1 PRACTICAL ARRANGEMENTS DURING THE EXCHANGE PERIOD
1.1 Brief description of your stay abroad
The time and duration of your stay abroad
The semester in PolyU (Hong Kong Polytechnic University) started on January 16th 2006 and I had my last exam on the second last possible day on May 19th.
The host country and institution/company
Hong Kong PolyU is an amazing place for an exchange. School is big; roughly 20 000 students out of which 180 are exchange students. Hong Kong as a city provides everything one might need 24/7. Public transportation helps you smoothly when you are out of walking distance or feel like saving some money and take a bus, KCR/MTR (underground/train), tram, ferry etc. instead of a taxi, which is also very cheap. HK has a lot to do, and provides amazingly good infrastructure. I spent a lot of time going through different museums (space, science, history etc) and going to different exhibitions (remember to have a business card; otherwise they don’t let you in. You are nothing in China if you don’t have your name card. You can just make up a name of a company, or use one of your previous employers) Night life is also good in HK, though expensive. Popular areas are Wan Chai and Lang Kwai Fong on Hong Kong Island. There are also plenty of sightseeing places to go to and possibilities for outdoor activities like hiking. PolyU provides good facilities for studying and leisure in addition to a very good course selection and good teachers.
Access to information before the exchange period
www.polyu.edu.hk is a good website, also I read a few similar reports from previous exchange students who had been in Hong Kong and received a couple of leaflets. I found all the relevant information on them in addition to a few tourist guide books before coming to HK.
Reception at host institution, orientation and access to information during studies or internship
PolyU assigned 2 local students, referred as buddies, who were at the airport when I arrived in HK. Also I was assigned a “host family” who helped me out a lot in settling down to every day life. Later the first week there was a meeting at PolyU where all necessary things were discussed. That was also the first night all the exchange students met each other and were introduced. In this orientation all the information sources and contact information was given in addition to a tour in campus. Life became easy after that meeting.
Living conditions were interesting. Due to living in these boxes: 15 square meters for 2 people and bathroom shared with 2 toilet-mates, each floor (roughly 200 people) sharing one kitchen gives some idea how everyday routines are formed. Though, I found it very convenient and even a pleasure to go to one of the hundred restaurants with in a square kilometer for lunch and dinner. It became very nice and social event to gather together to talk about current issues with fellow students and get to know them better. Eating in HK is very cheap. McDonald’s around the corner from the students’ hall of residence is about 2€ for a Big Mac-meal, and Chinese-, Thai-, Japanese-, Korean-, and western food is from 3 to 5€ per person, and at the end often you have to leave food to the plate since the portions are so big. The students’ hall of residence is very good place for an exchange student to live. School is nearby, public transportation is within a short walk and inside the hall there are all necessary facilities and lots of possibilities to spend your free time. Laundry machines are cheap, and you may take a swim in the pool, or play ping pong or pool/snooker, sing karaoke, play the piano or join some activities like a choir, band, dance or karate group.
Your experience is very much dependant on your roommate. I heard some good stories about local students being roomies, but some other stories, which were quite horrible. However it is possible to change. One good hint to make sure you get another western person to be your roommate is to put into your application that you want a bed longer than 180cm. There are some rooms with longer beds for taller people, and they are not likely to be accommodating Chinese.
Price level in the host country,
HK is relatively expensive, but only when you compare the prices to other Asian countries. It’s still half the price to Finland, but just for comparison, still double the price to mainland China. Rent for the students’ hall is about 120€ per month, which you have to pay for the whole semester when you arrive. Beer in a bar or clothes in brand stores are the same price as they are in Finland, but I recommend you to buy all your clothes in Shenzhen, mainland China (1h-1,5h and 3€ away from the nearest train station) I ordered lots of clothes tailor made (a suit 80€, a pair of jeans 15€, a collar shirt 15€) Me and many of my friends recommend tailor whom you find at No. 48, Duocai Bucheng Commercial Luohu Shenzhen (5th floor). Public transportation as mentioned is cheap (about half price to Finland again) and very practical to use with intelligent octopus card, which you can use to pay your tickets and groceries or meals in many restaurants once you upload money in it. Taxis take up to 5 passengers and way to main bar areas or office areas in Wan Chai (about 20-30 minute-ride) 4-5€ excluding the tunnel fee, which is 2€.
