New Cities, Important Experiences: Reflecting on My Study Abroad in Hong Kong

Darcy Palder (C’21) just returned from her study abroad in Hong Kong. She is a government major, minoring in journalism and psychology.

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Just like many other Georgetown students, I decided to study abroad for the fall semester of my junior year. I am from Chicago, Illinois and up until this point I had spent almost my entire life in the United States, so I was eager to experience a place and culture different from the one I knew.  

It’s really difficult to capture everything you need to know about life in Hong Kong in a short essay, but for those who are thinking of traveling there or are interested in learning about a new place, here are some helpful tips and fun facts for navigating the city.  

1. If you want to learn Mandarin, don’t go to Hong Kong 

I decided to go to Hong Kong in part because it had an English speaking program, but also to get in touch with my heritage. I was adopted from China when I was very young, and I’d never been back, so I was eager to learn about the place that had given me both my facial features and a part of my identity. 

What I soon discovered is that Hong Kong, although filled with people who looked like me, was going to do very little for my journey back to my roots. As you may or may not know, Hong Kong is a separate entity from China. The people that live there speak a different language, have vastly different customs (despite what its government says), and not all of its citizens feel a strong kinship with China. 

I think many people are driven to go to Hong Kong because they feel like it’s an easy access point to the rest of China. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons it has become a business hub. Since the Communist Party of China restricts free trade within its borders, Hong Kong became a way for global business to connect with the country. But my classmates were quick to point out that Hong Kong and China are not synonymous. 

They spoke about China’s attempts to make Mandarin the official language of Hong Kong and how they saw it as an attempt by China to squash their individuality. They proudly proclaimed Cantonese as their official language and emphasized that any attempt to change that would be met with resistance. I’m not saying that people in Hong Kong won’t be able to teach you Mandarin, but something that makes learning another language easier is to be immersed in it. From what I’ve seen in Hong Kong, Cantonese will be the language of the city for quite some time because, for its citizens, it’s not just a language —  it’s part of their identity. 

2. Hong Kong is both a real life concrete jungle and a great place to go for a nature getaway

I know those are contradictory statements, but Hong Kong is one of the only major metropolitan cities in the world where the majority of its land has no residential living. Forty percent of the city is made up of country parks, 6% is agricultural, and 30% percent is undeveloped, creating an urban landscape that accounts for only 24% of Hong Kong. As such, there are amazing and (for a city girl like me who rarely makes it to Yates) challenging hiking trails all around the city. The beaches are pristine and only a metro ride away from the city’s center. However, the surrounding nature also presents a challenge to the concrete jungle aspect of Hong Kong. 

In my Housing Policy in Contemporary Society class, we learned that one of the reasons that concrete buildings and skyscrapers dominate Hong Kong is because of its housing crisis. A quick Google search will tell you that the housing market in Hong Kong is the most expensive in the world, leaving numerous families struggling  to find shelter. 

And yet, the city faces enormous opposition to expanding their development from environmental activists who want to preserve the natural wonders of Hong Kong’s surrounding area, leaving the city with only one option for expanse: upward. As an American who has always supported sustainable practices and green policies, understanding the context of Hong Kong made me re-evaluate the privilege I have in being able to unequivocally support such practices. It was something I never would have understood if I hadn’t experienced in full the true nature of Hong Kong’s concrete jungle. 

3. If New York is the city that never sleeps, Hong Kong is the city that wakes you up 

One of my favorite things to do during my time abroad was go for night-time walks. Before my parents get nervous, I never felt in danger. For one, Asian cities have some of the lowest crime rates in the world. Secondly, Hong Kong’s skyline is as brightly lit at night as it is during the day. The side of almost every skyscraper is fully illuminated, frequently with video projections. Every night at 8 p.m., there is a light show where numerous spotlights shoot up into the sky over the harbor. It didn’t have a water component like the one in Singapore, but it showed a city that was active and alive at night. It made it difficult to focus on my studies at the time.

Despite the fact that it got dark at 5 p.m., Hong Kong shops, restaurants and people were the most active when it got dark. I could go get food or start shopping starting at 10 p.m. We even went on some nighttime hikes where we got to see the entire lit up city stretched out below us. As someone raised in a major U.S. city, the major difference I felt at night was that people were outside. My home city of Chicago has plenty of streetlights, but those who are outside walk quickly to their destinations. In Hong Kong, people were strolling casually around at 12 a.m., just taking in the brightly lit and colorful buildings. 

4. Sometimes you have to just book flights and figure out the plan later

In the first week of our program, my friend and I booked flights to Tokyo, Japan and Seoul, South Korea. We didn’t have a plan or a place to stay once we got there, but we booked our flights and decided to go. All we knew about these places were the legends we’d heard about them. It was the best decision I’ve probably ever made. 

It’s hard in life not to get complacent. Before both trips, I wanted to back out, but I’d already booked my ticket so I had to go. 

And it’s so easy now to go some place without a real plan. Hostelworld or Booking.com will find you a quality place to stay in a matter of seconds. Google maps will tell you the best places to go and find you a route to get there. 

Both Seoul and Japan were amazing because I got to see two countries and their people who are so often clumped together into the “Asian” category and see how wrong that categorization is. South Korean’s warm fall climate, perfectly matched the chill, calm nature of the people I met there. One of the favorites meals in South Korea is to eat a bucket of chicken and with a glass of beer if that gives you an idea of what people like to do there. Tokyo’s brightly lit billboards and tall skyscrapers were emblematic of the crowds of people in suits and the crowded trains during rush hour that I got to experience. Yet, the mystical temples and wide expansive parks also reminded me of the rich spiritual history embedded in the country. My friend and I walked 17 miles our first day in Tokyo so you can only imagine how much there was to see.

