Blog of Justin Cheuk, home to writing on London, Hong Kong, Studying Abroad, Trains and Travels.

Why Study Abroad?

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Justin Cheuk: When HK Meets UK

Why Study Aboard?

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At first glance, many potential answers pop up: because you want a new experience. Or because you want a handsome-looking degree from a foreign university on your CV. Or because your parents wanted you to.

It’s a rather important question that you probably have never fully pondered, however after almost a decade abroad, I believe I am close to the answer: hopefully this can be of help when you consider whether to undertake this potentially life-altering experience that is studying abroad.

Admittedly, though, that was a recent epiphany: as I left home after primary school the decision to venture outside wasn’t mine. I suppose I have longed for adventure as a child, but the main reasons for my arrival in the UK were simply that I couldn’t conjure up reasons otherwise.

It’s probably the best non-decision in my life.

The decision to go was simple: I have always liked travelling. However, the twelve-year-old version of myself was perhaps more swayed by the promises of after-school football every day, not a given at the concrete-infested Hong Kong; and even more importantly by the prospect of having two weeks off in the middle of October. Another glittering example to demonstrate that Asians are not naturally studious.

These petty reasons are surprisingly important: the key for an enriching experience abroad is the wish to go. This might sound counterintuitive, but it is true that a significant proportion of international students is being sent away against their wishes (the ‘I am here because my parents said so’ type): those people tend to feel isolated and inevitably end up with a spiteful memory of it all.

Often it is notoriously difficult to go abroad: you are seemingly abandoning everything you have and swapped them with clouds of uncertainty. I understand that for some the homesickness is insurmountable. However, with the advancement of modern travel and technology, just now ‘uncertain’ is it?

Communication: 2014 is no longer the age of losing that once-in-a-year call due to not having enough coins. 2014 is the age of instant Skype calls… that you would lose because of a crap internet. Joking aside, the internet has significantly shortened the distances in our world. This is an age where you can buy Japanese noodles in British supermarkets, where you can stream live TV shows of your own country. Relocation has never been easier: in fact being too submerged in your origins stands to be a bigger issue nowadays. Not to mention that most international students return home at least twice a year if not more. (I’ve seen some ridiculous flight schedules over the years)

What you might find surprising, however, if how you’d see home after moving away.  I know people who viewed their time abroad as if they were imprisoned, desperately counting down the days of returning home, where the fun supposedly is. However, remember that you’re now only at home whilst on holiday: things are always better when you’re on holiday. Do you really love home so much that a visit every few months cannot quench your desires?

Don’t worry too much about losing contacts with friends at home either: for me it was actually the opposite. I found that one’s return is a the best excuse to call up your old friends for a chat, those who you wouldn’t dare otherwise. It’s pretty much because of this that I still have friends in Hong Kong after being away this long. Thanks to the geniuses in the Hong Kong government, a sizeable number of my friends have sought opportunities elsewhere, and the reunions we hold during holidays are impressive. Therefore worry no more if the fears about settling in or losing contact with home are the main reasons for your doubt or objections to studying abroad.

The culture and language barrier is another major obstacle to going abroad, in general, and one that I’ve confronted too. I’d considered my English to be good for a non-native speaker aged twelve, but while of course I did struggle in English lessons at start, it was far more problematic outside the classroom as my command of the language was copied from textbooks and I had little knowledge of western popular culture, which made striking conversations difficult.

The best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. And yes, studying abroad improves your language skills: that’s why language undergrads spend a year abroad too. I am glad to say that through a combination of methods, both typical and unorthodox, (examples for vocabularies learned from football manager: relegation; Liechtenstein; tibia) I now speak good enough for you to think I’ve lived here all my life. In fact, I do that confused about what language I now think in.

Nevertheless, at the same time I’ve met people who spent two years at school without speaking a word of English after school finishes. So yes, studying abroad improves your language skills, but how much you can improve depends on how much you’re prepared to do.

Ultimately, the biggest benefit of coming abroad to the UK is that it allowed me to see how the outside world really is. Hong Kong might advertise itself as ‘Asia’s World City’, but it is also a place of conforming to established successes with a pathetically little interest in the international world. To be able to spend time in a place like London, surrounded by the different cultures, ethnicities and ideologies has certainly broadened my horizons.

There are, contrary to what Hong Kong showed me, many ways to success. It’s true that exams here are less demanding, and, as a result, I’ve come across many during my life at school and university who are genuinely interested in what they study, and would gladly spend their spare time discussing and investigating, instead of completing everything for the sake of the CV.

The cream of the coup at school that I’ve met picked subjects they liked, even things that would be branded as without future in Hong Kong (e.g. History or Politics, which happens to cover what I study now, or English), instead of whatever that would supposedly provide them with the best career opportunities. These smartest guys did so with the support of family and teachers. Most importantly, unlike Hong Kong these people will still be hired by the best companies once they graduate.

I’m aware that this is fast becoming a rant against Hong Kong, which I am keen to avoid. What I have mentioned is simply my observations and no doubt were generalised by chance encounters. The point here is simply that by going away from your original culture, you tend to realise its shortcomings. Many theories you have taken for granted in your life thus far are not as concrete anymore. (Of course you would the benefits too: the food, for example) The exposure to other ideas provides you a much better standing to make judgements about yourself and the world around you.

From a young age, I have always loved travelling. And by studying abroad, instead of boxing myself in a corner in East Asia, I have the fortune to see how the work really works for myself. Therefore, if you have the opportunity to study abroad, I will definitely recommend it. You are likely to enjoy it too.

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