*This is the seventh post for the Longhorn Abroad series. Advertising senior and Shuffle staff writer Dana Summers studied abroad in Hong Kong for six weeks this summer.
I’m about as much of a country bumpkin as it gets. My first time leaving Texas since I was four years old was in May of this year. My entire life has been centered around Central Texas, my small hometown and my college town only an hour away. My only glimpse of the outside world has been through reading pages and pages of different countries’ Wikipedia pages. Fortunately, I received a study abroad scholarship for first generation college students when I was a freshman and then BAM-three years later I’m in Hong Kong.
Going to Hong Kong was easily one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. From viewing the city from the highest bar in the world, to bargaining aggressively at open-air markets, to a rather embarrassing night of bar hopping near Wan Chai’s red light district, I have expanded my worldview tenfold. Here are a few thoughts and a regret I have about my time in Hong Kong that can help first time students abroad get the most out of their experience:
1. Befriend people who know what they are doing
Due to the fact that the international students were separated from local students for housing and classes, I didn’t get to hang out with many local students. However, I did get the opportunity to befriend other international students who knew Hong Kong like the back of their hand and even spoke Cantonese. So, instead of struggling through my first few times venturing out, I got a chance to go to all the best places with people who knew what the hell they were doing. They introduced me to the best food Hong Kong has to offer and could navigate through places where English wasn’t gonna cut it. I loved that they shared their culture with me and I quickly learned all the do’s and don’ts about Cantonese culture. There were so many situations that would have turned out terribly if I wasn’t with them, and there are so many things I wouldn’t have learned if I only hung out with a bunch of wide-eyed Americans like myself.
2. Travel ≠ open mindedness
The first thing my mother warned me about before I left for Hong Kong was to not be like those people who travel somewhere and then spend the whole time complaining about how the food and the TV and everything isn’t exactly like it is back home. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I encountered from some other international students. There were people who only ate Western food and acted like Cantonese food was repulsive and beneath them. People complained about Hong Kong’s fast paced, no nonsense lifestyle that left little room for the courtesies and pleasantries found in the US. Some were just complaining for the sake of complaining, including this German student who was complaining about rice as if it isn’t a staple food for thousands of cultures across the globe. Some of it was warranted, like the struggle the vegetarians went through or if someone was black, like me, and faced the stares, but most of it was just people acting petty. Much of this behavior stemmed from discomfort with the unfamiliar, and sometimes a superiority complex, mostly from the Western students. I was guilty of this as well at times, but I tried to be as open as possible and adapt, rather than completely reject something just because it’s different.
3. Do shit you can’t do back home
No, I don’t necessarily mean drinking. I mean, if you’re from the US and end up in Hong Kong where the drinking age is 18 instead of 21 then go crazy, but I’m talking about things like going to your first protest. July 1st in Hong Kong is a national holiday celebrating Hong Kong being handed over from Great Britain to China in 1997. So, naturally there are huge protests downtown every year dealing with Hong Kong’s dissatisfaction with its Mainland counterpart. Many international students from other countries where protesting is illegal went to the center of the city to see the protests in action. For me, it was the much simpler and less political task of going to the beach. While there are beaches in Texas, I’ve never been to one before since my world revolves around central Texas. So, during my last weekend in Hong Kong, I ended up at Shek O beach where the sands where golden and the beach was surrounded by lush, rolling hills. I was in absolute paradise and I could have stayed there forever. It’s a bit strange that I had to go halfway around the world to go to my first beach, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
4. Fear is the enemy
I regret letting fear get in the way of me taking full advantage of my stay in Hong Kong. For the longest, I was afraid to go into the city by myself due to my unfamiliarity with the language and landscape. I didn’t start going on errands or shop by myself in the city until the end of my stay in Hong Kong, and even then I limited myself to places that I knew or that were very close to the train station. I was also very apprehensive to use some of the Cantonese phrases I learned because I was afraid of accidentally offending someone or looking like a fool. My biggest regret, though, is that despite being a short train ride away from the city of Shenzhen in Mainland China, I never put in any effort to get a visa and visit. I told myself it was too expensive, but the same money I spent bargaining for fake purses at Hong Kong’s infamous Ladies Market could have been spent on a visa. While I can put some blame on laziness, it was really an underlying fear of going to the Mainland. After a lifetime of watching China be portrayed as some big scary goliath that is going to usurp the US’s position as the world’s dominate world power and hearing nothing but horror stories in American media, it was difficult to mentally put aside that negativity and go see the place for myself. While befriending both Mainlanders and Hong Kongers has definitely educated me more on the Mainland, I should have visited the Mainland instead of letting fear stemming from ignorance make my decisions.
Studying in Hong Kong changed my life. Now that I have a taste for travel, I want to expand my global view even further and learn as much about the world from a firsthand point of view. No only that, but I’ve developed an interest for international business and hope to make a career out of traveling and adapting to different business cultures. For me, reading a country’s Wikipedia page will no longer suffice.