A little over three years ago, I came to Hong Kong with nothing but a suitcase in my hand, dreams in my heart and the CityU admission letter in my pocket. When I think about it now, it is hard to say which one has been more valuable.
When Hong Kong Feels Like Home
Hong Kong has seeped into my very bones, and I feel at home here. I have changed in ways I can’t even fathom, and have gotten used to things that once seemed incredibly strange. I used to laugh at people who complained about the crowds in the MTR (have you seen Mumbai local trains?), but I now faithfully grumble along with everyone else, even though Hong Kong’s transport system is one of the best in the world. According to Victor, a Nigerian PhD student in his final year, who previously studied in the US, “I could definitely get used to the excellent transport network the City of Hong Kong provides. The effect is that it frees you to easily dream and plan ways to explore the city's many secrets (hiking trails, theme parks, shopping malls…). This is something I always miss when I’m away from Hong Kong.”
Coming from India, the other thing that really surprises me about Hong Kong’s transportation system is that the cab drivers here can actually read. All I have to do is to open Google Maps and point to my destination, and they read and figure out the rest. Three words of Mandarin or Cantonese from me (a foreigner or 外國人), and they are happy to talk.
When I go to a Chinese restaurant back home, it feels strange not to have chopsticks, and the food feels oddly inauthentic. As a lover of non-vegetarian food, I am almost appalled when offered a completely vegetarian meal; luckily, almost all Chinese “main” dishes contain meat, with vegetables in the soup or as a side dish. However, my vegetarian friends get by just fine, with the variety of canteens on campus and the wonderful network of restaurants off campus. (Not to mention the cooking facilities in the hall!) If you’re open-minded about eating, Hong Kong is a food-lovers’ paradise! Try Hot Pot now if you don’t believe me. You can thank me later.
For me, the idea that restaurants seat different groups of people at the same round table, sometimes without even asking, was a bit difficult to digest at first. A Korean student who has previously lived in the US told me that she was a bit surprised at the “rude” service (the servers don’t fawn over you or make small talk) in the more traditional Hong Kong Chinese restaurants. I understand exactly what she means! In the US, I once went to get a vaccination, and the nurse talked to me so much and so familiarly that I actually wondered if I had met her before. But it’s not like that in India or Hong Kong. People like to get to the point.
Three Languages and Some Mime
I’ve become a master of pantomime, having learned to explain myself to the hall security guard with broken Putonghua and a lot of gestures. I’ve had so many broken conversations in a mixture of English, Mandarin and Cantonese, where I only understand a few words and phrases in the middle. Speaking of being a foreigner, it is almost offensive when my Chinese friends say something like, “a foreigner like you…” My usual reaction to that is to growl and say, “我是中國人” (I’m from China) or “我是香港人” (I’m from Hong Kong). It just goes to show that I feel so much at home here, I think it’s strange when people label me as a foreigner. No, I haven’t forgotten my roots. But I have gained a new home and a sense of being a part of this place.
The Citizens of CityU
Many things which seemed mysterious when I first arrived in Hong Kong now seem quite commonplace. For example, I am no longer shocked when my classmates walk into class in airy summer dresses, never mind the blasting air-conditioner. (Seriously, it can get COLD inside the classrooms.) Or when they dress up in funky costumes to promote their societies in the lobby. Or when graduating students have photo sessions with teddy bears and flowers. Seeing students in formal attire all the time is also not strange anymore — they must be law or business students! One of the things I have appreciated is that my Engineering classes are not filled with conventional nerdy students (we have our beauty queens and kings), and there is no significant difference in the number of men and women! The engineering classroom is no longer a man’s domain!
With all its eccentricities and peculiarities, I feel that my university experience has made me a stronger person. I can travel and plan by myself, I know how to deal with loneliness, and I understand what it is to be in a place where English is not the preferred language of communication in daily life. I have learnt not to judge people and to understand and accept their cultural norms. No one tells me what to do and how to do it, and the freedom and sense of security I have gained here has made me infinitely more responsible. I have held a lot of part-time jobs (including this one!), and that has taught me how to adjust and negotiate in a work setting. And the variety of available jobs has made me more aware of what I really like doing. I am a CityU veteran now! I feel protective towards the freshmen that I have the privilege of knowing, and have a never-ending stream of free advice to give them. However, I’m sure they need to make their own mistakes just like I made mine.
Students Speak Up
Bruno, a PhD student in Media and Communication who has previously studied in Croatia and the US, was pleasantly surprised when I told him I was working on this article. In his time here, he has taught some classes, and he holds a drama workshop called “Break-A-Leg” almost every semester. One thing that puzzles him is that students don’t really talk much in the classroom. They listen to whatever you have to say, and accept it without comment. But when you talk to them in private, they are very opinionated. They do have strong thoughts and opinions, and are much more interesting and candid than one would think. Speaking of his drama workshop, he says, “Students take a lot more time to open up as compared to their counterparts in the US and Europe. But once you break the barrier and get close, they have so much to share and contribute. They are very creative, and have great ideas and suggestions.” He adds that the education system desperately needs an overhaul so that the students feel much freer coming forward and contributing!
The Melting Pot
Local students are often shy. And we international students often find ourselves modifying the way we talk to make them feel more comfortable. I’ve noticed that I often add “la” after my sentences, especially when I want to signal that something is obvious. I also find myself speaking this strange dialect of English that uses the present tense almost all the time. I also “find” people more often than I look for them, I “borrow” things to people (in Chinese language there is no distinction between borrow and lend), and I often “do things first” (Maybe I finish my homework first). And whenever something is difficult or needs effort, I always say, “Add oil”. Once you start talking like the local students, they reciprocate very warmly, because they see that you are making an effort. And you know that a place has become a part of you when the way you speak changes.
According to Ali, a final year Civil Engineering student who has previously lived in Iraq and Malaysia, “Living in Hong Kong has not influenced my way of speaking in a general sense. It, however, influenced the way I interact with the locals. The terms I picked up are mostly used by the teenagers. When I say ‘Chi Sin’ (meaning crazy) when we have a hard assignment or ‘Sek fan?’ (Wanna have lunch?) when we want to eat, it makes them feel more comfortable spending time with me, makes us feel closer. It is definitely very interesting how I — or anyone for that matter — chooses different terms based on who I am speaking to, and that was very clear through my interaction with people of different backgrounds in Hong Kong.”
Finally, the sheer diversity of the place can be hard to take in. In the words of Amy, a third year undergraduate from Mainland China majoring in Media and Communication, “The atmosphere here is so diverse and international. I have made a lot of friends from different countries! This exposure to diversity has helped me get a stronger sense of self, and also to realize how China is similar yet distinct from the world at large.”
For me, this wonderful journey will end very soon. And who knows what the future holds? Yet, the one thing I can say for sure is that the overwhelming feeling after having lived here is वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् (Vasudev kutumbakam), or that the world is one big family!