By: Allison Choong (14S05B), Feng Zhuo (14S03S), Valerie Chee (15S07B) and Kang Yi Xi (15S03N)
Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, MIT. When the typical Rafflesian ponders his or her dream university, these top universities are often the ones that first come to mind. Yet amidst all this pressure to rise to the top, there are always those scant few from every cohort who find the courage to forge their own paths and wander to universities little-known amongst their Singaporean peers. Meet six of our Rafflesian alumni—Joshua Gan, Austin Zeng, Amy Huang, Wang Xiang, Zydney Wong and Dennis Chia—who took the path less trodden and embarked on university courses in unexpected locales.
Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, Switzerland
Why did you choose to go to this particular university?
Back then, RJC had organised a career fair, so they got various speakers to give us an idea of various fields to go into in the future. The General Manager of the Raffles Hotel spoke about hospitality, and he mentioned that he graduated from a school in Switzerland, the hôtelière de Lausanne. I had never thought of hospitality as a possible career, because to me, all of our career paths are already planned out in a way. I intended to get a scholarship, go abroad, come back, and work for the government. But when this speaker spoke to us, I said, ‘Wow, this is interesting.’ I like organising events and interacting with people, but I never knew a career could be made out of this. When he opened that up, I started researching more. I didn’t want to study in a country where the locals spoke English as a first language, so that meant the US, UK, Canada and Australia were ruled out. That mostly left Europe. Whenever I researched, I always saw Switzerland, and then of course the school that he mentioned.
How did you weigh it against say, going to NUS?
At that point in time, Singapore didn’t have a school that offered hospitality management courses, and it still does not. NTU has something close to that which is their three-year business direct honours programme, with hospitality and tourism management as one of their specialisation options. But that is a pure business programme, and hospitality is an afterthought. That wasn’t what I was looking for.
Did you face any pressure from your friends or family to pursue your higher education along a more conventional track?
It took me a year to convince my parents about this, because my elder brother is a lawyer. I guess I was meant to be the doctor in the family, because having a doctor and a lawyer in the family is the traditional Asian idea of perfection. My parents are both Chemistry graduates. When I told them about hospitality, they said, ‘Do you mean washing dishes, waiting on tables, and things like that?’ I said no, and brought them to the school’s presentations held in Singapore. It was then that they started to understand the school, what it offered, and that it was more of a business management programme with a focus on hospitality, rather than being solely about all the operational work. Only then were they convinced.
How has your experience at the university been like?
Tell us about the student life and the school culture. The school is actually the first hotel school ever founded in the world, and this year is its 121st anniversary, so it’s been around for quite some time. It’s not like a traditional US college with, say, 30,000 students and 90 faculties. This is one university with one major. There’s one thing which is prized above everything else, and that’s the school spirit. On Graduation Day, you have all the prizes for the top GPAs, but the final prize is actually the prize for EHL spirit. It’s meant to be given to the person who has best represented the values of the school. I could meet somebody who graduated last year or somebody who graduated 30 years ago and it doesn’t matter. We have an instant connection, because we know the school and what it stands for.
Everyone is also sort of on one track, so everybody has very similar interests. Everybody likes people, everybody is quite extroverted. We have about 93 different nationalities on campus. There is a huge mix of perspectives, backgrounds, insights, and cultures. Many of my classmates have lived in five, six or seven different countries. Some of them have three or four passports; some of them even speak six languages.
On the first day of school I introduced myself saying, ‘My name is Joshua, I studied in Singapore.’ Everybody just looked at me waiting for more. But when I asked people where they were from, they’d look at me and ask if I wanted the short or long version. They’d start telling me, ‘I was born in Saudi Arabia, I spent five years there, then I moved to Paris, where my father got a job, then I moved to London, and I went to Shanghai…’ and all these different things. I’ve got some friends who do not even have a home. They have always lived in a hostel, and their home is essentially where their parents are. To me, that was such a bizarre concept, because we know home as a physical place, but for them, it’s not.
In terms of activities on campus, we have various sports: volleyball, basketball, ice hockey, sailing, even skiing! We also have interest groups like the Wine Society and Gastronomy Club; they organise events like tours to the vineyards and tours to Michelin-starred restaurants in France. All of them organise huge events—the biggest event of the year, our Graduation Party, is organised by students as well. They have a budget of about USD$250,000. The entire school is almost run by student initiatives, which is a great thing.
