I like to consider my study abroad to Singapore my first real travel experience. It was the first time I, as an adult, took off on my own without support from my parents or other parental figures.
I had done another exchange program after I graduated high school to Germany but that was through Rotary International. Due to the nature of “Youth Exchange”, there was a massive list of rules that I should be adhering to as well as always being under some kind of parental supervision. I’m not going to sit here and denounce that as a valid travel experience but it is definitely something different to travel without rules or real expectations you need to hold up. Sure. Sure. You can also say that I was a representative of my home university while studying abroad this time, but they didn’t actually give me any guidelines they want me to follow in order to represent the school properly.
For me, this exchange meant FREEDOM!
My first taste of travel freedom was me getting off the airplane in Singapore around noon with an unforgettable, overwhelming, sinking feeling. Yay! Great start! My head swelled with questions. Was I actually in over my head here? Was the 1 week of uninterrupted planning enough or did I royally screw myself over? Did I bring enough money to get to campus (which thanks to Google, I realized was on the exact opposite side of the island)? I don’t have a phone to contact anyone, what if something goes wrong? As someone with high anxiety in normal situations, being there alone, with no one meeting me and no one expecting me, not knowing where I was going exactly or how ANYTHING was really suppose to pan out – I was on the verge of a panic attack.
After a couple of deep breathes, making it through customs (which was a lot easier than I thought it would have been), and finding my bag, I headed for the taxi queue. I guess it was nice that this first experience happened in Singapore – a country that loves organization and a place for everything. There was a lady waiting for me at the front and directed me towards an empty taxi waiting for me. Everything seemed all right. The taxi took off and being distracted by the tropical plants and colourful high-rise buildings, it felt like no time at all before I saw signs saying “Nanyang Technological University”. It took 15 minutes and 3 stops to ask people where Hall 5 was once on campus but I finally found my home for the next 5 months… Kind of.
It was a whole different struggle to find the essentially unmarked Hall 5 office and then waiting an hour outside because I arrive midday when they take their lunch break. Which wouldn’t be too bad if it wasn’t for the fact that it was 32˚C and I was in jeans and a long sleeve shirt after leaving Canadian winter behind me. One more struggle to get my 30kg suitcase to my room on the 3rd floor. Finally, a deep exhale. Finally, I was here.
The first week was a crazy whirlwind of trying to find my way around campus, getting all my paper work in order for me to stay in the country, and figuring out what classes I want to take that would also give me long weekends to travel whenever I want. It wasn’t long until I settled into the daily life at NTU.
I was singled out in all my classes on a regular basis to give the “Canadian perspective/opinion” on every topic. Being a white girl in an Asian majority country, I couldn’t blend in no matter how hard I tried. The fact that half my classes had less than 10 people made it even more obvious that I was the exchange student. I picked up all the easiest ways and shortcuts to get around campus. Walking around campus as much as I did was shocking to the locals. Why would you ever walk for 10 minutes outside to get to class instead of taking the free bus?!?! My only response to this was “old habits die hard”… I walked everywhere in Toronto including a 50 minute walk to my job. Taking a bus such a short distance seemed unnecessary.
Never living in a dorm before, I had my apprehensions about living in one. My biggest worry, living with a roommate, turned out to be not as big a deal as I thought. I was placed with a sweet girl from Chicago who, if not traveling, would probably be found at her cousin’s house since they had air conditioning and our room didn’t. I would have done the same if I was her; living in Singaporean heat without air conditioning can definitely test one’s endurance. But with her gone most of the time, it felt like I had a single. Dorm life in general was much more relaxed than the stories my friends had told me about Canadian dorms. Everyone was really quite and kept to their rooms for the most part. The only interaction with the locals in dorms was in passing on my way to the kitchen to get some hot water for my tea.
Generally, my life at NTU wasn’t too different from my life in downtown Toronto. I didn’t have as much room, a communal bathroom, and the inability to cook my own food. Okay, it was quite different from my life in Toronto but it wasn’t bad. And sure, it doesn’t sound very nice but compared to the other places I would stay while traveling on the weekends; it was like a 5 star resort.