返香港

finding my place in an unfamiliar home

中秋节快乐

Belated 中秋节快乐!Happy Belated Mid-Autumn Festival!

I had the opportunity to attend the Mid-Autumn Festival Carnival in Victoria Park on Wednesday night and bought a box of snowy moon cakes to try in the spirit of festivities. I’ve only had traditional moon cakes gifted to my family by the supermarket my grandpa used to work at and by friends before, so this was a completely new experience for me! I’m so used to eating the savory moon cakes, it was delightful to try some sweet ones. They are so interesting because they need to be kept in the freezer… it’s kind of like mochi ice cream!

The box of snowy moon cakes I bought from a stand in the Sheung Tak Mall across from my hall. Delicious!

I also had a lot of fun at the carnival and even got to see the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance (大坑火龙舞).

I had always celebrated this holiday back home in the States so it wasn’t new to me, but because it isn’t a national public holiday at home, we never had a huge celebration like this. I would usually share a few moon cakes with my family, maybe light some lanterns in my front yard, and eat good food cooked by my grandma with my family. Nowadays, we don’t even really light lanterns anymore or have gatherings to celebrate.

That’s why it was so surreal to attend a carnival for Mid-Autumn Festival and celebrate the occassion with a whole nation. It was strangely nostalgic and made Hong Kong feel a little bit more like home.

 

Weekend in Hanoi

Being in Asia for study abroad has its perks. One of them is being able to travel to another country for a weekend trip without spending too much money!

This past weekend I was able to venture to Hanoi with my friend Emilie. We flew to Vietnam on Thursday via Cathay Dragon and landed at around 8PM. This was my first international leisure trip without my family, so it was pretty exciting!

Our first order of business after landing was getting our financials in order. I exchanged about HKD$1000 (~USD$100) at one of the money exchange counters at the airport, but there are also ATMs available for cash withdrawal. Next, I decided to get a SIM card just in case. I got my unlimited data SIM card for ~USD$7 at a Vinaphone counter. We also booked our car service to and from the hostel ahead of time at the same counter to save ourselves the headache of dealing with the Uber app which refused to work with us. But it was pretty much all smooth sailing after getting all of the logistics sorted out and arriving at Hanoi Centre Hostel in the Old Quarter.

Over the course of our 4-night trip, we were able to get a lot done! In total, we visited 4 museums, 1 mausoleum, and 2 temples. It was a cultural experience that I am so thankful I was able to be immersed in.

Here is a glimpse of some of the places we visited (and the delicious food we ate):

Taken from the airplane heading to Hanoi

The busy streets of Hanoi scared me at first! I could barely cross the road through the hordes of people and motorbikes, but I eventually got used to it.

The Vietnamese Women’s History Museum was one of the first museums we visited.

Ho Chi Minh was in Russia getting his mustache fixed at the time, but we just had to stop by the mausoleum anyway.

This is the house where Ho Chi Minh used to live in the Presidential Palace.

The Banh Mi was delicious, especially with pâte!

We stumbled upon this temple while wandering around.

This was taken at the Hoa Lo Prison Museum where John McCain was once held captive. It was eye-opening to learn about the US from a Vietnamese prospective.

We saw some interesting mixed western and eastern architecture all throughout the French Quarter.

I tried egg cacao while overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake. The view was breathtaking!

I tried Poly Juice Potion in a quaint Harry Potter cafe smack dab in the middle of Hanoi!

I ended up keeping all of tickets I bought at each site as souvenirs. They are tucked away in my schedule book.

I learned so much at Vietnam’s culture and history through the museums I visited and by just walking on the streets of Hanoi. To my surprise, I even got to learn more about the US’s relationship to Vietnam during this trip. I’ve never been much of a history buff, but I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about how the US interacts with the world on a global scale and was surprised that there is still so much to learn about my own country when I am so far away. I think with this trip, I am starting to get a better grasp of what it means to be a lifelong learner and global citizen.

A solo adventure

Over the weekend, I was able to explore Hong Kong a bit more. This time, by myself!

Early morning excitement for the day’s adventure

I set out to Causeway Bay (銅鑼灣) early in the morning on Saturday and was able to hit all of the places on my list.

The first stop for the day was Hysan Place. I specifically chose to visit this 32-story mixed-use commercial building because it is BEAM Plus and LEED Platinum certified. If you’re from the US, I’m sure you know LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the US rating system for sustainable design. Well, BEAM is basically the Hong Kong version of LEED.

I took High Performance Buildings (DEA 2040) with Professor Hua during the Spring 2017 semester and fell in love with high performance and sustainable building design. I decided I would take this chance to apply the knowledge I had gained during the semester into practice here in Hong Kong.

