Visiting a foreign country can be intimidating and even a bit frightening but it can also be a positively life changing experience. Here are a few things that my recent visit to Hong Kong taught me.
1. The significance and importance of family
Although Hong Kong is hardly a third world country, it is still another country. In a place that operated so foreignly to what I was used to, it became slightly overwhelming. I had been in large, crowded cities like San Francisco on Black Friday but this was a whole new level. Everywhere you looked there were vast crowds of people; in restaurants, in malls, in apartment buildings, and schools.
I found that what gave me comfort in this entirely new environment was that fact that I had family around me. Having the familiar faces of loved ones around is immensely comforting in a completely unfamiliar environment-- especially one in which you don’t speak the language of. I found myself at times to be extremely dependent on my parents and other relatives to translate Cantonese into English.
2. To be open-minded
Another thing that comes along with being in a foreign country is learning to adapt to a new set of ‘norms’. Whether it was eating chicken feet, understanding why the number 4 is skipped when numbering the floors of a building, or correctly pronouncing a traditional Chinese name, it was all a learning experience. Not being able to understand simple conversations because of the language barrier was frustrating at first but within time, I began to pick up on certain words, allowing me to understand the gist of the conversation.
I strongly believe that the language barrier made my cultural experience a lot more different than it would have been if I spoke or understood the language, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way because it forced me to form my own opinions about my experiences. Every place visited I visited wasn’t riddled with pretense-- negative or positive-- from what other people said about them because I didn’t understand the language. I made sense of things on my own, or from the little bits of information that was translated to me, it made my experience unique and individualized.
3. To understand foreign customs and values
Traditions and customs are key parts of any country’s culture. They embody both the historical and cultural pasts of the country. Although the terms of this trip was the loss of a loved one, I learned a lot about traditional Chinese funeral ceremonies. Having never been to a funeral of a relative, I didn’t know what to expect.
There were givens that I had already known prior to the ceremony-- such as we were all to wear black and the coffin would be open-faced-- but there was a lot that I didn’t know as well. I learned that one pays respects by walking up to the coffin and bowing three times, and that those coming to the service were supposed to offer monetary donations to the funeral funds, and that they are to receive a small envelope containing a small gift in return.
4. To appreciate home
The town of Yuen Long in New Territory, Hong Kong is a highly productive area. Whether the people worked in the fish market, the shopping plaza, a restaurant, or a small store on the street, they all were the epitome of great work ethic. The students wore uniforms of thick sweaters and skirts with tights or pants, on the hottest days. Its chaotic, urban environment mirrors something similar to big cities in the United States such as New York City, New York or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Despite the strong work ethic among its people, the living and labor conditions of the town aren’t exactly what would be considered a ‘five-star rating’ here in the U.S. And again, Hong Kong is hardly a third world territory but it made me realize how blessed I am to live, learn, and work where I do. It also made me admire how hard my parents worked and studied in order for me to have the life that I do in today. For that, I am extremely grateful.
Although I wish that my visit to Hong Kong was under better circumstances, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to experience it at all-- and alongside my family too. Traveling to another country is one of the best things that someone can do for themselves academically, culturally, and spiritually.