Settling into life in Hong Kong

Orian Churney is a 3rd year electrical engineer currently studying abroad in Hong Kong! Check out how he is settling into life as an exchange student there.

My time at HKUST is going pretty well. The classes are pretty similar to the ones in America, with both lectures and homework assignments. The library is pretty nice; there are a lot of places to study both in groups and by yourself. One thing that’s different than my home university is that essentially you have to take the elevator most of the time. To get to the main academic concourse, I have to take two elevators that each go up 10 floors, and after that most of my classes were somewhere on the second, fourth, or fifth floors. I had to get really used to taking elevators and some of the etiquette that the local students had about getting on and off elevators. But overall, it isn’t too hard, and I can get to most of my classes in around 15 to 20 minutes.

There are also some other interesting things that I have gotten used to over the first month of being here. I’m starting to get used to walking around with a lot of people around me, which is somewhat different than being able to drive around by yourself all of the time. The transportation around the city is pretty nice, as well. It’s a lot easier to get around when you don’t have to pay attention to directions while driving, and you just need to make sure which train to go on and which stop to get off at. The novelty of taking the train might wear off at some point, but for me it’s still pretty interesting to be able to easily travel around. It’s also interesting how much walking that you can do in large cities. At my hometown, if I wanted to go to the grocery store nearby, I would probably take my car, but over here everything is close by, so it’s a lot easier to just walk and take the metro. I don’t think many people even need to own a car, because of the public transportation.

One thing that is a pretty big change from my usual habits is that I now take notes on loose-leaf paper instead of in notebooks. This might not seem like a big difference, but I usually take a lot of notes in class, and now I have a bunch of paper in random folders. The folders are different too: instead of having two pockets arranged like a book, many folders just have one big pocket like a slide paper. I think many students took notes using electronic devices like a tablet, though. My professors post lecture slides online, which are pretty useful for studying, also. In general, my classes are going well.

