Student at the Faculty of Theology
My exchange journey in Hong Kong was eye-opening to say the least. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy such a busy city and its daily life in ways that I did. Neither was I expecting to meet such lovely and interesting people that I got to share my experience with. The impact of the city and the people in it was teaching and made me realise I still had a lot to learn about the world and my place in it.
Originally, I did not apply for Hong Kong but was offered a place in HKU and I accepted it without any expectations. My exchange lasted from September to January 2023. I was studying in the faculty of Arts.
Arrival and first impressions
My arrival to Hong Kong was not easy. It was emotionally exhausting with a lot of uncertainty. Hong Kong was one of the last countries on the globe that had strict Covid-19 restrictions going on. Covid vaccinations were required, as were a negative PCR test and a quarantine for three days. I had problems boarding the plane during my layover in Frankfurt and I was almost sure that I would not be able to get into the country. The biggest issue was that the arrival date I had for my quarantine hotel was day before my arrival. In the end when I managed to get into Hong Kong, I had to reserve another hotel instead of the one before, because the hotel couldn’t confirm my booking. It’s fair to say that my experience of arrival was not the easiest.
During these three days in quarantine, I was tested for covid every day and was not able to leave the room at all. It was a good time to settle a bit and relax before moving to the student apartments. After completing quarantine in the hotel, I was free to depart to Sassoon Road flats that I shared with my fellow exchange students. This was not the end of covid-19 related precautions and everyone who arrived the country had to do mandatory PCR and RAT tests ten days after arrival. The mask mandate was also in order until March of this year.
After my arrival, I got to meet my roommates that I would be living with. I was the final one to arrive to the eight-person shared flat. At first, I remember being nervous about getting along and living with so many other people. This became reverse and having flatmates became a very essential part of my exchange. It was nice to have people around that you could talk to and share your experiences with. Some of the most important memories for me are the conversations that we shared with some of my flatmates. Living in a foreign country is not always easy, and homesickness hit at some point. Having emotional support during these moments was comforting.
When I saw the city of Hong Kong for the first time and was amazed yet threatened by the skyscrapers that dominate the city. During my whole experience of living in Hong Kong I was fascinated by the skyscrapers and the architecture of them. However, I was also surprised how quickly I adapted to the surroundings of the almost dystopian city. To me there was two cities in Hong Kong, the city during daytime and the city during night-time. Its fascinating how different the city could look in its neon-lighted glory.
First month and settling down
The first month of living in a foreign country is a lot of adjusting into the culture and how basic things work. Biggest struggle during the first month was using the supermarket. I had problems adjusting my vegetarian diet to the very meat-based food culture. Getting used to what groceries you need to buy for your daily life and trying out some unfamiliar products is exciting but also exhausting. I was extremely exhausted during the first weeks in Hong Kong because of the intense heat – but also because of the amount of people and unfamiliarity of it all. Learning to navigate the public transport and the city at first was a lot of work.
The first time I went to University of Hong Kong I was utterly lost. The campus of HKU is huge and difficult to navigate because exists on so many levels. Lifts operate almost everything and if you decide you want to walk somewhere, you will most definitely have obstacles. I only learned to navigate on the campus maybe after two weeks of attending lectures. The most surprising thing to me on the campus were the queues to the lifts after 4pm and 6pm lectures. They could be more than 50 meters long.
During October I started having a something you could call routine. This would consist of going to Uni or going to wander around in the city. Then I would come back to the flat and cook dinner while catching up with my roommates. Maybe later during the evening I would do some extra schoolwork or have some leisure time for myself.
During the later period of living in Hong Kong I started going for long walks. These walks would work as a time for myself to reflect on my thoughts and relax. Sharing a flat with seven other people was lovely for the social reasons, but also very exhausting in the case of privacy. Hiking became one of my favourite things to do during free time. Seeing the high peaks and natural height differences was interesting. The possibilities of hiking and exploring contrasts between nature and city are endless in Hong Kong.
Experiences in University of Hong Kong
University in Hong Kong at first felt very different compared to the one I am used to in Finland. I remember talking about this with my Swedish friend during a course that we met on. Somehow the teachers were more open about their personal stuff that they would share during lectures. Another thing that struck out to me was how some of the students were being so nonchalant during some of the lectures. One of the lectures I went to students were reading manga and streaming football matches from their phones.
In other words, you could say that the style of teaching was just a bit different. My favourite module was a course focusing on Mindfulness that was taught by a professor who was also a monk. His lectures were one of the most mind opening and inspirational lectures I have ever had. I remember being so immersed during the lectures that I completely forgot the flow of the time. This course also had mandatory meditation practice as a part of the course. These group meditation practices had such an impact on me personally that I started doing meditation practice as a part of my daily routine.
Its fair to say that I enjoyed the Buddhism modules the University of Hong Kong the most. The ones I attended knew how to combine theory well with practice. Overall, HKU has a wide selection of modules from many different faculties and flexible add-and drop period. During this period, you can attend the first lecture and see if you want to continue or change the module. The modules I chose had essays, reflections and group-work. The deadlines of these were all evenly distributed to the time after reading week.
