Audrey Zong, HKUST Exchange, Fall 2013
I hope that the title got your attention! There are expectedly struggles that we face when going on a study abroad/exchange program, and below are some of mine.
Sounds crazy right? The school canteen food has been a common complaint among many exchange students. The meats (duck, chicken) usually come in tiny portions, compensated by a too-large-serving of white rice, and the killer is that the duck and chicken comes with all the skin and little bones that make your eating experience slightly unpleasant, never knowing when – crackle – you bite into a piece of bone. Much of the food is fried/stir fried with a lot of oil, or too much butter. There are no kitchens in the common rooms or anywhere in the halls. If you want to cook, you need to buy your own electronic, portable stove and pots, pans, and cooking supplies. As someone who loves to cook healthier dishes for myself, this has been a struggle. Also, ordering can be challenging because it’s been discovered you never know what you will get, but we’ve learned that all the “italian pastas” are noodles with sauce. The other thing about ordering is the language barrier, which brings me to the second struggle.
2.) I get mistaken for a native speaker every time.
One of the most frustrating things for me is not speaking Cantonese. For one, it would definitely make taxi rides, asking for directions, asking for food, asking for anything, a whole lot easier. But furthermore, I get mistaken as a native speaker all the time. Even when I ask in English, I receive responses in Cantonese, and although I try to explain I don’t speak Cantonese, only English, they continue to speak to me in Cantonese. Without being rude, sometimes I need to wait for the person to finish their sentences in Cantonese before repeating in English I don’t understand nor speak Cantonese. From friends, I have heard that it can be taken offensively for local-looking people to rub Hong Kong people the wrong way if I am not careful about the way I tell people I don’t speak Cantonese. To some, as I’ve been told, it can come off pompous and pretentious to “only speak English”. This is a main part of the reason that looking like a local-HKer is so frustrating. However, I have had unpleasant experiences where I get laughed at when I try to ask something in English. For example, I walked into a restaurant and asked if they had almond cookies as a dessert item. The two ladies looked at me in skepticism and looked at each other. “Almond cookies?”, no they didn’t understand what I had said. After I repeated myself a few times, they more or less understood I was trying to ask for cookies, and they gave me an abrasive response “no” and waved me off, and then snorting at me. But the abrasive responses can get categorized in the language barrier section. Or perhaps it is a Hong Kong cultural barrier that I haven’t been able to completely understand yet.
3a.) Lack of respect in classrooms
The lack of respect for professors in classes comes very shocking. It seems completely normal for a classroom full of students to be talking over the professor while he or she is standing in front of the class lecturing. Sitting towards the back, I can hardly hear my professor for one class sometimes. Really, an entire class of 80+ students, all having side conversations, is too distracting, and also makes me question a professor’s credibility.
Turning this around, I have been very disappointed to hear one of my professors threaten the class that the material will be on exams, whether he gets through teaching it or not, and that if we fail, it’s our own fault because the class was too loud for him to finish lecturing. In a way, he dangled a letter grade carrot in front of our faces, and tainted the idea of learning for interest.
The classes are almost all on a bell curve. Students on the lower end of the curve can ride the curve slightly, but those at the top are immensely competing for the top percentile. This creates disunity and much competition, not the constructive kind.
4.) Forgetting alone-time
Exchange is a lot of fun; in my exchange group are over 300 people from all over the world, and there’s always something going on, whether it’s going on a monkey trail hike or infinity pool hike, or traveling to another country, or going out to explore new restaurants, or water sports on Hong Kong’s many islands. Amid the action, it’s so easy to lose sight of yourself when there is a constant stream of events to go to, things to see, and people to talk to, that you forget to give time to yourself to reflect. And maybe at some point we can get so accustomed to having company 24/7 that being alone becomes scary. I know this happened to me, and to overcome it, I decided to check out a novel (11/22/63- Stephen King) and stay in on a Saturday night to catch up on reading (and writing blogs of course).
5.) Status: lost
These last two posts are getting into fuzzier territories and slightly off-topic, which fits right into my state of mind. The “exchange” of an “exchange program” encompasses the exchange between you and local students as well as other exchange students. In this regard, I have been exposed to a novel outlook for further education and career paths. As many Northwestern students can relate, we have been conditioned to believe the “right” way is to do well in high school, get into a prestigious four-year university, and either pursue a higher degree of education or begin your career. In the European countries especially, there is much more freedom in choosing your own path, and university is more like “part of your life”, rather than college = “your life”. The low to free tuition definitely influences their path selection, and our very very high tuition is also the reason there is so much pressure to do well in school, get a good job, and pay off our loans. However, the students I have spoken to have much more practical, working experience than us. It is common for them to start an apprenticeship or internship towards the end of their high school years for one or two years, or do it after high school. It also seems common to take semesters off to do internships or exchange programs — at least much more casually than it is for us in the States. We argue that the U.S. has a very great education system, which is why we pay such exorbitant amounts for universities, but personally, I feel sub-par in comparison to many of the European engineering students who have had practical, hands-on experience already, both in technical skill and in terms of career confidence. There are many alternatives and possibilities, and I am young, so it’s a scary and exciting feeling to know that I am in control of my path.