Dunkin Donuts Large Iced Teas, MacBook Pros, and Greek parties…
These have been the staples of my American college life.
But every time I dial country code 86, I am reminded that I am connected to something vastly different.
My extended family lives in China.
Although my cousin and I have the same hazelnut eyes and call the same man ‘ah-gong’, or ‘grandpa’, we have been swapping contrasting stories throughout our college years.
When I was 17, I mourned over a spring break lost to studying for the S-A-Ts. But meanwhile, my cousin Christy had dedicated her entire senior year to preparing for the ‘Gao Kao’, or Chinese National Higher Education Entrance Exam.
The ‘Gao Kao’ is so comprehensive and difficult that instead of teaching new material senior year, high schools across China focus hold only review sessions.
So it was quite a feat when my cousin Christy was able to rise to the top among 9 million other Chinese students and secure a spot at the coveted Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Christy explains that to people in mainland, the reputation of Hong Kong universities is just a step shy of the Ivy League’s.
“It’s like the highest university between mainland China and the international level,” she says. “When you graduate from a University of Hong Kong, you will get higher pay when you come back to mainland to work and higher reputation. People will think that you are higher educated.”
What’s the price tag for this reputation? $10,000 a year.
Christy says that her tuition in Hong Kong is 10 times more expensive than the tuition in mainland, and two times more expensive than that of local Hong Kong students. She jokes, “ Universities can make money from it.”
Not as much as universities here can though. My school, Tufts University, just slapped me with a $43,000 tuition bill for the coming school year. Hello student loans, and goodbye financial freedom.
Christy laughs, because either way, for her it was worth it. She is on her dream career path, working at a major international advertising agency in Hong Kong.
Students like Christy, who go from mainland to Hong Kong, are highly competitive in the job market because of their language and multicultural skills. Most of mainland speaks mandarin, while Hong Kong speaks primarily Cantonese and English.
So each year, hundreds of thousands of mainland students push and shove for a spot on this elite school bus—but is Hong Kong education really a ride to a golden future?
Christy doubts that this path is everyone’s calling.
“More and more people come here for a better future. But they didn’t really consider whether or not their characters are suitable for here,” she says. “If they have language barriers, things can be very difficult. They must be independent and open-minded to make local friends. If they only want to stay in their own circle, only study hard, they can feel very lonely and helpless here.”
Her narrative is familiar to me. I moved around a lot growing up, drifting between continents—I always the new kid in the cafeteria. Freshman year of college, I moved from Beijing to Boston, and still got my regular dose of culture shock.It was the first time in a while that I had been an ethnic minority at school, and it still took me a good couple of semesters to come out of my shell and mingle with people of different backgrounds.
But Christy reveals that being a mainlander in Hong Kong can be a little more complicated. Hong Kong was under British rule for 156 years, and so the culture in Hong Kong is in some ways more western than Chinese.
“In Hong Kong, such a small city, most of the news happening in mainland that they can get is negative,” Christy explains. “And they don’t really like tourists from mainland, who may not understand the culture in Hong Kong.” She cites an incident a few months back in which a mainland tourist was eating food on the subway, an act prohibited in Hong Kong. She said that this incident drew heated criticism from the Hong Kong people.
Guangdong, the mainland province Christy is from, speaks Cantonese. So Christy didn’t have the language barrier during her transition.
But she still felt this tension between Hong Kong and mainland people seep its way onto campus, “Hong Kong students think that the mainland students are taking resources form them, like hostels, scholarships, and all the A’s.”
She reflects on some of her most difficult times at school.
“Because I don’t have the language problem, Hong Kong students often see me as a local,” she says. “And they may judge mainland students in front of me, just face to face. They know that I can understand, but they forget that I am from mainland.”
I consulted Angeline Yuen, vice president of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She says that bringing more mainland students to Hong Kong allows both sides to a deeper understanding of the other.
So in a way, Christy is a trailblazer.
But Christy says Hong Kong University life has had just as much to offer her.
“We have a lot more freedom on student’s life. We can leave the classroom at any time…we don’t have to go back to the hostel before twelve,” she says.
Going into my fourth year of college, I can’t imagine a curfew anymore. But then again, not much is open past midnight besides a local pizza joint.
But going to Hong Kong from mainland, Christy has found liberty to do more than just spontaneously crave for a greasy slice of dough,
“There were political issues in China, they have to take courses related to political ideology. You can’t touch on some sensitive topics. But in Hong Kong, we can say whatever we like. We can speak to our professors in a comparatively equal way.”
Now Christy is settled in Hong Kong. I haven’t seen my cousin in a while, but I do get a wall of updates on her life,
“You have more freedom. You can log into Facebook,” she laughs.