A combination of a broken laptop and forgetting to bring my charger on holiday to Japan have meant that this blog has been a lot later than intended. I have so much to say and I’ll try not to ramble as I write this.
Like most young men heading to live abroad for the first time, I was given advice by friends and relatives about what to do. “Eat healthily, don’t get a tattoo, don’t go out alone late at night, don’t get into any trouble with the law (whilst it’s true that my only experience of confinement is voluntary house arrest during my early teens when my acne was at its worst, it’s more than enough to put me off the prospect of spending time in a Chinese prison)”.
I guess there are two obvious questions I should probably answer. Why do a year abroad? I hope it to be a “gap year” without it being a “gap yah”; I hoped to meet people from around the world, explore different cultures whilst having some structure to my year and hopefully learn some stuff in the process. Why Hong Kong University? Firstly, as a self-confessed philosophy nerd, I was really hoping to study Asian philosophy. For all of Durham’s strengths, the philosophy department focuses mostly on the Anglo-American tradition. Secondly, I’ve never been to Asia and I thought that living in Hong Kong would be as far about as far out of my comfort zone as possible.
Whilst I don’t want to be as quick to rush to judgement as those blokes off Arsenal fan TV about the new season, Hong Kong has been fabulous so far and much better than what I imagined. My expectations have absolutely been surpassed.
I would assume that most people reading this are considering doing a Year Abroad, or visiting Hong Kong. With this in mind, I thought I would leave some top dos and don’ts
Use the app Revolut. This has been really really helpful since arriving as setting up a bank account without being a Hong Kong citizen is very difficult. The app will let you transfer money into a large number of currencies without any additional costs at the going exchange rate. You can withdraw money and pay for stuff like any ordinary debit card. It will also track your spending and will tell you how much you are spending on food, books, transport etc.
Learn with to eat with chopsticks. I would recommend starting with wooden ones over plastic or metal ones where possible. Although this is a fairly basic skill, I unfortunately have the dexterity of an octogenarian with arthritis. I have had a good few food-related faux pas – the worst moment was trying to eat some spicy noodle soup, dropping the noodles in the soup and causing the spicy sauce to splash into my eye. I then spent the next 15 minutes in considerable pain. With hindsight, I would have saved myself much embarrassment if I’d taken the time to learn this summer.
Explore some of the UK/Europe back home. I’ve been fortunate to do quite a lot of travelling in Asia so far (more on that below). However, it’s made me realise that I am very lucky to live in Western Europe. There is no excuse for me never going to Edinburgh, even though it is less than 2 hours away from Durham on the train. Thanks to Airbnb and low-cost airlines, popping abroad to visit European cities has never been so easy and it’s a shame that it has taken a trip to Hong Kong for me to realise this.
Like techno music/ learn to like/ pretend to like techno music. This may be a strange point and this may have something to do with hanging out with several techno-mad Germans since I’ve arrived, but techno is huge in Hong Kong. There is an enormous techno festival next month and I was lucky enough to go to a fantastic techno beach party a couple of weeks ago. I will admit my first experience of techno music sounded very similar to a washing machine and I questioned how anyone could possibly enjoy it. However, it has grown on me a large amount since I’ve arrived. To quote a friend, “techno is like a language, the first time you listen to it you won’t make sense of it but as you listen more your understanding will improve”
Explore Hong Kong!! Hong Kong is honestly incredible. I’ve never been anywhere like it. There is so much to do and see. The biggest misconception I had before going is that it would be a dense city without any countryside. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There are so many beaches, hiking routes, lagoons, caves and waterfalls; not to mention having all the amenities of a global city. Every weekend is a new adventure.
Be afraid to talk to strangers. This may be contrary to the advice we received as little children and I would still advocate caution in some situations (see below). However, I think being “Western” in an Asian city I think causes a sense of kinship which definitely does not exist back in the UK, (whether this segregation between locals and foreigners is a good or bad thing is another matter entirely). As a result, it is really easy to strike up and have enlightening conversations with complete strangers. One highlight was meeting a hilarious South African guy who repeatedly claimed to be the most confident person we’d ever meet. To prove his point he went up to a complete stranger and proceeded to critique and analyse the guy’s dress sense.
Be prepared to live in luxury. As my housemates last year would happily testify, I’m not the tidiest person you’ll ever meet and will happily rough it up. As space is at a premium, rents in Hong Kong are extortionate. I am fortunately living in University owned accommodation and I am very grateful that it is considerably lower than the market price (in fact, it’s much cheaper than my rent last year in Durham). That being said, a large number of appliances including the microwave, air conditioning and shower do not work or partially work and we are on the 7th floor of the building (there is no lift). This is by no means a criticism of the university, and several people who are not students have similar experiences . The point I am making is that accommodation in the UK is held to a much higher standard than in Hong Kong, a large part due to Hong Kong rents being some of the most expensive in the world.
I am aware that this is a Year Abroad blog and not a travel one and I could go on for a very long time about my various shenanigans. Nonetheless, I feel like travelling is part of the Year Abroad experience and I have had the chance to go to Singapore, Seoul and Japan and I think it would be remiss if I didn’t mention anything about it.
The first place I went to was Seoul, and I actually travelled with complete strangers (though I’m now very good friends with them). Someone posted on the exchange Facebook group saying that they were going there in a couple of days and asked if anyone could recommend things to do and that they would welcome anyone who wanted to tag along. I didn’t have anything planned that weekend so I sent her a message and booked my flight. Unfortunately, there wasn’t space at the hostel and I slept on the floor/roof but it was a really fun trip.
My housemate last year is from Singapore and I went to visit him before he flew back to Durham to finish his final year. Singapore is a gorgeous country with fantastic weather, views and food. My friend took me to this place known for serving this wrap called popiah, the filling including tofu, chilli and bean sprouts. This is quite possibly the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. I think of the individuals, past and present, who are most revered across the world – Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, Mother Theresa and (if my friends are to believed) Harry Kane. Only these few individuals are worthy of eating this delight. For the rest of us mere mortals, this truly is the forbidden fruit, the food we need and don’t deserve.
Hong Kong University has a “reading week”, where we are meant to write essays and revise for exams the week after. The majority of exchange students take this as an opportunity to go on holiday and I arrived back from Japan yesterday. I will have to admit, Japan was the weirdest experience of my life. There is far too much for me to go into detail, but one anecdote I think worth sharing was bumping into a very well dressed Japanese lady whose English mainly consisted of the words “I like your jumper”. She then proceeded to follow us around for the next 6 hours including going to a techno club with us. We tried both running and hiding to escape her but we she followed us at every turn. We have no idea where she was from and there is a healthy amount of debate about what her name actually was.
I’ve probably gone on for long enough now. I’m now very busy doing all the work I should have done in reading week and I’ll check back in a month or so.