By Gemma Dignam (University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong)
One of my favourite parts of living in Hong Kong was the food, but I quickly realised that the food and eating culture here was not very sustainable. It was quite different to my experience in the UK, where I would cook at home and eat out very little. However, in Hong Kong it’s the opposite! Grocery shopping is quite expensive and the kitchen space is quite small in any accommodation, and this along with a busy schedule would mean that most meals you tend to eat out, as this is quite cheap. However, I did notice it came with some environmental costs.
By Gemma Dignam (University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong)
One of the highlights of going on exchange is getting to travel in your spare time, whether that be in your host country, or visiting neighbouring countries or cities. Due to Covid restrictions still being in place in Hong Kong, we are not able to travel abroad without hotel quarantining on our return- which is not an option on our student budget and schedule! Although this was disappointing to most of us exchanges who wished to travel to surrounding countries, we quickly realised the extent of travel options within Hong Kong itself- and most of them can be done in a much more sustainable way than if we had travelled elsewhere by plane. Hong Kong boasts excellent public transport facilities and here are the ways I have used them to visit the must-see sites of Hong Kong so far, there is no need for a car or even a taxi!
After a 9-hour flight finally landing in Hong Kong, it brought a huge sigh of relief that I had finally made it after all the trouble and work needed to get here. As soon as you get off the plane, it becomes clear that there are still some things that need to be done before you can enjoy what Hong Kong has to offer. That is the two-week quarantine and the covid testing in the airport. It took me four hours of waiting for my covid test at the airport before I could finally be transported to my designated quarantine hotel, which felt like a whole day as the fantastic view you had from the airport only made you want to leave that place more and go outside.
When I began this adventure in January, this was not at all how I envisioned it ending. Coronavirus and government recall meant that I had to leave sunny Singapore very quickly. Whilst the government recall, the pain of getting a new plane ticket and, leaving all my new friends behind was not how I envisioned it ending, I can’t say it hasn’t been memorable.
My time abroad has not only allowed me the opportunity to travel and have amazing new adventures, but stretch and challenge myself. I will never forget the amazing views of sunrises in Surabaya, rainforests in Laos, and lanterns in Taiwan. However, for me it was the people who made my experience so amazing. I never thought I would make such important friendships so quickly, and yet we’ve already planned our New Years celebration together! People often joke that you “find yourself in Southeast Asia”, and I definitely found the best group of friends. People who I would quite literally jump off a cliff after, and people who immediately agreed to finish my checklist with me on my very sudden last days in Singapore. I feel extremely lucky to have shared amazing memories with these people, and I know this is the first of many adventures for us!
I also feel that Singapore has made a lasting impact on me. I am more spontaneous and willing to take risks, to plan a trip on Thursday night and leave Friday morning. It has broadened my horizons by allowing me to take risks and grow. I know I can travel alone and live on the other side of the world and it not end in mass disaster. Living abroad has made me more independent and self-sufficient. From organising my own VISA, to navigating boarder crossings at night, it’s safe to say that I definitely learnt a variety of life skills!
Whilst my time in Southeast Asia was cut short, I wouldn’t trade my experience, or the friendships I made! (And don’t worry I’ll be back there next summer for a new adventure!)
To those students going abroad in Semester 2 just as I did, the long wait between receiving your placement offer and that eventual flight out can feel endless. There were many times I found myself frantically trying to recount why I’d wanted to go abroad in the first place – the initial excitement now wearing off and the reality of the wait ahead sinking in.
But as a student who DID go, and who found herself lying awake on one of her last nights at the National University of Singapore, thinking – almost alarmed – about the fact she’d nearly cancelled her placement; here are the five things I wish I knew before studying abroad, which would have made that wait easier.