Free time activities,
This I have more or less covered in the previous chapters, but to add something to the activities you find in the hall you may find a nice and friendly darts bar near the students’ hall on Whampoa street 4, or a billiard house in also in the Whampoa-neighborhood, which have convenient opening hours. There are also many movie theaters nearby, which play movies both in Cantonese and English at reasonable price. Also you may do sightseeing in HK or go hiking to one of the beautiful islands, where you find untouched nature, with beautiful scenery. Or you might take a day to go see pandas and sharks and ride roller coasters in Ocean Park or visit Mickey Mouse in the newly opened Disneyland. If you take the train to Shenzhen, mainland China you may treat yourself like a king in one of the several massage places or spas for little money. 1h foot massage was 2€ and 24h in massage and wellness center (with saunas) you can sleep, use all the pools and saunas and have 2h massage for 15€ (www.swty.com.cn) Though be prepared that nobody can speak a word of English and taxi drivers can’t often read Roman letters, and don’t know places by their English names. (Hong Kong, for example is not Hong Kong in Chinese, but Xian Gang. Often Mainland Chinese don’t know what you are talking about if you mention Hong Kong) But don’t worry, in HK you are ok with English, it’s the second official language.
Contacts with other students and local people
Thanks to PolyU Academic Exchange Collaboration Office (AECO), Microsoft Messenger and students’ hall of residence having all students living under the same roof it’s very easy to make contacts to other students. But to get to know locals, you should get yourself into some clubs, like English club or sports clubs, which organize trips and activities. A good hint is also not to stick to other exchange students when forming groups for group assignments (which you will do quite many) in classes. It’s very easy to stick to other exchange students at all times, but with little effort, out of the box thinking you get nice experiences and more importantly learn about their very interesting culture and behavior. My good friend had a roommate from Beijing, and they became good friends. It was interesting for him to answer such questions as “why do you drink beer?” and “why do you go to bars?” I bet he learned much more about culture than many others of us who had western roommates. But if you want to play safe, I’d say choose a western roommate.
1.2. Evaluation of the exchange period
Did the exchange period meet your expectations and your learning goals and objectives?
I tried not to have a lot of expectations, so every careful expectation was exceeded. Maybe I thought to make more contact with locals, which at the end is my fault that it didn’t happen. But it was suprising how easily and fast I made friends, who turned out to be very good, I’d say friends for life. About school, I met my expectations. For 2 Chinese teachers their English accents were quite hard to understand from time to time, and for one class the assignments required a lot of work (at the end 4 of us wrote all together 80 pages of stuff) and one more expectations: before going to HK, I thought it’s not possible for non-native speaker to learn mandarin-Chinese, but it actually is! Not really fluent after a semester, but still very useful when you go to mainland. In HK you can’t unfortunately practice it, since they speak a completely different dialect, Cantonese.
The contents and level of studies/tasks at work – How did they fit into your study and career plans?
Some courses were hard, some easy, depending on your luck, motivation and previous knowledge on the subject, like in any school in any country. PolyU is also very different at rank in different studying fields. In business PolyU is Hong Kong average (out of 8 universities) but in tourism for example it’s the best ranked university in HK. Pedagogically HK teaching is quite poor and often very boring, since it’s most of the time not interactive at all. Professors ask questions, without expecting anyone to answer, and even if you raise your hand, he might answer it himself. In fact many local students sleep in the lectures. It was not really rewarding to give (one of the many) presentations having a handful of students in deep sleep, in the class, one of them in the first row shamelessly in front of me.
2 ENCULTURATION, ENTRY AND RE-ENTRY (RETURN) SHOCK
Why did you decide to go abroad/ go to this specific country?
I was first supposed to go to Germany in order to strengthen my German, but due to bad timing of the semester I changed my mind and decided to get to know a whole new culture, yet not too far from the western. I thought HK to be an easy place to live since one of the official languages is English. That turned out to be very true. China is becoming very important to the rest of the world, and for a business student like me it’s very likely that at some point later on in my career, I’ll have to have something to do with the Chinese, and then it’s very important to know how to deal with them and their culture. Very advanced infrastructure, amazing skyline, importance of the Chinese and Asian economy to the rest of the world, very good course selection, size of the school, handy accommodation, Chinese cuisines etc. sounded and looked attractive to me, and based on them and some emails and browsing through information I chose HK. I could not imagine a better place for an exchange!
How did you prepare yourself for intercultural encounters?
