Hong Kong: Settling in and Moving Out

Orientation day

For my first full day in Hong Kong, it was the orientation and registration day at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), so I was thrown straight into travelling on the MTR! Luckily, the Metro to the University could not be easier- lasting about 20 minutes to the HKU stop, which is right on campus. Travel on all public transport uses the Octopus card, (Hong Kong’s answer to London’s Oyster card), so is a necessity before using the MTR. This is easy enough to purchase from the customer service desk, and top-up at all MTR stops. Not only is the Octopus card used for transport, but can be used for purchases in the supermarket, buying food in the canteen and even in shops.

The day itself consisted of registering for the student card; general introductions and advice for life in Hong Kong; the societies fair; a talk from the British Consulate; and a Social Sciences orientation. Disappointingly, the societies fair had a lack of sports societies, which I hope to join in the following weeks. However, they said there will be a lot more societies dotted around for the first few weeks of Uni. Considering all the students at HKU, it was to my surprise that I managed to bump into some of the other exchange students from Manchester during the day!

Weekend explorations

The first exploration of Kowloon around the Airbnb, was a 30-minute expedition to find an impressively reviewed (2,663 in total) dim-sum restaurant. A 30-minute walk in the humidity of Hong Kong could be described as a little uncomfortable, turned more so by torrential rain a few minutes before the destination. The many, many, many restaurants passed on the walk made it even more essential the dim-sum was worth it: it definitely was! This fact was confirmed by the queue outside of the restaurant, despite the downpour continuing outside… Another highlight was getting the tram to the harbour, just a couple of stops from the Airbnb. The views of Hong Kong island were incredible, with an extremely panoramic view of the impressive skyscrapers. Yet another highlight was exploring the surprisingly massive Kowloon Park, which was about 15 minutes’ walk from the Airbnb. Facilities included: 2 outdoor gyms, an aviary, 2 swimming pools, a statue walk, open areas with people practicing Kung Fu and of course a McDonalds… The amount of space provided for this urban park was good to see, but surprising considering the massive issues with a lack of housing space in Hong Kong.

The incredible view of Hong Kong Island

Classes begin

For the first week of classes at HKU, it has been an amazing experience mixing with other exchange international students and local students. The classes themselves are a lot smaller, with my busiest class having just 30 students; a nice contrast to some of the classes at UoM. This has meant classes have been a very different experience to Manchester so far. The highest number of international and exchange students is in my Mandarin class, as you might expect. This was clearly apparent to my new Finnish friend: leading with the introduction of “Hello, fellow Westerner.”

Sorry to keep emailing, but…

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Hong Kong: Arrival

George Peach (University of Hong Kong)

I was particularly nervous on the night before my flight, thinking about every possible scenario for my journey.

Could flights be cancelled? Would Hong Kong airport be closed? Would Hong Kong be plagued by endless protesting? Would I lose all my things at baggage claim? Would I enjoy my time in Hong Kong? Would I want to return to the UK straight away?

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Emotional aftermath

By Nooa Karlo ((previously) University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong)

After finishing my studies in the University of Hong Kong, following the last deadline I had for term paper submissions on the 24th of May, I soon left to travel in South Korea and Japan for almost three weeks. Now, I suppose I could talk about that time, because there certainly would be a lot to talk about, evidenced by over 2000 pictures I took while travelling. But looking back at things now that it’s been a few months since I returned home and now that there’s an entire summer between Hong Kong and me reveals that I really do miss staying there. And not just staying there, I miss the food, the buildings, the ocean, the colours, the sounds. (Ok there’s one thing I don’t miss and that’s whatever the weather was very quickly becoming as spring progressed towards summer but I barely avoided that so let’s not count that.) I miss the people I met and the experiences I had, even though it’s sometimes difficult for me to remember it all coherently, because there was just so much going on. Eventually I got used to the new things and they became everyday things, old things. So now that I won’t be going back anymore, at least not as an undergraduate exchange student, now that my room in the JCSVIII is no longer my room, now that I can use my credit card in practically any shop at any time without having to fear the card reader will say ‘connection lost’ at any moment, now that I can’t awkwardly say the only greeting I learnt in Cantonese to the people around me anymore, it just feels strange. Because it feels like I should be going back, but I’m not. I don’t miss Hong Kong in the way that would make my chest feel tight and my face contort to sadness, but I miss it in the way that things just don’t feel right now that I’m not there anymore. Five months was a really short time and I wish I could’ve stayed for longer, but it was just enough to make me feel somewhat at home even on the other side of the world. To those people who helped make me feel that way, I would like to say thanks. I hope I will be able to keep in contact with you in the future too! And to those who were affected by the typhoon a week ago, not only in Hong Kong but especially in Hong Kong, I wish strength to overcome whatever problems it caused you. Having seen the destruction the storm left in its wake has made me worry about the safety of everyone there. Hope you’re all okay. I guess that’s all I wanted to say about my time in Hong Kong on this blog. Goodbye, and thanks for those who’ve read my posts as well!