1.There really is nothing quite like studying abroad
There’s summer travel, sure, but being in a foreign place and living like a local with a stream of new friends at your disposal, and plenty of pastoral and financial support? Now that’s something I could do with more often! While abroad I became so aware of how unique this experience was. Having the support from a university (particularly in a pandemic) in this process was invaluable, and knowing I had assistance should I have run into difficulty mean’t I was able to enjoy the experience so much more fully. It’s an opportunity I would recommend to anyone, and one I feel sad I won’t be able to replicate again.
2. Your university friends won’t move on without you
This is the hard part. Many students worry about this! Although you’ll be gone a long time and life can get busy, stay in touch with your uni friends. Find out what’s happening back home and share with them what new things you’re trying. When you come back, if you find you’re not as close to some people as when you left – that’s okay! It’s a normal part of life! But those core people really do stay with you. My study abroad came as a time where I felt my social life was peaking, I was growing closer to new friends, and I couldn’t see why I’d ‘ruin’ a good thing. All I can say is: take the plunge! It feels crazy in the moment, but a second semester in Manchester, although fun, never really could have challenged and enriched me like a semester abroad did.
3. A little bit of uncertainty does you good
Studying in a foreign country can seem incredible daunting. New people, new routines, new food – but if anything, being abroad made me so much calmer and far more adaptable to unfamiliar situations – without me even realising it! There are moments you feel homesick, or caught unawares, or out of your depth – but they pass, and leave you a little bit more resilient each time. There’s no growth without a bit of challenge.
4. You’ll learn to become a tourist in your own city
It really did take spending three months studying 10,841km away from home to remind me how thrilling it is to be a tourist. When I returned that summer that feeling stayed, and I found myself really taking in the places I grew up in, but seeing all the usual details I’d usually miss. Even the most mundane things fascinated me whilst abroad – all those little cultural differences we aren’t even aware of. Coming home, I paid more attention to them and more so in my final year at Manchester.
5. You really won’t stop talking about it when you come home
Everyone always jokes about the gap year students who talk non-stop about the time they spent abroad – but that’s for a reason, and it’s going to become you! Your friends might roll their eyes, but so many little things back home home will remind you of what you miss about your time abroad. It could be an inside joke no one understands, or an insatiable craving for those amazing paratha in the uni canteen you now need to replicate, or being able to sit outside on warm evenings with friends now scattered across the globe. These things stay with you, and although sometimes missing them hits hard, I really do feel so lucky to have something to miss!
Prior to moving to Singapore for the year, I had never even travelled beyond Europe. What lay ahead of me was a mystery, aside from the wild assumptions strangers told me and the random bits of information I got off google…
If I could go back to a year ago today, this is what I would tell 2019 Poppy.
A brief overview of the trips I took and if I think they’re worth the buck…
Lombok (a more undeveloped Bali, yet it offers a lot of the same opportunities)
Amazing food – a vegans dream, cheap cheap… make sure you try the Nasi Goreng & Mei Goreng!
Activities, activities and more activities: white water rafting, scuba diving (manta rays, shipwrecks), sunrise hikes and of course surfing all year around – are just some of the things you could get up to!
If you like dancing into the night, Bali is home to Asia’s best beach parties … Oldmans & Sandbar is where to be (every night).
**Stay in Canggu, Lay Day Surf Hostel (avoid Seminyak & Kuta)!
Kuala Lumpur(the cliché exchangers first getaway)
Overall, it was one the most modern and clean cities I’ve been to in SE Asia outside of Singapore. The Batu Caves are worth going to, most likely for that Instagram post, be ready to be sweaty.
This will most likely be your first escape from Singapore and its prices… However, be aware that Kuala Lumpur isn’t as cheap as you’d anticipate!
Tioman island(a divers dream, not much attraction to the island besides its waters)
Langkawi (a great short trip)
Langkawi was one of my favourite islands during my time, a great weekend trip. Lots of water sports, cheap motorbikes and white beaches.
*would recommend staying at ‘bed altitude’ hostel!
