An Unexpected Lesson: Reflecting On My Abroad Experience

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Expectations vs. Reality.

As with most summers, I came into this one with vastly different goals and expectations about what I would learn than what I

Nighttime view of Hong Kong from Sky100

left with. In my application essay, for example, I had stated that my main goal was “to gain insight into how creative organizations in Hong Kong operate.” The vagueness of that statement clearly shows that I had no idea what to really expect. Rather, all I had as a guide was a romanticized idea that I would leave Hong Kong as an entirely different person, someone magically transformed from simply being someplace new. Questions that I knew would take years, perhaps even a lifetime, to fully figure out, I daydreamed I’d answer in two short months.

Will I leave Hong Kong with a better sense of my place in the world? Will I have grown as a person?

While I did not, realistically, achieve all the goals I set for the summer, I came far closer than I expected in hindsight.

A Home Emergency.

During my first week in Hong Kong, I was more intentional about keeping up with my goals. I studied 5 characters of Chinese every day, asked my internship supervisor to include me in policy-related activities and meetings, mapped out a production schedule for several informational videos about the non-profit I interned at, and researched flights and dates to fly out to nearby countries on weekends. The Universe had its own plans, however, and I was interrupted by an emergency back home that required me to fly back to the U.S. for ten days during my second week. The hefty cost of the last-minute flight and the emotional distress this trip caused disrupted plans previously in place. When I returned to Hong Kong, I immediately adjusted my budget sheet to see what was still financially possible.

A weekend trip to Cheung Chau Island with my colleagues

Aside from finances, the emergency impacted my mental health. I was used to navigating difficult, unexpected situations from being a Resident Advisor for three years at Emory University. I knew what to do to get back on my feet no matter the circumstance, but in a foreign country away from all my usual support systems, I felt homesick and I rode emotional highs and lows that made the hours at work feel impossibly long at times. Despite these initial setbacks, however, I was often inspired and motivated by how hardworking and caring my coworkers were despite the adversities they faced in their own lives. I was also lucky to have made good friends in the program I was able to explore Hong Kong with. In the presence of their care and positive energy, I regained my footing.

Filming a video at work
Filming a video at work (part 2)

Lessons.

I would accomplish my goals in roundabout ways too. Instead of improving my Chinese reading, I learned new phrases in Cantonese. By the end of the summer, I was able to order a meal on my own in Cantonese. Instead of making a lot of external trips, I had really memorable ones to Thailand and Macau with friends. Being in Hong Kong during the weekends also allowed me to explore Hong Kong itself more deeply, which led me to meet, as a result, entire communities of individuals working in areas I was interested in (e.g. Arts with the Disabled, Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, ADAM Arts Creation, Hong Kong Federation of Handicapped Youth). I stayed connected to my alma mater as well and went to alumni events. It was especially fun when these events led me to learn about and to visit the board game café that a fellow alumni had recently opened.

Old & new friends at Wheat and Wood board game café near HKU Station

At this café, the lack of an accessible entrance allowed me to apply the knowledge I learned through my internship and suggest adding a portable wheelchair ramp for the step at the entrance. This step, which would have gone unnoticed by me before, is what makes Hong Kong so difficult to get around by wheelchair users. There is so much I need to learn still about accessibility, but this night showed me that there are small changes I, and anyone, can begin to implement now.

Participants of the CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons) 3-Day Workshop at Hong Kong University

While I am genuinely grateful for the tangible skills I gained, these are not my most valuable takeaways from this summer. The most valuable takeaway was entirely intangible. It was personal growth: a change in my attitude and perception. Even though I was in a new country with a lot of exciting activities to partake in and I was working for a non-profit that did meaningful work for handicapped members of the Hong Kong community, I was only able to fully appreciate and enjoy my time here when I deliberately set the intention to. When I felt homesick or lonely, for example, I took my negative feelings as a sign that I needed to engage more with the people around me, not less. Prior to this summer, I had always known in my head that my world is only as full as I allow it to be, but after, I fully believed it in my heart. My time in Hong Kong will stay with me for a long time to come.

It’s true, we are what we eat