Making the Most Out of Your Hong Kong Exchange Experience

Making the Most Out of Your Hong Kong Exchange Experience

From 2015 to 2016 I took a year abroad academic exchange at Hong Kong University where I studied Chinese and Asian Politics, as well as Mandarin. It proved to be a phenomenal experience, one which significantly influenced my own pathways and outlook in the world. Many university students throughout Europe and North America also have the opportunity to go on a program like this, be at HKU or some of the territory’s other institutions such as the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Baptist University and so on; regardless of which one, the experience will still be similar. If you still have the opportunity to go on an exchange in Hong Kong, do it! But for now, focusing on those of you who are already set to go on exchange there in the coming semester after the summer, my article offers you some useful tips and advice in order to make the most out of your experience, an incredible world of opportunities and adventures await you in “Asia’s World City”, make sure it counts!


First of all, prepare your mind for a very different style of teaching and academic culture. In contrast to many Western nations, Hong Kong education, like all of East Asia, is less about creativity and independent learning and more about specification and teacher authority. In other words, it’s about following and receiving instruction than finding your own way. In England, lecturers would teach us the foundation of a given topic and then we had to go off and explore it ourselves, being encouraged to go beyond the assigned reading where we could. Because of this people could literally skip or ignore lectures and get away with it. But, when I went to Hong Kong University I got a shock because things were different, lectures in creative, non-scientific subjects such as politics and history were about close detail, memorization and paying careful attention to everything that was said. Consequentially, whilst examinations in England followed more open questions which you could answer in your own style, exams in Hong Kong often looked for very specific details which were often mentioned in classes, this caught me out quite a bit initially. Why is this? Because as a Chinese society, Hong Kong education places strong emphasis upon position and authority, the student is a subordinate to the teacher, who’s expertise we must trust and follow. If you aim to succeed in this environment, note this.

Social Life

So enough about the academic side, how does the social side work in Hong Kong universities? Throughout the world, universities alike possess clubs, societies and extracurricular groups, but something remarkable about Hong Kong is that participation in such things are taken to a different level. For local students, extracurricular university activities are essential, sometimes even mandatory (your GPA can even depend on it!), they are seen as a crucial to individual, academic and career development. Consequentially, at any Hong Kong institution, you see around you a zealous, formal and spirited commitment to these things, whether they be sports, academic or cultural activities. As a western exchange student, this unique and spirited culture may at first appear unusual or overwhelming, not least because of the heavy usage of Cantonese amongst participants. However, do not be afraid and get stuck in! My recommendation is that you should try and get involved where you can, extracurricular university activities will be a cornerstone for you to make local friends, as well as understanding the Hong Kong way of life.

Learn a Language!

Thirdly, building on the above point, don’t waste the opportunity here to learn a Chinese language! An exchange to Hong Kong is not a glorified holiday, it is a golden chance for you to receive educational experiences that your regular environment cannot offer. Pretty much all Hong Kong institutions will offer a range of courses in Mandarin and Cantonese at a variety of levels. I used my experience to learn two semesters of Mandarin at a speed and quality not possible at my home institution, which took me from being a beginner to an intermediate speaker in less than a year. Despite this, I saw so many exchange students who simply chose not to learn any Chinese during the time here, whilst of course everyone has their choices I’d say this was probably a wasted opportunity, why seek a Chinese experience if you don’t want to embrace the language? Whilst I obviously recommend Mandarin above Cantonese in terms of usefulness, any language obtained here will be a skill that can benefit you for life, don’t miss out on this!


Last of all, travel! If you’re going to study in Hong Kong, you’re off to a hub which offers easy and relatively cheap access to all of Asia, again this is a lifetime opportunity to make the most of. During your holidays and reading weeks, make sure you get out and see the wider continent around you. Just across the border is mainland China, Vietnam and South-East Asia are just 2-3 hour flights away and don’t forget Japan and the Koreas too! My year in Hong Kong opened a gateway for me to discover Asia in way I could have never done or afforded before. Never ultimately forget that travel is and can be a part of your education!

Therefore, in conclusion, make sure you take nothing for granted or at ease during your time in Hong Kong. Make sure you study hard and make the most of the academic opportunities given to you, but also have fun and embrace the city and its people around you. Without a doubt, Hong Kong is a very special place, so prepare well and make sure you get out of your comfort zone for a real cultural and educational experience!

— Tom Fowdy

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