I didn’t prepare myself. I already had experience from being an exchange student in America and being away from Finland working in a summer job in Germany. Therefore I had experience how to deal with possible problems, like culture shock or homesickness, which never occurred.
What were your first impressions like? What did you experience during the first days? What helped you to adjust to the new environment?
The beginning was just amazing. As you may imagine from a rich country with one of the most densely populated areas with lot of sea and mountains and always warm weather. I saw lots and lots of skyscrapers, and huge masses of people on the streets, double decked buses, lots of red taxis driving on the left side of the road etc. Everyday I experienced something new. It was very exciting and interesting time. This continued 2 or 3 months, and, sad to say, I didn’t even have time to think about Finland. The very first days, I had meetings with my local buddies (who came to pick me up from the airport) and my host family. Also I was lucky to have a roommate, who had already been in HK for 3 months and could help me to settle down in the new environment. For example, that you don’t actually have to follow almost any of the rules they have in the students’ hall or generally in HK. For example at first I was afraid to eat a hamburger on the streets because I saw so many warning signs for littering and the city looks so unbelievably clean, not even a single cigarette butt on the streets.
2.2 Living in a new culture and culture shock
What caught your attention?
I didn’t experience much of a culture shock. The environment where exchange students live is more international with Chinese influence than pure Chinese. You can practically live your same old life, if you want, speak mainly your own language, eat mashed potatoes and meatballs (in IKEA btw). Some of the interesting (shocking) points that I saw, were related to food. There is a saying that Cantonese people (which culture HK also shares to some extend) eat everything which has legs, except chairs and tables, or everything that flies except airplanes. Me and my friends most of the time left chicken feet, everything related to stomach or brain untouched.
What was new/ different/ odd/ funny/ surprising?
Many things were new, different, odd, funny and suprising. I think in whole Finland I can’t find stuff which I couldn’t eat if it was on a restaurant menu, after trying purposely or accidentally some of these new cuisines.
Different and odd I would have to mention the very widely seen prostitution. It was sad to see same people: girls, boys, who looked like girls, boys on the popular bar streets selling themselves to rich western people. Another odd thing is Hong Kong people’s love for money and number of shopping malls, hyper consuming. In new years (Chinese, lunar new year, they wish each other Kung He Fa Choi, which means, I wish you a lot of money this coming year). Some people refer Hong Kong as one big shopping mall, I don’t know who can afford to buy all these expensive brand products when the average income of Hong Kong person is 1000€ and average rent 800€ per month. I bought most my stuff on night markets, mainly well copied western brands, for very little money.
A funny thing would be (my friends told me) how they were coming from a karaoke night or a night with more than just one drink, back to the hall 6 or 7 in the morning, they saw local grandmas and grandpas doing stretching and practicing tai chi on walking streets (foot bridges). That looked very weird to us, says one who comes from the country where Nordic walking was invented.
Suprising thing would be how nicely people treat foreigners. It made me so happy to see how helpful everybody was. Yet I think we have some things to improve, because honestly I don’t think Finnish people would treat Asian people with the same respect. This is sad.
Negative feelings such as homesickness, insecurity, depression, suspicion, fears – What caused these feelings?
Hong Kong is 4th safest country in the world. There is no reason to feel fear, and I didn’t. I was all the time so busy with either school work or things not so much related to school that I had no time to be homesick or feel depressed. Maybe if you are really addicted to good tasting tap-water or always more or less clear sky and fresh air, you shouldn’t go to HK, those things you don’t find there. Factories in mainland China take care that the air is polluted and sometimes smell very bad. Luckily the smell never comes inside buildings. Blue sky (like it is in Finland) you see in HK depending on the season, but maybe 2 times in 3 weeks on average.
Joy, experiences of surviving and succeeding, feeling yourself at home – When did you experience these feelings?
I refer HK as my home. At present, writing this report I’m still in the PolyU students hall, and I feel home. After getting to know this city and learning a few words in Cantonese, learning to distinguish language and people from other Asian peoples and showing passport when entering Hong Kong at the residents’ counter (student visa) instead of visitors (where all tourists have to go to), give a feeling of belonging here.
