Expect the unexpected: On exchange in Asia (part 1) – people, university, food

night view

After a relatively short summer holiday suitcases were packed, goodbyes said, tears cried (well, I skipped this part) and I headed to Singapore to start my 3rd year Civil Engineering as an exchange student in Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. I’ve been to Asia few times before and absolutely fell in love with the warm people and the different culture. I couldn’t help but wonder whether my tourist perspective would be different from my ‘residential’ one. And, as usual, Asia didn’t come to disappoint.

Here are some scattered thoughts on what to expect to happen to you while you are on exchange:

  • You’ll meet A LOT of exchange students and make friends from all over the world – even though NTU doesn’t have an official ‘Freshers week’ for exchangers, there are plenty of events to go to where it’s likely that you’ll meet a lot of cool people. Exchangers are pretty easy to recognize and thus chatting up people has never been simpler (I do make sure to ask ‘Are you on an exchange poolhere’, though, I don’t want to bump into a full-time German student, let’s say, and appear prejudiced).

I’ve used the opportunity to talk to people on bus stops, in the library, in my classes – everyone is initially looking for friends and it’s never too late to meet someone amazing. Canteens are another hotspot, especially the one near our supermarket (only place selling alcohol on campus – that explains it, I guess). So far I’ve met a French guy who kept on calling me ‘potato’ in my native language, a Spanish talented photographer, a Nepalese-British taekwondo girl and many more inspiring and interesting people.

However, if you are lucky enough to live in halls (as I am now), your block and hall give you the best opportunities to make true friends – it’s easier than ever when you live 2 doors away. Eating in the canteens or simply going out to the pool, chances are you’ll get closest with your roommate and your floormates. Enjoy!

  • But you may also find it difficult to fit in the local crowd – People who study in NTU come mostly from Singapore, China, Malaysia and Indonesia – fairly similar countries when it comes to culture, and they all speak Chinese quite fluently. That’s why you may find yourself surrounded by people from your block whom you simply don’t understand sometimes.

campusPeople in halls are two types – freshers and seniors. Freshers are quite often from China on a bridging course which means they have a language year in order to improve their English skills. However, most of them are really shy and generally avoid using English unless they really have to. Seniors, on the other hand, are very busy and involved in countless activities, committees and so on – for you to secure a place on campus after 1st year, you need to be extremely socially active and participate in numerous hall-approved activities which get you points. In the end of the year, people with most points are the ones who’ll be living on campus next year. As you can imagine, people with such busy schedules normally don’t have too much time to speak to you.

Although initially they appear a bit distant, Singaporeans are friendly if you approach them and participate in their activities – just don’t try to compete with them, they are an extremely competitive bunch! You’re guaranteed a lot of fun if you manage to make friends – but you have to be persistent and really try hard for that.

  • Studying can get challenging – Being handed a leaflet “Don’t get a heart attack during exams” during my first week, it’s no wonder I met quite a few locals who thought I was crazy for coming on an exchange to an Asian country. Usually people choose more ‘relaxed’ and not so competitive environments because they want to travel, go out and enjoy themselves as much as they can. Well, I insist you can still do that while here, it’s just all about good time-management.

Ranked 13 in the world (and 6th for Engineering, which I’m doing), classes in here are not surprisingly more intense than in Edinburgh – starting from the fact they have 13 (not 11) teaching weeks, 2 midterm quizzes/assignments/tests and big group projects as part of the course (I’m lucky I have no group work 😀 ), all of this taught in quite a fast pace. I’d compare doing one semester here to doing 1.5 semesters back home.

However, lectures and some tutorials are recorded, so you can watch them from home if you miss something. Most of the times, the lecturer is also the tutor which helps if you have to clear something out. Tutorials are based mostly on examples shown in class, and so are exams (at least 75% of a paper is shown in class) – this means you can do well if you just follow up.

  • adventureExploring the University’s possibilities – As one of the youngest universities in the world, NTU definitely tries to jump as many positions as possible on the student feedback column by holding numerous events and having a lively campus. Starting from lunchtime concerts every few weeks where world-class classical musicians come to delight your senses for an hour, to having movie screenings, technepreneuership festivals, beer fests, free sports and dance sessions, block dinners and so on, the university never fails to disappoint. Nothing is too far on campus, either, and you can comfortably move around with the three (!) free bus lines that operate regularly on campus.

The university also has a great resource base consisting of 5 libraries with Business school and the Art/design/media school having separate ones, full of sometimes rare or expensive books on certain topics. As confusing as the campus may be initially (and you’ll find out why, if you come), after some time you’ll start appreciating the great mind beyond this architectural feast, utilizing the maximum of the hilly space where NTU is situated.

  • You’ll eat out .. a lot – If you are vegan/vegetarian/love cooking, life in NTU may be slightly challenging for you. I was surprised to find that fridges are not popular in halls and are more desired prizes than an iPad to win in a competition. Since the temperature doesn’t fall below 25 degrees, food gets bad QUICKLY – no comparison to Edinburgh where kitchens may be as cold as the fridge itself. I was lucky enough to have a competitive roommate who won first prize in a scavenger hunt and we got a small fridge for our room (of course, good things in life are rarely free, and we still have to pay for electricity).

IMG_4145With no oven in the kitchen, you’re left with boiling and stir-frying – not the healthiest options but they can still do. However, as I found out, most people here can’t cook and they don’t – eating out is absolutely normal even three times a day. Food in the canteens is cheap – for less than 2 quid you can get really full with delicius food, and there’s quite a variety in the bigger ones (Korean, Japanese, vegetarian, Western etc.) I can promise you, though, that no matter how big of a fan you are of noodles/rice/Chinese cuisine in general; you’ll probably get bored after a month or two and dip your spoon deeply into a jar of Nutella in search for a different flavor.

I hope this wasn’t too boring – next part is all about what Singapore is really like, travelling, going out and developing yourself. Stay tuned!

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