Marking the Study Abroad Experience

The Connection Between Person and Place

After tasting the cuisine, meeting, and befriending local people, walking through the streets and immersing yourself in a new culture and country, you make a connection to a place. Positive or negative, a connection is formed. This can take seconds, days or years and can change and develop as time progresses. An amazing weekend somewhere can leave you longing to return for the rest of your life. Multiple years in a place can leave you wanting to run away and never look back. When students study abroad, some form a connection with their country of study that can only be described as a second home: an intense emotional connection that leaves them planning their return before they even leave. 

In society we often make specific emotional connections with firsts. We talk about our first kisses, first cars and first jobs, things we remember despite sometimes wanting to forget. Studying abroad is full of firsts, making not only the overall experience unforgettable but also providing little milestones reached within, no matter how small. For some people, it is their first time studying in a different country, their first time away from home and their first time trying a certain cuisine. For me, Hong Kong is my first experience of Asia, the furthest I have ever been from home. It is also the place where I tried Milk Tea, mussels, Dim Sum and Mooncakes. Culinary experiences are significant parts of a connection to a given place, filled with special foods and culinary traditions even if they are not too dissimilar to one’s own. Study abroad students’ taste buds are at the forefront of some of their most memorable and insightful experiences. 

Students spend multiple months becoming acquainted with a place, connecting with their new home through education, people, food and a multitude of unique experiences. Anything in a new place is a new experience, even the familiar. I can confirm that McDonald’s is a very different experience in Hong Kong, with different dips, curly fries and a Prosperity Burger dedicated to the Chinese New Year Celebrations. Attending a new university, students immerse themselves in a different curriculum, teaching style and grading system. They become a part of a new community having been taught by different lecturers and engaging with new peers. I often walk around in a HKU sweatshirt whilst also carrying my Royal Holloway tote bag. I, like all exchange students across the world, belong to two universities now. 

People play a big part in connections to places. Whilst making friends with other exchange students is completely natural given the shared experience of studying in a new place, making local friends has deepened my understanding of Hong Kong. I have gained a mixture of friends who attended International Schools and those who attended local schools, learning from very different curricula, in different languages. My connection to some local friends has been more challenging, with the language barrier much more apparent and our ways of thinking and communicating more distinct. Nevertheless, I have the luxury of forming connections with local people from several different walks of life which has deepened my experience and emotional ties to the place. 

How do you mark a connection to a place? As my own study abroad experience comes to an end, I question how to personally mark my connection to Hong Kong. Some students have left with tattoos, letting permanent ink do the job of celebrating their connection. Boarding their flights home with a +852 on their arm or some variation of the Hong Kong flower on their ankle, people carry with them a symbol of their time in Hong Kong. Some have left with massive photo albums full of the pictures from the disposables that never left their sides. Others, await the full storage message every time they click on their gallery, reminding them of the picture hoarding problem they chose to ignore, until they have no choice but to delete more of their pre- study abroad photos to make space. 

I question whether there is an ideal way of physically marking my connection to Hong Kong. I suspect my connection will remain in its intangible form, emotional. One that will be demonstrated through friendships and conversations. Some of the friends I have made here are friends that I intend to keep for life. Those that reside here are living, breathing representations of my connection to Hong Kong and my friendship with them will remind me of my love and experiences long after I have left, giving me even more reason to return. There are friends that I have made here that I will see again in different parts of the world, always knowing that it was our experiences in Hong Kong that brought us together even as we form new memories in new places. My connection will be obvious in the big smile that appears across my face when people ask me about Hong Kong, or every time I play Mahjong and can join the millions of people who also love egg tarts and pineapple buns. It is a connection that’s cross-cultural, that transcends borders and social barriers, a connection that brings people together. 

Study abroad is one of the unique ways to experience a connection to a place, often positive and life altering. It is certainly an experience worth considering. Our connections to places take on many forms and evoke several feelings home or abroad. Those connections in turn form us as we grow and develop and change throughout our lives. My hope is that everyone is able to experience the beauty of finding several homes away from home. 

By Sofia Bajerova