Bangkok, the Spontaneous Way

Bangkok, the Spontaneous Way

Last weekend, another American exchange student I’d met in one of my classes and I boarded a plane in Hong Kong International Airport and headed to Bangkok, Thailand for the weekend. To give some background, only about four days earlier we had booked the tickets. Only one day earlier we’d booked a room in a hostel we found online. The night before leaving I’d quickly researched an itinerary and directions to different places we might want to see while there. Our original (and still only week-and-a-half old) plans to go to Seoul using a Groupon deal had fallen through, but we were determined to go somewhere. Since the cheapest flights were to Bangkok, Thailand it was.

Arriving early Friday morning, the lack of planning on my part already showed through as I realized I hadn’t withdrawn enough cash or called my bank to let them know I might be using my card in Bangkok or put extra money on my pay-as-you-go SIM card to cover international data charges or brought a converter to work in the different plugs so I could even charge my phone. Luckily, we were able to fix or work around most of these issues, and by 1 PM Sari and I had checked into our hostel (which turned out to be quite clean and comfortable) and set out to explore the city.

We started with perhaps the most common type of attraction in Bangkok:  “wats.”  These typically Buddhist sacred spaces seem to be everywhere you turn, their golden spires beautiful orange roofs rising over the low, dirty city buildings.

Inside the temples, one of which we had the privilege of entering and sitting in completely alone, sit golden buddhas with food and incense set out before them, glittering accessories, and mesmerizingly intricate art depicting what I assumed to be scenes and figures of great religious significance.  One we visited is known for its towering standing buddha, another we weren’t able to see for its huge “reclining buddha.”

Exhausted from a long day of travel and needing sleep before an early morning, we headed to bed anticipating a trip to the famous floating markets, a visit to the bridge made famous by the book The Bridge Over the River Kwai, and the “Tiger Temple,” an attraction we knew little about.

The day trip began by boarding a somewhat sketchy, large van (granted with many other tourists) and driving for hours out through the Thai countryside. Upon arriving at the market, the group was left to explore. On the banks of a canal, on which many Thai live, there were seemingly endless shops selling food, clothes, and all manner of trinkets and souvenirs. The real action, however, was on the water. Paying only 40 Baht (about $1.29 USD for comparison) to be paddled around the canal by a Thai woman in a long boat, we spent the next hour haggling with the shop keepers in their own boats packed with jade elephant carvings, silk scarves, and fresh cooked Thai food and soaking in the sights. Despite how tourist-y the area was, it was undoubtedly one of the day’s highlights, tied only with the trip through the local canals that followed our time in the floating market en route to the bridge and tiger temple.

Now on a speed boat, we whipped through “side alleys” and quiet, country neighborhoods away from the floating market. This more genuine glimpse into the traditional Thai lifestyle was incredible. Houses lined the canals, built on wooden stilts to stay above the water. Often we passed the entryways to other canals, leading off into the distance. Glancing down them as we streamed by, front porches and laundry hung out to dry gave a more intimate picture of the local lifestyle. Combined with the natural environment, which I would describe as essentially jungle, the effect was somewhat surreal.

The bridge and tiger temple were not quite as exciting. Although we were able to take pictures with live tigers, the tiger “temple” was much more of a tiger trap. Clearly built only to lure tourists, the tigers wore collars with short chains connected to the ground. The facility seemed run down, and the tigers were probably not treated how they should be. In retrospect, I regret paying the money I did both because the experience was not worth the price and because I wish I had not supported the operation. The bridge, while more interesting, was still just a bridge. The events of the book that made it famous actually describe a bridge that did not really exist, though it is based on historical fact.

Still, overall, the second day was a success. With only one day left, Sari and I made plans for a self-guided tour of the old capital of Siam, Ayutthaya.

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Academic Culture the Biggest Shock

Academic Culture the Biggest Shock

A month into the school year here in Hong Kong, I’ve realized that adapting to the academic life here is actually the most difficult part of studying abroad. Not the completely foreign language, very…interesting food, different customs, or any other aspect of life has so far presented me with the most discomfort or struggle.

Why?

Let me start with a few caveats –

1) Switching to a different university at all in the middle of college takes serious adjustment. It’s like being a freshman all over again except no one is going out of their way to help you ease in or figure it out. You’re simply thrown into classes alongside students who already have gotten the hang of things.

