Brent Bowers

Personal Discovery

Cultural Discovery

Social Discovery

Academic Discovery

Studying Abroad in Asia - What Brent Discovered, Achieved, Explored, and How He Grabbed Hold of the Experiences

 

Semester Abroad: Fall 2009

Home University: University of North Carolina

Host University: University of Hong Kong

 

To start, I reflect upon this experience as the high point of my college career, as I feel many students would probably tell you. I do not feel my story is much different – I come from a relatively unknown regional university and have suddenly experienced something with a truly global perspective. It was applied education as much as it was educational unto itself – and I don’t just mean school. At no part of the trip could I stop and not feel that the whole experience was simply incredible. The complacencies and comforts of life dispatched, suddenly I was thrust into a world apart from all that I had ever known and understood. I came to Hong Kong and found exactly what I wanted – a chance not just to coast through an easy life, but grab hold and squeeze every drop of adventure from the opportunities that lay before me.

I find it hard to explain the benefits of this experience. It seems to affect every aspect of my life, often in ways that are surprising and unexpected. The memory of the experience remains deeply ingrained in my mind – as if it were a sort of pilgrimage from which I feel reborn. Life has now fit into periods of time before and after this experience – a new stage of personal development. It is not simply a turn of a page or a new chapter, but an entirely different book altogether.

Hong Kong was everything I did not expect, and far beyond all that which I did. This applies equally to the physical (what I would see, hear, feel, etc.) and the existential (thoughts, emotions, ideas, etc.). It ingrained in me a perspective upon the world that I probably do not fully grasp.

"I met people from all over the world, befriended them,

debated with them, them, and saw the

influx of a new global generation."

I chose to study in Hong Kong specifically to experience the culture and world of Hong Kong itself. It has quite a unique position as a world city, a center of commerce, a cultural nexus of East and West, and a site of a unique and oft-overlooked political identity. It is a place that I feel inherently connected to. While abroad, it was remarkably easy to bridge this into conversation, and to form meaningful and substantive human relationships from these feelings. “Why study in Hong Kong?” someone would ask, and the rest would carry on from there. Without a doubt, it accelerated the intensity of thoughts and emotions – in Hong Kong, I had been more happy, more sad, more pleased, more angry, and more moved than I had ever been before – and these things came out of me in one way or the other. It brought to light the extremities of my persona, and I have learned infinitely more of my own self as a result.

To this day, I continue to wonder how deeply this experience has impacted me. I take the relative trouble re-adjusting to American life as a sign that there is much more this experience has to show me long after I have returned.

 

In the stage of collegiate and career development – and there is a great deal of pressure in the college world to adjust one’s thinking this way , I feel it is important to mention the scope of this experience in proper context. I come from a little-known regional university that sports a rather homogenous student body (90% white, most coming from the Eastern NC area). It churns out graduate after graduate, each jumping up and screaming louder and louder, trying to stand out -- “Hey, I am different from all these other students!” – well, the experience speaks for itself. I was the only individual from my university to study in Hong Kong, and one of only a handful (less than five) to study in Asia. I met people from all over the world, befriended them, debated with them, them, and saw the influx of a new global generation. It is a moving concept and I wonder if I can fully understand the scope of that which I just went through.

I do not feel that this is a unique vision, many people of this generation are conscious of the interconnectedness of their world – but I do feel there is a gap in getting out there and experiencing it – reflected in reservations, ignorance, prejudices, and fear. What stands out to me is the uniqueness of applying the vision – something intensely valued, I believe, if not as a future job seeker, then as a human being.

Leaving Hong Kong, I had a strong anxiety to return to the normalcy of American life. I had a strong impression that others were simply unable to understand or bother to care about the experiences of another. I often wondered how I could look my friends in the face and hope to see the same things in them any longer – the entirety of perspective changed. But if it hadn’t been so difficult, I would have wondered if it was valued at anything beyond a temporary experience.

Hence, I’ve given considerable look at progressing the effort to give substantive value to the ‘East meets West’ vision Hong Kong seems to symbolize. I’ve begun seeking out opportunities to teach overseas following my graduation (coming in May) – if not in Hong Kong, then in places such as Japan, Korea, ‘Mainland’ China, and Taiwan. I also hope to advance the cause of studying abroad in general and East Asia in particular – there is simply too much for our worlds to learn from each other than to dismiss one another.

Hong Kong, it is not a place for everyone. It requires enormous patience, confidence, and a general willingness to try new things. One of the greatest values I feel from this experience is to look at a place as seemingly inaccessible and ‘scary’ as Hong Kong – a place as complex, confusing, and intimidating as any – and feel sense of accomplishment in navigating it all. It wasn’t always perfect – no – it was hard, challenging, difficult and alienating. But those are the sorts of things I had hoped for. You don’t enter a marathon expecting it to be easy, you enter it expecting to achieve something. I certainly feel like I have, but I’m not quite sure I could ever find the word to describe it. The closest I come to is ‘confidence’ – but that is only part of the story.

I want to continue working in the mission Hong Kong seems to represent: where East and West can meet and work together to build a better world – something uniquely blended together that defies conventional definition. In a world increasingly dominated by a consciousness of interconnectedness, nothing seems more pertinent and pivotal for human progress.

Before my departure, I made a vow to return to Hong Kong some day, in some capacity, for one reason or another. I cannot dismiss the friends and relationships I have built overseas. They are people who feel as integral to my life as friends I have known since childhood – if not, even closer. With them, I have shared something so valuable to my own life. I genuinely feel a stronger connection with them than virtually all of my old friends stateside. I determine this to be cause of the intensity of the experience.

"Beyond all else –

be proactive and be patient."

Returning to the United States, I was immediately taken aback and not only the negligence of Hong Kong (“Where is that?”), but a general misunderstanding and fear of Chinese and Asian peoples. This has manifested itself in many ways – from jokes based on stereotypes to espousal of racist ideology. I feel it is a duty of mine not to simply combat this ignorance, but to seek the roots of our mutual ignorance. There is much to learn between our worlds – and I do not claim to know much, but I do wish to further the interest of understanding. This, I feel, is the most direct way of ‘engaging’ the culture from which I came.

Before I left for Hong Kong, I asked a Swedish friend of mine who was taking a whirlwind tour of Asia at the time for some advice. He said to me: ”Don’t say “no” to anything (except, of course where legality and/or health is questioned)”. That was very good advice, as it set in place the adventurous attitude that made the experience all the more wonderful. Strange looking food? Go for it. Traditional event to participate in? Try it. Random trip to an unknown part of the territory with no guarantees you will know where you are or how to get back? Go, go, go! Being ‘willing’ to try new things is not enough, you have to do them.

Be prepared to handle any situation or condition as it comes. Life can move at an incredible pace, and sometimes you may feel as if you are going insane. I simply came to accept that feeling – it was quite comforting to know that everything I was going through was leaving a lasting impact.
Beyond all else – be proactive and be patient. Often temporary frustrations (be they cultural, social, etc.) would come to pass in due time when I put forth just a little more effort and gave it a little more time. Turn anger, vexation, sadness, and frustration into motivation to do more and try new things. 

 

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