Almost 9 months ago I came to Hong Kong form my study abroad year. When I arrived, I could have never imagined that this year would be so filled of experiences!
As I arrived in August, the first thing I experienced was apocalyptic rain. Because Hong Kong is situated in the sub-tropic climate zone and is as an island exposed to the sea, in summer there are typhoons and rains that are so massive that people stay in their houses the whole day. This also happened to me in the first month as lectures were cancelled one day and the whole world seemed to hide in their houses.
Apart from the rain, the first most impressive experiences for me were all the lights around the city, the different language, the characters, the humidity, the heat, the noise, the roasted ducks in the windows of the restaurants and all the busy people. So many things, that at first I felt really overwhelmed, even though after some time these things became more normal.
Going to university was another interesting experience, as alone the campus was much bigger than what I was used to in London. It can take you easily 10 minutes to get from one end to the other for example. And as the way from my flat to university was uphill, I always had a little morning exercise. In terms of academic experience, I would not want to miss this year at HKU, as the teaching and assessment techniques are very modern (I had for example several classes without final examination but with assignments over the year) and really encourage students to participate in class. Especially two political philosophy classes I had were very interesting. The protests happening at the same time in Hong Kong made these classes even more thriving. As the protests were a movement for democracy and against more control of the CCP in Beijing, we discussed a lot about the value of individual freedom and liberty and what philosophers like J.S. Mill already thought about that. The protests themselves were something that made my exchange year unique.
I tried to make local friends which took longer than I had expected. As I do breakdance, I found almost all my friends through dancing, except from some other close friends at university who were also exchange students or locals. I have to admit that it took me a while to get to know the people and to really become friends, as even though most of the people speak English, Cantonese stays the first language and the language everyone feels more comfortable speaking. However, most people are still very nice, especially if they see that you are also making an effort, and after some time I found a really nice group of friends who would show me around Hong Kong and introduce me to the Hong Kong culture with Chinese New Year dinners, Chinese BBQs, Chinese-style birthdays and so forth. This showed me that it may take time to make friends in a different cultural setting but that if you are open-minded and willing to make an effort, you will make really good friends as there are always people that are interested in your story especially if you come from another country.
Outside of university
After some time, I also started to get more involved in the dance scene in Hong Kong and started my own group at the University of Hong Kong where we would train several times a week, or I would go to the Polytechnic University to practice with my friends there. An interesting experience was also the Mass Dance at HKU which I participated in with only one more non-local girl. The Mass Dance is an annual dance performance at several places in Hong Kong with dance teams from the different universities. As all of the rehearsals were held in Cantonese, I learnt a few sentences in Cantonese and got an insight in the working morals of the local students, as rehearsals were held from seven to 12 at night and one had to formally inform the team leader if one could not make it. Even though it was much more of a commitment than I expected, I enjoyed taking part from a cultural perspective. After the dance I started to do my own dance projects and performed five times at social and fundraising events. I enjoyed these shows as I got in touch with many different people from Hong Kong.
Another thing that I enjoyed about Hong Kong is its close proximity to so many countries in Asia which makes traveling very easy and affordable. That gave me the chance to visit countries like Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and a few others during my year abroad. These journeys have taught me more about different cultures in Asia and also about different religions, as for example in Malaysia there are three different main religions, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. Other than that, the different landscapes, people, architecture and history made all these trips very distinct and special.
Looking back on the last year, I have learnt so much coming to Hong Kong that I am really glad I made this decision one year ago. The most important thing I learnt was that even though not everything is easy and there will be moments in which you miss home, the experiences you make and the people you meet with different backgrounds and stories to tell, make the experience totally worth while. It also showed me that if you really want to get to know a culture and become close friends with the local community, it is advisable to learn the language, that is one reason why I started learning Mandarin and picked up some Cantonese which is the local dialect. It might not be enough to discuss matters, it shows the people that you are making an effort and you are interested in the culture, so they will be generally nicer to you. Therefore, I would say the most important thing when going abroad is to be open-minded and not to judge too quickly about another culture, as it takes time to adapt to a different cultural setting but that if you are open-minded and willing to make an effort, you will make really good friends as there are always people that are interested in your story especially if you come from another country.