Easy to get to/ fast transport – can get the bus from Singapore.
Can be done on the cheap – £20 return bus.
The worse food in SE Asia (for me).
I only have positive things to say about this island… extremely cheap, filled with some great adventures, beaches and day trips to other nearby islands.
Cliff jumping at Kawasan falls was great – only if you’re prepared for a 15m jump off a waterfall!
Great for diving – Malapascua for the Thresher Sharks, Oslob for the Whale Sharks and Moalboal for the famous Sardine Run.
Palawan – El Nido & Coron
Both of these islands are known for their day trips… do you think you’ve got what it takes to hack a full day of lagoon and beach hopping?
It’sa hard life!
*I’d highly recommend catching the 5 day boat trip from el Nido to Coron (if you’ve still got enough cash to keep you afloat)!
This is a little surf island located in the southeast region of the Philippines -making it super hard to get to!
But if you do, it’s home to some of the worlds’ best breaks (recently held the world surf championship).
Like the rest of the Philippines it’s plagued with palm trees and white sands, however it is one of the more expensive spots due to the wave-seekers
Also surfing brings a more bohemian crowd (one that does not only break a sweat over the waves, but also over how instagram-able their smoothie bowl is)!
Bangkok (the shorter stay the better)
Koh Tao (a personal fav but an extremely difficult place to get to)
Phuket (a means to an end – Phi Phi)
Phi Phi islands (beautiful beaches but there isn’t much to do beside party or dive)
Sorry to sound like your mother but… be careful. I’ve experienced a lot of bad things happen in this country:
NYE my phone as well as my friends wallet were pickpocketed.
Another trip, a friends phone was stolen in the airport and never found.
A close friend was assaulted on his way home after a night out.
**I would not recommend visiting the Phi Phi islands out of season, everything from the clubs to the restaurants were closed for renovations.
Goes without saying the food is phenomenal here!
Overall, in my opinion there’s better ways to spend your time and money in this region.
Don’t plan before arriving, circumstances change i.e. monsoons, typhoons…
Remember low season usually means no nightlife!
A trip always costs more than expected.
Book last minute as Southeast Asia’s the weather is extremely volatile.
Last week I received my final grades from the National University of Singapore, officially marking the end of my time as an international exchange student. For me, these grades do not only indicate the academic progress that I’ve made, but they also remind me of the personal development I’ve made over the past year.
To demonstrate this, I’m going to reflect upon some of the objectives I set out before undertaking my exchange:
Experience new culture: I was fortunate enough to be linked with a local Singaporean family for the entirety of my exchange. This benefited me immensely, allowing me to gain an invaluable insight into local events such as Chinese New Year.
Learn new skills: previously a scuba diving novice, now I am looking to take this skill to a professional level… also, I’ve mastered the art of falling off a motorbike (that’s definitely one for the CV)!
Network: I forged connections and developed lifelong friendships in every continent across the globe. For example, some of my best friends are now situated in: Canada, Germany, Holland and South Korea…(they tell you in your pre-departure meetings that a year aboard is expensive, but they don’t tell you that your post-departure trips are even more expensive)!
Push yourself out of your comfort zone: living over six-thousand miles from home, inevitably, I have had to face a wide range of new and unfamiliar circumstances whether that be new flatmates or speaking in a foreign language.
Taste new cuisine: I experienced a plethora of different food; frog soup to Filipino Balut.
Take up new interests: hours of non-stop surfing without a break, actually no, I broke my rib…
I am truly grateful for this unforgettable opportunity and it is something that will resonate with me for the rest of my life.
Top Tips for New Exchange Students
“It won’t happen to me”… unfortunately, it most certainly will.
Not to mention the obvious global pandemic during my time… but its almost certain, you’ll to encounter some kind of emergency scenario, whether that be an earthquake, a typhoon or a trip to A&E.