The enlightenment

Fabiola is a fourth-year economics major who studied abroad in China this past summer. Check out her reflection on her time abroad.
      As an economics major at UVA is only natural that I am interested in how the world’s economy performs and how it’s changed over time. Coming from a small, in every aspect, and extremely poor country in Central America has allowed me to not only focus my interest on the big economies, specially not only on the US even though I do attend college in the US and 90% of the content I review on every single of my courses is based on the US economy and its behavior over time.Unfortunately, being accurately informed and understanding economics is not always an easy task. Economics is not an easy science. It’s based on infinite assumptions, models and states that not always, not to say ever, really occur in the real world, as we economists call it. Therefore, in order to study and understand how economics work one must first put aside several elements that are very present in both small and large economies to different degrees: dysfunctional institutions and its consequences such as corruption, extreme poverty and the special needs of the people in countries that experience it, black markets that have grown to be some countries’ top markets like drug cartels in South America… All in all, one must study economics in an ideal world where markets can move freely without any unnecessary, or illegal, intervention by the government and by the people. Once atUVA it only took me get through my Principles of Microeconomics course to understand why studying economics in the US, based on the US economy, was as close to the ideal world as one can get. Institutions in this country are much more functional than in other countries.
      US has gotten where it is, one of the world’s biggest economies, because since its origin its leaders have focused on exploding its potential with everything and more than it has to offer. When the rest of the world was still struggling with epidemics, development and poverty, the US was already getting ahead and growing ridiculously compared to the other, now, big economies. People became too ambitious and the “you can make it” idea got everyone to push their limits further and further, making US big as a whole. It was and it has been a constant growth throughout history with a couple peaks and troughs. On the other hand, other big economies tell a different story. China, for example, remained stagnant together with other countries in Europe and Asia for many years and then, within a short period of time, this huge monster started growing at a pace not even the US had experienced in its past. During this period, the spotlight moved from America to theOld Continent and it focused on countries such as China for a while. The world was shaken by this event that marked the overall economy forever. Many started making their own speculations and inferences about China. Then, one day, as many expected, the growth proved to be unsustainable and the country finally slowed down. This marked another major event on the world’s economy since, once the country became the world’s biggest manufacturer, other big economies like the US started taking advantage of China’s low labor prices to make some extra profit and satisfy its consumerist population. What really happened to China, that caused the country to slow down, is explained by many economists through different lenses and by different theories. Some point it out to the country moving from manufacturing to service industry and indexes not being adjusted to this change, a few others entirely blame the inefficient communist system that completely controls the market in China making it difficult to adapt by the Invisible Hand Theorem. It is ironic that coming from the poorest country in the western hemisphere, situation caused mainly by the several corrupt governments that have ruled the country, I still have a hard time to believe how dysfunctional institutions can bring a country down. I still tend to blame the people and their lack of effort because I naively believe that even under an inefficient system there is always opportunity. This is how my trip to China opened my eyes to the truth behind the curtains.
     Due to traveling difficulties my visit to China started in what I can, with all my confident, call the world’s most random city: Dafeng, a small city located north ofShanghai. As soon as we started entering the city it already seemed strange. There were no civilians on the streets, no cars on the roads, there were too many old buildings that seemed empty, the city was incredibly quite, it looked like a ghost town. As we spent more days there and then visited some companies it became clear to me that things in China work completely different. I then understood that the way people invested their money worked differently, people preferred to have all of their money invested in real estate instead of in the bank or the stock market. However, Idid not understand why. The real estate company we visited was working on a tremendous project. It had already built tenths of apartment buildings and these buildings were only the first few stages of the whole project. The managers assured us the whole project was completely sold and that 99% of the apartments’ owners were living there. This inaccurate information made everything more confusing. The whole project was sold? To whom? There was nobody in this town. And where was this 99%? Nobody was able to answer this. A museum honoring the CulturalRevolution, a Zoo with a dead horse, a Holland Themed Park and an Aquarium that tattooed their fish were the cherries on top of the weirdest ice cream.
      Traumatized and curious, we arrived at our next destination: Wuxi, a larger city still north of Shanghai. This stop was a lot more revealing than the first one. We saw more people on the streets and the real estate company we visited gave us some more accurate numbers about the amount of apartments they had sold and the percentage of buyers that actually inhabited the apartments, managers seemed more transparent. It was a little shocking to hear that the company was actually state owned, thus the government fostered the project they were working on. Here was the first time we heard that the real estate industry in China was struggling,which Dafeng had already made evident despite of the company’s attempt to prove otherwise. However, the manager told us they weren’t that concerned since the government was backing the project up and it would incur any losses the first few years, which they were already incurring and had confident they would continue to incur as they completed all the stages of the project. Why in the world would a real estate company keep working on a project that is incurring so many losses and which prospects of revenues were blurry and way too FAR ahead in the future?Shouldn’t these companies keep building as they sell? Shouldn’t they operate based on the market performance?  Now, I only had a vague idea of how communism works. I acknowledged that it tries to maximize social welfare equally and that in this system the government has more power and liberty to intervene in the economy; nonetheless, I was not clear to what extent. I started wondering myself,doubting this country’s authorities decisions.
     Perhaps the peak of the enlightenment happened when we got to Ningbo, an even larger city more similar to Shanghai than the previous two.  Here we visited a manufacturing company, and after that everything finally started making sense. The owner of the company first gave us a really weird fact: they had an area requirement that had to be filled with buildings depending on the size of the property, regardless of the infrastructure that the company actually needs for production based on the market demand.  So, the owner of the firm, knowing that by producing more than the market actually demanded he would incur losses, had to rent the extra building she was not using. Moreover, he would use this money to finance his own business since the high interest made financing almost impossible for private firms. It was never clear to me if this action was considered illegal or not, but the whole situation was too strange. After he explained and described more of the regulations that manufacturing companies had in order to operate, I was able to understand how inefficient the system was. The government was forcing overproduction, this is perhaps what caused the monstrous, unsustainable growth the country experienced for many years. True, it increased China’s GDP incredibly on a macro level, but it was evidently hurting the economy on a micro level. Where all businessmen as clever as this guy? How did they manage to keep operating? I felt extremely overwhelmed.Nothing made sense, how could it make sense to the leaders of this country. Why wasn’t obvious to them that controlling the market in such way can only go on for so long? How could they not see how bad of an environment this was for people trying to succeed with their own businesses, people trying to enter the market, people looking for their way out of China’s stagnant middle class, to people trying to make it?  
     Once we arrived to Shanghai I was excited to visit some financial firms to understand how securities worked in this market. Our visit to these firms only confirmed what I already suspected, the stock market worked just like the real estate market. Securities’ prices are also controlled by the government, which reduces credibility among the public in the stock market. This time, it was not the regulations imposed by the government to financial firms that impressed me, but the ability of arbitrage, which is normally absent in a competitive market, that financial firms were able to pull out due to the same control on the sock market.
     In conclusion, this trip really showed me how institutions can hurt the economy of a country when they don’t let the market act freely by its own. China is avery interesting case and not until you experience things first hand you can understand what is it that has slowed this monster down.

