Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

“I’m Livin’ In”


During one of my weekly chats with Elvis, my language exchange partner, he mentioned that there are three things that each student of CUHK “must do” before graduation:

  1. Date the opposite sex
  2. Join a student society
  3. Experience life in a student hostel

At the moment, I am definitely missing out on the first two, but one out of three isn’t bad: life in the hostel is awesome. Life in my student hostel, the Adam Schall Residence, has been a bunch of fun and very pleasant at the same time. I feel especially lucky because the time I arrived on campus is about the time the renovations to this residence was being completed. On the first day I was moving my luggage into my permanent room, there was still work being done in and around the hostel and there would be for weeks to come. So in more ways than one, the place is full of life and always improving.

Every day, the hostel is tended by a regular team of workers who are all very kind and helpful, especially one lady who tends to my hall who I only know as wah je (華姐). Besides the regular housekeeping and handiwork (which from what I hear from my friend in another college is quite the VIP treatment), she is also generous. I thought it was strange that she handed me a sweet potato one day and a baglet of chicken wings. Initially, I thought there was something special going on that day but in fact it was her own. This isn’t even special treatment to the American either: another day she wouldn’t let my roommate head out the door without a jacket so she lent him her own. She doesn’t speak English but it’s fun to try to talk to her, even if it’s just ‘hello’.

Besides the staffers who mill about, there is also the resident student association living among us. To me, they appear to be a family of students who take up the job of working with the staff, organizing and running activities throughout the year, and basically take care of the hostel and the residents. My guess is there is a new group of a dozen or so students who takes the job each year since I was welcomed by one group when I first moved in, but in recent days, the events have been overseen by a new group. A lot of these events consist of free giveaways: whether it be free snacks or free mouthwash, they like to show that they take care of you.

The spacious pantry on the second floor is really the best of the hostels in United College, I think.  There’s a lot of room for hanging out and chatting here and also downstairs in the commons.


Our student association, which call themselves daai tong ga (大湯家), like to put out food for everyone to enjoy and it really stirs up a crowd. Here, the pantry is packed.


But really, not everyone gets to enjoy it as I find that everything is gone by the time I wade to the front of the crowd. I really only wanted one piece, but judging from all the cooking pots I see during these events, I guess the custom is to just take as much as they want.


Here’s my friend Andy demonstrating some old fashioned Chinese calligraphy (書法). He let me try it, and I managed to write a few characters with my right hand.


I wasn’t expecting a guy like Rex here as one of my roommates. He enjoys classic rock and playing the electric guitar. Sometimes it’s just noisy, but he’s got skill one can appreciate.


I think when you’re in a place like a student hostel, you can’t help but absorb what is around you because there is so much going on and so many different people that you can simply hang out with. Also, between the custodians, the student association, and my friends, I feel very well taken care of. When I am at home, I really don’t feel like I am on my own. But now that I am here on my own in Adam Schall, I still don’t really feel like I am on my own. I like the fact that I am among friends I can rely on, that it feels like home here, and that I don’t have to be on my own in the strictest sense of the phrase. Life in the hostel is pretty swell.

Campus Life

Studying abroad in Hong Kong is a brand new experience for me simply because it is on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, halfway across the world in a different neighborhood. But besides this, I realized not long ago this month that I am experiencing life on campus for the first time.

One thing that I noticed right away is that people like to gather in a circle, stomp a beat, and shout out who they are. Sometimes it is a matter of pride like this group of students associated with business. Other times, they are publicizing some activities they organized and would like everyone to know about. I also notice that a lot of the people involved in the activities are first year students – as my roommate says, they are the most eager to get involved.

I should mention that at CUHK, students are organized into four colleges, each having their own little town center in their own spot on campus complete with a set of dormitories, a food canteen, gym, library, etc. Also, within each college, the students are divided up into dormitories, another opportunity for exercise some group pride. But it doesn’t stop there: my dorm divided all the new students – typically the first years but also included me – into groups for the sake of organizing games and, again, creating a group that includes you.