2) All five of my courses are transferring back to my home university for credit with the grades I receive counting towards my GPA. Coming from a highly competitive academic background, I’m naturally inclined to stress more about academics than other aspects since it “counts.” Not feeling on top of my work, something probably quite normal when suddenly switching institutions, is bound to make me uncomfortable or worried.

Having admitted those other factors at play, I believe that certain aspects of education here that differ from those I’m used to are still significant contributors to my “academic culture shock.” Besides, I have found the difference quite interesting, causing me to think quite a bit about methods of education and the implications it has post-graduation.

When creating my schedule for the semester, I was excited to find I could easily keep my Friday class-free (easier for weekend trips!) since most courses only meet once or twice a week. At home, such a thing would never have been possible for my major and only possible for other majors with significant planning. The catch? This means that lectures can be two or three hours long. Even when the third hour is a discussion-based tutorial, my attention span simply does not last that long. I find myself impatient and irritated by the time lecture ends, even when I started fully alert and genuinely interested in learning the material. Perhaps I’m just used to having a maximum of 1.5 hours lectures, but I suspect most college students, even the brightest or most motivated (or well-rested), struggle to seriously absorb and critically engage material all the way to the end of a two or three hour lecture.

The infrequency of meeting times followed by a pounding of new material also seems to be a highly inefficient way to learn. If I’m only thinking about the material once, maybe twice a week, it’s hard for the concept to really sink in, especially when those one or two meetings are absolutely crammed with content.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be such an issue, however, if the assignments for class weren’t also so infrequent. After all, back home plenty of courses only meet twice a week. Here, many of my syllabi read like this:

5 Assignments 30%

Midterm 30%

Final 40%

And then substitute midterm and final for a single paper and assignments for a single written reflection or presentation to create the rest of my syllabi. How can I grasp the material without engaging it, either in lecture, assignments, or, ideally, both? The combination of infrequent but long lecture meetings with very few, heavily weighted assignments has left me suddenly worried about academics. When that one big assignment is due, I realize that maybe I didn’t quite absorb the lecture material after all, despite it making perfect sense at the time. Not thinking about the subject often through more frequent lecture meetings and/or assignments means concepts that I understood in lecture fade from my mind since I don’t revisit or use them soon enough.

I never thought that I would say it, but I miss the workload back home. It forces me to engage the subject matter and stay on top of what’s going on in class. Of course, fewer assignments gives a high level of flexibility for travel and fun while abroad, but I would not want to spend all four years of college in such an environment. Essentially, it takes much more personal motivation and self-imposed structure to accomplish the same outcome; props to the many, many students here who have that. Still, I think that a university should be trying to help its students, and none of the trends above seem to work towards that end in the most efficient way.

A Peek Inside a Hong Kong Apartment

A Peek Inside a Hong Kong Apartment

As the taxi drove me and two new friends from the airport to campus on my first evening in Hong Kong, I was amazed by what I saw out the window – a forest of glittering towers on all sides, packed close to the highway that they whizzed by too quickly to capture a picture. The vast majority of these buildings, however, are not beautiful skyscrapers crafted by renowned architects and housing the offices of major international corporations. Certainly, Hong Kong possesses a very impressive skyline full of such buildings, but the buildings that fill in all of the gaps, spreading up the hills, and giving the city its “urban jungle” feel are the packed apartments that are home to Hong Kong residents.

Even out in the New Territories near the Chinese Universtiy of Hong Kong, clusters of apartments of 30 or 40 floors are squeezed close together in every valley. As one of the “most densely populated areas in the world,” it is only feasible to build up and not out. The spacing between the apartments was probably even more surprising to me than the overwhelming number of them, adding to their impressiveness. Some buildings on Hong Kong Island are simply exactly next to each other. Many others appear to close together that a resident of one could probably stretch their arm out the window and easily high five their neighbor in the next building over.

Another feature of the apartments is how, at first glance, they all appear to be quite dirty and run down. Yet as I have wandered the streets of Central, Kowloon, and Wan Chai over the past month, I didn’t see many that did not have this appearance. “Surely there must be luxury apartments somewhere in this major world financial center.” Of course some looked much shabbier than
others, I still wondered why none seemed to fit my idea of what a luxury apartment would look like from the outside. (Disclaimer: I did not grow up or attend school in a major city, so my ideas could be unrealistic even in the US).