Hysan Place has a really interesting open-air design concept, especially for a retail outlet/office space. I have never been in a mall that is completely open to its environment. Usually when I think of malls, I think of a huge air-conditioned box that is virtually completely closed off from the outside world. Not exactly the most environmentally-friendly building to come to mind. However, Hysan Place is the exact opposite of that. It uses what they call “urban windows” which are basically large openings in the lower levels of the building that improve air circulation in the neighborhood.

An urban window with escalators leading in and out of the mall

The building also employs several green roof structures that help keep the building cool, combat the heat island effect, and serve a purpose for the upkeep of the building and the community. This includes an urban farm on the rooftop that serves as an educational hub, a Sky Wetland that reuses grey water from the office units, and a vertical green wall. The building employs a mixed-mode ventilation system and maximizes on task lighting to reduce energy usage. It also utilizes light shelves, drapery, and low-E double glazing windows to take full advantage of the fantastic natural lighting available in Hong Kong without introducing too much glare.

Large ceiling opening letting in natural light

It was so interesting to truly see the material I studied in my class in action and fulfilling to know that I understand the purpose behind each decision made in the building’s design. It made me excited to go back and take more DEA (Design & Environmental Analysis) courses at Cornell. I also enjoy window shopping and got to do plenty of that at Hysan Place! If you want to learn more about the building, you can take a look at their BEAM profile here.

The next place on my list was Ichiran Ramen. I had discovered this place long before I knew I was going to Hong Kong. It is famous for its novelty concept for single person dining. The inside of the restaurant is filled with long hallways sectioned off for each individual person. The diner has walls on all three sides of the table that act as shields against interaction with other diners and the waiter. It is the ultimate dining experience because you can thoroughly enjoy your food without thinking about what anyone else thinks of the way you are slurping the soup, how your chopsticks look in your hand, or whether your face is red from the heat of the chili. You don’t have to talk to anyone and can just focus on your food. I took this chance to eat at the restaurant for lunch. Although the food was nothing too special, I had a great time because I love to eat silently (something that company will not always appreciate).

Ramen for one

The last place I went to was the Hong Kong Jockey Club Racing Museum. It has free admission and is very educational so I highly recommend it! The Jockey Club (香港賽馬會) is such an essential part of Hong Kong. HKUST was funded by the charity that the Jockey Club runs. A lot of buildings on campus have “Hong Kong Jockey Club” in their names; even my dorm is called “Jockey Club Hall”. The museum is near Happy Valley and is housed on the second floor of the Jockey Club Building. On display are old racing gear that once belonged to famous jockeys, as well as memorabilia from old betting tickets to badges. There is also a timeline of the Jockey Club’s racing and charity achievements. It was great to finally get a chance to learn more about a very important part of Hong Kong’s culture and history.

A view of the Jockey Club building from the outside

Overall, I had an amazing time on my day out. I had forgotten how much much I like to wander around on my own, so I was really grateful to have this opportunity to do just that. On top of that, I had an educational trip and a good meal!

Happy two weeks, Hong Kong!

It’s only been two weeks in HK, but honestly it feels like I have been here for a month!

I will admit, the first week here was tough.

And that’s normal because I was in a completely new place. Unlike at Cornell, I am not surrounded by the friends I have known since freshman year (some even since high school). I do not have the same encouraging and nurturing community from the various clubs and activities I am a part of back in Ithaca. I miss singing with Jazz Voices, attending FICCC (First Ithaca Chinese Christian Church), living with my PSP (Phi Sigma Pi National Honor Fraternity) brothers, and hanging out on the slope. I miss making a mess in the AguaClara lab. I miss our quaint little Ithaca and I miss being only a 4 hour bus ride from my family in NYC.

In Hong Kong, I am 8,040 miles away from home. When I first arrived, I didn’t know anyone. I wasn’t in any clubs or activities on campus. I didn’t know my way around Hong Kong or even the neighborhood I reside in. I didn’t even have a pillow!

But still, I try to take time to remember why I decided to study abroad and what I wanted to get out of my experience in Hong Kong. My three main reasons for coming here were to: 1) improve my Cantonese 2) immerse myself in a completely different environment and absorb all that I can learn 3) get to know the place my dad grew up in. I hope that by living my experience here as fully as I can, I will be able to apply the things I have learned here to my life back at Cornell and at home in NYC.

I am already getting a lot of Cantonese practice by going to a school that is mostly local permanent students and being exposed to Cantonese writing on signs everywhere every single day. I have made local friends (shout out to my awesome exchange buddy Winnie) and love practicing my language skills. This is teaching me to adapt to foreign environments. I have been pushed out of my comfort zone and I can feel myself becoming even braver than before. I realized that I have become accustomed to being surrounded by friends and forgot how to make new ones. By placing myself in an entirely different country and on a campus with a diverse exchange student body, have been able to recall my rusty friend-making skills and develop new skills in communicating with different people from all over the world. These are skills that will transfer to the networking and team communication I will need to do in my career.

