Emotional aftermath

By Nooa Karlo ((previously) University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong)

After finishing my studies in the University of Hong Kong, following the last deadline I had for term paper submissions on the 24th of May, I soon left to travel in South Korea and Japan for almost three weeks. Now, I suppose I could talk about that time, because there certainly would be a lot to talk about, evidenced by over 2000 pictures I took while travelling. But looking back at things now that it’s been a few months since I returned home and now that there’s an entire summer between Hong Kong and me reveals that I really do miss staying there. And not just staying there, I miss the food, the buildings, the ocean, the colours, the sounds. (Ok there’s one thing I don’t miss and that’s whatever the weather was very quickly becoming as spring progressed towards summer but I barely avoided that so let’s not count that.) I miss the people I met and the experiences I had, even though it’s sometimes difficult for me to remember it all coherently, because there was just so much going on. Eventually I got used to the new things and they became everyday things, old things. So now that I won’t be going back anymore, at least not as an undergraduate exchange student, now that my room in the JCSVIII is no longer my room, now that I can use my credit card in practically any shop at any time without having to fear the card reader will say ‘connection lost’ at any moment, now that I can’t awkwardly say the only greeting I learnt in Cantonese to the people around me anymore, it just feels strange. Because it feels like I should be going back, but I’m not. I don’t miss Hong Kong in the way that would make my chest feel tight and my face contort to sadness, but I miss it in the way that things just don’t feel right now that I’m not there anymore. Five months was a really short time and I wish I could’ve stayed for longer, but it was just enough to make me feel somewhat at home even on the other side of the world. To those people who helped make me feel that way, I would like to say thanks. I hope I will be able to keep in contact with you in the future too! And to those who were affected by the typhoon a week ago, not only in Hong Kong but especially in Hong Kong, I wish strength to overcome whatever problems it caused you. Having seen the destruction the storm left in its wake has made me worry about the safety of everyone there. Hope you’re all okay. I guess that’s all I wanted to say about my time in Hong Kong on this blog. Goodbye, and thanks for those who’ve read my posts as well!

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One of the many faces of Hong Kong

Singapore ends

By Monika Kvassheim, National University of Singapore

As most other exchange students, if I could do it again, I would. I had a great year in Singapore and have been home for a while thinking about it. I wanted to write about the highlights of the year that I haven’t mentioned so far.

I had a family, sort of a host family, who invited me for dinners and get togethers once in a while, a highlight was the Chinese New Year dinner cooked by the grandma. Or when we made a promo video for one of the board games designed by my host’s husband.

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Joining NUS mountaineering

By Monika Kvassheim, National University of Singapore

The most standard advice on how to get to know people when starting university is to get involved in a student club. I went to the fair at NUS and wanted to try a new sport. Though several clubs where open for beginners, I got the impression most of the clubs were for people who already knew the sport. However, the mountaineering group was very welcoming and said anyone could come to training, for free and with no commitments. When I went for the first training it was mainly because I kept failing to motivate myself to run in the heat and humidity, I did not imagine I would end up climbing a 5863 meter peak in Himalaya with them.

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NUS academics

By Monika Kvassheim, National University of Singapore

Studying at NUS was very different from in Manchester. As I study physics, the department in Manchester is large and at NUS it is tiny, so the differences might be larger for me than other courses. It is a general thing though, as far as I understand, that coursework is heavily weighted at NUS in all faculties. If there are a lot of students in a class it is marked by a bell curve. This means that to get better marks other people need to do worse than you. While this protects students against hard exams, it can also create a study culture where people are not willing to help each other. I in no way experienced this, but I heard stories about it from friends in other faculties.

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Science library. 15 minutes before it closes they play classical music to chase people out.

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Coming Home

I didn’t get the rush of relief that usually comes with the end of exams and deadlines. While I was of course happy to have finished my exams, I knew that it also meant the end of my time in Singapore.

Near to the end of my stay, I started to learn more about Singapore from a citizens point of view, proving the paradise of Singapore to be more complex than just a country full of good natured people. One friend we made was a Singaporean beach club owner who my friend and I would spend time talking to on our Saturday afternoons at the beach. He explained that while he was proud of Singapore’s safety, it came with a multiple of rules and regulations limiting the freedom of the Singaporeans. The housing shortage in Singapore, for example, caused the government to enforce legislation which meant that someone could only buy their own property if they were married. Before I knew this, I always thought it was strange that the majority of the students at NUS lived at home with their parents rather than on the campus, and would be expected to move back in after university until they got married. I presumed this was just the culture. It is commonly assumed that certain rules and laws, for instance the ban on public drinking between 10.30 pm and 7am, are just a result of Singapore being ‘boring’ or trying to uphold high levels of safety. However, people believed that the bill was passed by parliament after the 2 hour long 2013 Little India riot. This involved 300 migrant labourers which broke out because of the death of an Indian migrant worker after a collision with a private bus. Investigations found the migrant worker killed to have been intoxicated while trying to board the private bus. The apparent perfection of Singapore has obviously come at a price.