Whether the college division has something to do with related fields of study, I’m still not sure, but it does make an opportunity for some rivalry. One form of this rivalry comes in the form of putting on a week of events within the college for students to come and enjoy. People buy food, play games, and enjoy performances organized by a few devout students of that particular college. It reminds me of the days of high school to see friends cheering each other on to get on stage to sing or take part in some stunt that involves getting soaked or covered in food. Watching all of this makes me feel like I’m not a twenty year old college student but just a kid again.

This is my table on the night of the Thousand Person Banquet (千人宴) for United College.  Behind me you would see a side view of the stage where they put on performances and stunts to entertain the thousand people gathered there that night.  It was a big party and everyone was invited: the table to the left of us seated many professors, and the custodians of my hostel also had their own table.


Here’s the look at the crowd in front of some food shops at a party called Shawlane, a much hyped event in Shaw College.  Many people came, I think, to see the local celebrities come and perform, but I spent all my money and left early.  My friend tells me I shouldn’t buy some of the “rubbish” I buy, but everything is new to me and I’ve got to try it all!


Here are some goods from the United College’s Open Bazaar. Besides the cooked food, people also sell little souvenirs and play games for prizes.  I was really surprised to see actual businesses come in and set up shop at this event.  I’ve also heard haggling going on at some of the shops.  I guess some people really enjoy shopping.  Let me know if you see something you like!


CUHK has half the number of undergraduates enrolled that SJSU has, but the culture is definitely different and something special.  It’s true that it’s a whole new world out there: if you hop on the train at the university station, you’re basically thirty minutes away from mainland China if you head northbound or thirty minutes away from the heart of Hong Kong. The university station is also a hub for many bus lines travelling around in the New Territories as well, so there’s a lot of culture to find and a lot of places to explore. But at the same time, the campus is alive with its own culture and in fact you don’t have to go very far to see something uniquely Hong Kong.

language exchange

During our last meeting, my language exchange partner asked me how I was doing in terms of meeting the local Hong Kong people. It was a simple question, but immediately I felt pinned by the fact that other than him and my two roommates, I’ve had little luck with making a serious connection with people here. I knew as well that it had everything to do with me.

I feel that I have a conflict of interest. On the one hand, I know that I am perfectly able to communicate and connect with many of the students here through the English channel. I’m here hopefully to meet people who will teach me a thing or two about Hong Kong. Doing this comes at the expense of working up the Cantonese, which is also a reason why I’m here. I’m stubborn so I’ll stick it out with Cantonese just to see where it goes (usually, not very far), but because I’m not so confident in my ability, the opportunities to break into conversation appear less frequently, and it hurts me socially.

There must be a way to reconcile these two opposing forces. I’d prefer not to speak English, but it’s my only option in many situations. When I do need to dive into English, I want to let people know of my intent to learn Chinese. I figure starting out in Cantonese is the best way to tackle this. Honestly, it feels like using English is the same as conceding defeat. But more importantly, it gives away the fact that I am not from around here.

Ideally, I want to remain hidden under my skin in other people’s eyes for as long as possible. My friend from Shanghai tells me about the gap that even he feels being recognized as a mainland Chinese. Like me, he is able to communicate and connect through the Putonghua channel – and because of this I feel he is better off than I am in getting around and getting by in Hong Kong. But he expressed his distaste for this mode of communication because while it could be opened to get the point across, it is hardly a means of establishing a genuine connection. His impression is that Hong Kong people have a degree of pride in their identity that is reflected by shoddy spoken Mandarin.

I feel that this is even a bit of an insult to him: presumably, the occasionally poorly spoken Mandarin is the mark of one who doesn’t feel a strong need to utilize the language, especially when all the comforts in the world are made readily available by one’s ability in the local dialect of Cantonese. I’ve met another friend from Hubei who expressed her frustrations as well. There are regional dialects all over the mainland but the common mode of communication exists in Mandarin. Hong Kong people may speak Cantonese, but they are also Chinese and should be proficient in Mandarin as well!

Cultural and social differences aside, I think that it is surprising that CUHK coheres as it does with the language barriers. When I first arrived, I fully expected to meet exchange students from the mainland, but when the school term began, I was surprised to find that there are students from the mainland whose primary school of instruction is CUHK. According to my roommate, one out of every five students in regular attendance is from the mainland.

