Hong Kong. I remember the day I left for this crazy country. Since then I have become no stranger to travelling great distances over long periods of time, but the prospect of eight months in a country half way across the world, whose mother tongue is hugely different from my own, was a little daunting initially.
Each day since has been a challenge. I’ve experienced so much here: heartbreak, food poisoning, euphoria, sprained ankles and culture shock. But these challenges, that can make you just want to run home, are also positively addictive.
I chose Hong Kong because I wanted somewhere drastically different from what I knew. I wanted to see, I wanted to learn, and truly immerse myself in a new culture. Hong Kong has given me all that and more.
Currently I’m sitting on a stone sea wall, with the ocean stretched out before me; the sea view only interrupted by a couple of tropical islands scattered between the horizon and myself. It is past midnight. My illegible scrawls are illuminated only by the lights of ships, and the University of Hong Kong Science & Technology campus behind me, stretching up the mountainside. With the stars above, and the sea lapping at my toes, it is like studying in pure paradise. Ignoring the fact that my sweaty flesh is a sweet feast for mosquitoes in the hot and humid evening air.
It is a shame that people from the same cultures, with similar upbringings, gravitate towards each other. What we miss out on when we stick with “our own” is enormous. In case you hadn’t guessed, people who have grown up on this side of the world have vastly different values and outlooks compared to people from the West. Here, family is much more central to their value system, what is expected of people is different, and to say the food is dissimilar would also be an understatement.
A ‘Full English Breakfast’ at the on-campus restaurant, aptly named Einstein’s, is in fact no such thing. Many a time I have marvelled at my local friend eating this questionable dish with a fork and spoon. It is one thing to get over the strange piece of ham and sweet bread placed on my plate, alongside the highly processed ‘sausage’. It is another to watch someone cut through each of them with a spoon. As he demonstrates to me, the spoon does a good enough job of cutting, and allows him to eat beans without them falling off his fork, as mine do. But regardless, WHO EATS A FULL ENGLISH WITH A FORK AND SPOON?
This a highly trivial example but one that is indicative of the exchange experience, one that forces you to meet people that inevitably think so differently. It is not necessarily easy. Of course, we would presume that the way we do things are the ways things must be done.
So, when I first arrived at my host university, in 35 degree heat and humidity, overcome with jetlag, obviously I was attracted to those in a similar position, other exchange students. It took a good few months to become good friends with local students, and even then most were from international schools, as they speak very good English. But just living here all their lives meant they were so different to me.
They showed me the city in a way I could not have experienced otherwise; all the best restaurants and bars, the quiet spots beyond the tourist areas. They answered my questions about Hong Kong, and about the goings on with knowledge only locals could possess. While many exchange students migrated to the clubs each night, and the high-end malls, we ate at the local restaurants, explored the secret beaches while they taught me all kinds of Cantonese phrases (most too rude to mention).
Most people, and all students, speak English. Cantonese is so hard, but having local friends has helped me to learn a few phrases and language is such an important way into a new culture. The people I have met here are now some of the most important in my life. The changes this experience has had on me, largely as a result of these people, are too many to mention. I have thrown myself out of my comfort zone, and landed squarely on my own two feet.
I wish I could bring everyone from the West to the East, and vice versa. With a bit of willingness to learn, the world shows itself to host a huge array of incredibly different cultures, landscapes and languages. Thankfully, they are now more accessible than they ever have been. So, tomorrow, as I sit down to eat my breakfast, brandishing my fork and spoon, I will look out to the sea and think about how lucky I am to be here experiencing just one of them.
This was written by a study abroad student and edited by Daisy Roberts, Foreign Correspondent for the Falmouth Anchor.