18 Weeks in Hong Kong

Sunday, April 21, 2019

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It's been more than four months since I came back from Hong Kong. 

That's around the same duration of time that I spent there, though it feels a lot shorter at home. There are days where I catch myself reminiscing about life there - though I must add that I do it in fondness, never in longing. As much as I enjoyed my time there, I'm glad to be back. I think I've experienced enough of the city to last me a while, and I don't want to overstay my welcome, at least immigration-wise (student visa has expired, heh). 

So how was it exactly? Let's be real. Studying in Hong Kong isn't the most exciting thing in the world. Destination-wise, it's merely a short-haul flight away from Singapore. In fact, most people react in shock when I tell them my location choice for my exchange programme (yes, it's my first choice!). I will admit that one of my key priorities was cost - I didn't want to spend too much, and I really didn't, even when you take into account my little getaways to Japan, Korea and Macau. In fact, I'd highly recommend Hong Kong to those who may not be comfortable with forking out tens of thousands, but would still want to experience the freedom that comes with living abroad. 

Despite the language barrier (I can understand Cantonese, but not speak it), living in Hong Kong isn't that big of a change, though one of the main reasons is probably the amazing office administration in my host university, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Everything was planned out so well for us - our modules, our accommodation, our student visa - world's apart from some of my friends' experiences elsewhere. However, this comfort ended up being a source of discomfort for me. 

Perhaps I wrongly assumed that exchange was going to push me out of my comfort zone, and that I'd experience some sort of exponential personal growth, something I didn't feel that university life has given me. That led to an unrealistic expectation formed in my head which was not met. 

However, in hindsight though, this lack of an "exciting exchange life" has done me good. It allowed me to just be: to engage with my own thoughts, to take stock of my life, and to realize how immensely blessed I have been in the entirety of 2018. The luxury of time would never have been accorded to me in the context of my Singapore life, and I'd probably be internalizing my experiences and opportunities in very different ways, or not doing it at all, making me an ungrateful twat. 

So thanks Hong Kong, for putting things into perspective. Exchange is definitely a period of time I'll never forget - it's marked the longest I've ever lived abroad, the freedom I got there was unreal, and I also met a bunch of new, great people. For now, I'd like to immortalize some of the things I've learnt  while studying abroad in Hong Kong, listicle-form! (It's impossible to write out four months worth of experiences there as I do typically for my 'Travel' posts... but if anyone's looking for an itinerary, hit me up personally!) 

So here's 15 things I've learnt from spending 18 weeks in Hong Kong! 

1. Ocean Park is better than Disneyland 

As a self-professed Disney princess, this is saying a lot. But it's true - Ocean Park wins rides-wise, attractions-wise, and price-wise. There's so much more to do there. In fact, I was even there twice, once for Halloween and the other for Christmas, and both times, I didn't find myself getting bored. Sure, it falls short in the imagineering department that Disney's known for, but when Mickey's speaking in Cantonese, that magic diminishes a little. Or maybe I'm just still salty that I didn't get to take a photo with my favourite Donald Duck. 

Ice cream from Ocean Park.

Being one of the thousand Minnie Mouses littered all over the park. 

2. Dim Sum in Hong Kong is way overrated 

Unpopular opinion: Dim Sum in Singapore is much better than most places in Hong Kong. While it's definitely more accessible - there's a pretty good restaurant on campus, and they even sell it in the school canteen - it's not necessarily better. The only place that really impressed me is this out-of-the-way one called Sun Hing Restaurant. It's filled with locals - old ones at that - and service is terrible. Indeed, the true hallmarks of an authentic dim sum place. 

'Har Gao'

And 'Siu Mai' - both not from Sun Hing Restaurant - that place is so chaotic it's impossible to even photograph. 