Surely the barriers perceived by my friends are a real challenge, but it clearly isn’t an impossible challenge. Several weeks ago, I had lunch with my friends in the student hostel, and preparing the meal was a collaboration between two groups across two floors, the Mandarin speaking students from mainland China who I tagged along with and another group of Japanese students. One of the Japanese students was fluent in Mandarin, and because of this, the problem was solved. Of course, there is also English, which came in handy for sorting and sharing the cookware, but the native languages took precedence.

So, it isn’t an impossible situation as we all get to eat together at the end, but I never encounter this situation in my daily life in the United States. Maybe I have been missing the point, and I should be taking every opportunity to connect as possible, regardless of language. It’s better to get something – anything at all – going!

how is hong kong?

I’m an American-born Chinese – huaqiao (华侨) is the word describing overseas Chinese – away on a one year exchange program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  I’ve been meaning to start this blog for a while now, to document my experiences and learned lessons in a place both similar to and different from my home in San Jose, California.

So, let’s get started.  What follows is a transcription of my reply to a friend of mine asking about my first week in Hong Kong.  I’ll use it to set the tone for what this blog will be about, though I’d been procrastinating because I’m still not quite sure what it is it will be about exactly.  Experiences is a good start; expect pictures as well.  Language is also another focus of mine.

 Hey, thanks for asking! To be honest, though, I don’t feel perfectly adapted to this place yet, I kind of have to push myself these first few days to take care of setting myself up as a student here. At the same time, I have to remember to feed myself and take care of myself, something that takes a unexpectedly high amount of effort when you don’t have a mom putting food on the table and nagging you every so often. Am I homesick? No, not really. But it’s pretty tough and I do appreciate my parents all the more for what they do.

The weather is almost tropical (‘maritime’ is the word according to my roommate) but not quite as extreme. The humidity really gave me a shock when I first stepped out of the airport and into Hong Kong, especially since I was in jeans and a jacket, dragging a bunch of luggage along (later that day, I would drag the luggage uphill into the dorm at midday). Since then, I haven’t worn any pants. I’ve also learned not to rush if at all possible, unless you want to become completely soaked. There has also been a few days of rain and thunder.

Yeah, the people that I’ve encountered have all been friendly so far. Actually, I couldn’t really tell you much about this yet since school has only been in session for about two days and before these two days, it was pretty much just us international students walking about on campus. International students are by nature outgoing, open, and fun, but they aren’t from around here so I guess I haven’t really gotten to know very many people, really. My roommates are both cool characters, though; both are Hong Kong locals, one is majoring in Chinese and wanted an English speaking roommate to chat with, the other is a Business major who has an electric guitar.

I had to taxi myself to campus since I was not arriving early for orientation; the student orientation began the very day I arrived in Hong Kong. It was simpler than I had expected, the guy even spoke English, though we got along exchanging Cantonese in little bits. I realized very early that my listening skills really weren’t as good as I had imagined them to be. It’s really frustrating because some things are really clear like the things I’ve practiced with my dad or in Chinese class, but those situations come into play only about 20% of the time, and usually they carry interesting twists that lose me instantly.

Class has been interesting so far. I’m the only English speaker in my math class and I gathered glances and giggles from everyone in the room; again, I wish my listening skills were better so I could figure out the punchline or if they were making fun of me. I felt more belonging in my Chinese class, which is intermediate level, but as usual there are people who are less able and more able to speak. In anthropology class, we have a white guy as a tutor, which I’m told is rare, who dazzled everyone with perfect Cantonese. How jealous was I at that moment! I can only hope that’ll be where my language skill is one day.

Anyways, I’d been writing this on and off throughout the day today (Tuesday, my free weekday this term). I just got back from the supermarket and I am soaked. The thing with the weather is that besides the clouds in the sky you can’t tell when it will rain because it always seems to be humid. But it’s a more pleasant sensation than being soaked because of being out in the humid heat. It isn’t cold at all. It’s quite peaceful.

So the adjusting goes on. I don’t really know what to do, I guess it’s still an adjustment period and I’m still getting into the flow of things. I kind of feel I should also get out and do something, but I’m not sure. Whatever happens, I’ll let you know.