After Education Abroad in Hong Kong: A Reflection

Cara Todd is a UVA Engineering School student who spent the Fall 2015 semester in Hong Kong as part of an exchange program with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. In this post she reflects upon her time abroad and the process of re-adjusting to life in the U.S. 

 

My return to the US has been a bittersweet experience, the joy of being re-submersed in my home environment tempered by the regret that I’ll likely never see Hong Kong in person again. My first few days back were giddy, as might be expected, but after a week the difference in feel between the two countries hit me again. Simply entering a coffee shop felt somewhat disorienting, as I had to adjust many small things that you normally wouldn’t really think about: the distance between myself and others, how much eye contact to make, whether I should stand still or can fidget around some, whether to smile or not. As I make my way around in public I can now regularly understand the conversations of those around me again. Readjusting ended up being quicker in some ways than I expected, though I still feel somewhat uncomfortable shaking hands and perturbed by the lack of soy sauce availability.
Living in Hong Kong for four months has certainly given me a greater appreciation for their culture and ways of life. It truly is difficult, when you haven’t deeply studied another country or been abroad, to really understand how deeply another culture shapes every aspect of your life. If was only during my last month there that I really began to move past the surface differences and see more underlying differences, a revealing cut short by my return (note: if anyone reading this wants to go abroad, try for a year). In that space of time though, I gained more empathy for how the locals thought about and saw things; why they was pass over without comment statements or situations I found remarkable, or feel moved to laughter by things I found matter-of-fact. And while I still know little about their politics, I have some more insight on how students, at least, feel about recent international events. Beyond even all the beautiful natural reserves and historical sites of Hong Kong, it was the people I enjoyed and miss the most.
Looking back on my time there as a whole from here in America, I can say that I greatly enjoyed my time abroad. There are many places I wish I could have visited one more time; a little bakery in Choi Hung,the parks in Tsim Sha Tsui, the small temple in Po Lam. I hope I can turn my experiences there into a useful part of my life, both in my career and in helping other understand Hong Kong. I give great thanks to everyone who helped me in my journey abroad, and especially encourage those who wish to study abroad to go ahead and do so. Few experiences could be as rewarding.

Thanksgiving Reflection in Hong Kong

Cara Todd is a UVA Engineering student currently studying abroad through an exchange program with Hong Kong university. Below she reflects on spending Thanksgiving abroad and the preparation for graduation among Hong Kong’s university students. 

While many of my friends and family back at home prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, Hong Kong buzzes with anticipation for the upcoming Christmas holiday. Christmas here seems to have much more a romantic context than in the US; aside from the usual Santa-themed kids’ toys and candies, chocolates and hearts I would usually associate with Valentines briefly line stores shelves before disappearing into shoppers’ handcarts. Overall the festive spirit is beginning to infuse the area, no less due to the HKSUT graduations.