3. McDonald's in Hong Kong never disappoints - and it's on another level 

When we first reached our dorm on our very first day in Hong Kong, my roomie and myself got lost on campus. We were trying to find a supermarket to get basic supplies like shampoo and soap. However, we took a wrong turn and ended up climbing up insanely steep slopes. To add to that, it was also pouring. After what seemed like eternity, we found our way to the main atrium - both tired, drenched (in sweat), and honestly feeling really miserable. When we asked someone for directions to the supermarket, he told us it was closed, but took another look at us and added, "McDonald's is open though, it's two floors down." Those four pieces of McWings were so comforting - exactly what I needed at that point of time. 

And it became a mainstay in my Hong Kong life heh. Late night suppers, morning breakfasts - there's always a time and place for it. Plus, its menu is amazing: think blueberry cheese pies, milk tea & cookies McFlurry, and lobster bisque shaker fries seasoning! 

4. Attend a music festival abroad 

While Clockenflap isn't the best music festival I've ever been to, I think attending a fest overseas is always worth a shot! The beauty of it is realizing how universal music actually is, and being able to share this joy with others in a foreign place (provided they practice good concert etiquette). Plus, being exposed to the local artistes is always a bonus. 

5. Mixed-vegetable rice is pretty damn good 

Full disclosure: I don't ever order mixed-vegetable rice (also known as 'Cai Png') in Singapore. However, I found myself patronizing the store in Hong Kong really often. When your other option of a similar price-point is Char Siu rice, you really learn to appreciate the variety that such stalls offer. Plus, many of the dishes reminded me of home. 

6. Five Guys is better than Shake Shack 

Kind of strange to arrive at such a conclusion since I wasn't in the States, but since Hong Kong has both burger joints, here's a #notetoself for the future. While Shake Shack is located more conveniently in town, Five Guys is worth the extra bit of walking! In fact, I daresay the Five Guys burger is the best burger I've ever had in my life. Shake Shack just falls short in comparison, doubt I'll be patronizing the one in Changi Airport anytime soon. 

So goooooOoOood.

Better-looking, but not as tasty! 

7. Packet instant noodles can be cooked in a cup with just hot water 

I stayed in my dorm room on a lot more weekends that I care to admit. It's funny, considering how I don't actually have work to do - does applying for internships count? Anyway, staying in my room means that I am also way too lazy to buy food for myself too... and end up falling back on the typical college student's diet of instant ramen. I brought over two big packets of my favourite noodles from Singapore, which I usually cook over the stove top, as the directions instruct. Unfortunately, there are no cooking facilities in my hall - but that ain't stopping me. Simply put your noodles in a cup, and add hot water inside, let it rest for around 1 minute before draining out the water and adding new hot water inside. Do this twice and your noodles will already reach a nice al dente texture. 

8. Go for at least one hike

Thanks to my roomie, I got dragged along for her hike up the Elephant Hill. To be honest, the views were stunning and well worth the long and dreadful walk - but I'm not that big a fan of being outdoors to be very honest. One time was more than enough for me, and I didn't tag along for any of her hikes ever since. That being said, it was still a good experience and I think Hong Kong has this amazing culture of hiking - especially amongst old people! Much respect. 

At least got one for the gram ;) 

9. Typhoons can be scary, but there's no need to be scared

During my time abroad, I was stuck in two typhoons - one in Hong Kong, and the other in Japan. For someone who's never experienced natural disasters or extreme weather conditions, this was all new to me. Initially, I was quite worried - was the typhoon going to be dangerous? How were we going to survive staying indoors for that long? Would buildings hold up? Thankfully, the school sent out several helpful emails, telling us to stock up on supplies, how long to stay indoors for, and assuring us of the structural integrity of our dorms. In Singapore, I'd never check the weather forecast but in Hong Kong it became such an integral aspect of daily life.

10. Christmas can still be cozy away from home 

My roomie and I stayed in one room together, and we'd share a shower and a toilet with another room of two girls, known affectionately as our 'bathroom pals'. They're both from the US, and all four of us stayed in Hong Kong for Christmas! We ordered pizza, bought a box of chocolate coated biscuits and other treats, and huddled together to watch some Christmas movies on Netflix. It felt so incredibly nice (also interesting because I never got to experience the whole 'Christmas movie' tradition thing that's so popular in the Western world prior) and I'm glad we did that. 

