Exchange at City University of Hong Kong
It has now been 4 months since I have arrived in Hong Kong and started my exchange at City University of Hong Kong and now that the semester is over and my stay is coming to an end, I can’t help but feel down about leaving. Upon first arriving at Hong Kong, I must admit that I was scared. I’ve never lived anywhere outside of Australia and even the thought of going out to buy dinner on my first night in Hong Kong had me terrified. It’s hard adapting to a new place and the addition of a language barrier makes it quite daunting. For the first couple of weeks, I was too nervous to visit the local restaurants and stuck with self-service groceries and food chains, gradually working my way up to purchasing from cashiers and fumbling my way through ordering off Cantonese menus. These initial weeks put me way out of my comfort zone and although my anxiety was through the roof, I’m so glad I put in the time to gain more confidence in my new environment.
I opted out of student accommodation at the City University of Hong Kong (CityU) and decided to find my own apartment in Kennedy Town on Hong Kong Island thus, I couldn’t meet my peers until orientation week. The orientation week mainly consisted of campus tours and group activities run by local students however, the overall structured and purpose driven method that the orientation week was run in made it hard to get to know people during these times. The exchange student Whatsapp chat had many events organise by exchange students and I was able to get to know more people by going out for drinks, going on hikes and dinner outside of school-run activities.
I am currently studying double bachelor’s degrees in engineering and international studies and only took elective subjects for my International Studies degree. These electives are highly flexible and are not too restrictive overall. I decided to study a range of different subjects which included: Chinese Music Appreciation, Cantonese Beginners, Global Social Movements and Architecture and Space in Chinese Culture. All these subjects only included one weekly lecture however, each lecture lasted 3 hours at a time. The classrooms at CityU are mainly large lecture theatres or classrooms with seats with half-desks attached to them. The subjects I found particularly enjoyable were Chinese Music Appreciation and Cantonese Beginners. Chinese Music Appreciation required students to attend 2 concerts performed at the Hong Kong City Hall and I was able to experience Chinese Opera and Chinese Traditional Music which I would have otherwise not thought to attend. Cantonese Beginners was great because our teacher was so engaged and passionate about teaching. My teacher would frequently bring in local foods for all the students to try and the language skills she taught were relevant to my stay and were a lifesaver when I ordered at restaurants and shopped daily. These courses were so refreshing compared to the physics and maths heavy I studied in engineering and allowed me to appreciate Hong Kong’s culture and understand more about the city I was living in.
CityU is in a very central location on Kowloon side of Hong Kong and its close proximity to a metro station makes it so easy to travel to from anywhere. The university itself has an Olympic size swimming pool (Which was getting repaired during my stay L), a huge library, lots of space to study and THE BEST CANTEENS! The food at the canteens is so good, the portions are huge and only set you back around $40HKD on average (~$8AUD). The only reason I regret not living on campus was because I didn’t get to eat at the canteen more often. Overall, the food in Hong Kong is amazing and not too pricey with a huge amount of Michelin starred restaurants that you can visit without breaking the bank. You can also walk down any road and there will be a dim sum stall or walk-in café with some of the best food you will ever eat ready to eat in 5 minutes or less.
CityU is very passionate about physical and mental health and wellbeing and often run small stalls and activities in the common areas to encourage students to take a break and have fun. They also run a number of P.E. courses which are run by professional coaches and allow students to take part in sports at a beginner, intermediate or advanced level. I had just stopped Muay Thai after getting injured in Australia and decided to start a new sport and picked up Volleyball with the Uni. It was extremely competitive finding vacancy in the P.E. course, but I persistently sent emails to the coordinators expressing my interest until a spot opened for me. I joined the beginner volleyball course and had so much fun learning the sport and the basics. I decided I wanted to pursue it further and the Uni was able to provide intermediate and advanced courses as well alongside recreational beach volleyball courses and student run fun games. After the first month, I was playing volleyball with the Uni 3 times a week at times and made so many friends who were mainly local students in the volleyball club.
I ended up playing volleyball with other exchange students at a park near CityU and met locals outside of Uni who played volleyball and started talking to them and ask to joine their game. I continued to play with this group and eventually one of the members of the group offered to teach me how to play for free! Him and his friends were passionate about volleyball and taught lots of local people how to play at a park near the university and I joined them at their local practices which took place multiple times a week alongside other local students from all over Hong Kong. Eventually I was invited to play at their fun games and was able to travel all around Hong Kong playing at different sports centres and parks and meeting people from all age groups and walks of life from Hong Kong. We were able to swap knowledge in Cantonese and English and people openly told me about their lives in Hong Kong over dinner after games and I was introduced to all kinds of local foods, games, and cultural quirks.
This was an unexpected part of my exchange but definitely the part I have enjoyed the most overall. I feel that from this experience I have seen the benefits of putting myself outside of my comfort zone. This mindset led me to experiencing so many more unexpected highlights of my exchange like playing mah-jong and drinking mao-tai with Cantonese locals till 3am in the morning, having a starlit barbecue lakeside under the shelter of two open van boots, and swimming at sunset after hiking across winding mountain paths.