One of my few regrets about my time abroad is not having applied to spend a year here instead of just a semester. At the time you think that 5 months away from home is going to be more than enough but I have realised that 5 months flashes before your eyes and it was only at the end of this time that I actually started to feel settled and comfortable. It was only in exam season that we started to discover some of my favourite parts of Singapore. Kampong Glam, for example, is beautiful and has a certain atmosphere that I think you would find hard to come across anywhere else, as you walk past the open front shops selling incense and different arabic fabrics and clothing. Despite how much I love Singapore, I think the one thing I am most grateful for are the friends I have met while I have been here. I feel very privileged to have met people all across the world, from places like South Korea to America and Canada to countries all around Europe. As I start to pack up my things I think back to when I first arrived in my room and how nervous I was, especially when I realised there was no wifi and no way of contacting home, freaked out by the lizards and stressed out because of the humidity. 5 months later, I’ve learned to love the lizards and am definitely not looking forward to being cold in England.

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Kampong Glam
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Sentosa beach
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Skyline of Singapore

Looking back on academic differences and moving on to whatever’s next

By Nooa Karlo (University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong)

It’s finally the end. After a long four and half months, I’ll be leaving Hong Kong on Monday morning. It really doesn’t feel as long when looking back on the final day, though. It feels like the exam period that’s lasted for the past four weeks represents a kind of escalation in the perceived speed at which days have been passing. I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels this way. Everyone’s busy during exams, and I was especially so because I had so many modules that required final papers instead of exams, and the deadlines for those papers were almost all of them in early May. In addition, I spent four days travelling and visiting a friend in Taiwan in late April, which, while allowing me to take my mind off of studying, also took some energy. The April-May juncture left me quite exhausted, so I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to rest as much as I can. And now I have to leave? It feels very sudden, even though I’ve had everything planned and ready for over a month now. But at the same time I feel like I’m quite ready to move on.

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The National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan.

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Doing everything vs. staying sane

By Nooa Karlo, (University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong)

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Not a stereotypical exchange student.

There’s a common and stereotypical image of exchange students as these endlessly spirited and energetic creatures that will take every and any chance to find new experiences and opportunities. They’re people who are always smiling, going out, organising and participating in activities, partying, exploring and experiencing. Sometimes this also includes studying hard, sometimes not. In any case, it has been clear to me from the beginning that I did not fit well into this image. Continue reading “Doing everything vs. staying sane”

Independence

Following last weeks celebration of International Women’s Day, I decided to focus this blog on the theme of independence.

At NUS we are given a recess week half way through the semester, so we took this opportunity to spend a week in Vietnam. We spent the majority of our time in Hanoi but also spent two days in Ha Long Bay and one day in Ninh Binh, both of which were beautiful. However, throughout all the amazing things that we did and saw, it was the Women’s Museum in Hanoi that touched me the most. The museum was an extraordinary tribute to the women of Vietnamese history and of Vietnam today who have and continue to work for their nation and family. A documentary that was played in the museum exhibited the current situations of many of these women. With their husbands ill or unable to work, women that now work in Hanoi told their stories of how they wake up at ridiculous times like 4am to make their way to the market, so they can buy their produce to sell during the day. Usually not returning home till times like 11pm, they spend what little time they have tending to the house and their children before only having a couple of hours sleep before having to start the same day again. Their days are filled with terror as they are often chased by the police, and most days they barely make enough money to feed their family.

The most striking part of the whole museum, however, was one room filled with the photographs of hundreds of vietnamese women. These women have been named the ‘Heroic Mothers of Vietnam’. This title was granted to over 50,000 women who had lost more than two children, their only child, only one child, their husband and children or their own life. It was a title given to acknowledge the silent sacrifices of the thousands of women involved in the Vietnam War. One particular image from the museum, named “Mother and Son Reunite”, was a photo recording the reunion of an ex-Con Dao prisoner who was sentenced to death after being accused of being a Viet Cong spy, with his mother after many years of separation. I think the picture says enough for itself about sacrifice.

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Some of the ‘Heroic Mothers of Vietnam’

On returning from Vietnam, everything suddenly seemed to get a lot harder. The fun and travelling of the last month and a half had stopped and I was immediately bombarded with a lot more work than what I had had before. Everything had changed and I suddenly felt a whole lot further away from home. For a bit I was definitely guilty of wallowing in self-pity, but I would like to relay some words of wisdom from my very wise mother which will apply to all of you at home or overseas- wherever you are in the world. One night when I was feeling especially far away from home I called her in an understated attempt to stop feeling sorry for myself. She stopped me and told me to look at what I’ve got. She reminded me that I am in one of the highest percentiles of the luckiest and most privileged people in the world and that despite how I might be feeling right now, I needed to acknowledge the opportunity that has been given to me, that I needed to be strong and independent and use this chance in the best way I could.

As I think back to what I learned about the women in Vietnam who work 18 hours a day to keep their family alive, it seems ridiculous to feel sorry for myself because I miss home. For the women of Vietnamese history that have had to sacrifice so much more, it is important that we all appreciate the amazing chances that we have been given and continue to use them and encourage others in the future to do the same.

