For many students, moving to university can feel like a big enough move as it is. But why stop there when you could go further? With the university offering incredible placements in countries all over the world, a year out could turn into an adventure of a lifetime. One of the most popular student destinations is Hong Kong, and it’s hardly surprising given the travel opportunities, city living and breathtaking landscape. But what is it like to fly 6000 miles from the familiar UK university living to start a brand-new life in an entirely different place for a year? Features sub-editor Kate Newton speaks to returning year abroad students to find out.
What made you decide to do a year abroad? Why did you decide to go to Hong Kong in particular?
[Rowena Waldron, International Relations]
For me, I think the main thing is that I’ve always enjoyed being out of my comfort zone. I already live abroad but I always knew I wanted to go somewhere further than Europe. When I was growing up, I met a lot of people at international schools who had previously lived in Hong Kong as expats, so the idea of Hong Kong always appealed to me. My parents also went travelling around Asia when they were younger and always had great stories about their time there.
[Evan John, Anthropology]
It’s gonna sound a bit cheesy but I always kind of knew I was going to do a year abroad, it was sort of an integral part of me going to uni. My parents studied languages and their years abroad seemed like the defining moment of their uni careers. I guess I was always looking for that experience, and especially in the third year, after a challenging second year, I was really looking forward to the change. To be honest Hong Kong hadn’t really entered my mind until the application process began. I looked at going to Asia, and I guess ever since I was a bit younger the metropolises have just fascinated me: I thought about maybe Japan, maybe Korea, but in a roundabout way, I started thinking, hmmm, Hong Kong? It was a place I knew very little about, and yet I just seemed drawn to it.
[Jack Turnbull, PPE]
My first year of uni in the UK wasn’t everything I expected it to be, so I was really craving a change. Hong Kong just seemed like the right place, somewhere I could experience ‘big city life’.
Do you remember how you felt before you left?
[Rowena] In terms of nerves, yeah they were pretty high! Especially in the days leading up to it, but of course that’s only natural. I guess it was more the fear of the unknown, making new friends, finding a new routine. I’d say that in the weeks before I was mostly just trying to spend as much time as possible with family and friends before going away. Yes, I was nervous, but deep down it was always excitement over nerves. The idea of experiencing something completely new – that outweighs all of the negatives.
[Evan] I’ve been lucky enough to go a lot of places in my young life since leaving school; solo travel has been something which I really thrived on and played a big part in me maturing and finding my way in the world. I guess Hong Kong, after my first travels, and then my university adventure, just felt like a really exciting next step. As I was wading through all the paperwork and gearing up for it in the summer before though, the kind of enormity of it all began to dawn on me. I was excited, hopeful, but definitely nervous. The day before I left I had an early birthday party, and all my extended family came to the house to sort of see me off. It was so lovely, but it made me realise how much was about to change in my life.
What was the first week like?
[Rowena] The first week was definitely a whirlwind – imagine freshers but in a completely unfamiliar place, during monsoon season, in 30+ degrees. Not to mention that you’re also jetlagged and meeting loads of new people also on their year abroad. It was mostly just a combination of trying to find my bearings but also attempting to integrate into the university. It’s not at all like freshers in the UK where all the events can be planned, it’s definitely more of a ‘do it yourself’ kind of thing! But since Hong Kong is such a nightlife-oriented city, you’ll never be bored!
[Jack] I just remember being in awe at the skyline and the beautiful buildings. I’d actually just missed a typhoon before I got there, so I was pretty intrigued to see the city. From what I remember, the first week was a mix of getting to know everyone in my accommodation and going out loads.
Good places to check out in Hong Kong?
[Rowena] It’s so unique that it’s hard to think of the best place. One minute you’re in the financial centre surrounding by skyscrapers with rooftop bars and workers in their suits, and 20 minutes later you can be on a secluded beach. I think that’s the part of Hong Kong that people forget about, the islands, the beaches, the hikes! Anything you feel like doing, Hong Kong has it. But if I had to choose, one of my favourites would be Paul the Vinyl Hero. He has this tiny little warehouse, and for fifty years has collected vinyls that would have been destroyed in China under the Mao Regime. You can visit his warehouse and buy his vinyls and he has so many stories about his life in Hong Kong. He’ll also recommend you a vinyl if you tell him about your music taste!