Yet, the trip I was most unprepared for was when I went to Thailand. The 11 other people I traveled with were even less prepared. So when we got there it was too late to book any island tours when we got to Phuket, in the southern region of Thailand. When we got to Bangkok, I was frantically googling different places to go. I ended up taking us to a floating market where vendors sell fruits and vegetables from their boats and a hop on and hop off boat tour. It was a rushed trip that reminded me that you can spontaneously book a flight and make a plan later, so long as that plan does get created.

Still, my trip to Thailand gave me the bug for travel. And travel I did: I ended up going to 11 countries while I was abroad and almost made it to all the South Asian countries. I only missed Laos, Cambodia, Brunei and Indonesia. For next time.

5. Never take for granted the privilege you have of getting to leave when things get difficult 

After I returned from Hong Kong, the first question people would ask in a hushed, eagerly curious tone was what was it like being in Hong Kong with all the protests? 

It’s a question that is difficult for me to answer because the protests really did not impede my life too much. Most of the time, I would simply avoid the areas with heavy protest activity. Sometimes, I might have to take a longer bus route in order to go where I wanted, but I never felt truly inconvenienced. Yet, it was hard to ignore in the city. One night we were out in a crowded area of the city that was full of restaurants and bars. We crossed a street that was full of lounging riot police, fully armed with masks and shields. I glanced to my left for a moment and saw what appeared  to be an entire army of riot police. Although I couldn’t see them, I could hear the noise of protesters off in the distance. Just two seconds later, after we had crossed the street, we were back to the lively activity of the bar street where nobody seemed to be thinking about the standoff happening a mere few feet away. I felt like we had walked in and out of a warzone in a matter of seconds. 

And I think that pretty accurately describes my experience with the protests in Hong Kong. 

In the week before we were evacuated, my friends and I were eating dinner and we happened to look up at the news only to find that our university’s canteen had been burned down. It was at that moment we all knew that our study abroad program was most likely going to be canceled and all we could talk about was how much we didn’t want that to happen. We stayed up late into the night scheming ways for us to stay, but it was no use. The next morning we were told that our program and housing was going to be canceled. It was heartbreaking. I truly didn’t want to leave. I was fortunate enough that I had the resources available to me to plan a trip around Asia afterwards so for a moment my anxiety was alleviated and my mind quickly moved on from the protests going on outside. 

Then, two nights before we were told to leave, the protests came to us. Three blocks away from our apartment, protesters had barricaded themselves in a university and our neighborhood became filled with people trying to help them escape. My friends and I stayed awake until 5 a.m., watching the street outside our apartment alight from the tear gas keeping the protestors at bay. Once again, it was a war zone. We watched the protesters attempt to approach the school, holding their umbrellas like shields. Then, the riot police would shoot tear gas and the protesters would have to retreat. It went on for hours. The whole time, my friends and I were watching from our windows, simultaneously trying to solidify our plans for where we would be going next in Asia. The next morning, the air in our neighborhood reeked of chemicals. The brick-lined street outside our apartment steps was torn to pieces. Sign posts were bent, and fire still flickered on the street. 

Our program immediately had a plan to pull us out of the neighborhood. We had only a few hours to pack and get on a bus they had arranged for us. The director of the program in Hong Kong came to the apartment building to help us leave. When I went to drop off my bag, she gave me a hug and it was in that moment that everything hit me. I had watched the protests last night from a tall tower through glass windows. I had watched people my age being overwhelmed by tear gas as I tried to book my flight to Vietnam. And now here I was being whisked away to the Disneyland hotel (it was the only hotel with enough free spots at the time), but here I was holding a woman who didn’t have a flight booked anywhere because it was her home. 

So when people ask me what it was like to live in Hong Kong through those protests, I say honestly: It was fantastic for me because I got to leave when I wanted to. And I make sure to tell them about the friends I made when I was there whose new extracurricular activity was protesting. Or how I came to class one day and one of my project team members wasn’t there because he had just been arrested. I know for years to come I will talk about how I was there when Hong Kong was going through a political and cultural upheaval, but I will always remind people of the real humans who lived through it and the impacts it had on them. They don’t get to run when it gets difficult and that makes all the difference. 

6. If you ever have to finish a final on a beach in the Philippines, make sure to wear sunscreen

While my university was canceled, I still had to complete multiple school assignments while I was traveling through Asia. After a six hour bus ride down the island of Palawan, I arrived at my hostel on the beach. I had no service and the hostel only had WiFi turned on from 7 p.m.-10 p.m. I wrote my entire essay in two hours, frantically trying to finish it while the ocean crashed around me. I think most people would tell me I was lucky to be on the beach, but as I was running up and down the beach trying to get enough bars to upload my paper, I didn’t feel too lucky. Yet, my frustration was less with the situation and more with myself for assuming that this beach would have WiFi. It was one of those assumptions I hadn’t thought about because I was so used to having all the resources I needed to get my work done. Access to WiFi had always been something I had taken for granted. I wasn’t prepared to not have it. Luckily, I had learned from my Thailand trip to the beach that sunscreen is your best friend, so I was prepared to not get burned and I submitted my paper just in time. 

There’s a lot of morals to my time in Hong Kong and my travels around Southeast Asia. Some are funny and a little obvious (of course you should wear sunscreen on the beach) and others are deeply serious (a city who so clearly feels they have their own identity should be given a say in the laws they are subjected to). However, I think the biggest lesson from my time in Southeast Asia is that in order to truly understand a culture, a place or its people, you have to go there. By going to that place, you will learn so much, not only about where you are but also about yourself. It will force you to think about your own culture and it may inspire you to change some things about your own home. That is why it should not be a privilege to travel. Everyone should be given the opportunity, whether it’s through your school or another organization, cost should never be the thing that holds someone back from getting to see the world. 

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