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The Struggles of an International Student

Join our writer, Chaarvi, as she navigates through a brand new world filled with unfamiliarity on this little red dot!



POV: You’ve just landed in Singapore, nervous yet exhilarated at the opportunities that are going to come your way. Armed with a map of the city and suitcase full of aspirations, you are determined to successfully navigate the cultural and academic labyrinths of this foreign land. Little do you know that your encounters with Singlish and its linguistic idiosyncrasies will leave you wishing for real-life subtitles, or that the weather here is as unpredictable as a game of bingo, with sun beaming down one minute, and the heavens unleashing a fierce downpour the next.


As an international student myself, it took me some time to adjust and enjoy my student life to the fullest. Here are some of the struggles that I have faced, (so that you don’t have to or at least can be well prepared for).


The Clash of Cultures


A cultural shock typically has three stages: honeymoon, uncertainty, and adaptation.


As I stepped into this new world, I was initially in my “Enthusiastic Explorer” phase, where every new sight was a treat to the eyes. Gardens by the Bay, The Merlion, Sentosa, and even commonplaces of areas like the university library exacted satisfying sounds of appreciation from my mouth. Trying new delicacies was a novelty, while mingling with locals was an achievement in itself.


Next, came the most frustrating and challenging part - “The Lost in Translation Daze”. From deciphering economical, shortened phrases and questions in Singlish to understanding the intensity of feelings behind the many slang words like Lah! and Hor!, I did it all. The allure of this language eventually started to fade out, when I struggled with ordering food or purchasing items as it would expand into long tedious conversations, where both parties were confused as to what the other was saying.


Gradually, I eased myself into laughing at all the embarrassing moments and started experimenting. Once, when I ordered a dish with a unique blend of flavours, my palate were not ready for the astronomical journey I would be brought on. As with all journeys, some you enjoy. Others, not quite much. This was one dish that resulted in a cultural explosion on my uninitiated taste buds. When, finally, at the sixth attempt, I got my kopi order right without the kopitiam aunty giving me an amused look, I silently celebrated. And before I knew it, I entered the “Cultural Chameleon” phase, a turning point in my life, where I had practically transformed into a local.


What got me through? A sprinkle of humour and a dash of patience. Embracing the awkward moments, being calm with oneself during exasperating encounters and taking baby steps really helps one to adapt to a new culture. That, and a little bit of your own research or a tete-a-tete with a local. 


Right up your academic alley


It’s no secret that SMU is extremely competitive when it comes to academics. As an international student, you might feel nervous observing your local classmates perform excellently. The pressure to actively participate in class and the need to chase after the perfect GPA while juggling CCA workload can be quite overwhelming.


Conquering the much-dreaded SMU bell-curve, while being able to give time to pamper yourself, might not be such a herculean task as it is often perceived to be. The first step that I took as a freshman was to familiarise myself with the course outline of each module. This enabled me to understand expectations of every class and the weightage I had to give to the different class components. Next, I proceeded to integrate the assignment deadlines into my calendar, and start mulling about them at least 2 weeks before the submission date. This is a ritual that I have continued to imbibe till date, through which I can not only enjoy the process of studying, but also come up with unique ideas and insightful questions. The key is to fully appreciate and abide by the education system at SMU to keep up. 


Utilising the university's resources is another tool in my academic arsenal. The libraries at SMU have everything: textbooks, academic journals and magazines, novels, DVDs - relevant to your classes and your interests. If you feel like taking a break from work, there are many places on campus to explore and  rejuvenate. For budding musicians, we have the SMU Jamming Room, for nature-lovers, lush and verdant campus green is a good place to hangout and for those who just enjoy some good old-fashioned fun, we have the Games Lounge. No matter how busy your day, it is essential to unwind by doing or discovering something new. 


The Housing Hitch


By far, housing was the bumpiest part of my university rollercoaster ride. Having matriculated later than usual and finding the hostel full, I grew absolutely frantic looking for a place to stay in Singapore. Places were scratched off the housing list, numerous phone calls were made, and yet I was only able to secure a place successfully, a few days before I left for Singapore. In hindsight, I could have done a few things differently.


It is important to plan in advance and not leave this daunting bit of your journey overseas till the last minute. Make a list of the places that are in your budget and contact them early on. If you’re looking for places in the city centre or near to the university, it is advisable to rent a private apartment or a condominium, with a large group of 3 or 4. This way, you not only lower the cost of your rent, but also share a major part of your cost of living expenses with your flatmates. Joining student communities and housing platforms can prove to be a goldmine of information in discovering which accommodation option works the best for you, or tips like negotiating with the landlord to get the best deal. 


And that’s a wrap on my escapades of being an international student up till now! Some struggles were comic, some really stressful, while some were joyous - but the true essence of these struggles lies in overcoming them and going on. As an international student, one must remember, that instead of the destination - “a perfect GPA and the most prestigious job”, it is the delightful detours which are the most memorable - the hilarious cultural mishaps, the gloppy, hastily-cooked home meals and all the Singlish mispronunciations.


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