Food is more than just sustenance

Some of you might know it as hot pot, but in Singapore it’s more than just that. “Steamboat” is what they call hot pot; a small boiling pot of yummy broth, freshly cooked meat, and steamy veggies. Steamboat parties are a guaranteed way to get a group of people together to mingle and catch up, sort of like when events offer free pizza, but better. Hosting a steamboat party requires a lot of teamwork, from buying the right types of tofu people want in the steamboat to passing cooked Napa cabbage into a friend’s bowl. People happily slurp from their bowls together, in a collective moment of comfort.

My Tembusu Residential College orientation group hosting a steamboat party gathering for all of us to catch up on how school had been so far.

In “Singlish,” the nickname for Singaporean-English slang, there’s a term that describes the collective purchasing of food requests on other people’s behalf because it happens so often: jio. I hear it almost on a daily basis, from a spontaneous “flash jio” to a late night “supper jio”. I personally have impulsively bought quite a few McSpicy’s from supper jios as midnight snacks while studying with my suitemate (if you’re ever in southeast Asia, get yourself to a McDonald’s and try a McSpicy; they’re impeccable).

Seriously, try it.

Steamboat parties are spaces where everybody shares and takes part in the creation and consumption of a meal. With jios, students extend their kindness to others in the form of food delivery. I use these examples to describe a phenomenon I’ve noticed especially within Singaporean culture, but one I know to be true across the world. Food is more than just sustenance: food starts conversation, food brings people together, food highlights a country’s culture. It’s more than just something to eat—food creates community.

And although this concept wasn’t news to me, noticing this while living abroad made me realize just how important it was to use food to combat homesickness (and not in that way where you eat an entire pint of ice cream while crying and watching Netflix). Whether it be discovering that local dish you absolutely love, going to a new restaurant with acquaintances, or in my case, ordering a late night McSpicy to munch on with my suitemate, food can be the catalyst in creating a new community and home in a new place.

Kothu prata, one of my favorite dishes from a restaurant in Little India.

A classmate and I stumbled upon a delicious, hipster dessert cafe.

Kaya (coconut jam) toast, kopi C (coffee with condensed milk), and soft boiled eggs with soy sauce and white pepper. Although relatively simple and common in Singapore, this is my dream breakfast.

Expect the Unexpected

Everything works out.

Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

  1. The two statements above are less contradictory than you may think. I am writing from week one of my exchange, and my advice to incoming students is to take pre-departure preparations seriously. The following is a list of things that went wrong my first week here and how they worked out in the end.

1. Housing – Over the summer, I arranged a homestay through a highly recommended website. It was supposed to be a single mother, her 19 year old daughter, and her 12 year old son. When I arrived to the homestay, it turned out that none of her children lived with her and that she hosted 4 other students in their place. The apartment was in disarray and we would be 6 strangers to a bathroom — not the homestay experience I had in mind… Luckily, I had some friends to crash with until I could find a new homestay. The lesson? Homestays can be great, but make sure you get as much information on your host before committing!

  1. 2. Subletting – I found my first subletter back in June. She mysteriously backed out during the paperwork process. I was excited to find a new one in July that I thought would be very compatible with my roommates, but as we got the paperwork started, she had a visa complication. I found a third one in August. My landlord took a long time with approving him and I had to wrap up that process while I was in Paris. I also had a complication with getting the key to the subletter, transferring utility subscriptions from the former tenants, and furnishing the apartment. The lesson? If you need to sublet, push the subleaser and landlord to sort out all the details well in advance and don’t overlook the details.
  2. In the end, I was able to sort everything out, but these roadbumps added considerable stress to arrival and distracted me from orientation activities. Try to solidify everything you can well before coming. My other advice is to be flexible, but don’t settle. I did not believe I would be comfortable in the first homestay, so I left. My main priority in housing was location. I could have found something faster had I taken the first offer that came along, but after much research, I found a great new homestay just a few blocks from my university.

 

Pre-departure post

The place I call home has changed so frequently and dynamically throughout my life that even now, I have difficulty choosing an answer. I was born in Korea, raised in Canada, Japan, Indonesia — yet I sit writing this pre-departure post in Evanston, IL. The choice to study abroad in Singapore was just as natural of a choice as the one to study abroad in the US for my undergraduate education. Having been tossed around geographically throughout my childhood, I’ve long been rendered numb to approaching new change, embracing global culture. Even so, the preparation period as I approach the next few months of my life remains serious. After all, the months would be spent in a completely new academic, social, and physical environment. There was bound to be unexpected changes and developments to arise, ones that I could not possibly plan for, and I was excited to be nearing opportunity for growth.

