Beyond Singapore

It’s surreal how quickly time has flown by here in Singapore. As much as I love Singapore, though, my favorite part about my study abroad experience has been traveling to other countries in Southeast Asia. That was actually one of the main reasons why I wanted to study abroad in Singapore; I can easily jet off to different countries within Asia for a weekend.

So far I’ve been to Tioman Island in Malaysia, Batam Island in Indonesia, Bangkok in Thailand, Siem Reap in Cambodia, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. All of them have such different but incredible experiences, given how unique the culture is in each country. It’s difficult to even pinpoint my favorite destination because of how different the experiences have been in each. If I had to pick my top two favorite visits, though, I’d pick Bangkok and Siem Reap.

I traveled to Bangkok with a large group of friends (about 20 of us) so it was a packed weekend of exploring the bustling city during the day while also enjoying the nightlife. Bangkok offers a rich culture with hundreds of Buddhist temples and the largest outdoor market in the world, as well as an exciting nightlife with busy restaurants, bars, and clubs. I loved experiencing cultural aspects and social aspects of the city all within one weekend.

I enjoyed Siem Reap equally as much as I did Bangkok, although it was a completely different adventure. I traveled to Siem Reap with my mom during my university’s week-long fall break, so we had much more time to explore the city compared to other places I’ve been. The city is much less crowded than other Asian cities like Bangkok and Hong Kong, although it has evolved into an increasingly popular tourist destination. Siem Reap serves as primarily a cultural destination; very little nightlife exists. During my visit to Siem Reap, my mom and I visited numerous temple sites, such as Angkor Wat, as well as a floating village. One of the best aspects of Siem Reap is how kind and generous everyone is; all of the people we interacted with, whether it be our tour guide, hotel staff, or restaurant waitresses, were so grateful that we had traveled to Siem Reap.

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Livability of London

London…worth living in? Absolutely! The city of London is home to over 8.5 million people, which does not include the curious travelers passing through its borders each year. About 31.5 million international and UK tourists come funneling into the city every year excited to see Big Ben, the London Eye, the British Museum, and the hundreds of other sights the city has to offer. All these sightseers within London’s 607 square miles means that the streets, museums, restaurants, pubs, and galleries are always busy. However, this does not mean you have to run into crowds everywhere you go. You can escape the massive queues and visit all the places and restaurants you’ve dreamed of going to while in London. All you have to do is talk to the locals. The locals have experienced every period of the year in London, and they know when it is best to visit all the most popular sights. A small conversation with a resident Londoner can save you hours of waiting behind anxious tourists taking pictures of everything they see. The precious time you cave save with a quick conversation could mean the difference between tasting one delicious treat at London’s famous Borough Market and eating everything your heart desires.

Living and studying in London is not just about finding the best restaurants, markets, and museums, it’s about learning how to navigate the intricate public transportation system, finding your favorite grocery store, and joining the most interesting student groups around. With transportation applications like Citymapper you can easily learn how to move around London. With more than 10 grocery stores within walking distance from UCL you can expect to find delicious food at affordable prices anywhere. And with over 250 clubs at UCL you can be sure to find the most interesting club(s) to be a part of. All in all, London is a very livable place that only takes a few weeks to get used to!

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Adventure is Out There

Wow, I can’t believe how much Singapore feels like home already. The country is such an interesting mix of Western and Asian culture — everywhere I go I see people of all different ethnicities and religions, food from all over the world, and so many different languages being spoken. I knew Singapore was considered a “melting pot,” but I didn’t think it would be to this extent.

Despite Singapore’s constant heat and humidity (I checked the weather app on my phone the other day and it said the weather felt like 108 degrees!), I try not to let that stop me from exploring. One of my favorite destinations in Singapore is Haji Lane, located in a pocket of Singapore known as Kampong Glam. This area isn’t actually much of a tourist destination, but maybe that’s why I like it so much. Haji Lane reminds me of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco — it has a very hipster vibe with lots of vintage boutiques and small cafes, as well as murals painted on the walls. I’ve been there both during the day for shopping and the night for dinner; during the night it’s quite bustling with people eating and drinking outside.