There was an especially interesting project where we had to do a finance feasibility study of creating a hotel, and we planned the entire thing from the ground up! We were given a city called Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa. We had to specify what brand we wanted to enter with, what level of service, and all these different things.
On campus, all communication is in English and French. One event I experienced was called an After Work—the Language, Food, Wine, and the Music Committees got together for this. They split this area in school into four sections, and in each section, you could only speak one language. They were European languages, such as French, German, and Spanish. In each area, only that language was spoken, and that cuisine was served, with that wine as well. Every time you crossed a boundary, you would switch the language. Students initiate events like these; it could be a concept—if they say, ‘Let’s do a salsa evening!’, they’ll have food, salsa, music and a nice evening like that. They even held charity galas in which they raised money for various charities in the world. Just last year alone, we had about 180 events organised by students.
We have guest speakers: various GMs and CEOs of hotel companies. Every time I hear a speaker or have a class, I evolve as a person. After graduation, less than half of us actually enter hotels and restaurants. A lot of people go into luxury products like Louis Vuitton or Gucci because of the branding, or even Ernst and Young or UBS. The opportunities are amazing.
What are your opinions of the culture in Switzerland, then, in relation to Singapore’s? How do you find the overall environment there, like its ambience and climate?
Life is very different. Singapore’s a big city—you have buildings, and that’s it. In Switzerland it is very much the countryside. I love Switzerland so much because of the lakes, the mountains, the vineyards, and the beautiful scenery. Some of the books you read will probably talk about the love of the land. In Singapore, I never really understood that. How could you love the land, the physical Singapore? It’s convenient and all that, but I couldn’t love it. When I got here, I finally understood what it meant. To me, it’s so beautiful, and that has captured me.
In terms of cultural sensibilities they’re very different in many ways. Switzerland’s opening hours are quite unique. On weekdays, shops close at 7pm, and on Sundays, only the Asian restaurants are open! If you don’t have any food in your fridge on Sundays, you may have to go to the petrol station, where they hopefully have a sandwich waiting for you. I do enjoy the life there—I enjoy the fact that there’s actually open space, that I can see the sky and the stars, that the air is clean and fresh—things we don’t have in the cities anymore. Singapore is also getting more crowded—I can’t see the sky when I’m on Orchard Road anymore!
Did you get any cultural shocks when you first moved there? What was the biggest thing that surprised you?
You know how they give kisses in a lot of European countries? I knew that, but to experience it is entirely different. It happened in the first week of school. I saw this girl coming, and I knew she was going to want to do the kiss with me, faire la bise as we say. I was so frightened, but after that, it’s just a greeting. That was the first cultural shock, because in terms of physical contact, we’re a bit more distant in Asia. Between a gentleman and a lady, it’s a lot more expressive by touch in Europe. I don’t know about any other cultural shocks because I didn’t enter with a lot of expectations or preconceptions of what life would be like, therefore I wasn’t surprised or dismayed. Our school is also very international, so I didn’t get that huge of a shock.
Would you consider coming back to Singapore?
I enjoy living here, and the job I’m doing. I don’t think I’ll come back in the near future.
University of Tokyo, Japan
Liberal Arts—Politics, but graduating with a general degree
So why did you choose to go to the University of Tokyo in Japan? What factors attracted you to it?
There’s this relatively unknown scholarship that’s actually being given out by the Japanese government. To be frank, that was a very big attracting factor for me, as it’s bond-free. As for why Japan, the simple thing is that it’s off the beaten track. The experiences that you will get in Japan are definitely very different from what you will get in the UK, and I found value in that.
How did you weigh it against going to a more conventional university, like NUS?
I considered staying in Singapore, but I made my decision in the Army. NUS is probably fine as well, as they’ve got strong academic programmes. However, after having been in Singapore for 20 years, it seemed better for me as a person to try going overseas to get an entire different experience. I would say that it yes, it has been an entire different experience—from the small things like having to wake yourself up in the morning for class, to learning how to cook, to the culture, and how other countries work.
Did you face any pressure from your friends or family to pursue your education in a more conventional manner?