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One of the many faces of Hong Kong

Singapore ends

By Monika Kvassheim, National University of Singapore

As most other exchange students, if I could do it again, I would. I had a great year in Singapore and have been home for a while thinking about it. I wanted to write about the highlights of the year that I haven’t mentioned so far.

I had a family, sort of a host family, who invited me for dinners and get togethers once in a while, a highlight was the Chinese New Year dinner cooked by the grandma. Or when we made a promo video for one of the board games designed by my host’s husband.

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Joining NUS mountaineering

By Monika Kvassheim, National University of Singapore

The most standard advice on how to get to know people when starting university is to get involved in a student club. I went to the fair at NUS and wanted to try a new sport. Though several clubs where open for beginners, I got the impression most of the clubs were for people who already knew the sport. However, the mountaineering group was very welcoming and said anyone could come to training, for free and with no commitments. When I went for the first training it was mainly because I kept failing to motivate myself to run in the heat and humidity, I did not imagine I would end up climbing a 5863 meter peak in Himalaya with them.

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NUS academics

By Monika Kvassheim, National University of Singapore

Studying at NUS was very different from in Manchester. As I study physics, the department in Manchester is large and at NUS it is tiny, so the differences might be larger for me than other courses. It is a general thing though, as far as I understand, that coursework is heavily weighted at NUS in all faculties. If there are a lot of students in a class it is marked by a bell curve. This means that to get better marks other people need to do worse than you. While this protects students against hard exams, it can also create a study culture where people are not willing to help each other. I in no way experienced this, but I heard stories about it from friends in other faculties.

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Science library. 15 minutes before it closes they play classical music to chase people out.

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Coming Home

I didn’t get the rush of relief that usually comes with the end of exams and deadlines. While I was of course happy to have finished my exams, I knew that it also meant the end of my time in Singapore.

Near to the end of my stay, I started to learn more about Singapore from a citizens point of view, proving the paradise of Singapore to be more complex than just a country full of good natured people. One friend we made was a Singaporean beach club owner who my friend and I would spend time talking to on our Saturday afternoons at the beach. He explained that while he was proud of Singapore’s safety, it came with a multiple of rules and regulations limiting the freedom of the Singaporeans. The housing shortage in Singapore, for example, caused the government to enforce legislation which meant that someone could only buy their own property if they were married. Before I knew this, I always thought it was strange that the majority of the students at NUS lived at home with their parents rather than on the campus, and would be expected to move back in after university until they got married. I presumed this was just the culture. It is commonly assumed that certain rules and laws, for instance the ban on public drinking between 10.30 pm and 7am, are just a result of Singapore being ‘boring’ or trying to uphold high levels of safety. However, people believed that the bill was passed by parliament after the 2 hour long 2013 Little India riot. This involved 300 migrant labourers which broke out because of the death of an Indian migrant worker after a collision with a private bus. Investigations found the migrant worker killed to have been intoxicated while trying to board the private bus. The apparent perfection of Singapore has obviously come at a price.

One of my few regrets about my time abroad is not having applied to spend a year here instead of just a semester. At the time you think that 5 months away from home is going to be more than enough but I have realised that 5 months flashes before your eyes and it was only at the end of this time that I actually started to feel settled and comfortable. It was only in exam season that we started to discover some of my favourite parts of Singapore. Kampong Glam, for example, is beautiful and has a certain atmosphere that I think you would find hard to come across anywhere else, as you walk past the open front shops selling incense and different arabic fabrics and clothing. Despite how much I love Singapore, I think the one thing I am most grateful for are the friends I have met while I have been here. I feel very privileged to have met people all across the world, from places like South Korea to America and Canada to countries all around Europe. As I start to pack up my things I think back to when I first arrived in my room and how nervous I was, especially when I realised there was no wifi and no way of contacting home, freaked out by the lizards and stressed out because of the humidity. 5 months later, I’ve learned to love the lizards and am definitely not looking forward to being cold in England.

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Kampong Glam

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Sentosa beach

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Skyline of Singapore

Looking back on academic differences and moving on to whatever’s next

By Nooa Karlo (University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong)

It’s finally the end. After a long four and half months, I’ll be leaving Hong Kong on Monday morning. It really doesn’t feel as long when looking back on the final day, though. It feels like the exam period that’s lasted for the past four weeks represents a kind of escalation in the perceived speed at which days have been passing. I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels this way. Everyone’s busy during exams, and I was especially so because I had so many modules that required final papers instead of exams, and the deadlines for those papers were almost all of them in early May. In addition, I spent four days travelling and visiting a friend in Taiwan in late April, which, while allowing me to take my mind off of studying, also took some energy. The April-May juncture left me quite exhausted, so I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to rest as much as I can. And now I have to leave? It feels very sudden, even though I’ve had everything planned and ready for over a month now. But at the same time I feel like I’m quite ready to move on.

