If I hadn’t taken a gap year, I would have had the same life as every university student does in Hong Kong now (studying, tutoring and hanging out with friends). Simply, I ditched everything that I had in Hong Kong, and I started a new beginning in Kazakhstan as a United Nations Volunteer for UNICEF.
Before I made this move, all of my friends were criticizing me about my decision. They were saying, ‘Why don’t you go to the volunteer programme after your graduation?’ ‘You are going to miss a lot because you are not getting immersed with us.’
Honestly, I also struggled a lot before I came here. I was thinking about whether I could catch up with my studies. I doubted my determination to go for a semester. I was scared that I had to build up everything again after I got back. Starting a new beginning is always scary, intimidating, or can even leave you feeling helpless. During those days, there was a devil that kept telling me, ‘If I don’t go now, I probably will never go after my graduation.’
With the uncertainties, I waywardly bought a one-way ticket to Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, not even knowing when I was coming back. Before coming to Kazakhstan, I had never heard of this place. I didn’t even know it was a Central Asian country, though I was a Geography student in high school. At the end of the flight, I looked through the window, and I knew this was my new beginning.
When I was waiting to pick up my luggage, a Hongkonger spotted me immediately (perhaps I have a typical Hongkonger look) and we had a small talk. He wondered why I came here and he said he rarely saw Hongkongers coming over here. Well, deep in my heart, I didn’t even know why I choose Kazakhstan. Maybe it simply was because of the unfamiliarity of the country. Before he left, he gave me some words that I still remember till today.
These words have become like a spell to me; a stranger’s encouragement has become my motto for every single day that I face here.
At the very first month, everything seemed so exciting and new to me. I am really impressed by the style of architecture that they have, the spacious environment which I never experience in Hong Kong, the gorgeous urban planning … I felt like I was a frog in the well, this place is really fascinating for this ‘frog’.
Later on, when this frog had to settle down, the difficulties arose. Because of the language barrier and his self-protective mentality, he couldn’t even order the food he wanted, not to mention finding a flat for himself. He always needed to rely on his colleagues and friends. He felt like a ‘useless’ person here. People even took advantage of him, asking him to pay for extras, kicking him out of the bus ride…
With all these ‘humiliations’, this frog believed this might be a period which could not be avoided. He then reached out to take Russian classes, at least learning the basic vocabularies and terminologies, so he could know what to order or not be tricked by others.
The more he learns and experiences, the better he opens himself up and sees how this place is. Witnessing people with different skin colours and religions living together in a harmonious environment, experiencing the way vendors sell their fruits, or being treated by a stranger for lunch, the frog undoubtedly had one of the happiest memories in Kazakhstan.
Living in a completely new environment, everything and everyday could be a challenge for the frog as well. At work, he was assigned to the Communications Section. With no prior experience or knowledge, he always doubted himself on what he could contribute. He always thought he should belong to the education team instead because of his educational background. However, this might also be a good start, who knows?
If he is only 20 and the one limiting his potential or putting a boundary on everything, this may be a bit pathetic and naive. After that, he simply put aside those frustrations and tries to be more receptive towards any tasks, be it big or small.
During this ‘beginning’, I really learnt a lot, out of my field of study. I learnt how to design and maintain the web, I learned how to socialize with strangers, I know how and when to express my opinions and ideas. I know my strengths and weaknesses better. Without the beginning, you never know what you can actually achieve.
In life, we always set boundaries and limits for ourselves. I can’t do this. I can’t do that. Honestly, no one would know where they could be. I don’t even think I could run my first and full marathon in Kazakhstan. I never thought I would ride a horse and eat them afterwards. I never thought I would ride on an off-road motorcycle and get my chin stitched for that. I never thought I would love Georgian food. I never thought I would meet so many good friends during the journey.
All of these bits and pieces somehow shape who I am now. My assignment is halfway done. I still have three months to go, no one knows where this could go or how this will end.
A new beginning may be frustrating, daunting or even depressing. If you never step out of your comfort zone and start a new beginning, you never know where you could be or what you could achieve. Day by day, if you keep excelling yourself, you will notice you have grown up a lot and not regret that you have made this beginning.
The weather is surprisingly cold, the capital of Kazakhstan was even named as the ‘Coldest Capital’ around the world. Don't give up because of the challenges that you face. As long as you wear enough clothing and prepare for the weather, nothing is a barrier for you to stand out in the cold and appreciate the beauty of a snowflake. If you never step out of your comfort zone, you will never be the frog in the well.