When I first landed in Hong Kong, only of the most striking features of the new city-scape was, naturally, that Chinese characters were everywhere. Initially knowing next-to-nothing, I have grown to find the city to be like an elaborate puzzle or mystery: the more characters I come to learn and recognize, the more meaning I can unlock from the world around me.
Amid this quest, I have learned that the inability to read has not been exclusive to foreigners visiting Hong Kong or mainland China: in the not-so-distant past, a large proportion of the nations’ population was illiterate. It turns out that the bright and colorful stations of the MTR (Hong Kong’s transit system) were not only created to be aesthetically pleasing for travelers, but also to serve a functional purpose by helping illiterate passengers recognize otherwise indistinguishable stations.
For instance, the Choi Hung MTR station is marked with rainbow-colored pillars, since Choi Hung means rainbow in Cantonese.
In an effort to make literacy and education more widespread, the Chinese government adopted a standard, “simplified” set of characters. The relationship between traditional and simplified characters, as one of my Hong Kong friends explained, is like that of a father and son. When the father (the traditional character) looks at his son (the simplified character), he can see their resemblance. But when the son looks at his father, he cannot necessarily say the same.
Take the character for “turtle” as an example (the simplified version is on the left):
In Hong Kong, students as young as kindergarteners are expected to learn how to write the traditional version of this character. Hong Kong still uses traditional characters while most of mainland China has converted to simplified characters.
In addition, different components (“radicals”) of the characters are pieced together to construct the word’s meaning. This kind of clever and complex storytelling I find gives Chinese tremendous depth in meaning. While I have only just scratched the surface in understanding Chinese characters, I hope to be able to say one day: I see and understand Chinese characters.
Upon reflecting on my experiences in Singapore, I came to realize that I have grown, both personally and professionally. I came to Singapore with little to no idea what I wanted to do in the future. Sure, I had my economics classes where I learned about some theory about banking and how our financial system worked, but I had no idea what job I wanted to do or what skills would be most transferrable for jobs in the financial sector. I was able to clear up many of my questions by studying in the business school. The National University of Singapore business school took on a much more hands-on approach with courses. Instead of having just lectures and exams, much of my coursework consisted of semester-long group work, allowing me to really understand the core of the subject I was studying in a real life context. For example, in my marketing class, I was able to understand how to assess a country’s openness to new industries and companies and the best way to penetrate the market using consumer analysis. For our project, we were responsible for bringing a US-based company to Thailand and pitch a viable methodology to our class at the end of the semester. Throughout the semester, our teacher would throw problems at us, and we would have to figure out how to solve it in creative and innovative ways. The course was super enlightening for me and allowed me to realize what kind of environment I want to work in in the future.
Along with professional growth, I think I was able to personally grow as well. I was welcomed to a culture so different from my own- from not wearing flip flops in the showers and learning to always take shoes off before entering the hall to learning about local student experiences (such as the mandatory draft for boys- leading to all the male students being two years older). I also learned some practical knowledge. Before coming here, I had never fully planned for trips, and being on my own really opened my eyes to handling personal finances and allowed me to have a better understanding of budgeting when it comes to vacations or weekend getaways. Obtaining visas, understanding how to use a SIM card, and balancing my schedule was never something I really had to do or know about while at Northwestern, so in that sense, I gained some life skills as well.
I know I will miss Singapore. I made a lot of new friends that I already miss, learned a lot from the courses that I took, and really grew a lot in terms of the direction and path I hope to take in the future. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to have studied abroad here.
Forget everything you know about registration at Northwestern. The process for registering for classes at University College London (UCL) is completely different. Enrollment appointment, doesn’t exist. Registering completely online, doesn’t exist. Relatively straightforward class registration, doesn’t exist. In order to study abroad at UCL you must pick at least one department you would like to belong to. Though, you are allowed to be a part of two departments. A full class schedule at UCL consists of 4 classes per semester. You must take at least half of your class load within your department(s), the remaining load can be taken within any department of your choosing at UCL. UCL has a very interesting registration process in which you can register for classes anytime you choose (until a few weeks after classes start) after you have successfully enrolled at UCL during the International Student Orientation Programme (ISOP) for Affiliate Students. However, before successfully doing so you must talk to your specific department(s) about whether you will be taking classes outside of your department(s). If you plan on taking classes outside of your department(s) you must also speak to the affiliate tutor or administrator of the other department(s) to obtain permission to take classes within their department. If he/she grants you permission, then you can add the class or classes to your online registration page. After these steps have been taken, you must go speak to your department(s) affiliate tutor or administrator and he/she will be able to successfully enroll you into all of your chosen classes.
Though registration can be somewhat of a nightmare, especially when it comes to meeting all the requirements you have at UCL and at Northwestern, the classes you end up taking will be worth it. The teaching and studying method abroad is very different than the one back home, largely it is more independent. However, experiencing this difference is just another reason why studying abroad is more than worth it.
