Six Discoveries from Student Life in Hong Kong

1114_Cover story_7Only an hour and a half away from Dongguan by train, Hong Kong is a hot destination for higher education in the land of one country and two systems. After studying for four years in Dongguan and a year of studying across the border, the list of memories piled up. These six, especially, left a deep impression.

Prepare for hard work.

For students in the Chinese mainland, university life means “sleep in class,” study the night before an exam and the rest is play. Studying in Hong Kong is on the other side of the coin. Master students like me usually take only four to five courses each semester. But our homework and group projects take up the time needed here for thirty-five courses.

I remember a course named Economics and Globalization required us to finish watching 20 one-hour lectures and write a 1,000-word article in one week, which equal an entire semester of readings in universities back in the Chinese mainland.

I slept less and studied more—late at night—just like most students in Hong Kong did.

At first I felt extremely anxious every time I thought of the warning imparted on the first day of the semester. It said, “failing to finish reading material may lead to failure of the course.” The endless readings were driving me crazy. Later I had no other choice but to put more time into this course and buy more coffee to refresh myself.

As the pile of coffee cups in my dormitory got higher and higher, I gradually got used to the heavy workload. I slept less and studied more—late at night—just like most students in Hong Kong did. It’s quite common to see students discussing their school projects at 10 or even 11 p.m. I had a local classmate who had two jobs in the advertising industry and took part-time courses at night. Sometimes I saw her doze off in class. But every time we were amazed at her boundless energy, she merely said with a cool smile, “It’s OK. I’m not tired.”

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When I studied in Hong Kong I usually described my life as “painful”, but now when I think of that year, I believe I may have learned as much as I did in my four years of undergrad life. I’ve learned that behind every successful person is a substantial amount of hard work. The kind that mounts up, and will pay off someday.

Throw out the books, get in the world.

Life is a two way street, right? In Hong Kong the streets are never boring. There are all sorts of activities to choose on campus as well—language courses, lectures, performances and charity work. There are many activities in the mainland schools as well, but I feel that unlike the school plays that make up the majority of their activities, my new options were much more connected to the real world.

1114_Cover story_3My endeavors kept me busy as well, performing interviews every other week to fulfill course requirements. The journalism department wanted new topics, which sent me out into the world to bring the news back to my professors.

On one outing in particular, I was caught between my ideals and what I had learned. It was the divide between the rich and the poor in Hong Kong that opened this inner-debate within me. I’d always been curious and empathetic, but on that night when I was going to visit the street sleepers I felt worried and afraid. I had heard that many of the street sleepers are drug addicts.

I walked through the swarm of butterflies that fluttered in my stomach into a darkened park in Sham Shui Po, a northwestern district in Kowloon. As the pedestrians began to pass by with less and less frequency, my heartbeat got faster and faster until I saw their homes—mattresses with shabby blankets. It was nine o’clock at night, some sat in the dimness of the light eating dinner in disposable plastic containers. Some wandered around alone. It turned out that the street sleepers were quite nice instead of scary. I talked to them one by one, heard them sing songs and went back to write a nice article.

Then there is the time that I had to interview someone in a distant unfamiliar non-English or Chinese speaking land, it made the study trip to Prague unforgettable.

On one outing in particular, I was caught between my ideals and what I had learned.

And then there were the activities that weren’t much more than a “show.” I found them exciting at the time, but I realized that I didn’t learn much from the experience. Once I joined the election party held by the American Embassy on the day of the U.S. Presidential Election.

We voted at a mock polling station, counted the results, ate pizza and waited for the real results to come in. Looking back, I think the reason why I didn’t learn much is that I didn’t take it as a good chance to learn more about American processes, but merely a party to chat with friends, eat some American food and enjoy some political “culture.”

Students have a say.

I will always remember the first time I went to the student canteen at the Hong Kong Baptist University. That was in the summer of 2011, a year before I was admitted. A poster on the wall read, “Back Pay, We Demand a School Reply.” I’d heard that things were done differently in Hong Kong; that students were afforded more space to express themselves, but it had never been posted before my eyes that clearly.

Students in Hong Kong assume an opportunity to speak their minds, and, as youths often are, they are eager to have their voices heard. Hanging from that wall was not a banner, but the image of students experiencing new things, learning new things and acting in new ways. In that moment I’d made up my mind that one day, I wanted to attend this university.

Hanging from that wall was not a banner, but the image of students experiencing new things, learning new things and acting in new ways.

1114_Cover story_5After finally being admitted, student gatherings had become very common from what I could see. Posters urged discussions for referendums and improved autonomy, and they were hung with care and frequency, accompanying exhibitions and explaining the issues on campus.

