finding my place in an unfamiliar home

Author: Sidney Ga-Yuh Lok (page 1 of 2)

At the end of my journey

It’s weird knowing that I’ll be two hours into my plane ride home by this time tomorrow.

I’ve officially survived living in Hong Kong for four months now. I arrived on August 29th and will take off tomorrow on December 31st. During these past four months, I’ve learned a lot… like actually a lot. I didn’t realize it until I was reading my menu (which was all in Chinese) and was suddenly surprised by the fact that… “wow I can actually read everything!”

When I first got to this place, everything was foreign to me. I learned Simplified Chinese (简体) in school so I couldn’t read everything because it was all in Traditional Chinese (繁體). But now I can read almost everything I had learned before in simplified and even added new vocabulary to my belt! I used to get lost in PopCorn (the mall across the street from my dorm), going to church, getting around Hong Kong via MTR, and even in the park right outside my building! Now I can navigate so easily that it’s almost second nature to me. I led my family all around Hong Kong these past few weeks when they came to visit. I learned about and even adopted some unique Hong Kong mannerisms, like Hong Kong Style English. For instance, people here say “sem” instead of “semester” and “con” instead of “contacts.

Not only have I learned a lot about Hong Kong, but I’ve truly learned a lot about myself. I’ve written about this before, but I think I have a much clearer idea of what I want to do in my career now. Part of that is focusing more on figuring out God’s plan is for me rather than focusing on making money or getting a job right away. The importance of this concept is something that I was only able to fully grasp and understand here, away from the stresses of Cornell. I’ve made friends from around the world who have taught me an incredible amount about navigating school, Hong Kong, Cantonese, my faith, and life.

As I reflect on my semester abroad, I realize that although it definitely hasn’t been a smooth journey nor was it what I expected at all… I’ll never regret this experience. I’ve grown in ways that I never imagined and cannot even put properly into words. If you’re thinking about studying abroad or are preparing to study abroad, one piece of advice I have for you would be to not get your expectations up too high and to just enjoy the unique opportunity you have taken. Not everything will be super amazing all the time, but every moment will help to create a journey you will never forget! Although there were definitely times where I wanted to hop on a plane back to New York, looking back at those low moments, I realize that they were just part of the process of growing up a bit more and it was so worth it.

I’m excited to head home tomorrow, but I think I’ll miss Hong Kong (just a little bit).

Finding community

Everyone needs their “group” in university.

Sure, I identify as an introvert, but ultimately human beings are social creatures who crave to be understood and to understand.

It took me about half a year at Cornell to finally find solid communities that I love to be a part of. I found community in student organizations such as AguaClara, Jazz Voices, Cru, and Chinese Bible Study, as well as in my church First Ithaca Chinese Christian Church (FICCC). As I’ve hinted at before, part of the reason why it was hard for me to adjust to Hong Kong at the beginning was because of that loss in community in my school environment. At the beginning of September, I embarked on a journey to find my community in Hong Kong.

Now, three months later, I can say that I have found that community in Agape, an English-speaking Christian fellowship at HKUST. I met two of the leaders of Agape (Andrea and Elijah) while they were tabling in one of the atriums at school. At that time, I was worrying about how I would get plugged into a Christian community here in Hong Kong. I wasn’t sure if there were any Christian fellowships at HKUST to join or even where to start on my search for a church to attend. Just as my mind was wandering to these topics and I was starting to get a little stressed, I spotted Andrea and Elijah’s little table setup for Agape.

To me, it was a great instance of God answering my anxieties and leading me to an answer. I went to them and asked “Are you guys tabling?” I remember them giving me confused looks because they didn’t know what “tabling” meant, which I assume is probably a term that is used mainly in US universities. It was a funny start to our conversation! I talked with them a little bit, asked how I can get involved, and ended up filling out a Google form to get notifications about future activities and the upcoming orientation event.

Over the course of semester, I have gotten to know some of the members of Agape through small group meetings where we discussed God’s Word, in the churches I visited and the church I eventually joined International Christian Assembly (ICA), and through various formal and informal events. We’ve gone kayaking together in Sai Kung, hiking together on the MacLehose Trail, and bonded with each other over dessert at the famous Honeymoon Dessert shop. We’ve gone to the movie theater in Po Lam to have dinner together and watch Justice League. These are the brothers and sisters that I have gotten to know through both intense conversations about serious topics such as career plans or politics and the more mundane aspects of life such as how bad the food in the LG7 canteen is.

