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Hong Kong: A Getway to Asia

Study Abroad Programs in Asia Have Come of Age

By Glenn Shive

Go West young man!” Horace Greeley exhorted young Americans in the mid-19th century. A century and a half later the land of discovery and opportunity for young Americans is farther west, across the Pacific, to Asia.

Study abroad programs in Asia have come of age. They serve as entry points for American students to dynamic, colorful societies that have both strong cultural traditions and expansive growth potential in the global economy. Gaining an inside view of Asian societies during a student’s college years cannot only enhance their careers. It can change their lives.

Yet a semester or year in an Asian university remains “off the beaten track” for American undergraduates: only 6 percent of those who study abroad go to Asia, while 60 percent go to Western Europe. (Ironically, more than 60 percent of international students in American universities come from Asia; many remain here for several years and receive graduate degrees.)

In fact, of the top 10 destinations for foreign study programs, none are in Asia. Japan ranks 11th with 2,485 Americans studying there in 1998-99. More Americans study in Ireland, in Israel, or in Costa Rica than in China. In academic year 1998-99, Korea had 479 Americans; Thailand had 374, Hong Kong 289, Indonesia 201, Taiwan 165, the Philippines 129, and Singapore 124. Asia remains terra incognito for most Americans.

Barrier #1: Money

One barrier has been money. Although Asia used to be a bargain for travelers, the yen-dollar ratio ceased to be in our favor in the mid-1980s and urban Asia suddenly became very expensive. But since the Asian financial crisis of 1997 the dollar has regained strength relative to most Asian currencies and the cost of living has declined in many Asian economies. Asia is becoming affordable again.

In addition to an improved exchange rate, new scholarship programs have emerged. The Freeman-Asia scholarship provides from $3,000 to $7,000 toward study programs in Asia and the Gilman scholarships provide up to $5,000. The National Security Education Program also offers Boren Scholarships to American students to study in Asia.

Barrier #2: Language

Another barrier to study in Asia has been language. Most Americans think that Asian languages, without reassuring cognates with Western languages, are nearly impossible to learn. They also tend to assume that you need to know an Asian language to study at an Asian university. Let’s take the second concern first:

Many Asian universities have created special programs taught in English for foreign students. The courses are usually taught by faculty who gained their doctorates in the U.S. and have taught on American campuses. Classes contain an international mix of students from other Asian countries as well as from Europe and Down Under. Frankly, there is more to be learned from these classmates than from the Americans on the home campus, who share the same culture.

Credits often can be transferred directly (check this out before signing up for a program, however). Many Asian universities have partnership agreements with American universities.

It is a good idea to dive into language study with a local teacher in small classes designed for non-native speakers. Students are often surprised at how quickly the language comes when they learn it in real-life settings where it is used. It makes sense to fulfill that foreign language requirement with a learning experience that is both exotic and also useful.

At universities in Hong Kong and Singapore, among other locations, English is the main language of instruction. This means that foreign students can select from the broad array of courses offered to local students. English is also widely used on campuses in Taiwan, Malaysia, Korea, and the Philippines. In short, there is no need to know an Asian language to study in Asia.

The Competitive Edge

Study in Asia is no longer just for “Asia hands” in area studies. Having an academic experience in Asia can become a student’s competitive edge over less adventuresome college graduates. Business majors, for example, would do well to learn Asian business and economic systems. We have lots to learn from Asian cities and the urban planners and civil engineers who face unprecedented growth and population density. Asia’s alternative medical traditions and conceptions of health are receiving greater attention in the West. Studio rtists, fashion designers, and music majors can find fascinating opportunities to stretch beyond our Western aesthetic traditions. Mass media in Asia has gone far beyond importing American television and movies. The best way to get to know these markets—the people and their buying habits—is to live among them, especially at a young age.

Global Connectedness

To go to Asia used to mean going “way away” on long, claustropahobic, and costly flights across the Pacific and being radically out of reach of home. In the Internet age, however, students can be in Shanghai or Surabaya and still be in frequent contact with family and friends back in the U.S. Cell phones abound and Internet cafes have sprung up like mushrooms in the global village. Thanks to de-regulation in the telecom industry, the cost of a phone call back to the U.S. is very reasonable in most Asian countries. Ubiquitous ATMs make currency exchange a breeze. The cost of flights to Asia, now routed over the North Pole, are much shorter and cheaper than before.

Many American students who study in Asia are Asian-Americans. They are rightly curious about the countries from which their parents or grandparents emigrated. For “heritage students” it can be a rich, but also at times confusing experience of living between two cultures, not fitting entirely in either. Many discover while in Asia how really American they are and how their own cultural formation in the U.S. mingles and sometimes merges with their Asian ethnic heritage. Asian-Americans who make this educational circle to and from Asia during their college years will surely become a valuable part of America’s deepening relations with Asia in the future.

Why the Reluctance?

So, with new scholarships available, quality and tailored academic programs at Asian universities, expanding links with American universities, global connectivity, and credit transfer options why the reluctance of American undergraduates to “Go West to Asia!” for study abroad?

Perhaps students reflect our own ignorance of Asia. How many professors can name three universities in Asia? How many go to conferences there or reach out to colleagues from Asia? How many of us have a family connection to Asia?

Reluctance to go toward this vast and populous unknown may also come from the images of Asia in the American mass media. Social instability in one place often gets blown up to appear more widespread than it really is. Crime statistics show most Asian cities are many times more safe than American cities. For most Americans, going to Asia means moving from suburban or even rural life to something much more urban. Some of us feel uncomfortable with the high density of Asian city life after being accustomed to lots of space and personal privacy. For others of us the pollution of Asian mega-cities is a problem. Smaller and lesser-known cities offer a more “genteel” lifestyle, with closer contact with the indigenous culture.

Asian norms of hospitality are often stunningly gracious. The quality and range of food, both Asian and franchised Western, has improved considerably. Travel opportunities within Asia have increased dramatically. Healthcare is also much improved. In short, Asia is not the hardship it once may have been for American travelers.

It takes a special kind of person to buck the trend and “Go West to Asia” for part of his or her college experience. However, the path less traveled often leads to the deepest discoveries—about the world and about oneself. Study abroad in Asia will not only be a fascinating sojourn in the Orient, it will also change your life.

DR. GLENN SHIVE is Director of the Hong Kong-America Center, The Chinese Univ. of Hong Kong.

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