One option for studying in Hong Kong is the residential colleges, HKU has many different halls that are located either a walk or a short bus from the campus. HKU also provides its own bus service to campus if it is necessary which is a cheaper alternative to the already very cheap local buses.
Halls are either single sex or mixed, but in all cases each floor is either exclusively male or female. Often rooms in halls are shared but the option to have a single room is available but cannot always be guaranteed. If you approach the hall warden and let them know of your preference and they will do the best they can to accommodate you.
Hall culture in Hong Kong is very different to that of the UK. Students take the social aspect of halls very seriously as for many students in Hong Kong it is one of the best ways of getting to know people. Often halls will have a schedule of events which are designed to get everyone on the floor involved, this can range from a quiet night in watching a film all the way to coordinating a dance routine. And in keeping with Hong Kong culture these socials can often run into the very early hours of the morning. Another unique aspect to life in halls of residence is the high table dinners, these are meals that happen three times a semester that incorporate everyone in your halls and is often accompanied with a talk by a speaker (although on occasions the talk is in Cantonese). These are another great way to get to know people in your halls and are a good opportunity for ‘free’ food (the meal price is included as part of your overall accommodation fee).
While property prices in Hong Kong are very high (above those in London) residential colleges are highly subsidised by HKU, and therefore a budget of around £600-1000 per semester would be adequate if you choose to live in halls.
Further information on the residential colleges can be found here.
Often exchange students find themselves allocated to the student flats which are often located at halls of residence but are slightly different. They offer a slightly more independent way of living, while close to the halls they are not involved directly with the hall culture, and do not require access through the reception or the warden’s office. This option is a bit closer to the halls experience in the UK and therefore may be preferable to some students.
There is also the option to rent your own flat, this a good option if you want to live in a specific area of Hong Kong and have a more independent experience. If this is something you are thinking about the best advice is to organise it as early as possible. The process is very similar to that in London, with many properties available on the market and websites where you can find potential flatmates to share with.
It is important to note that private housing will be much more expensive than staying within university accommodation as it is not subsidised. Rental prices for property in Hong Kong are very comparable with London, for a two bedroom flat in Central you should expect to pay between £1300-1600 pcm.
Here is a good guide to renting privately in Hong Kong.
Top Ten Things
1. International city
Due to the pretty unusual history of Hong Kong it has become one the most international cities in the world. It was a British colony until 1997 and still has English as an official language alongside Cantonese. This makes it a perfect place to get to know China and Asia even without any prior experience. While you can explore the street markets and the try the local food, the option to shop at Top Shop or Pizza Express still remains.
While not the healthiest option, the McDonald’s in Hong Kong deserves a special mention. Firstly because the majority of restaurants in Hong Kong are open 24 hours and are accompanied by a 24-hour delivery service. But secondly, McDonald’s in Hong Kong is extremely cheap, ranked by The Economist as the 5th cheapest place in the world in the Big Mac Index. The 24- hour delivery service is also not limited to McDonald’s, with many places able to deliver 24-hours meaning that the lure of fast food is going to be even harder to avoid.
Being an island, Hong Kong has a number of fantastic beaches located on both Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon side, but it is also surrounded by over 200 smaller islands, some of which are accessible by boat for a small fee. One of the most popular beaches is known as Repulse Bay and is accessible by bus from just outside the university campus, so there is no excuse not to take advantage of the weather.
4. Octopus card
Similar to London’s Oyster card, the Hong Kong Octopus card is a vital part of living in the city. It entitles you to discounts on the various forms of transport, and is integrated into many shops and cafes. It is possible to buy your weekly shop on your Octopus card at the convenience stores or in the supermarket, and is even the card you use for university printing.