Here at UST, I am able to take classes with a different approach to teaching and learning. I am able to study under professors that I would never have met at Cornell and I believe that is a wonderful gift.

I have also been exploring places in Hong Kong that I would never have been able to see in New York or anywhere else in the US. I am learning to love my surroundings and appreciate the opportunity I have to live in a entirely different place for more than a week or two. I am excited to share the things I have learned about Hong Kong and all the places I have explored with my family when they visit in December.

I am an intensely homesick person. I love my friends, my family, and community. I love Cornell. I love NYC. I love all the people, places, and things that make up my home in the US.

But I think that being surrounded by all of the comforts of home all the time has made me a bit numb to the feelings of gratefulness and appreciation I should have for my life back home.

This trip has woken me up and given me newfound love for my home. At the same time, it has also encouraged me to take full advantage of this amazing opportunity in Hong Kong that I would not have been able to pursue without the help of the staff and faculty at Cornell, my friends, and my family.

 

Quick on-arrival tips

There are a couple of things I wish I knew about Hong Kong before I got here.

I definitely had the upper hand over my exchange peers in knowing a bit about surviving in HK because of my HK-native family members, but still there is a difference between hearing about HK’s ins and outs and actually figuring out what they were talking about in real life.

So, here are a few tips for a smooth arrival to HK…

  • Make a plan for which classes you can take before you leave. Cornell is very good at communicating with study abroad students about coming up with a flexible course plan, but many of my exchange peers shocked to find that the courses they planned to take were either not offered or had long waiting lists. Even I had to switch around some courses when I got here because of certain restrictions and substitution issues. You can check courses available each semester on the “quota & class schedule page”. I highly recommend having at least one or two substitute classes in mind in case the classes you want are full or not available to you. I also had an awesome spreadsheet from one of my BEE department classes that helped me plan out my entire four years.

This is what my four-year course plan looks like! The classes I am taking abroad are highlighted in green at the bottom.

  • To avoid international ATM fees, open a HSBC or other international bank account before you leave (if possible). Already, I know that a couple of people have been charged fees for withdrawing money in HK with their home bank’s debit card. HSBC is an international bank with many branch locations in US and HK. Think about opening a joint account with your parent so they can easily send you money and you can easily withdraw money. There’s actually an HSBC ATM right across from Jockey Club Hall, and there are Bank of China, Bank of East Asia, and Hang Seng Bank ATMs on campus as well. Pick and choose which is more convenient for you, but also do your research accordingly! Some banks do still charge international fees, but I know for sure HSBC does not charge such fees for HK.
  • Figure out alternative transport options for getting to campus. There is an airport shuttle provided by HKUST, but it only ran at 12PM and 5PM on August 29th and August 30th. They don’t wait for people!! My flight ended up getting delayed by 3 hours so I missed the shuttle. Luckily, my exchange buddy picked me up at the airport so she guided me to the dorm via public bus, but I know that if I were alone I would not have been able to get around efficiently because I did not plan for it. Definitely make arrangements for alternative transport because flights do get delayed often. In my case, there were 3 typhoons in a row in HK at the time, so bad weather kept us from flying on time.
  • Get a prepaid SIM card at 7-eleven, but each 7-eleven has different available stock so make sure to ask at a couple stores to find the right one for you. I purchased a HKD$100 CSL SIM card after asking around at 3 different 7-eleven stores. My SIM card is “all-in-one” — it includes voice, SMS, and data. You can find more information about this particular SIM card here.

I bought this HKD$100 All-in-one SIM card from 7-eleven.

  • Your best friend in HK will be your Octopus Card (八達通). It is a metrocard and debit card all in one! It can be used to take the MTR train, make purchases at 7-eleven and Circle K, and even pay for food at restaurants. HKUST will give you a form to apply for a student Octopus Card, but you’ll have to wait for school to start before you can do so. For the first few days you are in HK before school starts, you’ll probably want to have one on hand for traveling to the more lively parts of HK. You can head over to the Customer Service Centre of any MTR station to purchase an Octopus Card. The closest MTR station to the HKUST campus is at Hang Hau (坑口) and the closest MTR station to the Jockey Club Hall is at Tseung Kwan O (將軍澳). 

    I received this Octopus card from my mom. It was deactivated because it’s an old card, but I was able to reactivate it at the Customer Service Centre easily.

 

Arriving at HK after a 15 hour plane ride was exciting, but also a bit overwhelming. I hope that these tips will help you figure out how to get settled in HK when you first arrive, if you’re considering visiting or studying abroad in HK.

