“I had to start my exchange year by quarantining.”
That is how the Danish journalist student, Anne Falkenberg, describes the beginning of her exchange stay in Hong Kong in a blog published on Udlandsredaktionen – her stay was just a year ago.
But luckily, the dark days of quarantining are gone, and so are all the other COVID-19 restrictions that affected Hong Kong and the rest of the world for years.
Hong Kong dropped its last COVID restrictions on the first of March this year, and the last restriction to go was the mask mandate. According to BBC, the lifting of this mandate marked an end to one of the world’s longest-running Covid restrictions.
The newly arrived exchange students are the first batch in four years to experience a restriction-free Hong Kong.
Ethan Garvey, a Business student from the UK, is joining an exchange program hosted by the University of Hong Kong this fall. He is very grateful that he gets to experience the city life of Hong Kong without having to worry about different restrictions, such as wearing a mask.
“Being here now it is easy to forget that Covid was even a thing. I can’t imagine coming here and having to wear a mask in this heat and humidity,” says Ethan.
All around Asia
Hong Kong is not the only place that has decided to announce the end of this boring last chapter of COVID-19 – the rest of Asia has slammed that book shut too, which means Asia is now open for travellers.
This was not the case a year ago, and Anne does not think that the new exchange students should take this opportunity for granted:
“I didn’t have any expectations that I would be able to travel during my stay, even though it would have been convenient to visit other Asian countries due to Hong Kong’s geographical location,” says Anne and continues:
“I know that a weekend trip to Taiwan previously has been very popular amongst exchange students.”
Taiwan was a popular destination in the past and now that Asia is back to business as usual, Taiwan is once again a hot pick for a weekend trip – presumably due to the fact that you can fly relatively cheaply to the island within two hours from Hong Kong.
In fact, it is so popular that some of the freshly hatched exchange students have already visited the island.
Ethan is one of them, and he is planning to make the most out of his stay in Asia:
“I came to Hong Kong to be able to travel around Asia, so I am very grateful that I now have this opportunity,” says Ethan, stressing that he is not even close to being satisfied with his Asian exploration yet.
Other popular destinations amongst exchange students are countries such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and mainland China – Ethan hopes and plans to visit all these destinations. He has already booked his eleven-day trip to Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan.
The ‘real’ Hong Kong is back!
Technically, the city of Hong Kong was never fake, but it was never the same during the COVID-19 days. The vibrant city vibe was gone since the streets were not filled with people and life anymore. But since then, the vibe has now returned.
During COVID-time, the arrivals, including the exchange students, had to quarantine, wear masks, and report their locations in an app. Circumstances that Niklas Franks, a current exchange student from Sweden, could not imagine living under.
“If there were still COVID restrictions in Hong Kong, I would probably not have gone on exchange here, to be honest,” he stresses and adds:
“One of the biggest reasons for me to go to Hong Kong was to go out and travel, and if I had gone last year, it would have defeated the purpose a little bit.”
Niklas also emphasizes the importance of hanging out and having fun with friends, and this is a general concern for many incoming exchange students.
A big part of the exchange experience is to meet new people, who will hopefully turn into friends – which is much more difficult to do when your area of activity is limited to your room, and it is not possible to go out for a beer and talk to new people.
The restrictions slowly loosened up during Anne’s stay last fall. She traveled to South Korea and Thailand – trips she describes as a ‘success’. She got a taste of the ‘real’ exchange experience after all, which she was very happy about.
On the other hand, Niklas could not be happier about his current stay, where he is attending the University of Hong Kong:
“I am very happy about the situation in Hong Kong right now. I am so happy there are no restrictions here now, and I can do what I want to. I feel a little bad for the people who were on exchange back then – I don’t think they got to experience the complete exchange stay and ‘real’ Hong Kong.”
The last batch of exchange students to experience Hong Kong without masks, and other lockdown measures at all, was four years ago.
The exchange students who have been here amid COVID-time have had a different and unique experience, that no one else will ever experience again… hopefully.