A mosque in Singapore ^
I think if there’s one striking difference between the US and Singapore- it’s the diversity that’s here. Everywhere you look, there are people of 20 different skin colors and 10 languages are being spoken in a room at any given time. This isn’t just the “tourist-y” places but pretty much everywhere in Singapore. Women working in burqas are a common sight and traditional clothing aren’t worn only for special events. Chinatown isn’t just a place filled with Chinese restaurants but has been enriched with Chinese cultures, including temples, a village filled with statues inspired by Chinese mythology, and rituals the public can join and participate in. Little India and Arab Street have huge mosques and places of worship welcome to visitors and street after street of traditionally painted murals. I’ve heard there is no Freedom of the Press here, and the government does this in order to maintain peace between the different races here. The government also instills quotas in neighborhoods so there can’t be more than a certain percentage of a race in one concentrated region. Prior to coming here, I wasn’t sure what living under an authoritarian regime would be like. The word ‘Authoritarian’ in my political science classes almost always carries a negative connotation. The role the government plays in Singaporean daily life is much more present. Walking through the metro, the ads are seldom ads for new watches or perfume, but ads sponsored by the government to be more active or a new housing grant for those earning below average wage. A running joke among my friends and I is that every subway station drops you off at a shopping center (proven to be true in the majority of subway stations we’ve gotten off at!) and many of these malls will have posters inside promoting healthy eating (reject fried food, choosing veggies) as well as posters that brand “Low Crime Doesn’t Mean No Crime”, warning citizens to always be aware. Further, most of the best museums, sport complexes, and tourist sites here are sponsored by the government, further emphasizing the role of the government in people’s daily lives. As an expat trying to experience daily life as a local Singaporean would, I’m honestly impressed by the services provided- perhaps this calls for a change of perspective on how we should be viewing these loose political terms and how a place with stricter rules can help lessen racial tensions in an extremely diverse society.
Singapore is culturally known as one that has extreme focus on academics and grades. Therefore, it is no surprise that around finals week, the level of stress for all students is at an all time high. The libraries gets packed, and sometimes students even sleep overnight in the libraries while studying. I too got sucked in to the culture and fell into a state of high stress, reviewing all my lecture notes, re-watching all my lectures, and repeatedly doing practice final exams.
I think that NUS students study just as hard (or harder) than NU students for sure. They are all highly motivated and I think the fact that all classes are graded on a bell curve push every student harder, since they are in the end all competing against each other. I felt that Northwestern’s final culture, albeit still stressful, was a little bit more lax than in NUS. I strongly felt this way especially after my first final. NUS has separate venues for examinations (meaning you don’t just take the finals in your classroom), and they are gymnasium-sized buildings, with rows upon rows of tables, filled with students from multiple classes. This kind of mass standardized testing setting only furthered my test anxiety.
As stressful as it was, at least I got to study in the warmth of the constant summer in Singapore, rather than the cold atrocious winters of Chicago.
Finishing up my semester in Singapore is such a bittersweet feeling. It feels like I just arrived off the plane with my giant luggage in tow, desperately hoping that I’d adjust to the intense heat and humidity quickly. While I still haven’t adjusted to the weather here after 4 months, most everything else about Singapore has started to feel like home. I have my favorite pockets of Singapore, my favorite hawker centers, and my go-to study spots on campus. I can navigate the subway system with absolutely no problem, as well as the bus system on campus. I know the best spots on campus to watch the sun set, the most relaxing nooks along the beaches, and the most interesting islands along the coast of Singapore. I’ve finally gotten used to life in Singapore, and now I have to leave it.
While I’m sad to leave Singapore, the friends I’ve met here, and all the places I’ve traveled in Southeast Asia, I’m excited to see my friends and family soon. I’m also relieved to almost be finished with classes. While all interesting and engaging, the courses at NUS have proven to be quite difficult and intensive, comparable to that of courses at Northwestern. I also wasn’t expecting there to be such an emphasis on group work; all 5 of my courses had major long-term group projects throughout the semester. Sometimes I had to plan shorter weekend excursions or skip dinners or events with friends due to meeting for group projects. While the group projects and intensity of classes presented obstacles, I’m still so glad I picked Singapore and NUS as my study abroad destination.
If you want to stand on an escalator, be sure to stand on the right. If you wish to walk up or down the escalator, do so quickly on the left. As for elevators, if you are standing by the door, press the door open button until all nearby passengers may enter the elevator. As soon as the elevator is boarded, immediately press the close door button. File into and out of the elevator very swiftly.
These are the unwritten rules of Hong Kong elevator and escalator etiquette.
A very long escalator in Mong Kok, Hong Kong
Back in the states, it would have seemed odd to me that I would find myself writing a post on vertical vehicles, but Hong Kong’s idealized and practiced elevator and escalator norms I find to be emblematic of the kind of serious efficiency which the city has mastered. Lines that I would have previously considered too long disappear within a few short minutes. Payments with a tap-and-go “Octopus” card allow purchases to happen in a blink. Store clerks and waiters avoid small talk at all costs to ensure the service tasks themselves are done properly and quickly.
One can never fully understand this kind of environment, these seamless queuing practices and high standards of efficiency, until one visits this place. There is sort of a mutual understanding among all citizens—and integrated foreigners—to play their part, melting into the steady rhythm of the city’s fast pace.
While some might initially perceive this as a sense of coldness across the city, I find that it comes out of the necessity to make-do while living in one of the world’s most densely populated cities. For one, the sheer number of buildings over one hundred meters (1,303 to be exact) necessitate not only functioning elevators and escalators, but a culture of efficiency to make it all work. And so, I find myself standing on the right and walking on the left: getting onto Hong Kong’s level.
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.
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!
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.