On the 27th of August 2007, I arrived at Hong Kong International Airport. I was nervous and worried about what lay ahead. What lay ahead was a year of the weird, random and the frustrating, but also, a year of the amazing. Let me put it this way: where London has pigeons, Hong Kong has parakeets.
The weird: in London, walking along the street, you are likely to stumble upon the shattered remains of someoneÂ’s beer bottle. In Hong Kong, I was intrigued to find an assortment of dried lizards on sticks being sold outside a Chinese Medicine shop.
The random: in England, teachers are resented and criticised. In Hong Kong, I saw massive airbrushed photos of them advertising their services as private tutors.
The frustrating: in England, buying Pritt stick is mind-numbingly simple; but when I went to the stationery shop in the Hong Kong Student Union building, and asked where the Pritt stick was, the saleslady didnÂ’t know the word. Nor did she know the words Â“solidÂ”, Â“stickÂ”, and Â“glueÂ”. We were at an impasse, until she grabbed one of the local Hong Kong students to help. We wandered around the shop, all three of us, as I repeated Â“Pritt stick!Â” and the student repeated what he thought that translated as, and she repeated the mistranslation. In the end we stumbled upon it by accident, and there were relieved smiles all round as everyone finally realised what the other had meant. The key is to be patient and cheerful; although Hong Kong is officially bilingual, it is still a part of China, albeit an S.A.R (Special Administrative Region).
The amazing: although the language barrier can be frustrating at times, Hong Kong has nonetheless been the best learning experience IÂ’ve ever had. Not only did Hong Kong open my heart and mind to Chinese culture, it made me aware of the rest of Asia, just waiting to be explored. I learnt that there is a world beyond Europe, which is just as beautiful and exciting as the rumours say it is, and not nearly as scary. I walked on the Great Wall of China, watched a sea turtle lay her eggs in Malaysia, fed crickets to tarsiers in the Philippines, and saw the sun rise over ancient temples in CambodiaÂ…and even though I gave up geography at fourteen, my year abroad means that I actually know where these places are.
As the year progressed, I saw myself steadily become more and more immersed Chinese culture. I went to 4am Dim Sum (Chinese breakfast, aka yum cha) on a regular basis, gorging myself on sui mie (prawn and pork dumpling), la sao bao (custard bun) and many other dishes. My (oddly non-local) friends taught me to swear and say truly heinous things in Cantonese. I made friends with some lovely Hong Kong people, and discovered the joys of sweet and sour pork. I learnt the cute Hong Kong-style camera poses (labelled one to ten), and Facebook is by now most probably flooded with them. I cooked snacks of glass vermicelli and stuffed shark balls, sometimes with garlic choi (Chinese vegetable), at odd times in the night. One of my local friends laughed and said IÂ’d become more local than the locals. In short, I learnt to embrace a culture and country other than my own, and as a result, my year abroad opened me up to what the rest of the world has to offer.
I learnt to be independent, how to adapt, and how to face new challenges; skills that IÂ’ll be relying on for the rest of my life… but what made my year abroad truly great, and truly worthwhile, were the friends that IÂ’ve made. I have met people from all over the world, and the times that IÂ’ve spent eating, travelling, and goofing around with them form some of the best memories I have. They are people I hope to stay in touch with for lifeÂ… and, best of all, IÂ’ve learnt how to use chopsticks.
In conclusion: if there are any First or Second Years out there who think they might enjoy a year abroad, donÂ’t hesitate. It might just turn out to be one of the best years of your life. See you in Hong Kong!