car to get around; the city is small so easy to get navigate but there’s nowhere to park and heavy traffic.
If you lived only in Taipa, you could probably get around by walking or taking a bus and will not need a car. The real thing to watch out for is the scooters!
OG: How did you go about integrating into the community?
G: The population is predominantly Chinese, with a small expat community. The city is expanding at an incredible rate – nine years ago, there was nothing.
In my personal opinion, if the gambling industry were to collapse it would ruin the place (economically).
Not speaking either Cantonese or Portuguese put us at a distinct disadvantage. All street signs, for example were in Cantonese and Portuguese. Shopkeepers were not particularly accommodating, in fact, would even just be rude and dismissive making no effort to communicate with you.
Having an Asian appearance, I thought it would be an advantage but actually made things worse as they’d expect me to be able to communicate.
Being married to a pilot also made things difficult; their flight schedules can be unpredictable, so you cannot make any weekend plans.
There were lots of restaurants and dinner parties, but these are not things you go to by yourself, at times it feels like you’re a single mum, you take care of all the family scheduling and activities, and it’s almost more disruptive to have them home.
A lot of my time was spent with other mums as their husbands also had long hours. The fact he didn’t enjoy his job also made it difficult, I felt it took a full year of living there to properly assimilate.
After this time, we did apply for temporary residency, which brings benefits and some rebates with it for schooling, and access to government health care. You can apply almost immediately to have temporary residency, then once you have held your temporary residency for seven years, you can then apply for permanent residency which has significant financial benefits.
Overall we had very little interaction with the local families; most of our network of friends were from the expat community. We had some local friends that could speak English, and my Mandarin teacher was able to provide me with a lot of insight, but there was generally little interaction, the expat community kept to itself.
OG: Did you work during your time in Macau? What was a usual day?
G: This was the first time I became an expat wife and stayed home; my eldest went off to school and not long after, my youngest started nursery. Even during all the moving around in Australia, I had always worked (as an account manager for insurance companies) so this was a very strange feeling.
A wife could not work on a spousal visa, but you could be employed independently depending on the profession required. Unless you had a very specialist skill set or spoke Cantonese or Mandarin, the options were incredibly limited.
So my day entirely revolved around dropping the kids off at school. I would then attend the gym, I took up Mandarin lessons, joined the school Parent Association, and I would attend lunches.
There were a lot of other Australians, Americans and other nationalities in smaller numbers, mostly involved in either the gambling or construction industry. I also had some Spanish friends, as Jose spoke Spanish.
As for shopping, you could get the expensive luxury brands, but there weren’t really high street or department store options. There were maybe four different places you could buy western brand grocery items from, but they were small and expensive, and often you could go weeks without products.
We were a 45-minute ferry ride away from Hong Kong where there were far more shopping and entertainment options, but you wouldn’t do it on a daily basis, you still also have immigration to attend with then travel to and from your house at either end. On the plus side, China’s border was a walk away, which made for a fun day trip for those fake bargain items that China is well known for.
If you’d like to know about visiting Macau as a tourist, check out this 3-day itinerary guide
OG: Tell us more about families in Macau. What could children get up to?
G: It was usually the case in Chinese families that both parents would work full-time. The Chinese work hard because money is very important to them, but they seem to put more effort into their appearances and cars than their homes, and brands seemed very important.
They would sacrifice their living arrangements to have more money to spend, living in very small (squalid) apartments, along with their nannies who would full-time care for the children.
You would only ever see the nannies at the school or in the parks with the kids. Most of the expats would have nannies as well – Filipinos but also some Vietnamese, and Indonesian ladies. It was very different to what I was used to in Australia, where I would take care of all the domestic duties (as well as work). We did end up with a part-time helper, though technically, they were supposed to be full-time sponsored.
There really wasn’t much for children to do; the city is entirely based around the gambling industry so there was plenty for grownups and tourists but not for the kids who live there day-to-day.
The most frustrating thing was the lack of after-school activities available. When they got a bit older it was OK as they could do after-school sports, but there certainly wasn’t a full range of after-school activities for the young ones.
In particular, I couldn’t find any swimming lessons for them taught in English. That said, I did manage to keep my kids quite busy with Capoeira (A Brazilian art form which combines fight, dance, rhythm and movement) and Glee Club.
OG: What were health facilities like?
G: There was one large public hospital and a private one, as well as a few small clinics. We could access the public system with our temporary residency, but private health insurance wasn’t overly expensive – or the service that different. Coming from a Western country, though, the whole health system felt very different.
