Dear Exchange Student Wannabe,
“I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference”, Robert Frost famously crystallised the idea of shunning the conventional in favour of the eccentric, unusual, and rare into a succinct, memorable one-liner. You may not share his views about the “all the difference” portion, but it would be hard to disagree that we choose dissimilar paths in the hope of an experience largely unlike the rest. In the spirit of reflection and introspection, I would like to share some thoughts about my overseas exchange experience thus far, and I would be elated if you benefit and learn something from it.
Let us first address the elephant in the room: some, if not most, students desire an overseas sojourn to enjoy certain perks concerning their grades. I am referring here, of course, to the regulation that all modules taken overseas will not be counted to students’ GPA in their university, and that credits can be transferred as long as they pass. As life in a foreign university is very often seen to be less hectic compared to NUS/SMU/NTU, so many think of exchange as a good time to, to utilise an oft-used Singlish slang for emphasis, nua.
I thought I was going to turn out the same way too. My first two years in NUS were, very truthfully, mostly spent on my readings, projects, essays, and examinations. I found it, for the lack of a better word, rather fulfilling since I enjoy what I study, but I would be lying if I said I was not fatigued by the harsh bell-curve system. So, upon hearing that my exchange to Japan was confirmed, I went ecstatic, partially with the knowledge that I already had those credits of my 2016/2017 academic year in the pocket without even working for them.
And now that I am halfway through my exchange, I have to break the news to you that, fortunately or unfortunately, whether you are looking forward to it or not, what your seniors told you is really true – life in a foreign university (disclaimer: generally speaking, because I am not trying to discount your efforts if you are working really hard for credits in a foreign university *fist bump*) is indeed less taxing. My workload right now is much lighter than before, and attendance does appear to matter more than doing particularly well for examinations to pass. In sum, I could jolly well take some classes, attend them dutifully, and spend the rest of my wonderful exchange traveling, catching the sunset, or sleeping the day away.
But as you probably would have guessed if you were paying attention, my exchange took a slightly unexpected turn, due to a fortuitous series of events. It all began with my desire to perfect my Japanese; as a huge fan and learner of the Japanese language, it pained me when I realised I could not communicate well with native speakers after arriving in Japan (I think I still can’t, by the way). In a perhaps naive attempt to master the language in 1 year, I decided that I would put myself in all sorts of situations that would allow me to speak and use Japanese. Whether it was serving in a restaurant or talking to others over coffee, I will be all for it if it is done in Japanese. Life would not be too different, since it is only 1 goal.
And then I entered a dance club to interact more with native Japanese. And then I took up a part-time job to learn formal Japanese. And then I decided I will do academic classes in Japanese so that I can use the language more. And then, and then, and then… It was actually only a few days ago when I whipped out my phone to plan a meeting with a friend that I discovered inadvertently that my calendar was astonishingly filled with dance training sessions, part-time work shifts, and other activities related to Japanese learning.
I might live to regret my decisions because I have confined myself to the same few places in Tokyo for the past few months, toiling and working, sometimes in vain, all for a Japanese proficiency that I may lose very quickly once my exchange is over. On my way to dance training, I am occasionally reminded of this “the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page” Tumblr GIF. Am I a silly dreamer who is stuck on the preface of an amazing and interesting book?
I do not think I will ever know how it is like to wander freely to the beautiful lakes and forests in a foreign land, visiting landmark places that frequently appear on television, and savouring sumptuous food exclusive to certain regions of the world like some of my peers because, well, I have not done them. But I would still want to describe some of my encounters and experiences, so that you – prospective exchange student – will be able to more proactively decide what kind of life you want abroad.
I have had my fair share of ups and downs here. I am the only foreigner in my dance club, and miscommunication is a frequently occurring issue. Because my Japanese is not fabulously native, I fail to interact on a deep level with my peers, and that means I will inevitably be left out. I am a beginner in dance, and sometimes I feel bad when the rehearsal videos look pretty sucky because of mistakes I made. But I have also grown not only as a dancer but also a human being in this club, as I am often reminded of my passion for dance and the importance of empathy. I have made some friends and performed on stage in front of a public audience.
Part-time work is a drag sometimes too; in the winter cold, one would very much want to be in the comfort of his or her home all the time. The work itself can be interesting (I was doing a bit of translation work), but it can be dull too (because administrative work is also part of the job scope. On winter days when the dusk is stretched and dawn shortened, I am greeted by darkness after I end my 4 or 5 hour shift. Building rapport with colleagues and bosses is not a simple task even in Singapore, let alone in Japan when I have to interact with others in mostly Japanese. I did get a firsthand experience of how a start-up in Japan works though, and I think my career goals became clearer after this stint.
I am doing all of this – let’s not forget – while juggling with school work at the same time. But as mentioned, most of my time is spent on Japanese rather than English modules because they are, for obvious reasons, more challenging. And I am about the embark on my most arduous journey yet, which is to do a Japanese academic class with native Japanese students. As I stroll casually on this journey though, I have also found myself peers who would accompany me for parts of my journey because they share the same fire as me.
Perhaps you now have a better idea now of an alternative path for your exchange studies, but I wish to put this out there to you before going further: the road more traveled is not easier. It would be a gross misunderstanding to think that an exchange that comprises mostly of traveling or a relaxing school schedule is akin to skiving, as leaving one’s home country will always present challenges that takes you out of your comfort zone. I certainly do not believe that my friends travelling to all the different countries in Europe are having an easier time than me (even if their Instagram photos may suggest otherwise). This might come off as a sarcastic remark on my part, but, trust me, you will have to live it to believe it.
But looking up, this means that my experience in Japan is not any tougher too. Everyone wishes to have a once-in-a-lifetime overseas journey, and mine may tick certain boxes than others do not as well. You cannot have your cake and eat it in life, but I wish that you have a better grasp of the different permutations of overseas experiences one can have. It can be a breeze, but it can also be an eye-opener. Or it can be both. Or it can be more.
Will these choices of yours make all the difference as Frost suggest? Well, Frost may be a renowned literati, but you are more qualified to answer that question.
P.S. The “grades not counted” portion is a pretty awesome similarity that all exchange experiences share, so do enjoy and make full use of it!
An Exchange Student Who is Halfway There