My other favorite area to visit in Singapore so far is Gardens by the Bay. Gardens by the Bay is definitely a tourist destination, but it completely lives up to the hype. It’s essentially a nature park filled with different pockets of scenic walks, conservatories such as the Flower Dome, and tree-like structures. It’s absolutely incredible at night, as the “trees” are lit up and the skyline looks so vibrant behind it.

Four months seems like such a long time for studying abroad, yet my time here is already flying by. I hope at the end of journey I’ll feel like I took advantage of every opportunity I had to explore.

The dreaded midterm season

Libraries are packed, extracurricular activities slows down, and studying is at an all time high– yup, it’s midterm season.

Academics in NUS has a slower pace than NU because NUS has a semester system. Instead of the usual 3 hours of lecture per week , modules usually have 2 hours. Nonetheless, midterm season is very much real and can be stressful as all the midterms for every module will usually be packed into the first week after recess week. In NUS, many classes provide webcasts ( recorded lecture video for every lecture) which has come very much in handy for me in my midterm studies as I can go back and rewatch the lecture and pause or skip to my liking and made me really wish NU will pick up on webcast technology also. The only thing that I would have wanted in NUS in terms of academic resource is office hours. None of my modules have standard office hours from the TA or the professor, so it is a little hard to get outside of class help. Even with the slower pace, NUS still is definitely academically challenging and all the professors I have are very engaging.

As I reach the midpoint of my stay in Singapore, I have started to feel a little homesick. Even though I love Asian food, I have come to miss American food and have tried out the McDonalds in Singapore to try out the Singapore McDonalds specialty called the McSpicy (a very spicy chicken burger) and crab flavored curly fries. I always feel kind of guilty when I don’t eat something more local, but the McSpicy was definitely worth trying out.

 

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Surviving International Fees

Money. By far it is one of the most stressful things to think about when it comes to living in a foreign country. What is going to be the easiest, and cheapest, way to pay for food, housing, pubs, tours, events? Foreign transaction fees, currency conversion fees, and ATM fees…they’re all horrible. Oftentimes they can end up costing a lot of money, and soon enough you realize that the cup of coffee you paid for cost as much as buying an expresso machine. For this reason it is important that you take a little bit of time before you embark on your study abroad journey to look at what bank accounts can waive these charges. One of my good friends that had just gotten back from studying in London over the summer had mentioned that Charles Schwab waived all international fees and even reimbursed you every time you withdrew money from an ATM, unlimitedly. After doing a little bit of research, I made an account and it seems to work exactly as she mentioned. I’ll definitely make sure to follow-up on how the account treats me after a few weeks in London.

Similar to packing, knowing how you are going to pay for everything in your new country can take a little bit of time and brain power. However, with enough preparation you can reduce the number of headaches you could experience down the line. All it takes is a little bit of research and a whole lot of patience.

 

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10 things you must have done if you celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival

  1. 1. You heard that there once were 10 suns

This begins the legend of why Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated. The legend goes (as told by a fellow HKUST student) that 9 of the 10 suns were shot down by a super-strong archer. For his feats, the archer was given two pills that could make him immortal. Somehow, his wife got a hold of them and ate them both. The effect was so strong from the two pills that she flew like a rocketship to the moon. She is still there, and that is why the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated.

  1. 2. You spent quality time with friends and family

I was lucky enough to go to a local student’s family’s home to have dinner with them and a couple other international students. Then we hung out with a bunch of other local friends later in the evening. Mid-Autumn Festival is always about being with the people that you care about.

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  1. 3. You ate traditional Chinese food

On the menu for me were a couple kinds of dumplings, fish, bacon-like pork, meat and vegetables wrapped in meat, shrimp, and more. A truly fabulous meal.

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4. You went to a park

Families, children and friends gather in large public parks in the afternoon and evening to celebrate. Many have light displays and traditional music and dance performances.

