Being a Singaporean International Student at Barnard

by Erin Low

When people learn that I’m from Singapore (under those recent NSOP obligations to learn everyone’s names, intended majors, and where they’ve come from), many would express surprise, and then ask why I’d chosen to come to Barnard.

Singapore is also very cosmopolitan 

I wished I could say something momentous, such as how I fell in love with the campus the moment I laid eyes on it (on Google Images). Or how I carefully considered Barnard as a prestigious institution for women’s education, with the added bonus of its affiliation with Columbia University— then figured out how I, a supposedly talented, unique individual, would fit into the equation.

In reality, all I would manage is a vague “Oh, you know. I’ve always wanted to study in New York. And, err, to do liberal arts. Which is difficult to do in Singapore.”

And to comfort myself about that resoundingly anticlimactic response, I’d say to myself mentally, Well, at least they didn’t ask if Singapore is in China.

The question does nag at me from time to time, considering I applied early decision to Barnard, and went through all the paperwork to guarantee my traveling halfway across the globe, from my tiny island-nation to New York City. Indeed, why am I here, struggling to mentally convert Fahrenheit to Celsius, miles to kilometers; receiving affectionate chuckles whenever I pronounce “tomato (toh-MAH-toe)”, or use terms like “queue” and “dustbin”?

I’m slowly realizing that these frustrations—frustrations familiar to many international students—ultimately serve to enrich my college experience, which is part of what I want from an overseas education. While Singapore too is a bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis in its own right, I’ve found things fundamentally different here in New York, or more generally, in American culture itself, and in the environment of a liberal arts college.

Perhaps the starkest difference I feel is this newfound culture of frankness. Upon moving into my dorm, my mother and I spotted a poster board advertising “Safe Sex and Sweets” (essentially, it was a dispenser of both candy and condoms for all passers-by). I instinctively averted my eyes, and felt mildly embarrassed, not because my mother was there, but well, just because. Through the NSOP events that followed, I also learnt about gender pronouns, LGBT issues, racial micro-aggression, and so many other things alien to me— because these are things we’ve never had, nor saw the need to have open discussions about back home.

Chancing upon the “No Red Tape” rally last Friday with my roommate, I remarked that it is technically illegal in Singapore to gather and demonstrate in public, without a government-issued license. She was shocked, and asked if a group of students with a similar cause could get a license to rally in Singapore. That question caught me off-guard, and I didn’t know how to respond, because quite simply, we (or the ‘we’ I considered myself part of) just don’t do protests and activism– nor do we ever give serious thought to the rightful treatment of ‘gender-based misconduct’ (a term that I’ve only gotten familiar with ever since coming here).

This spontaneity and outspokenness manifest in all aspects of campus life at Barnard, which I’m definitely still adjusting to. Speaking up in class is still tough, and I’ve rarely experienced awkward lengths of silent unresponsiveness in my new classes, which, back in my old school, were fairly common. I’ve made conscious effort to attend club activities that interest me, when back home, I would definitely favor sprawling out on my bed with a good book. As masochistic as this sounds, being uncomfortable was a challenge I wanted—no, needed— to take up, at the cusp of adulthood. Though I’m still mastering the art of making small talk in the elevator, and slowly Americanising (oops, Americanizing) the British spelling I was taught, what remains is a sense of optimism for my four years here. And in the future, if you caught me somewhere and asked why I chose Barnard, perhaps then I could offer you something much more insightful.

Erin Low is a first-year at Barnard and a staff writer for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Image courtesy of The National University of Singapore.

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