All of these observations and a growing suspicion that apparently unkept outsides hid much nicer insides fed a growing curiosity to see the inside of one of these apartments. Walking on the streets, the most I ever saw was dimly lit stairwells with metal gates that led up into the housing units above the shops below. Luckily, a very loose family connection put me in contact with a local man who had a high school aged daughter whom he was eager to introduce to a Western college student. Though I had never met the man, his wife, or his daughter, they picked me up and treated me to a trip to a museum, a short hike, and then lunch at a restaurant.  Throughout the day, we exchanged questions and answers about various topics, and by the time they dropped me off again, they had kindly extended an invitation for me to join them for dinner that evening…in their apartment!

 

As I had guessed (and my mainland Chinese roommate suggested when we talked about the topic previously), local Hong Kong families do not typically have guests over for meals in their homes due to their size. Sure enough, I arrived to their 20th floor apartment, the main room which contained the entry way, shelves, a TV, small couch, and fold-out dinner table was not more than 20 square feet. Leading off from this room was a kitchen perhaps 4 feet wide and 10 feet deep and a short hallway leading to a small bathroom, two bedrooms, and an office. Each of these rooms was smaller than the main room; the office perhaps the size of my own walk-in closet at home.

Apart from the size, the apartment was as clean and well-kept as any normal household. The slightly run down appearance of the building’s exterior was not reflected on the inside. Wood floors and clean, white walls with modest furniture with little extra decoration made it feel like (what I would consider) a normal middle class home.

Overall, I’m sure that different apartments have vastly different interiors, ranging in size and condition. What is clear, however, is that there are no neighborhoods or houses as Americans conceive of them. Property and housing are far too scare and far too expensive for such development patterns to exist. Instead, everyone, from opulently rich to the working poor, live in these massive jungles of apartments.

Welcome To CUHK

Welcome To CUHK

Although it has only been about two weeks here, I feel as though much more time has passed. In the last week, I’ve spent hours wandering the city, met and become friends with countless exchange students from around the world, explored Hong Kong nightlife, attended classes, visited a fishing village, eaten more rice than I had in my entire life up to this point, nearly mastered chopsticks, navigated markets, and so many other small yet amazing experiences. Even if I returned to the States today, it would already have been worth it.

One of the biggest challenges and hardest adjustments thus far has, in all honestly, been navigating campus! Built on a mountain (or hill…it’s borderline), building sprawl in no particular pattern from all around the mountain’s base, up the steep side, onto the top, around the sides, and down the other side. From any one point on campus, you can only see a very small portion of campus, making it nearly impossible to get your bearing once lost. Many times I’ve taken a chance of one of the many long, winding staircases hoping it will provide a shortcut down the mountain only to find myself wandering through dense jungle foliage and then to emerge on some road I’ve never seen. The key to success is to catch one of the many shuttle buses (there are twelve different routes with more than one bus following them at a time) or find an elevator tucked inside a building as a shortcut up the mountain to avoid the long, uphill walks.

The upside of all this, however, is the gorgeous views. Sorry Notre Dame, but CUHK has some stunningly beautiful views as well as many impressive, interesting, or unique buildings. Here and there, two buildings’ upper levels will be connected by an open “skywalk” (bridge) that has glass walls and often a great view of the mountains that surround campus. As I walk to my “hostel” (what they call the dorms here), I pass a small water fall cascading into a pool. Trekking down a staircase in the woods makes me feel like I’m deep in some rainforest. In more than one of my classrooms I’ve snagged a window seat that looks out at a landscape rivaling many a roadside scenic overlook.

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Of course, the city offers even more impressive, breath-taking sites. Because I’ve experienced so much but not posted until now, I’m going to have to break everything down into their own posts!

T-2 Days Until Departure

T-2 Days Until Departure

I only have two more days in my lovely home country before I board a plane, sit for 16 hours, and deplane to find myself literally on the other side of the world.  While it has been difficult to see all of the tweets, snap chats, and other social media chatter of friends returning to school, I know I just have to wait a bit longer before beginning what will probably be the greatest adventure of my life thus far.

Do I know any Cantonese or Mandarin? Am I nervous? Have I been to Hong Kong, China, or even Asia before? I’ve been asked these questions by nearly everyone who knows I’m going abroad, and the simple answer is no. To all of them. Well, maybe I’m a little nervous to go to the other side of the world where I am unfamiliar with the language and culture with exactly one person I know and where my very first task will be to hail a taxi myself and attempt to communicate my desired destination about an hour away.

However, the nervousness is overwhelmed by the anticipation and excitement that has slowly built up over nearly nine months. I simply cannot wait to go. I cannot wait to immerse myself in the culture, to try to see the world from radically different perspectives, to bend and stretch my mind around the tidal wave of new experiences.