They would give you a lot of medicine, all in little pouches not in the nice regulated pharmaceutical-looking packaging you are used to, so I would spend a lot of time doing my own internet research on whether these medicines were OK to take!
Private healthcare and medicines were cheap, and it was fine for minor ailments but if you needed anything more specialised you would go to Hong Kong so definitely needed private health cover.
If you are already sick, you cannot take the ferry across as they will not take ill passengers, as a worse case, you would have to get a medical evacuation which is very expensive.
As for childbirth, I, fortunately, did not have my children there, but if you did, the choices available were limited – there really wasn’t much difference between the local and private hospitals. You were able to give birth there, but the local hospital, for example, would not give you an epidural and no husbands were allowed in as you gave birth in shared birthing suites.
A lot of the expat women would either fly home or a week or two before their due date, go and stay in Hong Kong.
OG: And schooling in Macau?
G: You could put your child into the local system, but these only taught in Cantonese, so there was really only the choice of three international schools.
There was the International School of Macau which taught the Canadian Curriculum, and then two British Curriculum schools. The Anglican school was British but government-funded and had to follow strict local rules so was not strictly a British school. The other was a mixed curriculum with Singaporeans.
At the time we arrived, only the Anglican school had a waitlist (as it was the cheapest), but by the time we left, they all had waitlists, and they couldn’t keep up with demand.
The International School of Macau was particularly good at having reserved places for expat workers. The Casinos and the school did seem to work together so they could plan more spaces in the future but at the time we left (2014) there were no plans for more international schools to open.
We were happy with the Canadian curriculum school, and they had quite a large proportion of native English-speaking teachers, it has resulted in the kids gaining a Canadian accent already! My only concern is that when we eventually make it back to Australia, they are going to have learnt nothing about our culture and history.
(OG – they really are third culture kids – Gwen was born in Vietnam and her husband was born in Chile!).
My youngest started to attend nursery when we moved there, otherwise, there was very little for us to do at home as it’s all apartment living, so this gave her a chance to socialize.
Every apartment would have facilities, but you would have to structure in time to go to a park. Formal schooling then started from 3 years old with the day going from 8.30am to 3pm, but the younger ones would still nap during this time, or you could put them in for a half day only.
OG: What were the greatest difficulties you encountered?
G: Definitely, the language barrier made day-to-day life difficult. And the limited range of choices for basically everything, products, schooling, activities. There is also a permanent air of corruption and a load of bureaucracy to deal with, there is always paperwork to be filled in, and they are a very tick-the-box culture.
Expats with fair-haired children had to deal with a lot of touchy-feely, which can get annoying – luckily, our children were dark haired so we didn’t attract too much attention, but my Asian appearance could also be an issue; they would assume I could speak Cantonese and get angry and frustrated that I could only speak English.
OG: What ultimately drove your decision to leave Macau?
G: My husband was looking for career advancement. There was no room for progression with Air Macau and their limited fleet, so he took a job with Etihad in 2014 on a better package with better opportunities – though we now have a more expensive cost of living, it balances out as our lifestyle is better.
Even if Jose hadn’t made the career move, we wouldn’t have stayed there for a long period of time. The city is heavily polluted with a lot of smog floating over from China so I would have been worried about the girl’s health in the longer term. The sky is always hazy, you never see blue sky.
OG: What advice would you give to other families looking to make the move?
G: It is OK for a short-term posting, but I wouldn’t recommend it for the long-term, largely because of the health concerns. If anyone of your family suffers from any form of respiratory problem like asthma it’s definitely not recommended.
Macau does still attract expats as many people can have a much better quality of life than they had at home, this seemed particularly prevalent for a lot of the casino staff who have come over from the US and are on good salary packages and getting promoted. A good employer should be offering you accommodation and schooling given the shortages in these areas.
Finding the right place to live straight away could make or break your experience. You want to be living in the right part of the community where you are surrounded by more expats – even if this costs more – so you can integrate more quickly.
Moving with school-age children also makes things easier as you can meet other parents through the school. There are far more expats and options in Hong Kong, don’t be mistaken into thinking Hong Kong and Macau are the same thing! The best part was getting to meet so many different people with different backgrounds, and it’s really true that its people who make the experience, not the place
A big thank you to Gwen and her family for sharing their story with Our Globetrotters and providing an insight into the Expat Life for parents in Macau. Have you ever lived in Macau – or would you like to?
Enjoy this article? Don’t forget to check out other interviews in our Global Parenting Series including expat life in Dubai and island life in the Seychelles – We also cover important Expat Money Matters to consider when making a move abroad with your family
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