Content warning: mentions of mental illness, depersonalization, sensory processing disorder

Ah, Study Abroad–that Liberal Arts rite-of-passage meant to broaden our horizons, or a Quarter-long vacation disguised as an academic experience (depending on who you ask). As yet another American student to spend time outside the States and write about it, my experiences and revelations are hardly unique or noteworthy. College-student-travel-writing as a genre is admittedly pretty tired, but I’m going to take my best stab at it nonetheless. I am not interested in giving a laundry-list rundown of my day-to-day activities. Rather, I’d like to use writing as a tool to work through and synthesize my various experiences here and link them to other things that I have been thinking and learning about. So let’s dive in.

Street in Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon

There’s a consistent thread that runs through so many narratives and testimonials of Study Abroad, echoed by many friends and family members before my departure: it’ll be SO much FUN; it’s going to be the BEST ten weeks EVER; it’ll CHANGE your LIFE. Though I’ve only been in Hong Kong for a little over two weeks, there is some truth to that; this is an incredible city and I am so lucky to be able to study here. But those narratives create a set of unattainable expectations, offering up a cynical interpretation of the unofficial motto of my former dorm’s Scav Hunt team: “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.” Under such criteria, there is little room for anything short of exuberance. Am I allowed to be disoriented, depersonalized, isolated, confused, and exhausted, or should I just shut up and be thankful I’m here at all? Can I be unhappy without seeming ungrateful?

On the trolley, Central 

I’ll be blunt: these first few weeks have been emotionally taxing in ways I did not anticipate. “Culture shock” in and of itself hasn’t been the main issue. Rather, the rapid shift in environmental and social conditions has amplified my already-existing potpourri of mental illnesses and other cognitive difficulties in ways that are only further intensified by cultural and linguistic differences. Hong Kong is a dense and dynamic metropolis that can overwhelm pretty much anyone, but throwing Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) into the mix (amongst other things) only makes it worse. Having SPD basically means that I am sensitive to, or react weirdly to, certain kinds of sensory stimuli; in short–I get overwhelmed more easily than the average person. Culture shock didn’t induce my panic attack at Victoria Peak, or make me leave a sleazy Lan Kwai Fong nightclub at 3am to crouch alone on the curb and breathe deeply while my peers danced on inside. But being in a still-relatively unfamiliar place sure didn’t make these moments any easier.

On the trolley in the rain, Wan Chai

I’ve found myself needing much longer stretches of alone-time here than I did back in Chicago, which has social ramifications in a cohort of nineteen other students. Since graduating High School, I have largely shed the “quiet girl” label, but I sometimes feel myself slipping back into it, and fear my peers will interpret my quietness or intermittent absences as standoffishness, or worse, contempt (as that has happened to me on numerous occasions). Though these fears most likely stem from social anxiety rather than any tangible realities of the situation, they nonetheless appear from time to time. Though obvious cultural differences both large and small have affected the adjustment process–cars drive on the left side of the road! The only restaurant near our hotel with an English menu is McDonald’s! We can’t do our own laundry! There are 7/11s on every block and none of them sell Cheetos!–the most difficult part of the adjustment process has been coping with my own exacerbated mental illnesses, while attempting to create new routines and coping mechanisms that fit this new set of circumstances, and will allow me to enjoy the program as much as possible. It’s a process, but I’m getting there.   

Alley in Causeway Bay

Apartment buildings in Wan Chai

But enough navel-gazing. Let’s talk about something a little more exciting–like urban morphology. Urban morphology, a key aspect of geographic analysis, looks at the physical shapes and forms of human land use and settlements, as well as the processes by which these forms are created and transformed. The mountains that protrude from the center of Hong Kong Island largely force urban development into clusters of densely populated apartment buildings and office towers into the valleys and coastal lowlands (or are sometimes built right into the hillsides). Unlike the regimented, standardized street grid of Chicago, Hong Kong’s roadways zig and zag in ways that appear nonsensical on a 2D map, but make perfect sense in person, as they tend to ebb and flow with the topographical changes themselves.

The neighborhood of Sheung Wan, just West of Central; an area characterized by steep slopes. Note the slightly-thicker red lines are stair-streets. Map via OpenStreetMap.

(Home Sweet) Hyde Park, Chicago. Chicago is notoriously flat, and Hyde Park almost exclusively follows a gridded street plan (not including a few urban renewal-related aberrations, such as I.M. Pei's University Towers on 55th Street). Map via OpenStreetMap

Arterial thoroughfares give way to winding roads and mysterious alleys which are further stratified by changes in elevation and linked to one another by staircase-streets, creating a stacked, interconnected, multi-level urban landscape that I’ve never quite experienced in America. And this landscape creates the need for new forms of transportation infrastructure; there’s a literally a public escalator that goes directly up from Central (the Central Business District) to the Mid-Levels, a largely residential area. During the morning rush, the escalator takes commuters downhill, and for the rest of the day brings people back up the side of the mountain. Hong Kong’s urban morphology is a big part of what makes it so overwhelming, but also makes it a truly exciting place to explore.

View from an Overpass on the Mid-Levels Escalator

Journey up the Mid-Levels Escalator

Dinner at a hole-in-the-wall in Causeway Bay

Hong Kong is very much a city of layers—of tangled urban infrastructures and transportation networks; of multi-functional and repurposed spaces; of colonial legacies and uncertain futures; of overlapping institutional histories and personal narratives. And the longer I am here, the more I can continue to examine and peel them apart.