Career Paths

Life of an International Student in Hong Kong

min read
Wani Azahar

Matthew is an international student from the UK who is studying a BBA in Marketing and HRM at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Currently, he is just about to commence his third, penultimate year of studying at HKBU

While completing his studies, he has also worked as a valued team member at Happyer for the last five months and has recently embarked on his first full-time month here. You can find him working for Client Success as the senior intern responsible for leading two other interns in delivering Happyer’s product to clients. He has also led some digital marketing ad campaigns on both Facebook and Instagram, as well as helping with content marketing and copywriting. Matthew dedicates a lot of his time to the media branch of Happyer too, helping with the production of podcasts, content editing and the managing of their YouTube and SoundCloud channels.

It’s easy to see that Matthew’s journey in Hong Kong has been brimming with new experiences and opportunities which he has welcomed with fervour. Below, we will give you an insight into what made him choose this unique path and how he has immersed himself in a foreign culture to his advantage.

What was your motivation for moving to Hong Kong?

Many people have asked me this question, but my response is always the same; “Coming to Hong Kong for university, is arguably one of the most bespoke choices I could have made at the time.” My whole life I have aspired to ‘walk my own path’. Whether it was the subjects I took, or the sports I played, I always made it my own. My identity evolved around me creating a unique brand for myself. You see, in the UK, university is seen as the logical next step for many people, and this is why we have so many universities, far more than a country of our size should need. Not to say that studying in the UK is bad (because it definitely is not), but the UK is saturated and the choices you make in terms of where to study and what to major in, are not bespoke, instead making you one of the masses in your choices. Coming to Hong Kong was unexpected, everyone around me was confused as to why I would study here, instead of the UK, Europe, or the United States, and it is for this reason I made the choice to come to Hong Kong — it was the unique thing to do.

What have you taken up since coming here?

Hong Kong, for me, is a place of new opportunities; I can try new things here, that back home, would have been impossible. One of my favourite things to do in Hong Kong, is to hike. Back home, I live in a rural county called Norfolk, in East Anglia, England; this county, whilst scenic and beautiful, is flat, and rather repetitive. In Hong Kong, it is a vast contrast; you could be walking down a natural country trail, in the depths of the lush hills of the New Territories, only to walk around a corner to be faced with the concrete expanse of Kowloon. It is this sudden contrast in scenery that leaves me stunned every time and is one of the factors behind me undertaking photography (though I am very amateur). Another hobby of mine is to try new foods. You see, my hometown doesn’t have many types of cuisine, aside from the local Chinese Takeaway, we are limited in choices. In Hong Kong, this is the opposite, due to this city being a multinational hub, the food here is incredible! Never in my life have I had such options to choose from, in-fact, I often find it difficult to pick, since there are so many great choices.

What was your first impression of Hong Kong? How does it differ from your impression of it now?

Before coming here to study, I had previously visited Hong Kong on a number of occasions as a tourist, and thus, I feel my first impressions were highly characterised by this experience. Before I truly got to familiarise myself with this auspicious city, I had a rather narrow view of what it was like here. In my mind, Hong Kong was a truly modern, and highly developed, urban metropolis. With sleek skyscrapers and neon lights everywhere, it is not hard to understand how a newcomer to this city might formulate such an opinion. However, overtime, this opinion shifted. Through exposing myself to, and indulging in, local culture and activities, my perception of this city I now call home, has changed significantly. Whilst there are sleek skyscrapers and neon lights, there are vast expanses of wilderness, and local communities detached from this modern lifestyle. Hong Kong still retains much of its traditional values, and only through living here can you learn about these hidden sides to the city.

What do you like most about Hong Kong?

As I previously mentioned, the ever present contrasts for me are always interesting and exciting. I often find myself, after a day out in the city, or the country, going home to research what it was I had previously encountered earlier that day, or why things are like this. For me, this sense of enlightenment is often rewarding, and makes my life here in Hong Kong a far more informed one, to my great personal satisfaction. I also love the people here; Hong Kongers are truly one-of-a-kind. With heart-warming hospitality and a true desire to care and engage with you, the community and the people in Hong Kong, are some of the most welcoming I have ever met. Some other things I guess I should mention would have to be the hikes, and the scenery. Again, representative of the contrast of city meets landscape, this is always a positive experience. Finally, I wouldn’t be British, if I didn’t mention how much better the weather in Hong Kong is compared to the UK!

What are some challenges you have faced moving to a new and foreign country?

I was very young when I moved to Hong Kong; at just 18, some may consider me still a child. However, contrary to people’s expectations, this was less of an issue than I had expected. You see, before studying in Hong Kong, I had previously been a boarding school student for a couple of years to do my A-levels. As a result of this experience, home sickness was never really an issue, and additionally to this, it was here that I had my first encounter with Hong Kong people and I formed very close friendships with them. It was these friends who prepped me very heavily for my move to the city, making the impact of ‘culture shock’ and ‘isolation’ not really an issue either. I guess you could say I had a bit of a head start compared to my fellow international peers. However, this is not to say it has been easy. I would say that nothing prepared me for Hong Kong student life. Education in the UK is tailored for the UK system. However, in Hong Kong, it is completely different, with a much higher regard placed on individuality, and a significantly greater workload. This was very hard to adapt to, but now I have adapted to it, I’d say this challenge made me more flexible for both the UK and Hong Kong environments.