Graduation in Hong Kong occurred shortly before the end of the Fall Semester, a somewhat lengthy affair due to the cramped Atrium is had to be held in. It was during this period that the influence of family on the aspirations of my fellow Hong Kongers really stood out. Several of my professors made references to the ceremonies as they occurred during class, citing the importance that the event had for both the students and their extended families. And, of course, how it demanded that they should be paying more attention during that lecture in question! The implications that higher education has for the relatives of the students, at least in emotional value, is highly regarded, and infused the two day ceremony with a greater sense of meaning than I’ve personally been witness to before.

Now that the ceremonies are over, students are either buckling down in preparation for the upcoming finals or rushing to get the most of their last few days of freedom. Many other international exchange students are making last minute trips to Korea, Japan, or Taiwan before they leave for Christmas, and I might join them if my five upcoming finals do not exert too much pressure!

Sights and Sounds in Harbin

Alicia Underhill is a 4th year commerce student currently studying abroad in Peking University in Beijing, China. Here are some of her photos when she went to the Northeastern city of Harbin. 

 

Russia

A wall filled with Russian dolls at a local shop in Harbin,China. Harbin, the capital city of China’s most northern Heilongjiang province, is uniquely known for it’s Russian influence and history where thousands of Russian immigrants fled to the city during the Russian Revolution and have since stayed to give the city its multicultural heritage.

 

halloween (1)

An aerial view of the Halloween party that the business school at Peking University, Guanghua School of Management, put on to celebrate the holiday for its domestic and foreign students. 

 

halloween baozi

A Jack-O-Lantern 包子 (pronounced bao zi, meaning a steam bun with differentfillings) filled with pumpkin sold at 7-11 to celebrate Halloween.

 

pineapple

A pineapple stuffed with sweet sticky rice – a specialty served at a restaurant representing China’s southerly Yunnan province. 

jewish temple

A glimpse of a former Jewish temple in Harbin now turned into a museum of Jewish history in the city. Throughout the 20th century, over 20,000 Jews called Harbin home as they fled from European persecution.

 

jack o lantern

Me holding up the Jack-O-Lantern I carved with my Chinese roommate in our kitchen to celebrate Halloween and introduce her to the tradition.

 

disney castle

A view of the castle at a small Chinese theme park in Beijing. Previously cracked-down on for Disney copyright infringement, the park has removed most Disney references yet this one still remains.

food truck

A Chinese food truck vendor preparing to fry up a-la-carte kabob items to make my evening meal. Vendors like these are very common to see around the streets of Beijing.

ramen restaurant

A cutely-themed ramen restaurant in Beijing that is specially known for its popular ramen burger. 

packages

Packages lining the street of a college campus, waiting to be picked up by their respective student owners. In China, online shopping logistics almost always end at this final stage: individual drivers spreading out their loot outside of neighborhoods where purchasers will come out to meet them and collect their packages.

 

panda

A panda lounging in the shade at the Beijing zoo.

fashion week

A friend and me at Beijing Fashion Week, an event we were lucky enough to attend through a friend of mine involved in the fashion community here!

 

fish

A popular manner by which fish is served at Chinese restaurants – diced and fried, where pieces are pulled directly off of the fish’s body by chopsticks.

 

1

Saint Sophia Cathedral in Harbin, China – one of the most famous symbols of the city’s Russian legacy.

xinjiang restaurant

The official restaurant of the XinJiang province. Beijing has one “official”restaurant from each province located within the city, and these restaurants anywhere provincial officials will take visiting guests to show the cuisine of their province. Supposedly these restaurants serve the best food that each province has to offer.

 

flood memorial

An image of Harbin’s famous flood memorial statue at night. This statuere presents Harbin’s city center, and commemorates a flood decades ago that devastated the city.