Katariina Palvas: "Part of the process of moving to Hong Kong was to get to the mindset that everything would be different"

Heading to the vibrant city of Hong Kong, Aalto University student Katariina Palvas started her internship in Asia. A spur of the moment decision lead to a three-month period of quickly adjusting and building a new life and social network in a foreign city. So how did she do it? I interviewed her to get an inside for Her Campus readers at how you can start a new life abroad. Check also below her best tips for people going abroad to Asia!

What made you apply for a job abroad and in Hong Kong specifically?

"I wanted to spend time abroad again since I'd had such a good time on exchange earlier. Also, it was nice to get away from the dark Finnish winter days and just have a change of scenery. I wasn't looking for a job especially in Hong Kong but when I saw an advertisement on the school's webpage, the Aalto Career Web, my interest peaked. After only a couple of minutes of thinking I thought to myself, what the hell, why wouldn't I apply! It was such a spur of the moment decision that I forgot about the job until I heard that I got it. Everything happened super fast so the decision to go had to be fast too, and since I missed staying abroad I went for it and took the internship position."

What were your expectations about the city, people, culture and food, and did they meet your expectations?

"The weirdest part of planning and going to Hong Kong was that I had an inkling that everything would be great and go smoothly. Part of the process of leaving was to get to the correct mindset that everything would be different than at home; food, weather, people are different and some people do not speak English, and living conditions are not as good as in Finland. Because Hong Kong is the world’s most expensive city I had to lower my expectations even for the daily things that are cheaper and easier to come by in Finland. But I was looking forward to that difference with an open and positive mindset. I wasn't stressed about anything weird or different beforehand but was ready for new things. The reality when I arrived was that the warmth and humid air hit my face when stepping out of the plane, which made me happy; I felt the exotic and vibrant city straight away."

"The first 2-3 days turned out to be a little stressful because the district where I was living only had dried fish shops everywhere and no regular grocery stores, which made me think for a second that they were the only supermarkets there, but I was getting familiar with the city day by day and after the first food shock I found basic stores where to purchase more stuff. The first months went fast in the haze of a new city. I fell in love with the vibrant feeling of the city; every time I step out on the street there are people no matter what time."

At the time of the interview, Katariina had been in Hong Kong for 2 months and she said that the honeymoon was over, because everyday routines had started to form like back home.

"I get annoyed with the daily stuff once in a while as daily routines have started to form; not every day is exciting. Small things like people walking slowly on the street and being in the way are annoying but still 90% of my staying here is good, and so is the city."

Did it take long for you to get adjusted to the environment? What sort of routines did you build there? What do your weekdays and weekends look like?

"For the first month, every day brought something new and special into my life, which made the first month go by fast, and I really regretted not starting a diary. But it was also that first month that I had to take to adjust to the city and routines. Already after two months I can look back and laugh at myself for how I was lost at first and didn't know where to go, but now the central area has become so familiar that the sense of pride is cool to acknowledge when I know my way around the city without looking like a tourist.

Routines are based on working hours on weekdays that differ little from Finland. In a typical Hong Kong office, the day starts at 9.30 or 10am and ends at 6pm and I have an hour's lunch break. After work I usually go for a dinner with friends or to yoga at the park or just go for a run. The first month was booked mostly with events and parties, getting to know people, so I had to have courage to get out in the first month and not stay inside at home. The second month has turned out to be more based on daily work stuff and dinners with friends after work or excercising."

What kind of positions do westerners and women have in Hong Kong?

"I was having dinner with local friends and after they commented on how much better service they had got because they'd had a white person with them. So, it looks like westerners are treated better and they get better service than locals. What comes to being a female I don't have a reference as to how western men are really treated as compared to women. I have felt very welcomed, safe and respected here. Men may have some advantages in the business world but companies are usually looking for either locals that have studied abroad and moved back or westerners, so gender does not seem to be that relevant in this respect. It has been super easy to feel at home here because the locals are not that surprised to see westerners, since there are many expatriates here. All in all, at least it is not a minus being a westerner in Hong Kong."

The religion in Hong Kong is characterized by a multi-faith diversity of beliefs and practices, so can the Chinese folk religion, Buddhism or Taoism be seen in the city?

"Honestly the only thing that reminds me of local religion are the temples in the middle of the city. And when you go in, there are tourists but also locals praying, which reminds you that there is a different religion than back home. There is a funny cultural way of acting in some companies, though. They burn money or paper as a sacrifice gift in front of the company's building to bring better luck for the business – this comes from the local religious practices. I also had luck to arrive at Chinese New Year. The very first week I got to see how a celebration is spent here, learning my first words in Cantonese: May you be rich in the future. The tradition is also to give money in a small red envelope. So, for sure if you are going to Asia try to come at the time of a traditional celebration."

How does the job environment differ from Helsinki?