Here is my advice for anyone thinking about studying abroad, especially those thinking of going far away: it will be difficult, and it will be a lot more difficult than you ever thought it could be. I left Manchester and then home thinking that it would be easy, that I would miss home a bit but that I would be too absorbed in my new life to think about it. Trying to live a new life is more difficult than that. You have to adapt to the cultures of the people around you while still trying to establish a place for yourself. For me, this has come in ways as simple as not being able to understand the English that the Singaporeans speak, purely because of their accents and the words they use, even though their actual English is perfect. It can make you feel isolated but in the midst of that you have to force yourself to take a step back and think about what you have been given the chance to do. Have the strength to be independent like the Vietnamese women are forced to be every single day. You have been given a once in a lifetime opportunity, you may never have an opportunity to do anything similar to this again and because of that you can not let anything stop you from making the most of every single second. Go out into the world and learn about these other individuals like the Vietnamese women, it might just put your whole life into perspective.

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A group of school children rowing a traditional Vietnamese boat in Ninh Binh.
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Canoeing through Ha Long Bay
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Hanoi

 

Some first impressions of Hong Kong, coloured by secondary reflections

By Nooa Karlo (University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong)

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Waterfront near Kennedy Town

It took me a long time to start writing this text, which goes to show how busy I have been with various things after arriving. Continue reading “Some first impressions of Hong Kong, coloured by secondary reflections”

My first month in Singapore

People were often quite surprised to hear me say that I was going to be studying in Singapore. Having only met a very small handful of people from Manchester who were even going anywhere else in Asia, I was apprehensive myself before I left. It occurred to me that maybe I had made the wrong decision deciding to go somewhere so completely different from the UK, while others seemed to all be going to the slightly more familiar USA, Canada or Australia. Four weeks down the line it is safe to say that I definitely picked the opposite place from Manchester, but it was also definitely the right decision.

I chose to study in Singapore mostly for the ability to easily travel around South East Asia. However, being here has made me realise that there is a lot more to see in Singapore than I had originally thought. During the week I had before lectures started, I managed to see the majority of the main sights of Singapore. While the famous Gardens by the Bay and the Marina Bay Sands are both magnificent, my favourite part of Singapore so far is in fact the little cultural hub of Little India. The first time we went was on one of the few rainy days, but this was nevertheless brightened by the intense mass of flowers and garlands that are scattered throughout the markets here. Walking through one of the main markets, you are immediately bombarded with the sights, smells and colours of different fruits and flowers that surround women in a variety of beautiful saris and other Indian style dresses.

Despite this, the actual campus of the university was not quite what I expected. Through being a campus university it seems to me more like how I would imagine an American High School than a university. For one, all the local students are extremely dedicated to both the university and their halls. The majority of them walk around in university t-shirts and I’ve seen and heard some singing their hall anthems while walking through university- this is obviously not something you see in Manchester. At times the campus has definitely felt claustrophobic, living and working in the same place throughout the week, but ultimately I’ve accepted this as a form of motivation to work during the week, allowing myself to make the most of the weekends.

The most exciting part about being in Singapore has to be the travelling that I have done and that I plan to do. Luckily for me, I found a piece of home in a girl from Newcastle University who I met on my first day at NUS. Both of us are very keen on travelling and in the past four weeks have managed to go to both an Indonesian island called Bintan and Penang in Malaysia. The highlight of both of these must be the 2 hour hike we did in Penang National Park that took us to beaches named ‘Monkey Beach’ and ‘Turtle Beach’. Although there weren’t monkeys or turtles actually on either of the beaches, there were an abundance of monkeys especially in the nature surrounded them. Turtle beach in particular was beautifully quiet with pristine white beaches and a pearly blue sea. However, it was the startling backdrop of the tropical jungle that surrounds the beach, that set the place apart from anywhere I have been to before. It was honestly breathtaking and almost scary looking out at the expanse of sea ahead of you only to look back to the tremendous and almost oppressive jungle behind.

What I love most about Singapore is it’s collaborative individuality. It has no single point of reference which is what makes it so unique. Within any single area in Singapore there is a bit of India, a bit of China, a bit of Malaysia, even a bit of London in the skyscrapers. Yet it still manages to hold its own within its amass of culture. The skyscrapers are that bit more clean than in London, the Indian food places and shops seem to be that bit more organised than they would be in India and overall Singapore has managed to create it’s own distinct identity within the bundle of cultures that have established themselves.

The ‘Cloud Forest’ (a part of     Gardens by the Bay)
A beach in Bintan Indonesia

North Vietnam by motorbike

By Monika Kvassheim, National University of Singapore

My favourite trip last semester was motorbiking from Hanoi to Sapa in Vietnam during recess week. Warning, recess week at NUS is like reading week in Manchester, except in Manchester it’s treated like a recess week and at NUS it’s actually treated like a reading week. After a night train from Sapa to Hanoi and flight to Singapore on Sunday I had to take a midterm 8 am on Monday, worth it, but challenging.

Hanoi is one of my favourite Asian cities, the old quarter is great and there are terraces like this everywhere. The Bánh Mi is amazing.

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