An International Experience in Hong Kong

by Charles Xu, USA/China

The University of Notre Dame and the Chinese University of Hong Kong have an international exchange program where two students from each university undertake studies at the other university each semester. This past year, I was fortunate to participate in this program for both semesters of my junior year. It was an incredible and nearly indescribable experience on so many levels. While my own study abroad experience was uniquely personal for reasons of family and return, there were also the typical stories of study abroad, though typical does not in any way mean less meaningful.

They say Hong Kong is a cosmopolitan city and the menagerie of foreign exchange students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong reflected just that.  I became friends with countless people from all over the world, each with their own story of where they came from and where they were going. Everyone had a different reason for being in Hong Kong. Some came for the local Chinese culture, some for a taste of the fast-paced Asian New York City, and some just to try something different, something new, something bold. And of course, some for Lan Kwai Fong, the infamous bar district of Hong Kong. But for some reason or another and by the luck of sheer coincidence, we had gathered from all corners of the world in one place. The diversity of thought and opinion on nearly every single issue from world politics to cuisine to fashion was disorienting and exhilarating. What kinds of clothes do the Swedes prefer? How do the Chinese and Japanese feel about the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands? What different kinds of dim sum (traditional Cantonese style of serving food) did the Dutch and Koreans prefer? It was quite the miniature United Nations we had. Yet we were still able to bond as close, genuine friends. Because we were all simultaneously dealing with the culture shock of a new environment, and one as intimidating as Hong Kong with its overly crowded streets and subway stations and walls of towering apartment blocks, we were all foreigners in a foreign land. This probably drew us closer than we knew. Thanks to a couple of our friends, our group organized pancake parties where once every few weeks, someone would make a variation of pancakes from their nation. Everyone brought snacks and drinks and a jolly good time was had. I think by the end, a total of 7 pancake parties were organized and countless pancakes consumed. Towards the end of the first semester near Christmas time, one of our Dutch friends, Thomas, suggested we do a secret Santa as well as write a poem for the giftee. As many of our friends were about to depart the shores of Hong Kong, needless to say, there were not just a few soggy eyes. Alas, everyone has now separated, each returning to their respective universities and countries. Yet, we will always be able to remember back onto our exchange time in Hong Kong with fond memories. Not just of the city and its lights, but of the people and experiences. Though there was not an IHOP in sight, as silly as it sounds, whenever I chance upon a waft of pancakes in the air, I’ll be brought back to Hong Kong, to the Chinese University, to International House, and wonder where my friends might be in the world and hope that we might once again share another bite.

Making Pancakes

Charles and Friends

My poem to Sabina

I still remember when I first met you at super seafood.

Super short and super nice was what I conclude.

A Chinese girl with a Viet touch

Born and raised in Sweden and spoke as such.

Your diverse background was one of the first to open my eyes.

That there is truly a big world under these skies.

In your time here, I know there were a few bumps in the road.

But keep in mind that everyone saw the kindness you showed.

I will definitely miss you as you return home in just a few weeks.

I am sure there will be tears on many a cheeks.

These friends you have made from all over the world are people you can count on.

Never forget the good times and keep them as fond memories to look back on.

And don’t forget to always remember pancakes in Hong Kong.

For these memories will be with you lifelong.


My Kitchen, My Mom and Me

By Hyewon Yun, Korea

I finally bought it: a 15$ zester/grater. This is not a must-have kitchen utensil, but absolutely the most expensive item in my kitchen. Considering I spent one year deciding to buy a $5 hand mixer, this should be an unthinkable extravagance. What is happening to me? The strange thing is that I have never thought about canceling the order or returning this since I first saw it on the Internet. Hmmmm…

My mother is the wife of a man who became the head of a big family at the age of 30 when his father died. She had to take care of her aging mother-in-law, her own three kids and six of her much younger brothers-in-law and sister-in-law who were then students in college, high school and elementary school. Her days started in the kitchen preparing breakfast for 12 people and packing school lunches for her husband’s brothers and sister. My mother used to find the lunch box of the youngest brother-in-law tossed into the trash can after he went to school. It was his childish way of protesting when he didn’t like the food in the box. He was too young to understand that food and other resources were in short supply with many mouths to feed in the family and his eldest brother’s business was not always booming. Her cooking was rejected and wasted that easily.

For me as a young girl, it looked pointless to be a wife and mother when it was such a thankless job. I couldn’t believe that anyone would like to become one in the first place: why would she waste her whole life cooking, cleaning and supporting someone else when she could work for herself and for a greater purpose, for example, a career. Naturally, I stayed away from the kitchen as much as possible and refused to help my mother. I worked hard at school believing that it was the only way for a girl to move on to the outside world and thrive in a country heavily influenced by traditional gender stereotypes back then. And I made it.