To paint a realistic picture, all of those events listed above happened to me… an Indonesian earthquake, a Filipino typhoon and multiple medical trips. For example, I tallied up a total of four countries in which I have been admitted to A&E during my time as an NUS exchange student (Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore if you’re curious).
You will NEVER have enough money or time to do everything on your travel to do list 😦
For me, I didn’t get a chance to embark upon half of my travel plans… it’s pretty simply really, the more you travel, the more you want to see. You’ll meet people all across various hostels in Southeast Asia that’ll recommend you countless places, which is great, but one day your travel during exchange will come to an end.
A word of wisdom, its more often than not that you’ll go over any travel budget so make sure you’ve got supplementary funds – can you get an over-overdraft?
For my Next Chapter
I am now looking forward to commencing my summer internship at the Department for International Trade within the Civil Service.
Once again, I believe this will be an invaluable opportunity, and I hope to build upon the skills I have developed over the course of the past year.
Firstly, my scuba novice journey started right at the beginning of first semester, where I found a fellow exchange student who was also down to take the plunge…
After a bit of scrolling, we came across a Singaporean dive shop that offers an integrated package: including the Open Water certification and a fully funded dive trip to Malaysia – only for £400 (Roughly the same price as what the certification costs alone in other places such as Europe)!
So if you’re another newbie who’s up for starting scuba, Southeast Asia is one of the cheapest & best regions to try it – I really can’t recommend this enough!
Not Your Normal Noel
The same day as I finished my final exam of first semester, me and a dive buddy jetted off, spending the first three weeks of our xmas holidays in the Philippines… could have been worse!
First things first. We rented motorbikes and headed to Malapascua, small island situated off the coast of Cebu.
The main attraction to this archipelago is to go see the Thresher Shark. But first we had to get our Advanced Open Water certification (so we could dive down to 30 meters).
The sharks tail grows to the same length as its body, and they use this tail to kill their prey...
Next, we went to Moalboal to see the famous ‘Sardine Run’ – a twisting mass of billions of sardines.
Then, Oslob to see the Whale Sharks – the largest shark in the world.
Finally, Boxing Day did not hold your usual sort of festivities…
No turkey but Thai, no charades but shipwrecks!
Instead of a 3 course dinner, it was 3 dives… The main course was diving the 85mKing cruiser wreck.
The wreck is a passenger transporter that sank in 1997. It hit the Anemone Reef with over 100 people onboard (all survived so no skeletons were seen).
Just to add to this once in a lifetime opportunity, we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the solar eclipse during our dive interval!
Semester Two Dives
In Semester two, I got in three more dives; they were in the Philippines. Shock.
This time they were off the coast of Coron. There are over 10 shipwrecks off the island…
It is said that it takes a month to dive them all (so I will definitely be returning at some point in the future)!
Akitsushima is a 115m seaplane tender of the Imperial Japanese Navy, it was sunk during WWII in Sept 1944.
I’m in no doubt that this hobby has only just started for me. It has already changed my future travel plans dramatically, rather than just looking at where the best weather is, you also start checking when and where are the best places to go diving.
I’ve set myself the goal of completing my divemaster qualification, this is the highest qualification you can achieve before being an instructor. Also, I fancy doing it soon because I want to dive before all the oceans are ruined! So I’ve set myself the ambition to complete my divemaster before I’m 30. For me, the most appealing places are:
Gili islands – Indonesia
Great Barrier Reef – Australia
I know I have taken up a very expensive lifelong habit, but at the same time, I really can’t thank this exchange experience enough for starting it.
“You’re going to Singapore? But you won’t be able to eat anything!”
“You might be able to get away with not eating meat, but you’ll definitely have to eat fish and animal products”
“Is veganism even a thing in Singapore?”
These are word for word things that were said to me when I told people I was going to live in Singapore. Whether you too are a vegetarian/vegan, haunted by these words of discouragement, or maybe you yourself have said one of those phrases above, this blog post is here to bust those myths!