3 DEPICTION OF ONE INTERCULTURAL ENCOUNTER/ INCIDENT DURING YOUR STAY
This happened in Shanghai, but could have culture vise also happened in HK. We were in a youth hostel, whose practice was that everyone pays one night at a time instead of the whole amount for a longer visit. After a couple of nights I got sloppy and paid my 6€ payment for the following night, and somehow lost my receipt or didn’t get one. Next morning we wake up and go to pay and the hostel staff claim that me and one other friend I was traveling with (total 5 people) hadn’t paid. We knew it 100% sure that we had paid, but they wanted to see the receipts, which me and my friend had forgotten. After us getting a bit frustrated and mad at the staff, they found a solution. They would watch the security video tapes where they see everything that has happened at the reception. The manager and another staff member go to the back room to watch the tapes. In 15min they come back and the manager says, you can pay in the afternoon. We were a bit confused what had happened, since before going to the back room they were really eager to get our money, and now they say that I and my friend can pay in the afternoon. Later as we thought about it we connected this incident to Chinese people’s worst fear, the fear of loosing one’s face. Of course no one then mentioned anything about the bill when we returned to the hostel in the afternoon. They had seen us pay on the video, but to save their faces they never admitted that they had done a mistake in their bookkeeping. This is good to keep in mind. Never complain about somebody’s behavior when other people can hear it, because it’s interpreted as loosing his/her face. Also you should keep it in mind that Chinese people might never say I don’t know, and rather tell you something really general or even misleading, in order to save their faces. This is also why Chinese students don’t ever ask questions from their teachers. They are simply afraid that because a teacher couldn’t answer my question he lost his face, and this game goes on. Everybody saves everybody else’s faces. This was frustrating in some classes at school when dealing with some teachers.
4 VALUE OF THE EXCHANGE PERIOD TO YOUR INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE AND LEARNING
4.1 What were the most important things you learned about the country, its history, culture, industries, infrastructure, etc?
I learned to be more tolerant and flexible. Sometimes you would think that if you show hand gesture of writing a check after having a meal, you would get the check, but that’s not always the case in China. Or I learned to deal with problems i.e. if bureaucracy stops you having something that you would take for granted in Finland; it’s not the person’s fault who is serving you. You can’t simply get mad; you just have to live with it. Also this saving-one’s-face-thing might be hard to understand as a western person, but what can you do? You have to take this into an account and try to cope with it.
Chinese people are very tolerant to mistakes that a western person makes, such as giving and receiving money with only one hand (yes, in Hong Kong gifts and money is exchanged with two hands) and that you eat with your rice bowl on the table instead of holding it in your hand near your mouth, which is the polite way. But it’s no harm to adapt to these. On the other hand you have to tolerate some rood things that are normal to them, such as barbing, farting in public and some childish behavior, which they find normal or amusing.
4.3 What were the most important things you learned about the language and communicative culture of the host country?
Very important things that I learned were patience and a few Chinese words. Sense of humor is also very different. Many times our humor or gestures were not understood by them.
4.4 Assess your current intercultural competence and its development during your stay abroad. Consider your culture-specific and culture-general knowledge
I think I will always benefit the inter-personal skills that I gained in Hong Kong from interacting with people from many different cultures. In business making, it’s very essential to know where the other person is coming from. I also learned a lot about other Asian cultures, such as Korean due to some assignments, presentations and friendships.
5 TIPS TO PEERS PLANNING TO STAY IN THE SAME PLACE
Get prepared to the best time in your life! Save some money, because it’s a great place to explore other parts of Asia. Trains to mainland are cheap, and also flights. You might consider flying to Shenzhen or Macao; they are not far from Hong Kong from Finland in case they are cheaper. Get a multi entry visa to mainland China, it’s worth it (45€ for half a year). Go to HK with as little stuff as possible and send less stuff via post at the end of your stay. I came to HK with almost 20kg of stuff, and I bought so much stuff that at the end of the stay I had about 40kg, which means 20kg of trouble, since you are allowed to take only 20kg to the plane. Get into all possible contacts with locals (host family, buddies, and other activities). Don’t be a roommate of another Finn and stick to other Finns on your free time, that’s boring. On the other hand contact Finnish Business Council (www.fbc.com.hk), or by the time you come the name might have been changed to Finnish chamber of commerce, because they arrange all kinds of activities to Finns living in HK (250 all together), such as Vappu-party (May 1st) with sausage, Turun-sinappi, Koskenkorva etc. During the time I was in HK, students were very welcome to join those parties. In FBC’s meetings there are also other Finnish exchange students from other universities of Hong Kong.
I can’t think of anything else. Please write me an email at ville.majanen(at)e-ville.com and I’ll be happy to answer any further questions.