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 of what I would learn than what I left with. Before coming to Hong Kong, I was intoxicated and energized by the endless possibilities of an abstract reality I had yet to know. In my application essay, I had stated my main goal to be “to gain insight into how creative organizations in Hong Kong operate.” The vagueness of that statement clearly shows that I had no idea

Nighttime view from Sky100, the site of the AIC farewell event

what to really expect. Rather, all I had as a guide was a romanticized mental image of this summer as one of those summers that would be magically transformational on its own—that I would leave Hong Kong with vastly improved Chinese reading skills, a more filled out passport, and a breakthrough revelation about art and media’s role in advancing social policies. Questions that I realistically knew would take years, perhaps even a lifetime, to fully figure out, I daydreamed I’d answer in two short months.

Being a recent graduate, I was hit even harder with the need to settle the anxieties I had around the “future”. 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.

The first week in Hong Kong, I was more conscious to keep 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 US 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. Although I was only able to take one external trip under this new budget, I was not dejected because there were a lot of places I was able to explore within Hong Kong alone.

A day trip to Sai Kung involved hiking, cliff jumping, beaches, and beautiful waterfalls/pools

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. 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 for the first time in my life 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 hard working and caring my coworkers were despite the adversities they faced in their own lives. I was also tremendously grateful for the incredibly supportive friends I made in the program whom I was able to explore Hong Kong with and who motivated me to go out and enjoy my time when I least wanted to. In the presence of their care and positive energy, I thrived.


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 visiting a lot of Asian countries, I had really memorable trips to Phuket, 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 visit the board game café that a fellow alumni had recently opened.

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

At this café, the lack of an accessible entrance gave me the chance to apply the knowledge I learned through my internship to suggest mobility solutions such as adding a portable wheelchair ramp for the step at the entrance. This step, which would have gone unnoticed to 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 simple 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

I am extremely grateful for the tangible skills I gained, but they are not the most valuable takeaway from this summer for me. 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. Instead of feeling homesick and isolated in a foreign country after the emergency, I took negative feelings as a sign that I needed to engage more with the people around me, not less. When I made the effort to get out of my own head and attend all social outings and activities, I noticed significant increases in my mood. The world is only as big as one makes it and being abroad does not magically make a person new. Intellectually, I knew all of this to be true, and yet, it was only when I personally experienced the challenges this summer and overcame them that I began to truly understand it. Hong Kong will stay with me for a long time to come.

It’s true, you are what you eat