The weather in Hong Kong is very different to the United Kingdom. Unsurprisingly the average temperature is consistently higher than that of London, but it is also very humid which encourages impressive thunderstorms. One essential experience in Hong Kong is watching a thunderstorm from one of many high vantage points in the city as they are truly spectacular.
6. Campus university
Being a student at HKU offers a chance to experience a university campus environment. It is a nice contrast to student life in London, with the library and lectures all located in the same place. There are also a variety of places to eat, including two Starbucks that offer a 33 per cent student discount, as well as a HSBC and mini-supermarket making life much easier.
7. Music library
Located on the Centennial campus the music library is one of the hidden gems of the HKU campus. The library itself is very small and has very few books, but it is situated at the very top of the Run Run Shaw Tower and has fantastic views all the way across to Kowloon and out into the sea.
8. Travelling in Asia
The location of Hong Kong means that you are just a short flight away from many great places to visit in Asia. As a result, it is often possible to find cheap flights to places like Thailand, Vietnam and even Japan. A trip to China is highly recommended, although you require a visa, it is great fun and offers an interesting contrast with life in Hong Kong.
The international nature of Hong Kong means that there are a great variety of places to keep you entertained in the evening. Familiar ‘pubs’ are located in central in an area called Soho and has a familiar feel to that of London’s Soho. The famous Lan Kwai Fong has many bars and clubs and is the place to be on Friday or Saturday nights. The Wan Chai area is also popular, particularly with students, and ladies night offers free drinks to ladies all night.
10. Stanley-Ho Sports Centre
Located down the hill from the Queen Elizabeth hospital the Stanley-Ho Sports Centre offers a range of great sporting facilities for students at HKU, including a gym and an outdoor swimming pool. Equipment is available to hire for a small fee and the use of the facilities is free for all students at HKU, there is also an online booking system to help you plan your sporting fun.
As part of your degree at King’s College London you are required to take 60 KCL credits per semester, 1 credit at HKU are equal to 2 KCL credits. For example a 6 HKU credit module is equivalent to a 12 KCL credit module. This means to meet your requirements to King’s you must take 30 HKU credits per semester, this is usually taken in the form of five 6 HKU credit modules per semester if you are only studying for half the year, but can be more flexible if your exchange is for the whole of the year.
HKU has a slightly different attitude towards module selection, during the first week all lectures are introductory and students are encouraged to attend as many lectures as they are interested in before making a final decision on your module selections. At HKU you module selection is done online via your student account and confirmation of your enrolment will be sent to you via email.
It is important to remember that while you may have already chosen modules as part of your application to HKU these may not necessarily be set in stone as a result of timetable clashes, changing content of the module or availability of the module. Therefore it is important that during the first week you attend as many classes to get a feel for each module, as ideally you should aim to be formally enrolled within the first week, so as not to miss the more important classes during to second week onwards.
It is not a requirement that you are enrolled on a course to attend a class so don’t let that put you off. During your time away it is generally accepted that you take at least 50% of your credits from your subject at King’s, and therefore your time away offers you the opportunity to take modules from different faculties.
Assessment at HKU is slightly different to that at King’s, modules are usually assessed through a variety of aspects including: exams, essays, participation, attendance, presentations and group work. While exams and essays still make up the majority of the marks for the modules, participation and attendance offer a good chance to get some easy marks.
If for a legitimate reason you cannot attend a class that is attendance or participation assessed, make sure that you inform your professor or TA, they are usually understanding on the matter particularly when it comes to exchange students.
Repulse Bay - A 30 minute bus ride from the HKU campus, Repulse Bay is a great place to chill and relax on the weekend. It has fantastic views and is located close to many places to eat including a Pizza Hut and a 7/11 so there is plenty of opportunity to keep yourself stocked up throughout the day. Getting there by bus from Central (numbers 6, 6A, 260, 6X), from Causeway Bay and North Point (numbers 63, 65), or even from Tsim Sha Tsui on Kowloon side (number 973)
Dragon's Back Hike -A great hike for people of all abilities, located on the south east of Hong Kong Island, it is a great opportunity for a little bit of exercise in exchange for some of the best rural views in Hong Kong. After finishing the Dragon's Back you are just a short journey from relaxing on Shek O breach or grabbing a bite to eat in Stanley.
