Jessica Nguyen, Hong Kong, University of Hong Kong, (Sociology)


1. What was your biggest fear about studying abroad that turned out to be no big

My biggest fear about studying abroad was that I would not be able to afford this trip and that I would not have my mom’s approval. Being a single mom, my mom had always been resistant to me being far from home. During senior year of high school when I told her I wanted to attend UCSB, she didn’t take the news very well and tried convincing me to school back home in San Jose. Similarly, I knew that she would not be happy when I told her that I wanted to spend a semester across seas, on the other side of the globe. On top of that, I was worried about the money factor. Since my sister and I only live off of our mom’s minimal income, I was afraid I would not be able to fund for the trip, or would have to pull out extra loans I could not afford, especially with my recent medical bills at the time. To conquer both of my fears, I did everything in my power to help the situation- I applied to five different scholarships, I worked two jobs throughout the school year and worked over the summer prior to my trip to pay off for all my expenses in hopes that I would save enough money to cover my entire trip as well as make my mom more open to the idea of me being abroad. To my surprise, not only was all of my tuition and housing fees covered by my financial aid package, I also received two scholarships that granted me $3,500 that I was able to spend on food, traveling, gifts, etc. When my mom saw how hard I worked to make this trip happen, she gradually became more accepting about the idea. In the end, I am glad I did everything in my power to conquer these fears because everything ended up working out in my favor.

2. What do you wish you had done to better prepare before going abroad?

I wish I had taken more time to fully learn Cantonese (the main language that the locals speak in Hong Kong) before I went on my trip. Prior to my trip, everyone, my friends from Hong Kong, or friends who have visited) told me that everyone in Hong Kong speaks English because Hong Kong was colonized by Britain, all of the signs translate to English, and that I would be fine getting around knowing only English. Because I was told this by multiple people, I felt less motivated to push myself to learn the unique language that the locals speak, aside from very simple phrases. Although what people told me was generally true (most people in Hong Kong did speak English, especially compared to the other countries in Asia I visited, and I got around fine without knowing Cantonese), if I could change one thing about how I prepared for my trip, I would have definitely been more determined in self-teaching myself Cantonese. Being more fluent in Cantonese, even if I only spoke at a beginner level, would have allowed me to engage in Hong Kong culture just a bit more and allow me to connect and communicate with locals more authentically.

3. What were your favorite classes abroad? How did they compare to UCSB?

My two favorite classes abroad were “Hong Kong Popular Culture” and “Immigrant Nation: The Cultural Legacy of Immigration in the U.S.” The first class, Hong Kong Popular Culture, is not something that I could take at UCSB. It focused on the history of Hong Kong and how media and popular culture, along with influences from other nations, have helped consolidate Hong Kong locals’ identities as being different from Chinese mainlanders’, since they are known as an “almost country” switching between colonizers and sovereignty of different countries. It was quite interesting to study the history of a nation other than my own, while living and trying to adapt that place as a foreigner. That course definitely enriched my study abroad experience and helped me gain a unique appreciation for Hong Kong and its history. My other favorite class was an American studies class called “Immigrant Nation: The Cultural Legacy of Immigration in the U.S.” In that class, we explored the history of immigration in the U.S., and central themes on what it means to be seen or considered as “American”, why immigrants come to America, what the American dream entails, etc. I have taken Asian American studies courses and U.S. minority courses that have covered topics about U.S. immigration and the idea of the American dream, but this course at HKU was different in the way that it covered the history of European immigrants as well as explored the history of refugees as immigrants. Learning about America from another country’s perspective, and engaging in discussions with non-Americans about issues and topics central to the idea of “being American” was a very unique experience for me and it helped me learn a lot about myself and the country I am from.

4. What is one of your best memories from abroad?

One of my favorite memories from my abroad trip was when I spontaneously booked a flight and hostel accommodations to Taipei by myself within the first hour I came up with the idea. It was during finals week, and it was my most stressful week of the semester where I had five back-to-back deadlines along with my hardest final. In the midst of all my anxiety and stressful studying, I was sitting at the library and thought “…hey, what if I spent next week exploring Taipei? I’ve never been there and have always wanted to visit, wouldn’t it be awesome?” So, without even asking if any of my friends wanted to go, I booked a flight with hostel accommodations to Taipei and the following week, I went on my very first solo trip in a place where most people do not speak English and I did not speak the language of the locals. Even though I went by myself, I had such an amazing time getting lost in Taipei, and I made new friends every day, including someone who happened to be a model there. That spontaneous trip was probably one of the most adventurous things I’ve done in a while and it was definitely one of the highlights of my study abroad experience.

