I picked Asia as my study abroad destination because I was looking for a completely different perspective on what it means to live. I imagined that living in such a foreign country would culture shock me into this shift in perspective, but instead, it’s come mostly from the other exchange students I’ve met.
I actually don’t think I’ve experienced any significant culture shock. But I’m not disappointed; my experience has so far surpassed all my expectations. When I first decided to study abroad, the opportunity to meet other exchange students was an afterthought. Now that I’m here, I’ve found that it’s these exchange students, not the new culture, that have changed my outlook.
I’m currently living and studying in Hong Kong. It’s true that Hong Kong is a very “Westernized” city, which might account for the lack of culture shock, but I’ve traveled to Malaysia and Indonesia as well, and felt the same way. I can see the differences that distinguish my culture from these foreign ones, but they don’t evoke any surprise or shift in perspective. It feels to me like I’ve already seen it all before, even though it’s my first time visiting.
I think the reason that I’m not getting this new perspective from experiencing a different culture is that I’m not fully experiencing it.
Living in a dorm with students is great, but only allows a superficial appreciation of what life is really like in a foreign country. To really understand and get the experience firsthand, it’s necessary to spend time at home with the locals.
A dorm room is a blank slate—you move in and temporarily change it to reflect yourself. However, if you’re looking to experience someone else’s home, the best way to get that experience is to spend time there.
An obvious way to do this is a homestay. Hong Kong PolyU didn’t directly give me that option, and arranging for an alternative would have taken organization. Time time was short and I had other planning to do. By doing a homestay, you are forced to assimilate yourself, and will get an immersive experience of the lives and culture of the people whose country you are visiting.
Of course, there are downsides to homestays. If you aren’t living in the student dorms, it’s harder to meet other students, local or exchange. One of the greatest values of studying abroad for me has been the opportunity to meet students from all over the world, not just Hong Kong. It would require much more effort on my part to befriend the other exchange students if I was not living with them.
The best way to choose, I think, is to weigh the pros and cons that you determine, and make a decision based on what you’re looking to get out of the experience. If you’re looking to make friends and meet new people, living with other exchange students might be a good idea. If you’re hoping more for a new experience of living, a homestay could prove a better choice.
Before coming to Hong Kong, I would have chosen a homestay, if the option were available. Now that I’m here, however, I’m glad I’m living with the other students in dormitory housing. It’s true that I wanted to get a different perspective on life. I still got that. It’s just that instead of getting it from living like the locals, I got it through meeting a group of new friends from all around the world.
I’ll have opportunities later on to gain new experiences living abroad with locals, through CouchSurfing or volunteership, maybe. But I won’t have many more opportunities to hang out at a university with the exchange students.