Lan Kwai Fong - If you haven't discovered it already, Lan Kwai Fong (LKF) is a great place to go out and meet new people and experience the most famous area for night life in Hong Kong. There are loads of different bars and clubs to visit. Check out www.hkclubbing.com for all the up to date information on upcoming events.
Wan Chai Racecourse - Although not a weekend activity, visiting the Happy Valley Racecourse at Wan Chai on a Wednesday is a must. From 7pm-11pm races run regularly at one of Hong Kong's most iconic settings. After the final race the local bars and clubs in Wan Chai offer cheap drinks to give you the change to spend your winnings.
Ocean Park - The Ocean Park is a theme park on a mountain side, on arrival you have the choice of taking a cable car or a underground train up to the mountain peak which overlooks repulse bay. Beyond the theme park rides there are also plenty of other attractions including an aquarium, a panda sanctuary and penguin colony.
Lantau Island - It is possible to take the ferry from Central to many of the nearby islands to the Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, the ferries are very cheap and are another fun way to get around during your time in Hong Kong. Attractions on Lantau include the giant Tian Tan Buddah, Disneyland Hong Kong, a cable car, stilt fishing villages and the beach.
Temple Street Market - Located on the Kowloon side Temple street is the largest of the night markets in Hong Kong, it is a great place to buy anything from cheap electrical to imitation branded items. Like all markets in Hong Kong it has a great atmosphere and there are many great places to grab a food or drink, don’t forget to bargain, at least a third off the asking price should be your target to avoid getting ripped off.
Air Asia and Cathay Pacific Fanfares - Travelling to a different part of Asia is always a great option in Hong Kong, situated close to so many great destinations flights are much cheaper than they would be from the UK. Air Asia is Asia’s biggest low cost airline and flies regularly to and from Hong Kong. Cathay Pacific also offer a limited number of cheap flights for 3-5 day trips to countries further afield that appear weekly online.
Studying abroad was certainly an experience I will never forget. I feel that the experience was something that benefitted my studies, my outlook and my ambitions for the future.
Although I had always thought about studying abroad at some point during my degree, I still remember the doubts that I held during my first weeks in Hong Kong: is it too foreign? Is it too far? What will I eat? But now I know that this was just a natural stage in what was a very different environment. The fact that despite my doubts, I ended up having so much fun is one of the biggest positives I was able to take from the experience.
Meeting new people is always both exciting and exhausting, but when combined with a foreign environment it can be quite challenging. But it only took me a couple of days to realize that my situation was not unique and there were plenty of other students looking to meet people. The result was that I was lucky to make many friends from all over the world, and I regularly keep in contact with them. Meeting people from different backgrounds and cultures was a really eye opening experience and has whetted my appetite to continue to travel.
Being a student at HKU taught me the value of alternative perspectives. Despite Hong Kong’s large international community, I remained a minority and this was something that was totally different to being in London. This became especially notable during seminar discussions, where I found not only the structure of the teaching, but also the conclusions of my classmates very different. This taught me valuable lessons applicable to my course as well as in life. I remember the stark difference between the local and international reporting of the arrival of Edward Snowden in Hong Kong. Internationally Snowden was portrayed as a fugitive in hiding, whereas locally he was an asylum seeker in a hotel in Tsim Sha Tsiu.
The biggest lesson I learned during my time away was that I realised I would be comfortable living in a foreign environment. Being away for a year or a semester is not like visiting somewhere on holiday. You get to learn the city like a local and get into a routine just as you do in London. I believe this was something I could only have got through experience, and despite reassurances from people that I would have a great time, it wasn’t until I took the plunge that I realized they were right.
Like many of my friends who studied abroad I have only one regret: that it didn’t go on for longer!