And when the university students began to be heard on the subject of changing college curriculums to match national education standards in September of 2012, I joined in the public debate. It was the first chance I had. On that day, thousands of students wore black while gathering on campus holding black banners and forming a black ocean. While student leaders made speeches on stage, the crowd of students shouted back from time to time.

These students felt that having their say was part of their education. And it seemed they were heard in many ways. I admired the courage in their actions when I witnessed the student leader of Hong Kong Baptist University make a speech in front of the legislative council. It was their patience and persistence. But for some radicals, who went on a hunger strike for days, I doubted whether it was worth sacrificing their health.

1114_Cover story_4Always make reservations.

Living in Hong Kong, a well-organized place whether its hustle and bustle seems so or not, making reservations is frequently needed on many occasions, including doctor appointments, applying processes, reserving tickets for local performances and so on.

At first, I felt it troublesome. Making the reservations usually required filling out lots of forms. I shortly adjusted to the system because I learned to see the convenience in the system. It cut down on waits and long lines and it helps when making schedules.

It was just a matter of going from one appointment to the next.

As a student, I once made an interview inquiry asking for an appointment with an officer of the Fire Service Department. I didn’t have high hopes for it, but to my surprise, he said yes to my e-mail reservation request.

With the reservation rules I felt that the whole city was in order. It was just a matter of going from one appointment to the next. There are fewer disagreements and quarrels about who arrived first and who came last because everything is on paper. People respect the rules and conform to the rules.

Cherish your super tutor.

We students of Hong Kong met new people, as it would be in any institute of higher learning anywhere. We made friends—good and bad. We were also introduced to great teachers and tutors with different characters, beliefs and life experiences. They were so distinct, we learned so many things from them.

1114_Cover story_6I had teachers who reported in the Vietnam War, teachers who reported from the Irag War, teachers who played a leading role in politics and teachers who anchored broadcast news. For me, I will always remember my super tutor, Michael Jordan. It’s not that Michael Jordon, but a foreign correspondent and journalism teacher-trainer now based in southern Africa. According to him, he has reported from 30 countries, mostly across post-Communism Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union over the past 20 years. He flew to Hong Kong and spent six weeks in our campus to guide the students.

Michael guided the interview tasks I mentioned earlier. There are around 150 journalism master degree students at Baptist in a single year. Michael divided us into groups of five and talked to us about our articles group by group. We always met in his unofficial “office,” more commonly known as the campus’ Pacific Coffee. He joked that he lived there during those six months.

It was quite true. I saw him sit there with his laptop and a cup of black coffee every day, in the meetings, discussing articles. He would say, “Now the curtain goes up, what did you see?” He guided us to see the whole picture and try to dig deep into the stories. And as he said he tried to brainwash us into becoming “serious, responsible” journalists.

He joked that he lived there during those six months.

I never saw a tired Michael. He always seemed so energetic. All I felt from him was high levels of enthusiasm. As a result, he lit my passion toward Journalism. The passion hasn’t faded. Those tutoring courses and interview experiences have turned me from a passive university learner to a person who always wants to try something new and dig some stories out of the world. That’s quite a big change.

You’ll miss vegetables.

Hong Kong restaurants are often known for their milk and lemon teas, pork chop buns and fried French toast. Home to people from many countries, Hong Kong also boasts cuisines form different countries. If you study there, you can’t miss them, but I guess you would probably miss eating vegetables. I found that the restaurants that I frequented served their dishes with veggies in minutia.

It amused me every time they carried many tins of that sauce to our dormitory.

1114_Cover story_8As soon as I get to the school canteen, what interested me most was the afternoon tea, which universities in the Chinese mainland don’t have. I made my diet plans to try all the Hong Kong-style food at the afternoon teas one by one. But after one month, my interest faded. And as a typical Cantonese diner, I started to miss vegetables and the Cantonese double-stewed soup. So I decided to make home dishes with my three roommates, all of which were from the mainland.

I was lucky because all my roommates are good cooks from provinces with distinct culinary traditions. Looking back at those days, they were great moments when we had dishes of three different styles at one dinner.

Since my roommates then were all from Hunan and Hubei, places well-known for spicy dishes. They are used to putting pepper sauce into almost every dish. But that special pepper sauce was only on sale in the mainland, so they would only buy them when they went back home. It amused me every time they carried many tins of that sauce to our dormitory.

I cherished those great moments of both joy and tears with them. We shopped, cooked, fixed the toilet, got drunk and burned the mid-night oil together. My roommates and my classmates are so distinct and yet all so impressive. And so in the end I learned about the broader world and my inner-desires, but I also learned more about where I come from and the many different people that make up this vast and diverse country of ours.