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5. You saw pretty lanterns

Lanterns are a true symbol of the festival.

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6. You light your own pretty lanterns

lantern + candle + fire = beauty

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7. You ate a traditional mooncake

The traditional mooncake is a special pastry made of lotus seed or red bean paste. Mooncakes are quite sugary and dense, so they are usually cut and shared among friends.

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8. You ate a snowy mooncake

A Hong Kong special! One bakery in Hong Kong started making a cold version of the mooncake (hence their “snowy” description) and Hong Kongers fell in love. With a more rubbery, fondant-like outside than its more cookie-like predecessor, the snowy mooncake has now been copied by bakeries all over town. My favorite flavors were mango and green tea.

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9. You learned why mooncake is eaten for mid-Autumn festival

Many moons ago, the Han Chinese people wanted to start a revolution against the ruling Mongols but didn’t have Facebook messaging or Morse code to relay the message. So they turned to hiding messages in mooncakes about the planned revolution which was to take place on the date of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

10. You saw a full moon

Seeing the full moon clearly on Mid-Autumn Festival’s night is like having snow on Christmas: it just makes the holiday feel more special. Despite forecasts of severe typhoons that threatened to cancel classes and shut the city down, the night ended up being perfectly clear for my first mid-Autumn Festival. And for that, all the Hong Kongers and I were grateful.

 

Singaporean Cuisine

I think if there is one thing everybody in the world can agree on, it would be that everyone loves food. This attitude is especially prevalent in Singapore, where food is a culture- not simply a way to fill up your stomach. The food here reflects the diversity of the people that live here: Malay, Indonesian, Indian, Italian, Mexican- every cuisine on this planet can be found in bounties in Singapore. Singapore’s main center of eating isn’t at restaurants though- they take place in hawker stalls- large food court-type centers where food stalls are littered around tables and the whole place functions through self-service. Meals here are super cheap- a plate of rice and chicken will only run you about $3-4 USD and the options are endless. Some of Singapore’s signature dishes include Milo (Nestle-type drink), Fried Kway Teow (a type of noodles made in soy sauce and often paired with sausage and seafood), Stingray (tasted like fish? But tougher? I think that’s probably the best way for me to describe stingray), Black Pepper Chili Crab, and Kaya with Kopi (an amazingly warm piece of toast with cold honey and hot butter- literally the best breakfast food ever paired with the Singaporean version of coffee). Their national fruit? Durians (although curiously enough, is banned from pretty much anywhere that’s public in Singapore. You can get fined for bringing durians on any public transit and is frowned upon in most stores due to its scent, of which some describe as sweet while others deem repulsive and rotten). I’m enjoying all the cuisine offered here in Singapore, although I’ve only seen familiar titles here in Singapore. There’s a Starbucks just about every stop and McDonald’s, KFC, Long John Silver’s and especially Subway, are not uncommon sights. Out of curiosity, I stopped by McDonald’s and without a doubt, the menu is region specific and significantly better than in the US (although I will note that a meal at McDonald’s will often run more expensive than eating at hawker stalls). Some region-specific menu items include the twist and shake fries with crab seasoning, Singapore’s famous McSpicy (absolutely incredible although definitely hot), and Green Apple burst icecream (75 cents with a punch of sweet and tangy green apple).

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fishball soup!

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An impressive amount of satay~

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me trying durians for the first time

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International FOMO

In these days before I depart for Hong Kong, abandoning the familiar saddens me a bit. Travelling inherently holds this trap: leaving a home, family and friends behind, knowing there will be a senior-year NU football season that I won’t see, and missing the slow but steady transition from sunny days to the blistering but beautiful and familiar Chicago winter. In knowing the last moments in which I am home, every day and every hour becomes ever-more cherished. These are my last moments here for a long time which I will stamp into my memory until I return, for fear that they will somehow be washed away by new images, places, and experiences, and to be traced in moments of homesickness or longing.