What is your most profound experience in HK so far?

This is a tough question. Generally, everything in Hong Kong had some level of initial profoundness due to the nature of everything being pretty new for me. However, I would have to say that it was the work ethic that was the most profound. In school, we often learned about how disciplined and harsh the education systems in East-Asia can be in comparison to the rather ‘spoon-fed’ systems of the west. In reality, Hong Kong is quite different than what I expected. Whilst there is a much higher workload than the UK education system, I would say the biggest surprise is the educational independence you receive here. This is reflected by the fact that much of the emphasis towards studying is that you are left to your own devices. This means your performance is largely down to your own efforts, not the efforts of the lecturer or teaching assistant. This high degree of autonomy has meant I’ve adapted to how I approach my work to ensure I can maintain a high performing work effort. I was lost at first, with so much freedom comes many decisions as to how you want to study, who to study with etc, but now I have been here for 2 years, I think I have found the approach that best fits my educational needs.

What is job searching like as an international student?

Challenging. The job market is completely new to me. Since Hong Kong is a much more global city than my hometown, the jobs available here are significantly different to where I come from. Whilst this inevitably comes with more opportunities to find a better career path, often this market is more competitive, as not only are you fighting against the local population, but also people outside of Hong Kong looking for careers. This has meant that I need to learn to overcome more challenges in the recruitment process that I would have otherwise not faced back home. Whilst the universities do offer some support, much of this is focussed towards the local and mainland student bodies, as unfortunately there are not that many international students like myself in Hong Kong. This is reflected by the abundance of career talks and fairs in Cantonese and Mandarin, and the sparseness of English events. Cantonese itself has also been a challenge; many jobs here require at least one form of Chinese, even though they’re conducted in English. Whether this is for the ease of the interviewer, or supervisor, is yet for me to find out, however whilst this is disappointing, it does motivate me to learn the language. I would say that factors like these are about creating opportunities out of barriers that would otherwise prevent you from achieving the career you desire.

How do you balance your workload between University and Happyer?

2020 has been a difficult year for a lot of people, with livelihoods being disrupted. For myself, my university lectures were put online very early into the semester. Whilst at first I found this to be rather detrimental and quite an inconvenience, I soon realised that this provided me with additional time I could place elsewhere. Thus, I chose to work at Happyer, initially part-time during the semester, to fill some of the additional free time I had available, and the chance to learn some new skills. Whilst towards the end of the semester, balancing the high workload of exams and assignments to the tasks I had to fulfil for my internship was hard, it taught me discipline and coordination of activities so as to be more efficient and proactive. I think this will be the largest takeaway I can get, and will definitely help me in the future when looking for careers in a high intensity workplace. Thus, I think the act of balancing work and study has prepared me well for the possible challenges I may face in the future.

How did you integrate yourself into Hong Kong culture? (be specific with certain experiences)

Previously I mentioned that I had a bit of a head start to life in Hong Kong before I came here as a result of my close relationship with many of the Hong Kong international students in my UK Boarding School. Therefore, I was already somewhat familiar with the local customs and culture. For me, how I integrated was thus through meeting people and forming friendships. I am a very social person, and it was through interpersonal exchange that I integrated myself. I would also recommend picking up a few phrases in Cantonese. Learning the local language is definitely the right way to go if you want to find out more about the culture, as language itself is the verbal expression of our needs and values. Additionally, people in Hong Kong highly respect people who make an effort to integrate and join the society, and learning Cantonese is definitely one way to do this, not to mention it makes you stand out! Other small things such as eating local cuisine, and making an effort to learn about different districts and activities will also help you to understand the society and community around you, and really grasp the concept of what it is like to live in Hong Kong.

What are some tips you have for others who are moving to Hong Kong?

Be outgoing. I think this is the number one piece of advice I would give to somebody thinking of moving here. Whilst it is good to hold onto things you take from home, you’re now going to find yourself in a completely strange and foreign landscape. This can be daunting, and perhaps intimidating at first, but it is an opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and become a person who is more encompassing and well-rounded. For me, Hong Kong was an opportunity to really be free, and to become the person I want to be. Make the most of the things life throws at you. My professor back in the UK really said something that I connected to. Believe in the power of YES. Unless there will be bad consequences, never say no; say yes and make the most of what comes your way, there can only be positive results, and perhaps it will lead to new opportunities as it did for me. I found this job at Happyer because a friend of mine asked if I was interested. I didn’t know at first if I was suited, I had never considered working in a start-up. If I had said no, I wouldn’t be writing this now. Happyer has given so much to me and I made the right decision coming here. So remember, there is no point in no, just say yes, and make the most of the time you have in this great city of abundant opportunities.

If you think, like Matthew, you have the passion, can-do attitude, and desire to work hard to achieve your goals, get clicking, and see what career path may be awaiting you too!

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