How does one compare two very distinct experiences? It seems almost impossible, and I will never be able to judge a winner or loser. In 2014-15 I spent five months studying at UNC Chapel Hill in North Carolina, and six months at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). The differences in culture might be the best place to start, although you may be surprised to find I often felt more homesick in the US!
Exploring Hong Kong’s “Asian” areas such as Mong Kok – the most densely populated area in the world – was a total contrast to the fusion of East-meets-West in a place called Central. Here, the obvious British influence meant I was able to dine at pubs such as the Yorkshire Pudding that serve 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 absolutely incredible, however. If I could go back and study there 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 tees and short. This carries into the sports culture, where the atmosphere at college football or basketball games is electric. The American emphasis on competitiveness intensified the bubble of energy and was something I fed off.
By comparison, the time I spent in Hong Kong never felt like home. It was wonderful in its own way, don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed my time in the city, but the lack of collective school spirit and charismatic teaching meant I was often left feeling uninspired. In hindsight, I’m glad this was the case: I often had the chance to travel at the weekends, something that is much cheaper to do in Asia. I was able to travel to 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.
Overall, my UNC college experience was superior to that of my time studying at HKU. As a city, Hong Kong has so much more to offer than a small college town in Chapel Hill can never hope to compete with. The thing is, I don’t want to compare them. The way I see it, I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to experience both – I just wish I could do it all again!