It’s the time of year when thousands of undergrads all over the world are deciding where they want to do their semester or year abroad. Some of them will be considering Hong Kong! So I decided to write a little guide to help undecided people come to a conclusion about whether Hong Kong / HKUST is right for them. Having completed my first full semester and just started my second, I feel I have a decent grasp of the good and bad things about studying here, and what kind of person will get the most out of it.
Hong Kong is a wonderfully crazy place; every day a sensory overload of sights, sounds, and smells. From the stunning skyline over Victoria Harbour to the picturesque coastlines and beautiful hiking trails, despite its tiny size Hong Kong is the kind of place where there’s always somewhere new to go. It’s hot, sticky, and smells like durian, but I’m really happy to count Hong Kong as one of my homes. I have so many good things to say about this place. However, Hong Kong is far from paradise. There are quite a few things that annoy me about here. Depending on your personality, your tastes, and what matters most to you, choosing to study abroad in Hong Kong could be either the best or worst decision you ever make. So in this post, I’m going to list all the things that would make Hong Kong right for you and all the things that may make you reconsider coming here. I hope this helps!
These points are based on my experience at HKUST, but most of them will apply to the other universities in Hong Kong such as HKU, CUHK, PolyU, and so on.
First off, the good stuff! You will love your time in Hong Kong if…
- You’re looking for an adventure. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve got lost here, looking for some rumoured hidden beach or diving pool. Hong Kong is full of amazing places to discover, but they’re not going to be handed to you on a silver platter. You have to take obscure buses whose drivers don’t speak English, hike for hours over hills and mountains, and get lost plenty of times along the way, but let me tell you; it is so worth it.
- You enjoy Chinese food. There is some spectacular food here, but none of it is Western. In fact, every piece of Western food I’ve had here has sucked. If you’re a fan of rice, noodles, barbequed meats, seafood, dumplings, and all the traditional Chinese flavours that come with them, you will have a great culinary experience here.
- You want somewhere sunny. Hong Kong is no California, but if you’re a fan of the sun, the weather here is lovely. It’s February 4th today and it’s a beautiful sunny day, 20-degree heat. There’s a bit of rain, some wind, but consistent sun almost year-round. Bring your shorts, sandals, and sunglasses; you’re gonna have an amazing time.
- You’re into sports/exercise. At my home university in the UK, the gym/pool/sports facilities require expensive yearly membership or a hefty fee per use. At HKUST, everything is completely free. Multiple gyms, football pitch, running track, basketball courts, tennis courts, 25m indoor pool, 50m outdoor floodlit pool, and way more. All great quality, well maintained, and 100% free for students.
- You love hiking. There are loads of excellent hiking routes all over Hong Kong, ranging in length and difficulty, and with plenty of guides and information online. Hiking in hotter weather can be tough, but you’ll be rewarded with some of the best views of your life. There are uni-organised, society-organised, and student-organised hiking trips happening all the time; typically, anyone is welcome to join.
- You want to travel around Asia. Hong Kong International Airport is a hub for air travel around SE Asia and beyond, so there are plenty of cheap flights to all kinds of destinations. With a bit of effort, you can find return flights to most destinations for under 130 USD, even under 65 USD for some closer countries.
- You want to experience unique cultural celebrations. Studying in HK, you may get to experience the Mid-Autumn Festival (mooncakes, fire dragon, lanterns, fireworks), National Day (horse racing, flag raising, fireworks), Chinese New Year (parade, decorations, food, fireworks) and a whole lot more! Go visit temples, eat local food, explore and discover Hong Kong! It’s a truly fascinating place.
Now, the less good stuff. You may want to reconsider studying here if…
- You hate sticky, humid heat. From early April to late October, the average daily temperature is around 25 to 35 degrees Celcius, typically at the higher end of that scale. November to March doesn’t get much colder anyway. On top of that, humidity averages around 80%. It can feel very unpleasant outside with clothes sticking to skin, sweat everywhere, and some awful B.O. in the air.
- You are vegetarian/vegan. Or if you have any dietary requirements, or even just if you’re a picky eater. It’s not impossible to get by here as a veggie (there are a fair few around), but they tend to struggle. The on-campus dining options are dominated by meat; you’re limited to around 5-6 truly vegetarian meals. You can try cooking for yourself, but with limited cooking facilities and very limited (and expensive) ingredients at Park N Shop, it’s a hassle. The food here is meaty and strange.
- You are grossed out by spitting. One of the things that shocked me about Hong Kong was the spitting. For some reason, it’s totally socially acceptable (and very common) to loudly hock and then spit in public. Ew. It’s particularly bad in toilets, but it happens in the street, on the beach, and out hiking.
- You need really good grades. HKUST marks on a curve and students here are smart, determined, and competitive. Around 25% of the cohort will be competing for the top 5% of grades. It’s not uncommon for students here to study pretty much all day, every day. In order to compete with them for the top marks, you’d be wasting your exchange away in the library. It’s not worth it.
- You struggle to understand non-native English speakers. Most of your lecturers and classmates will not be native English speakers. Many of them will have heavy accents that can be difficult to follow. When talking to non-academic staff, or anyone off campus, this problem gets even worse. It can get frustrating.
- You can’t live with a roommate. There is no option for a single room at HKUST. If you have some kind of medical condition that necessitates a single room, they may give you one, but otherwise, you’re out of luck. However, I can tell you that in my experience, having a roommate has been nowhere near as bad as I worried.
- You want to take part in local student societies. Generally speaking, the student-led societies and activities tend to be slightly unwelcoming to international and exchange students. They sometimes operate just in Cantonese, so unless you can speak it, the locals are generally unwilling to switch everything to English (which many struggle with) for the benefit of one or two people. Your friends will mostly be other exchange students. (NB: I wrote this based on my own [bad] experiences with approaching societies, but others I’ve spoken to have had much better experiences – being warmly welcomed into clubs and being spoken to in English. I guess it really depends on the club, and who you approach. So take this one with a grain of salt.)
I hope this information is useful to someone! Despite the downsides, I am really enjoying my year abroad in Hong Kong and I’m very glad I chose to come here. No regrets at all. If you have any questions about studying abroad at HKUST or in Hong Kong in general, please feel free to write a comment below, or send me an email.
Also, I’ve just started using Instagram, where I’m posting some of my favourite photos that I take during my exchange and my travels around Asia. Check it out, and give me a follow and/or a few likes if you feel like it.