Getting adjusted

Today is my fourth day in Hong Kong and the first day of classes at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (HKUST).

I landed on Tuesday, August 29th at around 4PM and was lucky enough to have my exchange buddy waiting for me at the airport. The 15 hour flight was tough for a host of reasons. During the whole trip my heart was racing. My thoughts ranged from simple questions about sleeping on the plane to wondering if I would be able to make friends once I got to my destination and whether I made the right choice leaving the comforts of my home for a place I’ve never really been to. I occupied my time and my mind with free airplane movies and light reading.

Once I arrived at the airport, I met with my exchange buddy Winnie and we took the public bus to my dorm in Tseung Kwan O (將軍澳). She was so pleasant and courteous. We spoke English at first, but quickly switched to Cantonese after she realized I could speak the language. She was quite shocked at my speaking skills!

After I checked in at the dorm, we took a look at my room. It is very large. I live in Jockey Club Hall (JCH) which is an apartment style dorm. It is an off-campus dorm that is quite new. The residents of the hall are assigned to a suite and have a double room in the suite. The suite reminded me of Carl Becker House at home. We have a living room and kitchenette. There are four bedrooms in the apartment and there are two showers and toilets.  The school also provides a free shuttle bus to and from HKUST for JCH residents.

The past couple of days have been interesting. I spent a lot of my time either on campus going through orientation events or taking the MTR (the local HK metro) to the Hang Hau (坑口) shopping mall. Over the course of 3 days I have acquired a set of bed sheets, a pillow, some stationery, an IKEA bag for laundry, and clothes hangers.

Overall, it’s been a hectic three days in HK. I’m still trying to get adjusted to life here and am still pretty jetlagged. I miss home, my friends, my family, and the familiarity of Cornell. But at the same time, I am excited for what is to come in the next few months. I am excited to make new friends from all over the world and to step out of my comfort zone. I only wish this awkward transition period would go by a bit faster…

 

One more day

“你返香港呀?”  or  “你幾時返香港呀?”

Translation: “You’re going back to Hong Kong?” or “When are you going back to Hong Kong?”

Both are questions I have been getting from my family ever since I announced my acceptance to Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). They’re questions that make me feel both excited and nervous for the trip.

I’ve always thought it funny that they say “going back” to HK instead of just “going” to HK because I’ve never actually been to HK, outside of stopping at the airport to wait for a connecting flight to Malaysia. This ironic situation is actually an accurate representation of my complicated relationship and feelings for my dad’s hometown.

I have a special connection to HK because my dad immigrated from there to New York as a teenager. Because my dad speaks limited English and mainly speaks Cantonese (the most popular dialect among HK locals), I also speak Cantonese. Fun fact: Cantonese was actually my first language and I had to go to ESL (English as a Second Language program) through my first few years of elementary school. I speak with confidence in Cantonese. I also grew up watching TVB, the cantonese version of Doraemon (or Ding Dong), and McDull. Whether they are accurate portrayals of real HK life or not, those TVB dramas and animated shows are where I learned about HK culture. It’s where I learned about the rough, hilarious way that Hong Kongese speak (their dialogues are littered with puns). It’s where I was first exposed to Canto-pop. It’s where I turned to in order to understand my heritage a little better.

But at the same time, I feel very disconnected from HK because I was born in America. There’s a special name my family calls me, my siblings, my cousins, and other American Born Chinese (ABCs): 竹升 (jook sing). It’s used to indicate that we are not fully part of Chinese culture or American culture. We have one foot planted on each side and do not truly belong anywhere. To top it off, I did not grow up with my dad’s side of the family, but with my mom’s side of the family, who are from Malaysia. My HK roots have been diluted so much with both American and Malaysian influence that I don’t have as strong an identity in HK culture. It makes me nervous about how I will fit in at a place I should supposedly belong to, but don’t completely understand.

However, I think that nervousness makes me feel even more excited to explore my dad’s home. It makes me all the more excited to put together the puzzle of my heritage, stand back for a moment, and truly understand my family’s background. I’m eager to practice my Cantonese with locals and push the boundaries of my language skills, as well as expand my vocabulary. I’m eager to find out whether true local HK life is similar to that of the characters in TVB dramas.

When I get back home in a few months, maybe I’ll have some new things about HK to talk to my dad about. Maybe I’ll be able to form clever puns in Cantonese and succeed in making my dad laugh at them. Maybe I’ll feel more comfortable writing “Fluent” next to Cantonese on my resume. Maybe HK will finally feel like another home to me, just as America and Malaysia already seem to be.

For now, I’ll continue to attempt to pack my life away into a suitcase and bask in my beautiful, mixed feelings for the place I already have an unconditional love for.

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