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#48 Neither Here Nor There: A 30-Day Countdown To Studying Abroad

December 10, 2008

(Part 1 of my thoughts before I embark on exchange;
Read Part 2: #51 Before I’m Leaving On A Jet Plane: 20 More Days!)

My list of “Things to Do in College” is pretty long, since I’m a stickler for attaining the “Complete College Experience”. It sounds silly, but I’ve heard one too many regretful stories of “I should’ve done… in college” and I am more than determined not to go down that path, ever. Thus, my relentless quest to fulfil every aspect; academically (of course), spiritually, emotionally, socially.

A must-have on any college student’s list, but not everyone is able to check this off their list. The Study Abroad/student exchange experience comes more as a luxury item than a necessity or a given. Because realistically speaking, not everyone is blessed with an all-expenses-paid-for scholarship program, banks that never run out of money as parents, or a trust fund which recently came into activation. That being said, even if you don’t fall under any of the above privileged categories, there is no reason to deny yourself of going on exchange, which has in recent years become a quintessential ‘college thing’.

Yet, many students, including those who have and have not gone abroad, have expressed that studying abroad didn’t make much of a difference to the college experience and that it’s completely optional. That most people who’ve returned came back with stories about getting drunk since the “Pass/Fail” option applies to modules taken overseas (for some colleges only), sexcapades with exotic strangers (of whom they were hoping to marry and bring home but somehow didn’t materialise) and exciting road trips with newly-made local friends. Having heard such stories, I am both distraught and disheartened to know that some very undeserving students have been “handpicked” to be their universities’ ambassadors, only to abandon their responsibilities to truly learn about a new culture in the face of unbridled freedom and overflowing adrenaline/hormones in an exciting new place where nobody knows their name.

What are the right reasons to study abroad? You ask. (I don’t want to judge anyone, but I can’t help it if they throw away an amazing opportunity to chug beer/engage in no-strings-attached behavior/do things you don’t even want your friends back home to know about.) Not to sound like a goody-goody or someone who works at the Student Exchange office with a fake smile plastered on my face, studying abroad is all about learning, immersing and exploring a new culture, adopting a new lifestyle, learning a new language, exchanging ideas and opinions with local and other exchange students. It may seem difficult to achieve all these goals, but it would be good to know your own priorities and pursue them relentlessly, channelling our excessive youthful energy in the right direction.

I am happy to say that I am going on exchange to the University of Hong Kong in less than 30 days.

Hong Kong, yes. A city just a mere four hours’ flight from home. To the Americans, it might sound like a big joke of a choice, especially since you take as long to travel home from college for Christmas.

It sounds like a “safe option”, considering I’m Asian living in an Asian city, opting to go to ANOTHER Asian city. You might say, what’s the point really, when I myself just said that exchange is all about a new experience. Most of my friends have opted to go to Western countries, places with a much more temperate climate, cities with a wilder reputation, towns with unpronounceable names.

I am your average college student. No scholarships, no trust funds, no generous parents/relatives — just me, my usual allowance (plus a lot of advanced payment towards my account)  and my independence.

Firstly, I can’t afford to go to US/Europe, thanks to the exchange rate. Secondly, I want to pick up a new language by the time I’m due to come home, and since I doubt I can master German in less than 6 months, I figure going to HK to learn Cantonese (to become a full-fledged Chinese of Canton origin) will be a more realistic option. Thirdly, Singapore is always competing with HK, for good reasons, HK is like a role model in attaining true global city status for us, and I want to live there to see what exactly it is we aspire to be. Not forgetting my academic purposes, HKU has one of the best Geography departments in Asia, and I want to be taught by a faculty that is well-known and of excellent quality. Of course, I am not looking for culture shock, I am looking for a cultural exchange. I don’t want to spend 6 months adjusting to temperate climates — soggy weather does nothing for tropical me (who enjoys summer all year round) — and I want to be able to find something delicious to eat everywhere I go, without having to worry about how much it’s going to cost and how it’s going to taste like. And… I love rice, so it delights me to know that I wouldn’t have to lug a rice cooker across the customs just to have some rice to eat.

Many Asians have this idea, either consciously or at the back of their minds, to make as many Western friends as possible, because strangely enough, the number of Western friends you have and whether you can speak in an accent tinged with a “cosmopolitan feel” (aka American/British accent) are the top two indicators of your social status. And therefore it is inconceivable to pick an Asian city to go, where the probability of attaining the two status symbols are slim to none. This is ESPECIALLY evident here, and I don’t even want to begin ranting about that. All I want to do is deviate from that stereotypical norm and create my own exchange experience.

I am sick of being a “global citizen” who doesn’t know her roots. This is the tragedy of many Asians, who aspire to be city slickers and fluent English speakers, yet getting in touch with their origins, mixing with fellow Asians and learning more about their own culture are never their main priorities. It’s time to show some “Asian Pride” (I somehow find this term derogatory in itself) and conquer a cool city known for its culinary delights and being a shopping haven.

I’m a city girl and I guess I always will be. Let’s see if I can say the same about HK when I’m done with my student exchange experience. 🙂

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