5. What was your biggest challenge abroad?

One of my biggest challenges abroad was not having a close group of friends I reach out or make plans with whenever I wanted. At UCSB, it is so easy for me to reach out and hang out with people. I lived in a suite with seven other girls the year before I went abroad, and there was always someone home, and the atmosphere was very warm and welcoming. If I ever needed someone to talk to, I could just walk next door and hang out with my neighbors, who were also my friends, or bike down the street and be in the company of good friends. In Hong Kong, it was not as easy to make plans with people because there was no college town next to the university (like Isla Vista). Of course, I became extremely close with some of the friends I met while abroad and I still keep in touch with them today. But I did not have a distinct group of friends I could call mine and the social aspect of college life there was really different than what I was used to. I found myself a bit lonely and isolated at times. Throughout the semester, I began to be more okay with exploring parts of the city by myself, and this even opened the opportunity for me to go on my first solo trip to Taipei in between finals. I didn’t let this aspect of my trip stop me from enjoying my time abroad- I still explored many parts of the city and did a lot of fun things. I became more independent and learned that it is okay and sometimes quite nice to spend quality time alone.

6. What is your favorite aspect of your host culture?

My favorite part about Hong Kong is the big city life and how convenient and safe everything was. Over ninety percent of Hong Kong locals relied on public transportation to get around, and as a foreigner, getting around using the subway (MTR) was extremely cheap and easy to me. I loved how on a day where I had nothing planned and had nothing to do, I could just walk over to the subway, take the subway to a nearby touristy district, and then hop off and still have so much fun wandering around the city, admiring the gorgeous views and all the excitement that went on around the streets. Hong Kong was also a very safe place- it has a very low violent crime rate and I felt safe walking around in a dark street by myself, even at night.

7. Did you intern, volunteer, or conduct fieldwork or research abroad? If so, tell us
about your experience.

I was not able to volunteer or intern abroad because I was told by an advisor at my host school that my visa did not allow me to work while studying abroad in Hong Kong. I was a bit disappointed because I was really looking forward to teaching English to youth in Hong Kong. However, I do not feel that missing out on that opportunity hindered the quality of my study abroad experience. Regardless that I was not able to teach local youth as planned, I still learned a lot in the classes I took while abroad about the culture, history, and media of Hong Kong and that has expanded my knowledge of different societies and their cultures, especially as someone majoring in Sociology. I also got to work in groups with Hong Kong locals, and people studying from Korea and India for group projects, and that experience has better prepared me to work professionally in a transnational setting.

8. What local food or drink do you miss most now that you are back?

I miss the street food and the bottled milk tea the most now that I am no longer there. I don’t think they sell milk tea in bottles here (they sell them in cups at boba shops only but it’s not the same) so during my last week there, I drank one bottle a day because I knew wouldn’t be able to get a hold of that particular drink and brand (which was extremely delicious) for a while.

9. How have you changed since your time abroad?

I would say that my time abroad has helped me learn a lot more about myself and the world around me, as well as allowed me to enjoy and appreciate others’ presence more now that I am back home. I have never been a more adventurous, spontaneous, bold, or friendly version of myself than while I was abroad, and thankfully, I was able to carry that version of me when I came back home. My knowledge and view of the world, the country I come from, myself and the intersection of my identities, and my school has also expanded and my time abroad has grown me in ways that would be not be possible if I had never left my California bubble. After seeing so many different countries and their cultures, I now appreciate certain things about UCSB and my hometown that I previously took for granted and also view some aspects of California as having the potential to improve and grow in a lot of ways. Also, now that I am back in my friendly and social college town, I appreciate others’ company more and am more social around them since I was so used to spending most of my day alone while in Hong Kong. I would also say that I am now more empathetic and sensitive to others’ opinions, mannerisms, and viewpoints because I came across many people abroad who viewed things (politically mainly) so differently than I do, and of course, I’m sure this has a lot to do with their upbringing, where they were raised, and our cultural differences. In more ways than I can put into words, studying abroad and living in a country I had never stepped foot in and did not know much about has allowed me to grow so much as an individual and I am so happy that these past four months of life happened.

10. What is your advice to prospective UCSB EAP students?

My advice to prospective UCSB EAP students would be keep an open mind and be ready for an adventure of a lifetime. Things will probably not turn out completely the way you expect it to, and that is perfectly okay. My trip was actually nothing like how I pictured it would be but it was SO much better than what I had imagined. Also, don’t be afraid to try new things and get out of your comfort zone. There will never a better time in your life to be spontaneous, adventurous, and daring (but not too daring) than while living and exploring the cultures of a new country abroad. Something I did while abroad to make sure I was making the best of my time there was that I made a “bucket list” or ‘to-do” list of all the things I wanted to do or places I wanted to visit in Hong Kong and I made sure that every weekend I crossed at least one thing off of that list. Keep in mind that it is okay if you happen to feel homesick at times- there were moments when I missed home, my friends, and family even though I loved Hong Kong so much. It is quite natural, but just remember to not let this homesickness inhibit you from going out and having fun. I kept reminding myself that I only had four short months there and by the last two months I was so sad about having to leave that I didn’t miss home at all. Now that I am back home, I have still having withdrawals of my trip and I miss it a lot. Just make the most of every moment, opportunity, and experience you have while there, and I promise that you will come home a stronger, more mature person with a lot of stories to tell. Good luck, I am so excited for you!

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