A lot of what I have thinking about as I prepare for this journey has been rooted in the process of personal development. Being in a different country, where moral tenets, core values, societal tendencies, boundaries and customs shift around you, breeds interesting room for change and growth. It is hard to say that any one person can remain the same person as they did before they travelled and lived in a new country. No matter the personal integrity, if the world and people around you changes, there is no doubt that certain personal characteristics are brought forward or sent to the periphery. I’m looking forward to some interesting change to come over my next few months in Singapore.

American v. Singaporean Politics: Democracy or Political Stability?

When locals hear I’m from the US, they’ll ask me about how things are going under President Trump. Sometimes with a sympathetic face, other times with a joking snicker. And although I do my best to be honest with them about my opinion, I usually ask in return, “How are things socially and politically in Singapore?”
I expect positive reviews: the economy is always growing, race relations are peaceful, and there is actually enough public funding to go around to support public services. Instead, locals usually respond with a grimace and start with something along the lines of “I know I should be grateful to live here, but…”
Living in a self-authoritarian country highlights the democratic ideals I’ve been taught in America my whole life. Start with how different their national history is from ours: here, political revolution isn’t embraced, it’s feared. Instead, the country’s colonial ties to Britain are celebrated, with dozens of streets and buildings named after Sir Stamford Raffles, the man who negotiated for British ownership of Singapore from the Johor Sultanate. The idea is that markers of European influence must remain in Singapore so that European trade partners don’t feel “unwelcome.”

This painting of an elite Singaporean man during Singapore’s colonial period is the first thing you see when you walk into the National Museum of Singapore’s exhibit called “Modern Colony,” which boasts about the rapid modernization and westernization of Singapore as a British colony.

The differences don’t just end with the 20th century. Did you know that in Singapore today, homosexual intercourse entails capital punishment? That women under 35 can only purchase public housing if they are married? Or that a group of individuals that wants to peacefully protest must first submit an application to the government, who may or may not reject their application? In discussions with peers at mealtimes, I feel their frustration at the political disconnect between younger liberals and older conservatives in government, as well as how powerless they feel in creating social change. To make things seem better, they tell me they “just have to wait for the older generation to die out before things can change.”
This silence isn’t always explicit in Singaporean legislation. A local student casually told me once, “The government says we live in racial harmony, but it’s really just racial co-existence.” Over dinner, I had a conversation with locals who paralleled the “lower” status Malay Singaporeans hold and the exploitation of their culture to that of Black and Latinx Americans and discussed how Singaporeans still managed to self-segregate by race. Racial inequality isn’t something I’m unfamiliar with, but the refusal of a government to acknowledge its existence is something I’m unfamiliar with.

Singapore has an annual “Racial Harmony Day” dedicated to celebrating the peaceful coexistence of different races in Singapore. This cartoon-like image simplifies the complexities of racial relations in Singapore.

Every day that I read American news, I’m reminded of how dramatic and complex current American politics are. But through day-to-day conversations about Singaporean politics and culture, I’ve gained a valuable insight that I take for granted in America. Democracy comes at a hefty price, but so does political stability.

Pre-Departure: Les Plans

I’m writing this post while on the Intercampus shuttle home after my last full day of work this summer. In my backpack are a few books, assorted pens (taken from my work desk, of course), and four printed maps of Paris’ public transit system. I’d love to be able to tune out and read, but, as you could guess, I can’t get Paris out of my mind. I’ve spent my breaks of the past few days planning every possible trip I could make, tracing along the lines of the closest metro routes (for me, the RER B and ligne 4), and imagining myself walking along the streets of a city that I’ve dreamed to live in for years.

