During July / August 2012 Gerdus Benade attended the International Summer School at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, here is his story.
After deciding that a summer school would be a great way of escaping the dry Highveld winters the next step was deciding where to go. It is obviously preferable to attend a program that aids your scholastic career in some way but I find myself in one of those fields of study with the dubious distinction that very few people know it exists, so none of the programs on offer really seemed to fit the bill. The other classical motives for attending something like a summer program overseas could include reveling in the cultural experience, ticking some things from your bucket list and, of course, “broadening your horizons.” Hong Kong was the city that ticked all of these boxes for me and so the die was cast.
After making a personal video and coming through the Stellenbosch application process I received a welcome pack from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. They receive more than 600 summer school students every year and have streamlined the application process to a point where the checklist includes checking the checklist. There are quite a number of forms to fill in though, including an extensive medical and vaccination history, the paperwork was due about two weeks after the Stellenbosch selection process concluded.
CUHK also takes care of your visa application, all the visa forms are included in the welcome pack and the student visa sticker is couriered to you. Although it should technically be possible to get a multiple entry visa to Hong Kong I would recommend getting a student visa, it’s especially useful if you plan on travelling as it entitled you to a special lane at immigration control.
It is quite easy to get a Chinese Visa once you’re in Hong Kong from either China Travel Services or the consulate, but I recommend getting one in South Africa, mainly because you can only get a single entry visa for mainland China when you are applying outside of your native country. There is a special 5-day visa for the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone but I learned the hard way that persons carrying South African passports are not allowed to buy these at the Lo Wu border so remember to count any shopping trips to Shenzhen into the number of times you plan on visiting China.
It is important to decide which courses you are going to take as soon as possible, some of them fill up quite quickly. The popular choices seemed to be Mandarin, Chinese Culture and Society, International Finance and Chinese Business. The cost of accommodation is quite high in Hong Kong so I decided to live in one of CUHK’s residences for the duration of the programme with the majority of the international students.
All that remained was browsing sites like travelstart.co.za or skyscanner.net for good flights, the earlier you book the better the deal is that you are you likely to find. Regarding my luggage I tried to make my outbound luggage as light as possible which turned out to be a good thing because I somehow managed to accumulate nine kilograms of, well, stuff, while in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong in June-July is hot and humid. The moment I stepped outside the airport I was struck by a wall of moisture but you get used to it after a few weeks. The airport bus A41, which departs every twenty minutes, takes you all the way to Shatin in about 40 minutes, and Shatin is only two stops from CUHK on the East MTR line. Public transport in Hong Kong worked very well and I felt almost like a local after taking the MTR and busses for a few days and figuring out the best ways of getting around.
The summer students were split between four residences and I was fortunate to be placed in S.H. Ho College, one of the new colleges on campus and considerably closer to the train station than some of the others. CUHK campus is laid out on a big hill with university buildings arranged roughly in levels all the way up. This all makes for a lot of walking uphill and it took a few days to figure out which buildings have shortcut elevators between the levels. The campus is also very well equipped in terms of a gymnasium, 8 or 9 different canteens (all with different menus) and a big swimming pool.
Because of the reasonably strict entry conditions the students in the program were all quite strong academically, all my classes enjoyed a much higher level of involvement in the discussions than at home. I enjoyed my cultural module about Ancient China and how China’s traditional values are still shaping some of its policies today and found the background very useful while travelling around mainland China and even Hong Kong. The pace was quite demanding, approximately 100-150 pages of reading per day, but you only have class three days of the week so it is not too difficult to keep up.
Hong Kong, the city has something for every taste. On Hong Kong Island you have the big financial centre and row upon row of steel and glass skyscrapers while Kowloon just across the harbour has one of the highest population densities in the world and is constantly alive with people and street vendors. The more outlying regions of the Territory offer beautiful nature reserves, long hikes and incredible beaches and there are also many uninhabited islands to explore.
The weekly cultural tours are included in the R3600 administration fee you pay and try to give a quick summary of Hong Kong. It includes a trip to the Big Buddha, a fishing village, the Avenue of Stars, the Peak, Ocean Park and some of the islands. Unfortunately the fact that you are part of such a large group means that the tours are not exactly nimble and we usually spent half the day travelling. If tour groups frustrate you then it may be a better idea to visit these sights on your own.
There are definitely enough time during the six weeks to be a tourist around Hong Kong and Macau but the time also went a lot faster than expected. If you want experience the city I suggest you plan the main things ahead of time and try to do everything as soon as possible. May-August is typhoon season and we were (technically) confined to our dorms for two of the weekends because of typhoons. Hong Kong is also very central and there are lots of flights to Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, China etc. By browsing low-cost airlines like Tiger Airlines and buying the ticket about a month in advance it was possible to get flights to all of these places for around R600.
By the time our examinations was done in Hong Kong, Stellenbosch was already two weeks into the new semester, so I basically went from the airport to the classroom. Most of the time since I have been back has been spent on catching up with friends and work and slotting back into a routine that allows for much less freedom than I enjoyed for the last 6 weeks.
We were 650 summer students with 140 from Singapore, 30 from the Netherlands and some from the US, the UK, Sweden, Denmark, China, Australia, Ethiopia etc. My roommate was from Sweden and had just completed his masters, across the hall from us there lived an Australian in his second year and a Korean who did a few years of military service before starting his studies. Because of the incredible diversity of the group there were a lot of fascinating conversations about our respective economies, local politics etc.
One surprising thing I realised when I came back was that I have never spent as much time learning about local cultures in South Africa and Africa as I have learning about Chinese and foreign cultures in Hong Kong. This is something I will definitely look to focus on more from now. Being forced to explain your own country’s history to people who know nothing about it also forces you to think of the challenges that lie ahead and what could be done to solve them.
Hindsight is supposed to be 20/20 so I will try to summarise. Academically the relevance of the courses on offer depends of your field and year of study although something like Chinese Culture or Mandarin will always be an interesting alternative. Culturally it is a wonderful opportunity to get to know something of the Chinese culture as well as all the different students from all over the world. Financially the cost of living is slightly higher than in Stellenbosch but the university canteens provided good meals for R15 – 30.
All in all it was a wonderful experience that has definitely left a mark on me, I am hoping to start learning Mandarin next year and use that knowledge to go and live in China at some stage, either while working or as a graduate student on a longer exchange. I am ver happy for being given the opportunity and would really recommend the programme.