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The National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan.

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Doing everything vs. staying sane

By Nooa Karlo, (University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong)

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Not a stereotypical exchange student.

There’s a common and stereotypical image of exchange students as these endlessly spirited and energetic creatures that will take every and any chance to find new experiences and opportunities. They’re people who are always smiling, going out, organising and participating in activities, partying, exploring and experiencing. Sometimes this also includes studying hard, sometimes not. In any case, it has been clear to me from the beginning that I did not fit well into this image. Continue reading “Doing everything vs. staying sane”

Independence

Following last weeks celebration of International Women’s Day, I decided to focus this blog on the theme of independence.

At NUS we are given a recess week half way through the semester, so we took this opportunity to spend a week in Vietnam. We spent the majority of our time in Hanoi but also spent two days in Ha Long Bay and one day in Ninh Binh, both of which were beautiful. However, throughout all the amazing things that we did and saw, it was the Women’s Museum in Hanoi that touched me the most. The museum was an extraordinary tribute to the women of Vietnamese history and of Vietnam today who have and continue to work for their nation and family. A documentary that was played in the museum exhibited the current situations of many of these women. With their husbands ill or unable to work, women that now work in Hanoi told their stories of how they wake up at ridiculous times like 4am to make their way to the market, so they can buy their produce to sell during the day. Usually not returning home till times like 11pm, they spend what little time they have tending to the house and their children before only having a couple of hours sleep before having to start the same day again. Their days are filled with terror as they are often chased by the police, and most days they barely make enough money to feed their family.

The most striking part of the whole museum, however, was one room filled with the photographs of hundreds of vietnamese women. These women have been named the ‘Heroic Mothers of Vietnam’. This title was granted to over 50,000 women who had lost more than two children, their only child, only one child, their husband and children or their own life. It was a title given to acknowledge the silent sacrifices of the thousands of women involved in the Vietnam War. One particular image from the museum, named “Mother and Son Reunite”, was a photo recording the reunion of an ex-Con Dao prisoner who was sentenced to death after being accused of being a Viet Cong spy, with his mother after many years of separation. I think the picture says enough for itself about sacrifice.

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Some of the ‘Heroic Mothers of Vietnam’

On returning from Vietnam, everything suddenly seemed to get a lot harder. The fun and travelling of the last month and a half had stopped and I was immediately bombarded with a lot more work than what I had had before. Everything had changed and I suddenly felt a whole lot further away from home. For a bit I was definitely guilty of wallowing in self-pity, but I would like to relay some words of wisdom from my very wise mother which will apply to all of you at home or overseas- wherever you are in the world. One night when I was feeling especially far away from home I called her in an understated attempt to stop feeling sorry for myself. She stopped me and told me to look at what I’ve got. She reminded me that I am in one of the highest percentiles of the luckiest and most privileged people in the world and that despite how I might be feeling right now, I needed to acknowledge the opportunity that has been given to me, that I needed to be strong and independent and use this chance in the best way I could.

As I think back to what I learned about the women in Vietnam who work 18 hours a day to keep their family alive, it seems ridiculous to feel sorry for myself because I miss home. For the women of Vietnamese history that have had to sacrifice so much more, it is important that we all appreciate the amazing chances that we have been given and continue to use them and encourage others in the future to do the same.

Here is my advice for anyone thinking about studying abroad, especially those thinking of going far away: it will be difficult, and it will be a lot more difficult than you ever thought it could be. I left Manchester and then home thinking that it would be easy, that I would miss home a bit but that I would be too absorbed in my new life to think about it. Trying to live a new life is more difficult than that. You have to adapt to the cultures of the people around you while still trying to establish a place for yourself. For me, this has come in ways as simple as not being able to understand the English that the Singaporeans speak, purely because of their accents and the words they use, even though their actual English is perfect. It can make you feel isolated but in the midst of that you have to force yourself to take a step back and think about what you have been given the chance to do. Have the strength to be independent like the Vietnamese women are forced to be every single day. You have been given a once in a lifetime opportunity, you may never have an opportunity to do anything similar to this again and because of that you can not let anything stop you from making the most of every single second. Go out into the world and learn about these other individuals like the Vietnamese women, it might just put your whole life into perspective.

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A group of school children rowing a traditional Vietnamese boat in Ninh Binh.

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Canoeing through Ha Long Bay

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Hanoi