Where to begin??

…….. So, I am now pretty settled in my halls. I share a bedroom with a girl called Melissa who is from North Carolina and studies linguistics. At first I was a bit concerned as she seemed to be the only person I had met that wasn’t mega excited about being in Hong Kong. She seemed pretty cold and spent all day on the phone to people at home, didn’t take me up on offers to come out and socialise etc. But as time has passed she has warmed up and has started to mingle and I have realised that she just likes her alone time. So her cynicism, sarcasm and complaining are mostly amusing idiosyncrasies thus far, let’s just hope I can keep this attitude. That’s easier said than done because it’s pretty tricky keeping your own morale up in this situation, never mind someone else’s too. But no, really she is very sweet and funny and is interested in good things like photography, classical literature and beer.

So, Positive Mental Attitude is the way forward. I spent a thousand dollars in IKEA (there’s an Ikea?!) which made me feel amazing. It’s about £80 so actually still quite a lot but I worked it out as £2.50 per week I am here to have a nice room (which I think is a wise investment for my mental health). My manky little room is now a relatively clear white space (relative to the local students’ rooms which tend to be crammed with brightly coloured plastic tat) with nice storage boxes, bedcovers, lanterns and even a plant to keep me company. When I first arrived the hall looked pretty miserable – it was Friday night so the office was closed and I had to settle for a little old Chinese lady who could speak no English to give me my keys and send me on my way (not before making me fill in a million forms – little did I know filling in forms was to take up most of my first couple weeks here) to an empty room with no air conditioning, no bedcovers, no internet and no view (manky little window looking into a courtyard which is obscured by one gigantic sheet of green netting hung on bamboo scaffolding). But the scaffolding should be removed by the end of October, there is a nice man who speaks a bit of English in the hall office from 9-5 during the week, and we had our first floor meeting today! (Does what it says on the tin-  meeting to discuss the running of our floor of the hall.) I have taken the position of Pantry Secretary! Which means I am partially in charge of buying everything we need for the kitchen. I am very happy with this result as I have been complaining about the lack of sponges, to nobody who cares, for far too long now.

The local students like to get very involved with their hall/ floor activities. In the first week they have an ‘Orientation Camp’ for the freshmen. This varies from hall to hall but is basically designed to toughen up the kids that have been wrapped in cotton wool (that’s most of them) and to force them into friendships (because they tend not to be so good at building close relationships quickly apparently). To me though, in this hall, it just seems to be a boot camp. They have Lee Hysan Hall songs, chants, marches and a different matching t-shirts for each day. When I first arrived they were all out in the courtyard in the blazing sunshine and humidity standing in rows and learning the chants and marches. This is all led by five or ten senior hall residents who walk up and down the rows yelling and physically forcing everyone to put their arms up at the correct angle and their feet the correct distance apart. They do team building games right into the middle of the night and we are all awoken at 6.30 every morning by someone yelling over the tanoy in Cantonese. The worst thing I saw was when they seemed to be doing circuit training and one boy, who was so exhausted he was actually vomiting, was being propped up by two seniors and forced the run the rest of the circuits regardless! Absolute madness. So it was all pretty strange and unfriendly for the first week while the local students all got stuck into their O camps but since then people seem a lot more friendly and the floor meeting really helped me feel a bit more welcome here. I’m really going to try and make friends with local students because I don’t like how segregated it is here. All the international students just hang out together really, and I don’t think that’s how it should be. Saying that, I’ve been having  a great time with all the international students. There are lots of Chinese people from Canada and America which is really helpful as some of them know some Cantonese! There’s also a few guys from Australia who have been here for a term already and they are really great at helping all the newbies out. They have arranged various beach trips, hikes, dinners and nights out over facebook which have been really successful.

Speaking of nights out… there is an area near central called Lan Kwai Fong which seems to be where all the ex pats, travellers, exchange students and visiting business men/women migrate to when the sun goes down. It can be pretty expensive but there are lots of parties in clubs organised by local and international students in huge clubs which just have a cover charge and then an open bar!!! HK is much cheaper for the ladies too! Wednesday and Thursday are ladies nights in particular bars which means free entry and free vodka and mixers for the girls and extortionate prices for the lads. The exchange students tend to go to this area but just buy beer in the 7/11 (7/11 is your best friend in HK) and drink it on the street- you can drink anywhere in HK and buy alcohol at any time of the day- and just go into bars for a chat/ air conditioning/a boogie! One of the Ozzie boys was giving us a run down of the ‘good 7/11’s’  where they have benches and public toilets nearby! Hahah. So the first week or so was pretty mental with everyone -especially the English boys- wanting to go out every night! But it’s calming down now and everyone is getting to know each other a bit better and starting to explore the Island and more remote parts a bit more.