Agape helped me find a community in a foreign country. Although I am excited to make my way back to Cornell and enjoy all the little things I have missed about my beloved home in Ithaca (naps on the plush couches and armchairs in Willard Straight Hall, bagels for breakfast from Goldie’s, all-nighters in the Engineering Library), my upcoming departure feels bittersweet when I think that I may not see my new friends for a very long time, if at all. Just when I thought I was beginning to get to know them better, I realized that it is almost time for me to go. But I believe that I am extremely blessed to have been able to meet such wonderful friends and fumble our way together through school, life, and our continual struggle to grow closer and closer to God.

Shout out to everyone at Agape for adopting me to their little family in Christ this semester and for teaching me so much about living life in Christ’s name!

Joining a community at my host school that I could identify strongly with added a dimension to my study abroad experience that I have come to value the most and never even expected in the first place. The diverse population of Agape allowed me to get to know people from all over the world gathered in Hong Kong for university; I got to know people who grew up in Taiwan, Mauritius, United Arab Emirates, and El Salvador to name a few. All throughout my semester abroad, I noticed that I had abundant opportunities to not only learn about Hong Kong, but also learn about other places all over the world whether it be through traveling or through everyday interactions with my classmates.

I strongly believe that study abroad is what you make of it and even though I know that there was a lot more I could have done and taken advantage of during my time here in Hong Kong, one of the choices I will always be happy about making here is joining this fellowship.

Packing list (looking back at what I should/shouldn’t have brought)

So I’m definitely far enough along in the semester to be able to re-evaluate my packing choices. Looking back, there are definitely things I didn’t need and things that I should have brought. Don’t get me wrong, I did my fair share of research into what other students packed for study abroad, but I have a difference in opinion in some aspects.

Here’s my take on what you should pack for study abroad:


I read on a study abroad blog somewhere that you shouldn’t pack a lot of clothes but pack enough to rotate for a week. I did not and I disagree. I’m not saying pack your entire wardrobe, but definitely pack at least 2 weeks worth of outfits. I found myself running out of clothing periodically and having to do my laundry often at the beginning of the semester. That made me actually go out and buy clothes and I even had my mom send me clothes we had ordered from Uniqlo before I left. I ended up over compensating for my lack of clothing in the first few weeks. If you do want to do a lot of shopping then maybe don’t follow my advice, but if you’re like me and your heart bleeds a little when you have to spend money then it might be a good idea to pack a little more! Another tip: pack more tops than bottoms. Bottoms are usually heavier than tops so they can withstand more than one day’s worth of wear and can be matched with a variety of tops to create a new look.

This one’s obvious, but research the climate of your study abroad area ahead of time and also take into consideration the climate of areas you may be traveling to. Hong Kong has a tropical climate; it can be described with two words: hot & humid. So logically, I packed a lot of clothing suitable for warm and semi-cool weather, but I also packed some winter clothing because I assumed I would travel to places like Korea (which was cold last week). But I also wouldn’t recommend packing too many winter clothes; there’s such a thing as layering! I, for one, was overly ambitious and packed two winter jackets, a rain jacket, and a denim jacket. Don’t be like me!!!

Pack things you are comfortable wearing, but also pack things that you might neglect back home. Going abroad meant that I had the opportunity to re-invent myself again! It’s been so fun trying different outfit combinations that I simply never tried back home. This has actually made me more confident and dare I say, courageous.


Oh my sad, sad running shoes… I did not heed the warning of another study abroad blogger who brought her running shoes and left them to collect dust in her closet the entire semester. It’s been two months and I have worn my running shoes once. Once upon a time, I was a member of the track team in my high school, but it’s been a long time since I have had my last real run. I thought maybe I would get back into it when I am in Hong Kong. Not true. If you were not using running shoes for jogs back home, chances are you won’t use them here. There’s always a chance that you *might* pick it up in your new environment, but there’s just so much to explore and do abroad that it might not be high on your priority list. If you think that might be you, leave them at home! And instead bring hiking boots!!! I cannot live without my hiking boots here. They are awesome especially for Hong Kong. There are hiking trails everywhere and my boots keep me dry, safe, and comfortable whether I am walking along a country park trail or just strolling through the streets of Hong Kong. I say bring one pair of comfortable walking/hiking shoes, one pair of *fancy* shoes, and sandals for the shower.

Business Casual

I’m glad I packed at least one business casual outfit because I actually had chances to meet alumni and go to alumni events during my time here in Hong Kong. I definitely recommend packing a more formal outfit in case you have video interviews or chances to meet alumni. It’s also useful for student presentations!