I would however highly recommend University of Hong Kong as an exchange university. The University has really great places that you can study in – even ones that are open 24 hours a day. There’s many different restaurants and canteens on the campus that offer wide variety of food (yes even vegetarian options). However, pay in mind that the price of a lunch on the campus varies between 4-10 euros. Using the library and study faculties was easily accessible. The University had a great diversity of students and a LOT of exchange students. What I enjoyed most about the campus was the garden elements that were integrated into the area. Worth mentioning is also the fact that you could get medical appointments very quickly and they were free of charge.
Holidays and other social activities
The Uni had a reading week during the second week of October when a lot of people travelled for a holiday. Me and a group of friends went for a week-long trip to the Philippines. After this trip I felt like I watched Hong Kong from a different, more positive perspective. The possibilities of travelling from Hong Kong are endless. Normally it would have been common to go to Macao, but the borders were closed because of restrictions.
I had my final lectures during the last week of November, which was quite early. My roommate had her final deadlines for submission on the 23rd of December which I thought were quite late.
Like I said before, the exchange student groups – for example in Whatsapp – are very active. There are different groups for different activities such as going for hikes. During the first month there was weekly outing gatherings every Friday on the beach in Repulse Bay. Nightlife was also very active and worth mentioning. Students – especially foreign ones – tended to gather to Wan Chai during Wednesdays “Wan Chai Wednesdays” and to Mr. Wongs (a famous restaurant serving food and almost free beer for students) during Thursdays in Mong Kok. LKF – Lan Kwai Fong – is a popular bar/club street in central.
Living in Hong Kong
The living situation is not easy in Hong Kong. The prices of rent are extremely high because of the population density. I had friend who shared a room with another student next to the University, and friends who had to rent their own flat from the private sector. From what I understood getting a flat from student housing was completely random. Sassoon Road residence had its perks because the area was quite peaceful even though it was a bit further away from the campus. It was also very affordable – I paid 250 euros for each month.
Hong Kong is one of the safest places I have ever been in. I never felt any threat and could walk alone on the streets during night-time without fear. Of course, being cautious is good as always. Sometimes the taxi might drive a bit too fast but that was occasional. It’s good to be cautious about the prices of HK taxi during night-time as they might ask way more than normal.
Talking about the prices of Hong Kong, I would say it’s about the same prices as in Finland – depends on what you are buying. Using public transport is cheap especially if you get a student card. Some of food is cheaper than other, but you can find good bargains from bigger markets as well. Buying vegetables and fruits is cheaper from the fruit vendors that you can find almost everywhere. Milk products are more on the expensive side, especially cheese. Kowloon side has a lot of good shopping malls. There is also a lot of markets such as Ladies Market and Fa Yuen market. You can also find some good thrift and second-hand stores as well if you investigate a bit. Lot of these stores sell overstock from clothing companies and factories.
Hong Kong is not the cheapest city to live in, but it is manageable. It has a lot to offer as a city, but its very consumer based it can be sometimes hard not to spend too much. However, with the help of stipends and student loan I could easily live in the city and enjoy myself.
Weather, food and cultural identity
The weather in Hong Kong is warm and humid – complete opposite to Finnish winter. The heat in August and October can be harsh for a Finn but gets way more enjoyable around November and December. During December there were days when I was freezing in our flat because the apartments aren’t built for isolating cold weather.
The food culture – like the city – is very diverse. A lot of the food is Cantonese style kitchen or street food, but you can find food from any culture possible. There is vegetarian options and restaurants available, you just need to find them. Finding menus in English can be hard sometimes especially on the Kowloon side. However, there’s possibilities for culinary adventure, if you are up for it.
Sometimes I had a hard time figuring out the cultural identity of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a place that is known for its both western and eastern elements – its known for having a status as a place where “east meets west”. However, I felt like sometimes the identity of the city was hard to grasp. My experiences with locals were always lovely – even though sometimes a bit distant. My favourite thing was spotting the shop cats that hung around freely when their owners were working in the shop.
Final weeks and returning to Finland
I came back from Hong Kong the day my visa ended, so the 6th of January 2023. The last two weeks I spent in Hong Kong were very intense and emotional for me. I tried to do everything I could when I still had the time. One of the most special moments for me was when during my second final week in the city I finally learned to navigate in both Wan Chai and Mong Kok without using GPS and stressing out completely. You could say that I finally started to settle in when it was time to leave. What felt like a long period at some point, in the end felt like I was running out of time. Saying goodbye was not easy.
However, compared to my arrival, my departure from Hong Kong was much easier because most of the Covid-19 related restrictions had ended. It was strange from going back to being majority from minority. When arriving back to Helsinki, I remember being at the train station in complete awe how short everything was. One thing I noticed during the first days was also how silent it was in Helsinki. It easy to say that I went through a reverse-culture shock during January. My mind was very blurry and all I could think about was that I wished I was still in Hong Kong. Around the start of March, I finally started to settle back in Finland.
Reflecting on my personal experiences in Hong Kong, I would not change it to anything. Hong Kong is an intense city with a lot of diversity, and it offers a lot for those who are interested in exploring it. However, it’s also a very secure city where everything works. For such a densely populated city, everything is manageable, and it doesn’t feel like there is 7 million people living in such a tiny area – unless you’re out during rush hour. The student culture is very active and there’s a lot of international students and activities to take part in. One of the best things is that you manage easily with just English language – even though locals appreciate you saying “M goy / Doh jeh (唔該/ 多) (Thank you) in Cantonese. Hong Kong is a good opportunity of getting to experience Eastern culture with a hint of Western culture.