"Working hours are the main difference here, which I love since I have more time to sleep in the morning. Working with the locals is very interesting and I feel lucky to have this opportunity to learn from the manners and communication styles of Chinese co-workers inside the company. I have learned that politeness is key here, and it is a good quality in itself; I want to encourage that behavior in Finland more. Many Finns should go to Asia to learn some polite gestures for working life. It is an interesting aspect of everyday working life to think about how to communicate. For example, you need to make your sentence polite by apologizing and saying thank you many times before bothering someone. Some locals often offer you food also at the office, and even if it looks very questionable you must taste it, take it with a smile and eat it at once. You can't be too picky with the food, which is a good way to learn about the culture and being respectful."

What can you do in Hong Kong? Food? Exercise? Parties? Bars? Dating-wise?

"Hong Kong is full of exercising possibilities; you name it, you can do it. I personally got hooked on hiking (which is the most popular among westerners and expats). Even though I am not such an outdoorsy, hiking nature-person back home, the beautiful nature and hiking trails got me excited to carry on with this activity. It is the perfect way to get a chance to enjoy nature, take cool pics and experience something that you don't have at home. I recommend it as a good way of meeting people. Get into activities and find a hobby. On Facebook, there are events and groups for local happenings, so you just need to have courage to go alone for the first time and then hopefully find likeminded people you can make friends and enjoy the activity with."

"Dating life and attitude towards other people among westerners is very open-minded here – a totally different mindset with people than back home. The European way is to get drinks (sometimes a lot) and get to know people, which differs from locals here since they don't drink so much. But the other westerners are very eager to get to know each other, which also made me feel like home – people wanted to get to know to me. The possibilities to meet new people are endless, from different events, drinks on the streets to Tinder. People will go to have a drink with you easily if you have the courage to go. So, have dinner with a stranger you met on the street and grab a beer, everyone’s mindset is friendly and open."

How did you start building your new social network? What do you suggest to people? How to get in touch with people, especially locals?

"Nowadays I must admit that creating social networks is the key to happiness, if you don't have any acquaintances to begin with. There is also a Finnish Chamber of Commerce that organizes events, hiking trips, parties and other networking events. For me this was a cool way of finding friends. Even though when abroad you might want to have distance from the people from your own country it is nice to know at least someone in a new place who speaks your language. Making friends with people from your own country, too, helps with not having to deal with home sickness or having a huge cultural shock. It is good to connect with other young professionals and students living there. Living in a dorm, usually filled with Europeans, is also a way to get to know people. Living in an expensive city you might have to share a flat with someone but that is another way to make friends. As a tip, be prepared to go to events alone at first and have the mindset that since you came here alone you will survive and can do other stuff too. Also locals came to some of the events I went to and of course I met some through work."

                                                                                                     Meeting up with an exchange buddy after two years

What were the biggest challenges you faced and how did you deal with them?

"I haven't felt homesick since everything has gone smoothly for my part. Although when I was sick and had a fever I had to figure out which health center to go to and there was a little language barrier with the doctors and nurses, which was frustrating. The slowness of the locals' walking pace on the street is a common annoyance I and other westerners have faced. We noticed that when you are in a hurry other people take their sweet time on the street and don't dodge.

The dream of living in a big city came true for me and I have enjoyed it all. The big city elements and that the city never sleeps give such a nice vibe here. The street names are in English and most service you can get also in English. I have felt safe here and there is no trouble walking home late. There is a Swedish shop that brings the best things you would miss from home, like salmiakki (salty liquorice) and thin bread. When there is always something going on in the city it is easy not to feel alone. I can always text even on a couple of hours’ notice to see someone and do something if I want to, which is the nicest thing here."


"Hong Kong has made me even more open-minded and respectful towards other people who come from all over the world. Hong Kong has the best combination of Asian culture and good parts of western culture."

Tips for moving to Hong Kong:

1. Change your mindset from your Finnish way. You should be ready to do things for the first time with people you don't know. Be independent and active, be spontaneous, be open and ready to meet new people, go to places and events alone for the first time. You might be surprised at what kind of cool people you can meet.

2. Don't be too picky about where you live. The living costs are high, be prepared to share a kitchen and live in a small room. Be prepared to compromise when you plan on living in Hong Kong. It all depends on your budget, but as a student say goodbye to the luxury of space that you had back home. Living conditions are not that great.

3. Keep in mind you are a visitor and a minority, respect the local culture. As a white person, you will be a minority probably for the first time. Remember it is their home country and their customs that you are entering. Even if from your view point something might seem ridiculous you should show respect and be open-minded to try new foods and new experiences. Asian culture requires respect, so adjusting to that mindset will make your stay easier. Be open to learning, be humble, and be curious about the culture; you will get more out of your stay when you really want to learn.

4. Make sure your work visa is ready to be activated when you arrive. Usually your employer will take care of applying for the work visa and ask you for the necessary documents beforehand. To activate your work visa, you need to get out of the country to Macao or China which are the closest possibilities there. You can go back in a day or a couple of hours and activate your visa that way. This is the normal procedure.

5. Start a diary if you are abroad for a long time. Remember to always drink enough water when hiking, and participate on ladies’ nights!

You can follow Katariina's trip on Instagram @katskupa and get inspired by the views of Hong Kong!

For more internship stories, check out our interviews with Milka about living in New York and Caitlin about life in Benin.