I traveled around Honduras with AguaClara with my big DSLR camera and took some wonderful pictures, but I kind of regret bringing my clunky camera here. I don’t have a slimmer option so this was my only choice, but if you have a nice, portable camera you should bring it! It’s harder to get into the mindset of bringing my camera everywhere here because I only had two weeks in Honduras so I felt like I had to take pictures of everything, but here I have 4 months so I’ve been lazy with photographing and my camera has been sitting neglected in my room.

Traveling Essentials

I totally recommend bringing a document organizer to keep all of your travel and school documents in order. It has been a lifesaver for me. I keep my extra passport photos (it’s good to have these handy for any forms you need to fill out in your host country/institution), my passport, health insurance documents, visa documents, and even my AT&T SIM card in my handy document organizer.

I also highly recommend bringing a portable duffel bag with you. I have one from IKEA that folds into a little pouch. It doesn’t take up much space in my luggage and has been great for taking out for those little overnight trips to Vietnam and Korea.

Bring a travel adapter that is suitable for a variety of countries. I have one that has multiple USB slots which is great for charging my phone, iPad, and battery pack all at once. It might be obvious, but I have seen people scrambling to get one once they arrived here. Trust me, it will save you the trouble of looking for an adapter once you get to your host country. You will probably need it right away and it’s going to be hard to find one when you have no idea where to go to get one in an unfamiliar place. It’s also good for trips out of the country!

On a separate note, it might be good to look up local shopping areas nearby to buy essentials like bed sheets, pillows, blankets, etc. It was hard for me to figure out where to get those items once I arrived because I hadn’t packed a pillow or anything like that in my suitcase and I was also not at all familiar with my neighborhood yet to know where to get those items. That night, I just slept with a blanket I got on the airplane and used my sweater as a pillow. I spent the week looking for a reasonably priced pillow. If you know where to get those things before you arrive, then it will make your first night much easier for you!


If you’re going abroad soon, then I hope this has been useful. I definitely wouldn’t say that you should follow my advice to a T to have a good experience, but I hope at the very least it would give you an idea of what is right for you! If you have questions about packing or study abroad, feel free to reach out to me. I can’t believe classes are coming to an end in 2 weeks… it feels like just yesterday when I was packing for an experience I will probably remember for the rest of my life.

A little trip to Seoul

I was able to take a little trip to Seoul this past weekend after taking three straight midterms the previous weekend. It was a great chance to get some rest and relaxation!

I kind of fell in love with Seoul… sorry Hong Kong! Seoul is such a beautiful combination of the busy city life with the quiet atmosphere you can only find in a quaint little town like Ithaca. I visited a few different areas during my stay like Hongdae, Sinchon, Myeongdong, Insadong, Jung-gu, and Gangnam-gu. Each neighborhood had its own personality and each neighborhood was unique in its own right. For instance, I visited Garosu-Gil on the last day which is kind of an upscale area (kind of like Soho) and that completely contrasted with Bukchon Hanok Village which is a traditional village I toured the day before.

During my trip, I stayed at a hostel called the Lazy Fox Hostel which provided my group with an apartment-style unit equipped with a kitchenette, a bathroom, and a common room that we shared with another room in the unit. Breakfast was provided in the morning and there was also roof access, which was a major plus! The hostel is also located in a nice area that is quiet, but close to the bustling streets of Hongdae and only a 5-minute walk away from the metro station. If you’re abroad traveling to Seoul and are looking for cheap accommodations, I recommend staying here. We had a little trouble with mosquitos the first night, but were lent an electric swatter by the staff.

There is so much to do in Seoul. Clothing, makeup, and accessories for sale line the streets of Hongdae, Myeongdong, Sinchon, and Garosu-Gil. There’s even a large underground shopping center in Gangnam Station. Many items were pretty good quality and affordable. No wonder everyone in Seoul is dressed so nicely… There are countless museums around Seoul detailing Korean history as well as palaces and traditional villages scattered throughout the city, which give a feel for Korean culture. It was hard to pick and choose which activities we would do and which sites we would visit!

A glimpse of my trip:

Ewha Women’s University – there were many street food stalls selling dukbokki, soondae, fish cake sticks, tempura, etc. as well as interesting shops around the area! The University was started by an American missionary and has a welcome center explaining its history as well as a museum on its premises.

My first meal in Korea! We had dukbokki and soondae at a street food stall right next to Ewha University.