I like maps, and they’ve often helped me to make sense of naturally unwieldy cities. Where I live now (Evanston), every time I look at a whole map of Chicago, I’m able to remind myself of all the small areas and nooks that I’ve visited, but also of the vast expanse of urban space that I still haven’t seen. And maps of public transportation contain so much information – not only are they useful, but they can give you a guess of where people are going and how neighborhoods are connected. Much like Chicago, I imagine that each metro stop I get off at will be the first step into a slightly different permutation of the city’s atmosphere. This way, I will be able to organize the city into small bits, each helping me scratch the surface of Paris just a little bit more. Once more, I trace my finger from Charles de Gaulle to the Port-Royal stop off the RER B line. This will be my first ‘trip’ I take upon arrival. I follow the 4 past the stop that I will likely get off every day to go to school (Saint-Germain-des-Prés). And I calculate the exact amount of time until I board my plane to leave.

Recently, my friends and family have asked (among many other questions) the classic “are you nervous?” I’ve always responded the same – strangely, no. I know that Paris will throw so many challenges at me that I can’t even begin to expect, but right now, I’m focusing on being excited. Perhaps that’s because the pas 10 months have all slowly built up to departure: meeting the Study Abroad advisors in November, applying in January, being accepted in February, submitting paperwork bit-by-bit throughout all the spring, and finding living accommodations in June. Or perhaps it’s simply because I have no idea what moving to another city and living on my own for four months will actually feel like. Either way, it’s helped to make these last few weeks in Evanston really quick, and very rarely anxiety-riddled.

I can’t wait to arrive. There’ll be a few days before my exchange begins the Welcome Programme, and I’m already planning out a day trip to Versailles, and trying to find lists of restaurants to dine at (with new friends!). Three years ago, I had a wonderful opportunity to visit Paris and stay with a host family informally. Since then, I’ve always dreamed of returning. Now, I can finally say that in less than 5 days I’ll be waking up in my small Parisian apartment (well, really, a chambre de bonne – “maid’s room,” but that just means I’m saving money to spend elsewhere!).

See you on the other side, Pa-reeh!

The realities of registration

Just seeing orange and blue – the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) school colors – brings me some anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, deep down I’m very excited to go. I’ve been dreaming of studying abroad in Singapore since the fall of my freshman year at Northwestern. But after scouring through orange and blue PDFs and websites just to figure out basics like how to make a payment or when to book my flights, I get apprehensive whenever I see those colors on my computer screen.

The process of enrolling as an international exchange student has been far more difficult than I anticipated. Because NUS doesn’t offer formal letters of acceptance until late June, I had to leave Evanston without knowing for sure if I would be studying in Singapore come August. That in itself was nerve-wracking. But even after formally being accepted, my enrollment was conditional: I had to successfully complete a housing application, a confusing registration process, and a detailed application for a Student’s Pass – all of which were online.

In itself, none of those things sounded too bad, but once credit card rejections and name misspelling mishaps got in the way, I felt like the internet devils were trying to stop me from even getting onto my plane. After going through all the digital paperwork myself, I’m so surprised international students at Northwestern grit their teeth and jump through all the right hoops to study in the US for four whole years!

On the bright side, once I meet the local students and get a feel for the school, I’m sure my uneasy feelings toward orange and blue will transform for the better.

The orange! It’s so bright! You get why it’s mildly stressful, right?

Prophecy Fulfilling

As I look back on the essays I wrote before leaving, postulating what I would get out of an experience studying abroad in Hong Kong, I find that most every prediction came true. I began my study of Chinese to explore a strong budding interest in Asian language and culture. Check. I brought my violin and joined the HKUST Philharmonic Orchestra. Check. I came to understand aspects of economic development and its interactions with policy, culture, and individual well-being both through coursework and by experiencing the city and academic environment. Check. I adapted, increased my understanding of different values that exist in the world and built incredible relationships and friendships. Check.

But more than a checklist, fulfilling each and every one of these goals among others has ignited and reignited my passions and sense of purpose. In taking on my abroad experience and making these things happen, I feel as though I have developed a new sense of self: one more daring, ambitious, open, honest, humble, and adventurous than the person who arrived to Hong Kong.

In addition to remaining incredibly grateful for having all of these dreams come true, I hope that the sunny and eager spirit I acquired while abroad continues ringing long after its toll. Namely, that I remember the joy of discovery in learning of Chinese characters, that I stay in touch with new and old best friends, and that I continue seeking to understand, enjoy, and serve my surrounding community, no matter where that may be. And I hope that these commitments might, again, come true.

