Getting familiar with a foreign culture takes much longer than one week – this is probably the biggest reason why I wanted to study abroad. I didn’t want to experience life in Hong Kong from a tourist perspective. Instead, through staying in an unfamiliar territory over a prolonged period, I am eager to see how my life and worldviews change.
The Experience of Arrival in a Foreign Country
Before I came, I had no idea what to expect from moving to Hong Kong. I knew what the city would look like from pictures and videos, that the weather would be hot and humid, and that everywhere would probably be full of people.
Little did I know how it would feel to live in the city or how well I would be able to settle in.
The first week went like this. I remember feeling a little unease and loneliness in the first two days, as I was completely unfamiliar with the environment and did not know any of the people I was surrounded by. Gradually, I managed to find out the basics like places to buy food and how to navigate in the neighbourhood. On the third day, I met and became friends with another student, and we started exploring the city together. How nice it is to have someone else in the same situation to talk with! On the fifth day, we also had our first dinner with seven other international students of whom we also became good friends with immediately.
First international dinner
Local Environments: Obvious Differences
Three very prominent differences between Denmark and Hong Kong are the amount of people, the weather and the food options.
Although I realised the crowdedness the moment when I arrived in the city, I continue to raise my eyebrow with astonishment every time I take the metro and whenever I see the long queue for taking the escalator.
Putting the crowdedness aside, people in Hong Kong are so nice!
Hike at Castle Peak
Denmark might have one of the highest happiness ratings, but we Danes are also very secluded. We keep to ourselves and avoid interacting with strangers at all costs. People in Hong Kong, on the other hand, are much more approachable and helpful with a smile. For example, some friends and I went on a hike to Castle Peak, and just within a couple of hours, we interacted with a bunch of people; a guy who showed us the right way to the hiking trail, a boy who wanted to show us the four lizards that he had caught in a bag, a group of young people who took our photo and had their photo taken by us, a group of experienced hikers who guided us some of the way and gave us helpful tips, and a woman who showed us a safe way down a very steep path.
Crosswalk on the way to University
Although the temperature has dropped to an almost manageable level, I still feel hot and dizzy every morning on my way to university, and when waiting under the sun for the traffic lights to change.
The available food options are also different. I have my meals mostly in the University canteens or in its restaurants because the price is not much different from making my own food. Plus, I like Asian food and the selection in canteens is very broad.
Dim sum, beef stomach
Not only the food offered in the University canteens and restaurants are different from home, but also the basic food items in shops. My diet in Denmark consisted largely of dark rye bread and yoghurt. But in Hong Kong, you simply cannot buy dark rye bread. And if you want yoghurt (or any kind of milk product), they cost a fortune. When I return to Denmark for Christmas, I am going to pack my suitcase full of Danish food!
Globalised Culture in Higher Education
When comparing my undergraduate studies at Aalborg University in Denmark and my current graduate studies at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), there are things that I expected to be the same but turned out to be very different, and vice versa.
Things I had heard about eastern work culture are: hierarchy matters a lot, professionalism are emphasised, and many people overwork to the point that they reach a burn-out. Studying at PolyU together with students from Mainland China has helped to put the eastern approach into perspective, but I figured that, to understand the whole picture, it will take more time.
Presentation in our studio (Photo Credit: PolyU Design)
Despite the work culture, most other things are very similar to my former university in Denmark. The class size, the type of instruction, the workload, the type of assignments, and the type of presentations you do, are all the same. Both institutions, despite the differences in educational systems, surprisingly share a similar way to organise teaching and learning and this has helped me to focus more on understanding cultural differences rather than dealing with practical issues.
I have found that the relationship between students and teachers is only slightly different than in Denmark. I do sense that professional attitude comes from both sides: students would ask for help whenever needed, in turn, teachers are very helpful and friendly. I have not, however, seen any students ever opposing or questioning the teacher's view. When doing group work, I have noticed how Chinese students are more inclined to always follow the teacher’s advice than to think independently.
In Denmark, the relationship between students and teacher is informal. I used to see more discussions between teachers and students; sometimes these discussions happened while they were having a smoke together during breaks.
I believe there is a difference between work ethic and overwork. Although my knowledge of working conditions and morale in Mainland China is very limited, by observing my Chinese classmates and listening in whenever they talk about jobs, I can tell the influence of an expectation of long working hours has on how they study. They often work till late in the evenings, as a result, they are not concentrated or being as effective as they could be. Also, if a presentation is coming up, Chinese students would often tire themselves out the night before, polishing their presentation rather than getting the necessary sleep needed to perform well.
I’ve heard that this is normal.
Learning Foreign Culture Firsthand
The intersection of local and globalised culture requires time and presence to cultivate the discernment in understanding human behaviour. Sometimes, the differences comparing local cultures stand out easily. Other times, the homogenised global culture is easily noticeable. It is always the nuances in the melange of local and global cultures that only by interacting in person, one can develop the kind of cultural intelligence that helps one to navigate in a foreign country.
About the Writer
Anders Gammelgård-Larsen, an international student from Denmark with a Bachelor’s degree in TechnoAnthropology at Aalborg University. Currently studying Master of Design (Interaction Design) at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, he is interested in designing technology that supports people with a physical handicap or mental diagnosis. These people have special needs that require personalised solutions, but they might not be in a position where they have much influence on the design.
MDes Talks is a series of student blogs produced by current MDes students and recent graduates. For its third edition, the editorial team consists of writers from China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Mexico, France, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark. They write about study life, living abroad, design, and what you don't know about PolyU and Hong Kong.