Exchange students share homogenous experience regardless of where they go. You land in a foreign city, rarely meet locals but fellow exchange students from everywhere else, with whom you spend days and nights discovering the new city, country and continent. Your priority goes to travels and new experiences, not your studies. You say yes to things that you don’t want to do, simply because of FOMO (fear of missing out) or because YOLO (you only live once).
As an international student in HKU, my very first year in Hong Kong was identical to living an exchange life. I was busy exploring an unfamiliar yet exciting city of Hong Kong and often took advantage of abundant opportunities (read cheap flights) to visit surrounding cities. Wednesdays were for horse racing and bar hopping in Wanchai, ‘reading weeks’ were for weeklong trips, and night outs would usually end up in 3am dim sum place in Kennedy Town.
So I came to Melbourne knowing what to expect. However, it didn’t take too long to learn the obvious truth, that the city you are on exchange in essentially changes the entire exchange experience. Unsurprisingly enough, I could not have chosen more dissimilar city to go on exchange from Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is the archetype of a metropolitan Asian city, while Melbourne, the most livable city in the world, is a place ‘full of students and artists, aka unemployed people’ according to my Australian friend. The difference is clear and obvious, as money is essential to the former’s being but not necessarily the latter’s.
Don’t get me wrong. One does need money in an expensive city like Melbourne. Trams that I used to pay $2 HKD, now costs almost $2 AUD (equivalent of $11 HKD), which is after a student concession. Not only do you pay more but also wait longer. Trams only come every seven minutes during rush hours and trains are even worse. Plus, there’s not enough 7 Elevens (aren’t they supposed to be in every corner next to Circle Ks?) and McDonald’s rarely open 24/7.
But somehow Melbourne managed to be the most livable city while Hong Kong only ranked 46th. Even without the whole minimum wage discussion, I can tell you why Melbourne is more livable than Hong Kong despite its inconvenience and high cost of living.
In Melbourne, while you’d splurge once in a while in one of numerous amazing brunch places that the city offers, you’d also love going to Queen Victoria Market to get fresh groceries and learn to cook your own meal. If you cannot afford to dine out, you can go to Lentil as Anything and pay back a delicious vegetarian meal by volunteering. Instead of waiting for unreliable public transport, you’d end up getting a bike or walking a lot. You will be spoiled with free cultural events that are not always inundated with crowds and overpriced food stalls (well, Melbourne is also often guilty of expensive pricing but you are mostly welcome to have your own picnic at the venue and enjoy the vibe and music). After all, Melbourne is a place where you can be cheap but still check the list of must-do’s for an exchange student.
On the other hand, I lived (at least during my first year) virtually the opposite lifestyle in Hong Kong that depleted my bank account quickly. I had to spend money for most experiences because the list of things I was supposed to do as an ‘exchange student’ in Hong Kong (who easily fits into the expat community that earns more than US$176,000 in average every year), usually involved the upscale lifestyle, indulging in F&B industry (i.e. Soho and LKF). I had to try a $150 HKD Earl Grey Martini at a hip bar instead of drinking goon at a house party. I had to go out for $300 HKD yakitori meal instead of having a BBQ at a public park.
Of course, there were things that I would occasionally enjoy in Hong Kong that did not cost much. I would hike up the Victoria Peak on Sunday mornings to see the sunrise, take a ferry to surrounding islands, get on a $2 HKD tram to enjoy the slow ride or simply go visit galleries in Soho. But they were more the things I learned to enjoy as I became broke over the years, not because they were on top of the to-do list in Hong Kong.
At the end of the day, I don’t think one place is entirely better than the other. In fact, the closest metropolitan city from Melbourne outside of Australia would be Jakarta, which is still over seven hours away, whereas Hong Kong is located within three-hour-distance to countless number of major cities. And in fact, the $150 HKD cocktails are pretty delicious and often come with a spectacular view that no other place but Hong Kong has. The life that each city offers, even under the same status of ‘exchange student’, is fundamentally different.
My two criteria for choosing a place to go on exchange were 1) the competitiveness of university and 2) the livability of the city I would be in. I’m grateful that I took the second part seriously, because the city you live in really changes the whole exchange experience. So if you are not sure whether to go on exchange or not, you definitely should. But do spend some time on deciding which city you’d like to know more, and my advice to you? Come to Melbourne.
Jieun Choi is an undergraduate Fine Arts major and is currently on exchange at the University of Melbourne.