11. Whatapp video calls can either cure or perpetuate home-sickness 

Every week without fail, I'd give my family a Whatsapp video call. Each call wouldn't last very long, but it was heartwarming to know that it was something my parents (and soft toys hehe) looked forward to. I did too, though it was sometimes difficult seeing them when I felt a little home-sick. Especially when I was going to be eating instant noodles and they were about to dig into their wholesome Sunday lunches of steamed fish and other dishes. 

12. Learn to dance if you've always wanted to 

One of the craziest things I did in Hong Kong was to sign up for a contemporary dance class in school for fun. I've always wanted to learn to dance, and I figured that doing it in Hong Kong would be the best way, since nobody knows me anyway. While I wasn't going to be mapping the module back to NUS, for most of the people in the class, it counted towards their grades - and as a result, most of my classmates already had dance backgrounds. It was all so intimidating, I was lagging behind, I was falling quite a bit, and I found myself  occasionally dreading Tuesday mornings.

However, after every class I felt so incredibly accomplished. Soon, I started having a lot of fun in class and being really inspired by my instructor who's also a pretty renowned choreographer. It was in this class where I made the most friends as well. And I was pretty proud of our showcase at the end of the module. 


Fun fact: One of the photos of me ended up being used for the poster advertising the module in the next semester according to my friend in HKUST... what a bonus. 

13. Forget egg tarts, Chinese-style donuts (沙翁) are where it's at 

Sure, egg tarts are good, especially the flaky ones sold in the school canteen. But have you ever heard of Hong Kong donuts? These are life-changing. Think lardy balls of dough, deep fried in hot oil and coated with granulated sugar. Warm, fluffy, crispy - an absolute joy! I first had them at Tai-O Fishing Village, before realising that even Tai Cheong Bakery (yes, the bakery that does those famed egg tarts) has its own version. Highly recommended, you won't regret it. 

Looks unassuming, tastes like heaven.

The ones at Tai-O are fried to order - I think its freshness also plays a part in how insanely good they are. 

14. Search up and attend local events and festivals 

Perhaps one of the things I was most proud of during my stay in Hong Kong was how I made it a point to look out for interesting events and festivals to attend. Although I didn't head out every weekend, I made sure that when I did, it was always something worth going for! One of which was the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, where I felt really at home because it reminded me so much of the Singapore Writers' Festival. In fact, many of the speakers invited for the Hong Kong event had just come from speaking at SWF, or were heading to SWF next - so I felt like I wasn't missing that much from back home. I felt so alive and inspired attending the Hong Kong rendition, though the tickets are a lot more expensive than Singapore's. 

Another noteworthy one was The Great Hong Kong Beer Festival, where we somehow managed to win free beer and a beer glass. Plus, they were giving away Chili Crab-flavoured potato chips throughout the event. So reminiscent of home. 

15. Living abroad isn't as intimidating as it seems 

Indeed, it isn't! While I admit that the thought of living away from home for over four months didn't sink in even when I was already on the plane scooting off to Hong Kong (and thus I didn't even have much room to think about how intimidating the notion was), I was still shocked at how quickly I managed to adapt and call another place 'home'. And I don't just mean my cozy room, but Hong Kong as a country. I'm familiar and comfortable with the streets, of the public transport system, of basically living there. 

My half of the room! 

On our last day together - thank you for being so easy to live with, it's pretty rare that neither of us got on each other's nerves for the entirety of staying in such a small room together. I'm in awe, but even more so, I'm thankful. 

And this concludes my reflections of my time in Hong Kong. 

For now, I can safely say that I've had my fill of Dim Sum, buttered toasts and Char Siu fan. It's probably going to be a while before I step into the country again, but I still wouldn't trade this experience for anything else. It was a great eighteen weeks - I've seen and appreciated Hong Kong for its charms and quirks, and I sorely miss the feeling of having a freshly baked Bolo bun for breakfast. 

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