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An unvarnished picture of what it’s like for a S’porean studying in an Australian university

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | June 7, 11:22 pm

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By Charlene Chin 

When I graduated from LASALLE College of the Arts with a Diploma in Design Communications, I jumped at the chance to study abroad.

Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to receive an opportunity to study another creative passion of mine: Film and TV Media at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.

Expectations of studying in Brisbane

Before I arrived in Brisbane, I was sure that it was going to be a good experience.

I looked forward to being abroad. It meant having my own place, cooking my own meals (or at least making great attempts to), going on road trips, making new friends, exploring new places, and growing as a person.

I also saw it as an opportunity for me to take charge of my own learning.

However, during my first year studying abroad, I quickly learnt that it was not what I expected it to be at all.

#1: I had to get used to an entirely different culture

Before I came to Australia, I was told that locals could be racist toward foreigners. These remarks had subconsciously become embedded in my mind, resulting in me feeling cautious around locals.

I was afraid of standing out too much. I fought against my natural instincts of throwing in “leh”, “lor” and “lah” at the end of my sentences, and practiced Australian lingo to blend in – I learnt that the word “Barbie” refers not just to dolls but also barbecues, and McDonald’s was usually referred to as “maccas”.

Thankfully, I never experienced any form of racism or discrimination.

I did, however, have to get used to a different culture and way of living.

For example, public transport in Australia was not as accessible, nor was it as frequent as the public transport in Singapore. If you missed the bus you’d have to catch the next one in half an hour.

Going to the city from where I lived for instance, would require me to plan my journey about an hour in advance to get there on time. I completely took this luxury for granted in Singapore and realised how lucky we are to have such an efficient transport system in a country so densely populated.

Singapore is known for three things; its endless shopping, good food, and vibrant nightlife.

Here in Brisbane, I notice that there were a big number of people who would much rather stay at home than be outside. Even if they decide to go outside, there was not much to see or do, food can get a little pricey and shops close punctually at 5pm.

Another big culture shock to me was how commuters would thank bus drivers, and casually have a chat to strangers they’ve never met.

It’s not common in Asian culture to start small talk and often times we’re told to keep our head down, not bother people, and mind our own business. The spontaneous social interaction puzzled me at first, but after some time I thought, why can’t I do the same?

What was lacking in the buzzing city life was replaced with beautiful blue skies and mountains.

Rice was no longer a staple food in people’s homes, spicy food was impossible to find,

Oh, and walking into people’s houses without taking one’s shoes off was socially accepted. Madness.

#2: Making friends was tougher than I expected

But getting used to a completely different way of life wasn’t the biggest challenge I faced.

While many of my Singaporean peers eased right into things in school and found friends and cliques quickly, that wasn’t the case for me. For the first few months, I struggled to find a group I could be comfortable with.

Being alone in a foreign country, I felt intimidated by the thought of starting conversations with complete strangers in class.

In one of my classes, I remember sitting with a group of two Australians and two Chinese nationals. I failed to make small talk with the locals because they were more interested in talking to each other.

I had more luck talking to the Chinese nationals, but couldn’t quite develop a meaningful friendship from that interaction either.

It almost felt like no one was interested in making friends at all. Students would show up for lectures, and leave right after without saying a word.

I couldn’t help but feel the reasons for my difficulties in forming friendships were due to the different wavelengths and culture. And because of that, I was alone. A lot.

Often times conversations were cut short because I struggled to understand them when they speak.

They seemed to mumble a lot and talk too fast for me to catch up, leaving me confused and having to ask them to repeat themselves. The situation seemed to apply vice versa as they seemed to struggle to understand my Singaporean accent.

#3: Living alone made it tough as well

Initially, thrilled by the opportunity to live alone, I chose to stay in student accommodation by myself.

For the first two months, with no housemates and a lack of conversations to keep myself mentally stimulated, I quickly grew anxious.

This was made worse by the fact that the only view I had from the small window in my apartment was of a brick wall from the adjacent building. Depressing.

Almost every evening, instead of doing cool stuff with friends, I would head down to the river bank for a run instead. I wasn’t a fan of running, but I had quite a bit of free time given my (lack of a) social life anyway.

It certainly was not how I envisioned spending my time in Australia.

Singaporeans tend to stick together

I noticed that many Singaporean students who go overseas tend to end up forming cliques with one another.

I think it is because we find it easier to relate to people with common cultures, and interacting with a fellow Singaporean provides a sense of familiarity that reminds us of home.

After being overseas, I’ve realised that Singaporeans have inside jokes, a common way of speaking and similar mannerisms – things we all take for granted until we start interacting with non-Singaporeans.

At QUT, I was one of the only two Singaporeans in my cohort. And for the first time in our life, I experienced what it was like to be the minority in a country.

However, because I was forced out of my comfort zone, I learnt to be more confident in carrying myself, and managed to form meaningful friendships as a result of that.

A few months later, slowly but surely, I made a few close friends with people from all walks of life.

One of which was a girl from Gujarat, India, who came to Brisbane 10 years ago. She was the only one in my cohort that showed genuine kindness and reached out to me when I was at a low place.

As it turns out, we both share a similar sense of humour and perspective on life and stayed friends ever since. We spent some great times together, and most importantly, helped one another through the difficult transition of being away from our families.

Photo courtesy of Charlene Chin

Studying abroad is not for everyone

I know of people who have realised that being away from family and friends just isn’t for them.

A close friend of mine from LASALLE College of The Arts was offered a spot to study design in RMIT in Melbourne, only to leave after one semester.

We were rooting for her to not give up so quickly, and encouraged her to give some time for things to settle.

But despite her best efforts to commit, she eventually decided she simply couldn’t do it. She never really got used to being away from home, and there was also the fact that being overseas was burdening her parents financially.

Glad I didn’t give up

Three years have passed since the first time I arrived in Brisbane, and looking back at the tough periods I went through, I’m glad I didn’t give up.

And as negative as I may sound, I don’t regret my decision to go overseas at all.

This experience of living in a new environment was challenging at first, but it has definitely changed me for the better.

Admittedly, I felt a little out of place in the beginning. But being overseas has helped me see things from a different perspective, and also gave me the chance to learn to take care of myself, and better manage my time.

Thanks to all the alone time I had, I’ve also had the chance to do some serious self-reflection, which in turn taught me how to cope with being alone.

I’ve learnt to adapt to the quiet life of Brisbane, and since graduating, I moved to a new apartment to live by myself.

Photo courtesy of Charlene Chin

This time, it’s great. I currently do freelance work and plan to stay in Australia for a few more years before coming back to Singapore.

I have also found a good balance of socialising and learning how to be alone in my own space. I don’t think I would have been able to learn all these, had I stayed in Singapore. And for that, I am grateful.

If I had to give advice to anyone who wants to study abroad, I would say to trust that things will get better even though the beginning may be rocky.

After all, if we stick around for something and for long enough, we might just be surprised by how it turns out in the end.

Charlene is a 25-year-old Singaporean who completed a three-year undergraduate degree programme at the Queensland University of Technology. She currently does freelance work in Brisbane.

Top photo composite image, courtesy of Charlene Chin.

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