A view from above of the Bukchon Hanok Village.

Another view of the Bukchon Hanok Village.

Street art! There were so many beautiful murals all around the village.

The N Seoul Tower from afar at another Hanok village.

Seoul at nighttime from N Seoul Tower Cable Car.

We also visited the Gyeongbokgung, a palace near the Bukchon Hanok Village and Insadong. 

You can rent a hanbok to wear around your tour of the palace. There are many rental shops nearby. Admission to the palace is free if you wear a hanbok!

I highly recommend trying samgyetang (ginseng chicken stew)! It is served with ginseng liquor and kimchi. My friend (a Cornell alum!) recommended Tosokchon Samgyetang, which was super huge and the stew they served was delicious!

Ssamjigil in Insadong, a shopping center with sloping sides that replace stairs! There is even a poop-themed restaurant at the top floor.

We had our last dinner in Seoul at a jimjilbang, a 24-hour sauna that has baths, fomentation rooms, entertainment facilities, a restaurant, and sleeping rooms. We stayed at Siloam Sauna near Seoul Station. It’s also a great, cheap alternative to traditional accommodations!

Me peacing out in one of the caves in the women’s dugout room. Until next time, Seoul!

I had an absolutely amazing time in Seoul and had a bittersweet departure, but I’m so grateful that studying abroad gave me the chance to visit this city. I watch Korean dramas and my sister is a big fan of Korean music, but I never imagined actually traveling to Seoul because it’s just so far away from the US! It would have been incredibly expensive for me to purchase plane tickets, let alone leave room in my budget for accommodations, food, admission prices, and shopping. But studying abroad closed that distance and really gave me the perfect chance to check off an item that has been on my bucket list for a really long time.

Thank you, Hong Kong and Cornell Abroad!

Finding my motivation

Sorry, I’ve been MIA these past two weeks because I’ve been holed up in the library and in my room studying for midterms! However, over the course of these past two weeks, I have not only done a lot of studying, but also a lot of self-reflection…

Studying for Sustainable Development in the library at 8AM 😢

Coming to Hong Kong, I realized that I would have to get used to a different academic atmosphere. After all, I would be enrolled in a completely different school that is bound to a completely different culture. However, that didn’t mean I knew how it would be actually having to adjust to the new academic setting.

I’ve grown extremely comfortable with Cornell’s rigorous and continuous downpour of assignments, group projects, and prelims throughout the semester, as well as informal interaction with professors and TAs during office hours. I’m used to running around campus all the time and juggling multiple assignments and exams all at once. But at HKUST, most of the classes I am taking are structured so that my entire grade depends on a midterm and a final, with very few assignments and group projects. Some classes have “tutorials” that are similar to discussion sections at Cornell, but for the classes I am taking, attendance is not required.

Because a majority of the time I have been here I have been relatively “stress-free”, I have been struggling to stay engaged and focused in my classes. I love being constantly challenged and at first, felt that this seemingly less rigorous academic environment was not challenging me as much as I would like it to.

However, I have started to see that it’s not that HKUST isn’t challenging… but that it poses a different type of challenge: developing the initiative to be actively learning and actively engaged in your classes. I think that Cornell gives a perfect environment to stimulate academic curiosity and it has given me a lifelong thirst for knowledge, but I’ve learned that I have become too dependent on my professors, TAs, and fellow Cornellians to keep me motivated and academically active.

I have started to suffer the consequences of this dependence while studying for my midterms this week. It has been extremely hard for me to focus and concentrate. (Luckily my exams went well, but the moments leading up to each exam were very difficult.)

Being at HKUST has also given me a unique opportunity to take a step back from the hustle and bustle of Cornell and re-evaluate my interests. Being left to my own devices has taught me a lot about what I am actually interested in academically and career-wise. For instance, I realized that I have an interest in product design and want to figure out how I can combine that interest with my passion for sustainability.

I came in this semester thinking I was pretty much set with my plan to pursue a MEng in Environmental Engineering through the Early Master’s program. I wasn’t planning to budge. But 7 weeks later, I am now contemplating taking my time with my last 3 semesters at Cornell, spreading out my classes more, and focusing on reflecting on what I am truly passionate about, what I really enjoy doing. I think that these past two years, I have been rushing to the “finish line” when I should be cherishing these life-changing  moments of my college career. Coming to Hong Kong has helped me realize that this was my way of running away from feeling uncertain about my future, but I am finally ready to slow down and be brave enough to face the fact that I may not know exactly what I am doing.


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.

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