Despite this Lan Kwai Fong area though, generally Hong Kong is nowhere near as international as people like to make out. It’s so much more like China than I expected. Probably a bit of a silly thing to say, but I had the impression that everyone speaks English and the place is literally designed in order to make life easy if you don’t speak Cantonese. Not so. People even still stare at me here because I have fair hair! You have to ask the minibus driver’s to stop when you want to get off and you have to do it in Cantonese! (Or just wait til you’re miles past your stop). None of the people you encounter in daily life, in restaurants, shops, train stations, information counters (!) speak English at all! Which makes sense, of course, but the university and the tourism board would have you believe otherwise! It’s just taking a bit of adjusting because I wasn’t expecting day to day life to be so difficult. I also feel pretty rude coming here with no Cantonese under my belt and having to expect everyone to be able to help me out with stuff despite the language barrier.  Saying that, after a while I found a part of town where you can get everything western that you could dream of, including fish and chips, bacon sandwhiches, yorkshire puddings, fry ups and newspapers, magazines and books that are written in English. But of course it all costs loads, so I had to leave empty handed – except for a miniature bacon roll that cost me about a pound!

HKU is on Hong Kong Island but Hong Kong Special Administrative Region actually encompasses part of the bottom of mainland China too which is called Kowloon and the New Territories. Kowloon is full of street markets selling tat but also has big markets for particular things such as the flower market, bird market and fish market and there is even a street which is just full of pet shops selling tiny puppies, kittens, rabbits, exotic fish and turtles etc. There’s also a night market that specialises in seafood and you can buy a whole deep fried squab – which turns out to be a pigeon actually. I took a bus into the New Territories on Sunday in the hope of finding a clean beach (the ones on Hong Kong Island tend to smell funny as the sewage is just pumped straight into the surrounding water, took me a couple trips to the beach to realise the water wasn’t just brown because of the sand…) but got distracted by some cheap clothes shops…. so didn’t get to the coast in Sai Kung until sunset. It was still worth it though because the place was absolutely packed with people going to eat at the brightly lit seafood restaurants along the pier. They have GIGANTIC tanks of fish and crabs etc covering the entire front of the restaurant and people in white wellies clamber over them to get the ones you pick to eat. Apparently if you go there during the day you can pay someone with a boat to take you to any of the little surrounding islands and come back for you later so I’ll be doing that at some point soon.

Last week I climbed to Victoria Peak which is the highest point on Hong Kong Island. We did it at night in the hope it would be cooler but I still have NEVER sweated so much in my life. It took an hour and a half and the first half of the track was on a ridiculous gradient. The weirdest part is that there is a shopping complex at the top (!) where you can have a champagne breakfast with a spectacular view of the city, the harbour and the surrounding islands- if you can afford it. The views in this city are absolutely indescribable when you catch a glimpse of them. Mainly you can only see skyscrapers in every direction but every now and then you get a peek through at the sea and the islands and it’s amazing or, if you get high up enough or far away enough from the city, the buildings themselves are really beautiful at night and during the day. The pictures you tend to see of Hong Kong’s cityscape are of Victoria Harbour on Hong Kong Island as viewed from Kowloon and the buildings along that harbour actually have lasers built into them so they can put on a light show EVERY NIGHT!

Started uni last week as well which I was really looking forward to. The campus is a short bus journey from halls which actually seems like a nightmare in this unbelievable heat. The campus is a labyrinth. Hong Kong is a labyrinth but the uni campus takes it to another level. Hong Kong is so densely populated, and there is so little space, because the city is built into the side of a mountain, that they have to sacrifice having spaces between the buildings sometimes. This means that they sacrifice having streets (!) and just have the buildings linked together instead. So you always have to walk through loads of shopping malls and office blocks to get to where you want to be. It’s not as bad in town where they do have streets for cars and buses etc, but at the university there are no streets or spaces between the buildings so you just have to go into the one in front of you and get the lift to the level you think might be roughly the level you’re try to get to and follow corridors in the general direction you would like to go and hope for the best! It was very confusing at first but now it’s actually kind of fun and you get such a sense of accomplishment when you find a reasonably direct route between your classes. Most of my classes are in the main building at the front which is lovely because it’s a hundred years old and filled with courtyards and fountains and benches (this city seriously lacks benches). The registration process is a nightmare by the way. They send you on a wild goose chase around aforementioned labyrinth for first couple days in order to collect and hand in various forms blah blah blah. It can be frustrating but helps you get to know your way around campus and I bonded with some other exchange students over the experience! But, there is a special international student’s haven called the Global Lounge – this magical little nook houses the exchange office, a coffee shop, free internet/computers, lovely seating areas, plasma screen tv’s showing international channels and air conditioning that is always up full!

Oh and I really must add something about the heat…. IT”S SOOOO HOT!  You know when you walk behind a bus and you get that gust of dusty, wet heat coming from the vent on the back of it and it’s hard to breathe and you feel like your lungs have been irrepairably filled with fumes? That’s what the summer is like here. Constantly ‘glowing’ (sweating profusely) and praying for a breeze or some air con. But it’s starting to cool down now and there’s absolutely nothing like the feeling when you catch a rare breeze.

Ok that’s enough for now. Basically I’m steadily turning many acquaintances into some friends, attempting to learn Cantonese and understand the Hong Kong way of life, trying to see everything there is to see and also get away for some calm time out of the city every now and again.

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