Life, post london

Leaving from London was very difficult. It was not only difficult to leave the vibrant, somewhat posh, and active city, it was difficult to leave the people I met there. During my time in London I had the opportunity to learn more about what it meant to live in the center of a vastly diverse environment with cultures from every corner of the world. It allowed me to expand my cultural knowledge and in so doing it made me learn more about my identity and my sense of self. Spending these three months in London away from the safety of my family, friends, and home I was able to challenge some, and reinforce other, aspects of the way I was raised. Essentially, I had the opportunity to practice thinking more for myself and the opportunity to determine what I truly valued most in my education and in the people I surrounded myself with. I have now realized that I prefer an education system that incorporates more direction and assistance throughout the entirety of the course, rather than a system that promotes almost complete independence. UCL seemed to be a stronger proponent of independent study, which made it a bit more difficult when it came to understanding all the required readings necessary for writing essays. However, the independent study also had its advantages such as contributing to making better, more academically committed students who had to put in the effort to understand the essential course material on their own without the help of others in preparation for their assignments and/or assessments in each class.

The greater level of independent study present at UCL did not mean that professors were unavailable to help. In fact, professors often had office hours at least once to twice each week. Greater independence simply meant that professors did not spend class time covering any of the readings assigned, except when critical to the class discussion. Thus, during the brief three months I spent at UCL I was able to fully immerse myself in a variety of cultures, learn more independence, and gain a greater understanding of my interests and values.

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Looking Back at Singapore

Studying abroad in Singapore has been a journey like no other. I think that studying abroad has been beneficial both for my personal growth and academics. I learned a lot about an extremely different culture, and the culture shocks I experienced throughout my journey helped me gain a better global perspective. The personal growth I achieved while abroad isn’t something that can be taught in any classes, and I’m very grateful to have been able to spend a semester abroad.

Academically, NUS offered a huge variety of courses that allowed me to have a unique academic experience that I very much enjoyed. As a Computer Science major, it was very helpful that NUS had a School of Computing. The SoC department were very helpful and had a larger range of courses available than in Northwestern, and all the professors in my computer science courses were very engaging and helpful. Other than Computer Science courses, NUS also had a lot of cultural classes that were very interesting and wouldn’t have been available in Northwestern, such as “Crime Fiction in English and Chinese”, or “Politics of Singapore.” Overall, I had a wonderful academic experience in NUS.

In terms of student life, NUS local students were always very friendly, and there were plenty of events held in dorms to get to know everyone. There were also exchange student welcome/farewell parties, and the study abroad office in Singapore made sure that all exchange students felt welcome in NUS. I personally had an amazing study abroad experience in Singapore, and hope that other Northwestern students would also strongly consider NUS as an option when deciding where to study abroad!

 

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Traveling and Site Visits

One of the things, if not the thing, everyone most looks forward to when studying abroad is traveling. And trust me, you can get a lot of it while studying in London. London is one of the travel hubs of the world which means that you can get just about anywhere you choose from it. More importantly for those wanting to travel through Europe, this means cheap flights, trains, and busses. With enough time in advance you can find roundtrip flights to Dublin and Edinburgh for under $70, to Paris for under $80, and to Venice and Budapest for under $100. As you will learn while planning travels, the best deals you can find are those you sit down to look for with at least a few weeks ahead of time. Finding a good traveling group early on during your time abroad can save you a lot of work and money. Specifically, because the tasks and costs of looking for transportation, housing, and activities can be significantly easier and cheaper the more people you have in your group. However, it is always important to remember that smaller groups are easier to manage than larger ones. I found that groups between four and eight people were the best to travel with. The reason was that no matter the type of housing you decided to use, no one would have to stay in a room alone and oftentimes you could find Airbnbs at great prices for groups between those sizes.

Planning trips can both be a lot of work and a lot of fun. However, it is a task that not everyone is keen on taking on. If this is the case, don’t worry. Oftentimes universities plan trips for students to take during the weekends. For example, UCL planned a variety of trips that included transportation, housing, and itineraries for set prices. All you had to do was pay for your ticket and show up at the given meeting point at the given time. That’s it. Some of the places UCL visited were Salisbury, Stonehenge, Oxford, Cambridge, Bath and many more. No matter your planning skills or financial background, traveling while in London is very attainable and definitely a must.

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