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Experiencing Culture Shock in Hong Kong

Studying abroad in a country that’s literally across the world is, as expected, an adjustment.  Coming to Hong Kong, I knew that there would be certain aspects of life that would be difficult to navigate; however, there is definitely a big difference in mentally preparing yourself for a life-changing trip and then actually experiencing it!  I have and still am experiencing culture shock as I continue to settle into the Hong Kong lifestyle.

The biggest physical shock was the climate.  Hong Kong is closer to the equator than Philadelphia is, so it is insanely humid here!  The worst months, as I’ve heard from locals, are July to September (which happened to coincide with my arrival), in which temperatures easily reach 95°F.  Paired with the humidity and lack of breeze in building-dense areas, I have been sweating a lot more than I’m used to in September and have done a lot of laundry!  To offset this, basically every building has insanely strong AC, which is a welcome relief.  It’s luckily already started to get a little cooler as October approaches, with more moderate weather expected for the winter.

To illustrate HK’s jungle-like climate: this is me. I am drenched.

On a social level, the biggest culture shock has been the language.  The Hong Kong people speak English, Mandarin, and Cantonese due to influence from mainland China and the UK, but the latter dialect is most used here.  Therefore, not a lot of older locals can easily understand English.  In the area where I live, which contains a lot of shops owned by older generations, I’ve definitely had to use a lot of hand motions and context clues!  I also try to use respectful gestures such as accepting change with two hands, and saying “m goi, bye bye” (meaning “thank you, bye” in Cantonese).  Most street signs contain both English and Chinese characters—after all, Hong Kong was once a British colony—but there are also many local restaurants with only Chinese signs and menus.  Translation apps come in handy when we are trying to find a good place to eat!  Although there’s occasionally a language barrier, everyone is friendly, and most people (especially younger generations) can communicate with me easily.

Street sign with both English and Chinese

In terms of academia, there is a huge cultural dedication to schoolwork at HKU.  I consider myself to be a pretty studious person, but I was shocked at the number of local students studying after just two days of classes.  It is nearly impossible to find a spot at the Chi Wah Learning Commons and Main Library, even though they both have multiple floors filled with hundreds of desks and chairs.  Many students will sit in one spot all day and even sleep occasionally (which I’ll admit, I love the nap normalization here).  I really enjoy doing homework in public places rather than my apartment, a sentiment that most students seem to share.  This may be due to the minuscule sizes of our living spaces, another characteristic of Hong Kong culture—I can touch all four walls from my loft bed, and I’m more productive in a more open environment that campus offers.

One of many rooms in the Main Library (every seat is taken)

Obviously, a big component of culture shock is missing friends and family back home.  To compound that, the time difference from Hong Kong to the East Coast is 12 hours!  However, I am fortunate to have met many wonderful people so far in my classes and through other exchange students, and I’m always able to call my friends in the morning and at night.  Even sending them pictures throughout the day helps me feel like I’m not so distant from everyone.  Plus, my mother wakes up the ungodly hour of 4am, so by the time I’m almost done classes, she’s already sending her good morning texts.

From these bigger physical and mental challenges to small details (such as the size of bathroom stalls, usage of military time, and the outrageous number of 7/11s), Hong Kong is a lot different from Philadelphia.  However, it is so exciting to be immersed in it all and pick up on little pieces of the culture.  And I can still find a lot of comfort in the city lifestyle, which reminds me of home.  Culture shock is definitely real, but I am having a once-in-a-lifetime experience here!

A Message from the Office of Global Engagement:

The safety and security of Drexel students is a priority for the University. As part of the efforts to support Drexel students that are studying abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Global Engagement has conducted a rigorous review of programming and provided additional support to participating students with customized pre-departure orientations and regular check-ins during the required self-isolation period and the term.

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