Just a few extra practical tips for any students planning to study in Hong Kong in the future or in Asia in general:
- TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE CHEAP FLIGHTS! While I’ve been in Hong Kong I’ve travelled to Vietnam, Thailand and will be heading to China and Japan straight after my semester is over. Since you’re so close to so many other Asian countries, flights can be under $100AUD if you book at the right time and hostels are cheap, readily available and a great place to meet other travellers and interesting people.
- APPLY FOR SCHOLARSHIPS BEFORE LEAVING! Even a year before you intend to go on exchange look for any scholarships that are available from your host uni and from UTS. Scholarships require a bit of effort when writing the applications, but they are worth the time. Not only do they give you a little much needed cash for a struggling student, but the application process will also help you to reflect on the reasons for why you are going on exchange. You are really challenged to evaluate what you want to get out of your exchange and the research required to fill in the applications gives insight into your host university and potential activities you might have otherwise overlooked. I felt more confident approaching my exchange with goals and a purpose which I had outlined during my scholarship application process. For those travelling to Asia look at the New Colombo Plan Scholarship and use the Scholarship search pages at UTS and your host university to explore what they have on offer. You never know what niche you might fill in terms of available scholarships.
- APPLY FOR A STUDENT OCTOPUS CARD! Octopus cards are pretty much used for everything in Hong Kong and are necessary for using the metro and useful for paying for anything from groceries to food at the University Canteen. The student octopus card gives students a huge discount when using the Metro and has saved me hundreds of dollars in travel expenses.
- BE CAREFUL OF HYGIENE! Tap Water is kind of off-limits in Hong Kong and a lot of my local friends won’t even drink tap water. I bought bulk water from supermarkets and kept it for drinking. Also, when you are at restaurants you will be given hot water or tea before your meal in a cup or a pot. This is not for drinking it is for washing your eating utensils. It is a common practice, and you should not trust the cleanliness of cleaning utensils at any common dining place unless it’s a bit fancier. Its good etiquette to clean the utensils of the older people you’re eating with and pour their drinks.
- FIGHT FOR THE BILL! You might not want to pay for the bill, and you may not intend to but if you’re eating out with locals it is normal to fight for the bill. It’s respectful to at least offer to pay for the bill or offer to pay for your part of the meal. If you eat out with the same crowd frequently pay for the bill on occasion as they will pay for you at other times.
- BOOK TICKETS FOR TOURIST LOCATIONS IN ADVANCE! There are a lot of people in Hong Kong and the lines can get kind of long. Either try to visit tourist attractions on less busy days or book your tickets in advance to save you from lining up for hours. I booked Disneyland and Ocean Park on Mondays and the longest I waited for any ride was 20 minutes.
- BUY FROM THE WET MARKETS! The wet markets sell vegetables, fish, and fruits for much less than supermarkets. If you are planning to cook regularly like I did, it’s helpful to know a few bargaining phrases in Cantonese and understand their numbering system. Arrive early in the morning to guarantee you get the freshest produce and don’t be scared to crowd around the busiest stall as they usually sell the highest quality and cheapest produce. Seafood is sold live, and fruits and vegetables are sold separately to meat, so I felt that these food items were safe to buy however, I did wash them thoroughly when preparing them. As for meat, the wet markets usually only sell pork and chicken. I was not prepared to buy meat from the wet markets as I was unsure of the hygiene standards that sellers had and opted to buy my meat from supermarkets.
- JOIN SUPERMARKET MEMBERSHIP PROGRAMS! In the long-term being a member of supermarket rewards apps like Yuu! will offer discounts on so many different food items and eventually discount on your entire grocery haul and even at 7/11s.
- PACK LIGHT! It is super humid in Hong Kong. Even during Winter, it was humid and the temperature rarely dropped below 15 degrees Celsius. Pack warm clothes sparingly and only pack a few essentials for the rare case that it gets cold. Bring breathable clothing and not too many as Hong Kong living spaces are generally small due to the compactness of the city and high population.
- TRY SOMETHING NEW! I feel like the most memorable moments of my exchange came out of me resisting my introverted tendency to say no to trying new things and forcing myself to say ‘yes’ and just joining in. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always ok to say no when you’re not feeling up to it or just want to rest at home alone but putting yourself out there and being open to trying something new might be the gateway to something amazing. (Use good judgement though… if it’s sus or illegal maybe give it a miss).
Exchange has been an amazing experience for me and there are so many amazing experiences, people and places in Hong Kong which I will never forget. To those who choose to go on exchange in Hong Kong or are undecided on their exchange location, I hope my experience is informative and helpful for you and to those who are still undecided on whether they want to go on exchange, just do it, you won’t regret it!
Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) Bachelor of Arts in International Studies
Global Exchange Student at City University of Hong Kong (CityU)
New Colombo Plan Mobility Grant Recipient
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