But I know that study abroad, in addition to these difficulties, inherently holds the excitement of an entirely new environment with the advantage of finding familiarity, comfort, and sameness in making my host city and university feel like a new home. Chilly fall afternoons to be replaced by 80 degree days, football perhaps to be replaced by dragon boat races, deep dish pizza by dim sum; but all the while keeping music-making, sport, and economics, in one form or another, part of my regular student life.

Traveling inevitably means missing home, but studying abroad offers the mirror image of most of what I will leave behind. And knowing the temporality of my time in Hong Kong troubles me too; no matter where I go, I will miss someone and some place.  But in this moment, I have the most days abroad in front of me; the most to look forward to. And I won’t be missing out.

Dim Sum. Can't wait to try it. Can't say that I took this photo.

Dim Sum. Can’t wait to try it.

A dragon boat race. Can’t wait to witness it.

Just a Small Girl in a Big World

161566The National University of Singapore is huge. I think after two years of college at Northwestern University I was used to a campus where the tip of the campus and the lowest point of the campus could be reached in 20 minutes walking. And the closest CTA station was only 4-5 minutes away (here, the closest subway station is a 20 minute walk). Stepping foot on this campus was definitely a shock. My dorm (University Town) is on a campus of its own (to give a frame of reference, University Town is probably as big as the entire Evanston campus- boasting several dorms each about 17 stories high, a gym, an infinity pool, 5 different dining halls, nail and hair salons, grocery stores and shops in case you’re in the mood for Pizza hut over school food). To get to my classes, I have a 15 minutes walk to the bus stop followed by another 15 minutes bus ride to get to a whole other campus, which is probably twice as large as the Evanston campus. At NUS, students come in specialized so there are mini campuses within the overarching campuses (for example, Dentistry has its own clusters of buildings, as does Pharmacy, Business, and Computing Sciences). On the first day, trying to get to class, I got lost more than I care to admit. I think the entire freshman year, my walking schedule was from my dorm in Willard to Tech. I don’t believe I actually ever had class anywhere else. Luckily, the professors here are more than understanding of the massive size of the campus. Professors here tend to let students out 20-30 minutes early so students can get to their next class and are usually forgiving when students are a few minutes late. Nonetheless though, the campus is gorgeous, with tall tropical trees I’ve never seen in the US and long, winding stairs (it wasn’t until I got here until I realized how flat Northwestern was). I’m definitely expecting that by the time I come home, my legs will be super toned. Additionally, although I’ll always miss the bunnies at Evanston, NUS is home to an incredible diversity of butterflies, geckos, and stray cats. A little further out, there are monkeys in Singapore as well- the little remnant of Singapore’s old rainforest that’s leftover.

That feel when the school’s map kind of looks like a mini island

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Waffles & Icecream at the school hawker stall was only $1.40 USD!

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Cultural diversity in Singapore

It’s amazing how Singapore has managed to become one nation with so many different cultures, and each and every culture does shine. When you go to any food courts in Singapore, the option of food ranges from Indian, Malay, Indonesian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and more. While local residents of Singapore are officially Singaporean, they still do maintain a large part of their original culture. In most cases, people learn their home language first, but start to learn English as a second language from the age of 3 onwards, meaning pretty much everyone in Singapore is bilingual and keeps their previous cultural ties. In many cases, both English and Chinese are spoken, and it is common for people to speak to me in Mandarin before realizing that I actually only speak English.

From a cultural standpoint, Singapore feels similar to the US in that many US residents (like myself) are bi-cultural. Although I still have strong ties to my Korean culture, I do relate heavily to American culture also (I’ve never thought I’d crave a hamburger so much until I got here). Each culture even has their own hotspot in Singapore, such as China Town, Little India, and Arab Street. I’ve visited each of these places and it feels much different than the China Town in the U.S. Everything actually feels very local as if I’m actually not in Singapore but in the respective home country. I’m constantly amazed by the cultural diversity of such a young country, and hope to see more.

Sultan Mosque in Singapore, Arab Street.

Sultan Mosque in Singapore, Arab Street.