The Where Are They Now blog series looks at the lives of Beijing International School alumni after the last school bell has tolled. 19 year old Hong Konger Helen Leung, a YCIS alumnus who achieved a perfect score of 45/45 in the IB Program, takes us through her after-school experiences.
Timeline Since School
What are you doing now? What does your day to day routine look like?
After completing two years of studies in The University of Hong Kong as an International Politics and Sociology student, I am now on my exchange semester in Uruguay (as the only exchange student from Asia!) Besides going to classes and trying to practice my broken Spanish with random strangers, there is no set routine for me which ranges from pretending to know kungfu on the random streets of Montevideo (capital of Uruguay), volunteering at a non-profit school for students under the poverty line on the outskirts of the city, and watching a football match in the stadium where the first World Cup was held!
What do you wish you knew in school that you know now?
To not confine yourself within the expat circle and get as much out of your Beijing experience as possible. To be proactive in learning more about China – as it is one of the most fascinating countries in so many ways. Talk to the locals, go to a random hutong and ask an old man about his personal experience during the Cultural Revolution, to work a little harder to master Chinese because it is one of the most important skills that you can gain from your Beijing experience! Obviously attending YCIS Beijing with their strong focus on learning Mandarin helped many of the students I studied with in that regard. Prepare yourself so that when you leave Beijing, you are proud and knowledgeable enough to represent yourself of what it means to be a Beijinger to the rest of the world.
Advice for Students
What insight would you give to students and parents who are researching career paths and university choices?
I remember complaining about how I was supposed to know what I will be doing for the rest of my life and was made to make such a life-defining decision when I was only 16 or 17. It was a stressful process, so (try to) minimize the pressure. Chances are your education will prepare you for a job that has yet to be invented, and life rarely turns out the way you plan for it to be anyway. Study something that you are interested in and let your passion guide your way. It’s probable that your future employers will be impressed by what you do with your education rather than what and where your education was. I’ve always believed that you can find a way to enjoy your university experience regardless of which school you end up in. It is not the place, but what you choose to do and make out of it that matters more.
Benefits of Your Beijing Roots
What influence, if any, has your experience as an international student in Beijing had on your choices and experiences?
From what I had taken for granted of being an international student in Beijing as “the norm” as all my friends in the school community was one, I realized how complicated my identity was when I faced a “reverse-culture shock” upon my return to my “hometown” Hong Kong for university. As I speak fluent Cantonese, some assume that I was a local while others claim that I was a “guai mui” (foreigner) when I felt that I was neither. Given Hong Kong’s identity crisis and heated tensions with Mainland China, I always felt like an in-betweener and at times frustrated when I became torn between the two sides in their socio-cultural and political conflicts. I gradually came across the concept of a “Third-culture child” which liberated me from a lot of the identity crisis that I was facing, and I learnt that perhaps the international Beijing expat community that I grew up in was a mixture of cultures without a true root.
The experience also gave me a global perspective. With a curiosity to learn more, I traveled to West Africa, South America, Europe, South and south-east Asia since leaving Beijing for various reasons including attending international conferences when I was an ambassador at the G20 Girls Summit, conducting development initiatives and backpacking. I recently completed my sociology dissertation on the reconstruction of identity and home for African refugee youths in Hong Kong. Despite the vast differences in our life experiences, I felt very much at home with the asylum seeker community during my field research where I had to spend a lot of time observing, interacting and building friendships with the group. From listening to their stories, I found our common search for home, identity, roots and belonging in an age of mobility and globalization.
Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years?
I wish to pursue a career in international development. I am especially interested in exploring the tools of community-led and participatory action research in giving a voice to empower especially the marginalized population in shaping the local and global development agenda. My goal is to lead a humble life guided by love and hope – while building up my personal capacity and learning as much as I can regardless of what I may be doing.
Photos courtesy of Helen Leung