“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” ― Miriam Adeney
How does one compare two very distinct experiences? It’s almost impossible but also grossly unfair. Why should I have to choose a winner or loser when I can always look back and reminisce about memories in the boundless, vibrant and dynamic streets of Hong Kong, but also the small-town, student friendly Chapel Hill in North Carolina. You guessed it, in 2014/15 I was lucky enough to spend 5 months studying at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill (UNC) in the United States, and 6 months at the University of Hong Kong (HKU).
This is my reluctant but honest comparison between two corners of the globe that I can now call home. It is hard enough trying to draw parallels between the two, let alone if one is to consider the wonderful people that helped to make my time in both Hong Kong and Chapel Hill truly unforgettable. Picking a favorite is what I imagine parents feel when asked to choose between their children!
I was lucky enough to have had two of the kindest roommates in both instances. Hazel and Taylor were both local students that made sure to go out of their way to provide me with anything I ever needed. It was just like being treated as family, one of the most comforting feelings to have when you are some 6,000 miles away from home. I must not forget each and every international student though, struggling through the exact same situation as I, with a naïve but collective sense of adventure pushing us to explore every corner of our surroundings together. I feel extremely blessed to have so many life-long friends scattered around the globe.
Aside from friendships, I suppose it makes sense to start with the most obvious differences between these two areas, the culture. Exploring Hong Kong’s authentic back areas, such as Mong Kok—the most densely populated area in the world—is a total contrast to the fusion of East-meets-West in a place called Central. Here, the marks of past colonialism are evident when you are able to dine at pubs like the Yorkshire Pudding, serving British classics such as traditional fish and chips and apple crumble. Yet in North Carolina, I struggled to get hold of a tin of Heinz baked beans, real dairy milk chocolate, or even just a good slab of cheese! Instead, it was peanut butter everything and deep-fried-you name-it.
My university experience at UNC was incredible, however. If I could go back and study for three more years, I would do so in a heartbeat. The school spirit is evident when you first arrive and see students frequently walking around in Carolina shorts and a tee. This carries into the sports culture, where the atmosphere at college football or basketball games is electric. The American emphasis on competitiveness intensified this bubble of energy and it is something I fed off.
However, I wasn’t as attached to the university side of things in Hong Kong. Don’t get me wrong, I relished my time exploring Asia’s ‘World City,’ but the lack of collective school spirit and charismatic teaching at the university meant I was often left uninspired with my studies. In hindsight, I’m glad this was the case: I often had the chance to travel at weekends, something much cheaper to do in Asia. I was able to visit Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam to name but a few, experiencing things I would never do in the West, such as hunting for hours to find a public toilet, and bathing wild elephants. I travelled well in America too, visiting DC and Chicago, as well as ice-skating in New York and walking across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
I could go on forever about my year abroad, but perhaps the most rewarding aspect about living away for a year is the level of personal development that everyone will experience. I have become much more independent, confident and open-minded since returning to England. Therefore, more than anything else, the year abroad has only confirmed that it is only when we force ourselves out of our comfort zone that we may grow.
If pushed to make some sort of concluding statement about my time in both Hong Kong and America, I will go as far to say that I have fonder memories of my UNC college experience than my time studying at HKU. As a city, however, Hong Kong has so much to offer that a small college town in Chapel Hill can never hope to compete with. As a result, I was able to do much more exploring in Asia’s ‘World City.’ Yet, still, I am reluctant to entertain any sort of competition between the two. The way I see it, I am lucky to even be having this conversation. UEA is unique in that it is one of the only universities to offer the split-year, an opportunity I jumped at blindly, but will remain forever grateful for. I just wish I could do it all again!
Amelia Glean studies American History with Politics at UEA