[Jack] My favourite place was Stone Nullah. It was 109 Hong Kong dollars for 2 hours of unlimited spirits and boneless fried chicken. Unreal.
[Evan] Damn, where do I start? The city plays host to Mong Kok, one of the busiest square miles on planet Earth and a place certainly not for the faint of heart – with markets, street vendors, multi-storey bazaars and karaoke bars on the 17th floor. Further afield you have the famous Victoria Harbour – you can watch a nightly lightshow over the skycrapers and the Peak from the north side at Tsim Sha Tsui (TST), which in itself is a lively district, and home to strange places like Chunking Mansions – a towering 17 storey indoor maze of guesthouses, markets, illegal restaurants and hole-in-the-wall stores. On the island, the skyscrapers of the business district give way to sloping neighbourhoods which hug the Peak. If you want to go out, Lan Kwai Fong is your one stop shop – it’s home to like 100 bars and everyone just drinks 7-Eleven booze in the street and chats, it’s an expat institution. Oh, and you didn’t hear it here, but find out who Mr Wong is, trust me.
[Rowena] It’s pretty cliche but I feel like 90% of my moments in Hong Kong could have been considered the “best moments”. If I had to pick one, it would be one evening when we went to watch the sunset. I remember sitting on a beach on Hong Kong Island, surrounded by all of my new friends, and I just remember feeling really at peace. I think it was at that point that I realised I didn’t want to leave!
[Jack] Reaching Victoria Peak after hiking for 50km across Hong Kong Island. Once I reached the top I felt elated, but I was also pretty knackered. I also played dodgeball in the Hong Kong 5s tournament on Repulse Bay which was amazing.
[Evan] I think when my family had come to visit in my last week, I had many brilliant moments throughout the year but them being there made me extra aware of how lucky I had been.
[Rowena] Being scammed by a taxi driver in Beijing, he managed to get £30 off of me – but it didn’t ruin my holiday. I’d still go back!
[Jack] Having to say goodbye to the friends I’d made there. I also got really bad sunburn, ended up trying to smother myself in aloe vera in a shared bathroom. Brutal.
[Evan] Hands down losing my passport after 48 hours! I’ll never forget that sinking feeling (ironic because the lift was going up) when I arrived back at my accommodation without it. I knew it was gone straight away.
Do you have any advice for people who may be looking to do a year out in Hong Kong?
[Jack] definitely, definitely do it! Life is short.
[Evan]: Do it. Honestly, you never will quite get a time like it again. To be young, in a new, unfamiliar, crazy place, it just takes that box you call ‘you’ and shakes all the pieces up. You learn a lot about who you are, who you maybe are becoming, or would like to become.
What opportunities did you have during your time out there? (e.g. sports, events, travel)
[Jack] I was a part of my hall football team, and we won the 5-a-side interhall football competition. It is a great event where you can meet the local students and really feel as though you’re a part of university life. I also ran a half marathon when I was out there, it was great weather – but hydration is key in the Hong Kong humidity! I also travelled to Taiwan, Macau and Shanghai when I was out there as university life in Hong Kong was relatively flexible.
[Evan] I was lucky enough to meet a dear friend who was involved with the Global Services Office and ran Global Mixers – these being events held to promote international-local student relations. I attended a Cultural Mythbusters event on behalf of the U.K. and also held a stall for us at the Global Fair, where I ran a traditional coconut shy while good friends from places like Bangladesh, Nepal, Croatia and South Korea also fielded their local games and food. I was able to travel to Tokyo, Singapore, Cambodia, Bali, Penang and later Beijing and Mongolia during my time in HK, thanks to cheap-ish flights and student loans!