I went to college and become a member of Korea’s first generation who was taught feminism at college and awakened to the self-awareness that we can achieve something as a woman rather than just a housewife. As ambitious and assertive young women, our goal was never to allow our lives to become like our mothers’-what a passive and negative goal it was! We wanted not to do something rather than to do something. However, we wanted to break the vicious circle: women got married at a young age because the social norm forced them to do so and showed no other option, and they got hard training under their mothers-in-law to be proper workhorses for their husbands’ families. Thus they became the same relentless mothers-in-law for their sons’ wives.  After graduation, I got a job, worked hard to build my career and never cooked.  I was also successful in landing a husband who never cared whether I was a good cook or not.

Cooking became a daily routine, however, when my husband and I came to America. My husband was studying as a graduate student while I stayed at home and supported him. I had to cook three meals a day: both of us loved Korean food and simply our household budget was not enough to eat out all the time. Now I got very surprised at how fast the next meal came back after just finishing one meal. My husband sometimes invited his classmates or our neighbors who had helped us get settled in town. I had to become the sweet hostess who cooked and served authentic Korean food. Cooking, baking, dish-washing, cleaning and grocery shopping were endless. I didn’t even have time to hate the job because it was such a mind-emptying swim-or-drown challenge. It was an excruciating boot camp for homemaking.

I struggled for almost one year. While juggling and bumbling around in the kitchen, I slowly got used to fixing some food and started to put decent or even good food on the table. Sometimes, I had the luxury of spending some more time for presentation after already finishing the cooking process. I also found it greatly relaxing to bake cakes while listening to my favorite music, focusing on nothing but sifting, whipping or beating, and forgetting homesickness, boredom or mundane concerns as my cakes’ sweet aroma spread from the oven throughout the house. The kitchen became my meditation room, sanctuary and resting place.

Most of all, cooking and baking was sharing. It was a great way to spend happy times with good people: my husband, friends and neighbors. I suddenly realized that for the first time in my whole life, I was putting in quality time and energy and truly sharing something with others. By offering my own food, the product of my blood, sweat and tears-as I often got cuts, sweaty working with the hot oven and tearful over cooking mishaps-, I was reaching out to someone else and turning the time spent together into a fond memory. This is also what my mother has done for her whole adult life: readily sharing whatever she had with the people around her and happily working for her loving family, not sacrificing or wasting her life. I never had once considered that my life was similar to my mother’s. We are the women who have lived different lives in different worlds and different times. But when I cook and bake I transcend such differences and feel closer to her than ever. What an irony that only when we are an ocean apart I finally feel more strongly than ever that I am my mother’s daughter.

I once brought up my new love for cooking and baking while I was talking with her over the phone. She got very excited and cried, “Yes! Cooking is fun.” It was a strange experience because I had never thought that my mother enjoyed cooking. However, I had not known her very well, after all, during all those years. As this passion for cooking has been inside me all the time waiting to be found, she might have been waiting to be found, too, by her own daughter.

Blessed to be here!

I try to live by Anthony Bourdain’s philosophy…I write, I travel, I eat and I am hungry for more. My trip to the US a year back and my time spent in the International Ambassador (IA) retreat, International Student Orientation and now blogging as an IA is, somewhat, satisfying my modest take on this big life philosophy… a way of living life with ‘no reservations’.

At least it’s a start…

The retreat was some serious fun. If I had to wrap it up in the least number of words…it was “soul searching rejuvenation with some strangers who ended up as a family!!”…I could be liberal with those exclamation marks. I was pleasantly surprised. My new family – a cocktail of efficient and enthusiastic staff, fun loving and crazy undergrads, overworked and ready to leave work at the word ‘go’ grads (I apologize for self-sympathy). Need I say more!!!

When I started my journey to the US in August 2009, there was a sinking feeling with a rush of adrenaline, the feeling then hitting rock bottom to jump right back to choke me up with emotions. Sounds dramatic, but it might have been the flight take off and seeing my country become a small speck in the distance. I realized soon, we as human beings like our comfort zone and resist change; but when the change comes along we are very much equipped with the necessary toolkit to adapt and embrace it!

At the registration desk, the first few hours of the International  Student Orientation was mind numbing. In a span of a half hour I had passed (to the scanning station) 20 passports from 10 different countries; China to Mexico…When I look back to that day, it was satisfying to be a part of what I would call a humble example of a ‘global melting pot’.
This is my little tribute to Anthony Bourdain’s 100th episode being aired on the Travel channel today. To sum it up, I appreciate my life a little more as an International Ambassador and a part of the international community of the University of Notre Dame.

Shailaja Kunda, International Ambassador from India