A: I did learn the language before I even came to Japan, while the scholarship was a very significant factor. There wasn’t much pressure from my friends and family to pursue my education in a more conventional university. What is true, however, is that whenever I come back to Singapore, even before I went to Japan, I would tell people and they would go, ‘Ah! Japan! Well! Okay! Interesting!’—that sort of ambivalent response. I didn’t even know if I was getting judged or not. However, when I told my friends that I got a bond-free scholarship, most of them were actually really jealous.
What are your possible future career paths?
The thing about Japan is that if you graduate as a native English speaker like most Singaporeans, and you are fluent enough to conduct business in Japanese, you probably won’t find difficulty in getting a job. Now, Japan is trying to globalise; people like Japanese returnees, foreign students, et cetera are actually quite in demand. If you’re talking about future career paths, working in Japan is a possibility. It doesn’t even have to be a Japanese company—foreign companies in Japan also want to hire you. Singapore also has quite a lot of Japanese firms, they would want someone who can speak Japanese as well.
So what are you planning to do?
No idea. When you’re in JC, you don’t even know what your future is. Similarly, even at the first year of university, you probably don’t know what your future is either. One big thing about going to universities overseas is that, for me at least, I get to sample things and see what I can get. I don’t have a concrete plan at this point in time, and I don’t think I should.
How has your experience in Japan been like, specifically in the universities you attended/attend?
I’ve been in Japan for 2 years now, for 1 year at the University of Osaka for a mandatory one year Japanese prep course, and 1 year at the University of Tokyo. The experience in the university is certainly different. Firstly, I study in Japanese, which is definitely something that I would not do in Singapore. That is to say that I get an automatic language training component that’s not explicit, but implicit in the education I’m getting. I see my friends in NUS complaining on Facebook that they’re dying of essays and things like that, but fortunately, or unfortunately, I cannot empathise! You have more time to do stuff that you want, and that you don’t have to waste time on things like points systems.
What about the student life there?
Thee school cultures in Japanese universities are not as strong as that of American universities, but yes, individually, there are differences. The reputation of the University of Tokyo is not exactly of the business-like style—that’s more for Waseda and Keio—but you’re looking for people who are going to become bureaucrats in the future.
For my school experience, you have time to do things you want! You also have time to join clubs and things like that. Japan wants to internationalise—and at the moment, I am one of the few international students on campus. This makes me a special entity in school somehow!
What do you think about the culture in Japan instead? What about the general environment?
It’s kind of interesting because I’ve been to Japan multiple times for school trips before I started living there. I would say that living in a different country is very different from say, touring there. This is pretty much common knowledge, but Japanese are very formal. To some extent, you’d be expected to be formal as well, and accept their social rules. Experiencing it is something that really opens your mind.
You’ve written an article about saving money in Japan—could you tell us more?
It’s actually not as expensive as people think it is! The point is that most people think that Tokyo is ridiculously expensive compared to Singapore. If you’re a student, you will be staying in a dormitory. It also depends, because if you have to rent an apartment in Tokyo it’ll cost a fair bit. Food isn’t actually that expensive either—restaurants actually cost around the same as in Singapore! This is unless you eat out every day, but this is the same as in Singapore—if you eat out every day it will cost a lot. I definitely miss Singapore food, nothing is spicy here!
Was it difficult to adapt, speaking Japanese as compared to English every day?
Having to speak in Japanese wasn’t the most difficult part for me, because I could speak it before I went to Japan. Once you live in a foreign country, you will realise that whatever you’ve learnt is often very different from what the people have really done over there. When you study with nineteen year old Japanese kids, they use all sorts of strange slang you’ve never heard of in your life. That’s the difficulty that foreigners have when they come to Singapore as well.
What about the biggest thing that surprised you the most? Did you experience any cultural shocks?
The biggest thing that surprised me was the formalities. Japan doesn’t really have a lot of foreigners—the fact is that you are, by your ‘status’, different. It’s a very complex issue to explain, but because you are a foreigner, you’re not expected to follow everything that the Japanese do, because they understand that you are from a different culture, and therefore that you are most probably not going to follow everything that the typical Japanese does. That actually provides some benefits, because the formalities can become quite stifling after a while. On the other hand, because you are a foreigner, you are naturally not going to be treated the same way, even if you are an Asian. That kind of differential treatment annoys people some of the time, but there really are both good and bad things to that situation. In the end, how you want to take it is really a personal decision.
Are you well-adapted to Japanese culture now?
This applies to every single country. There will be parts that you like, and things that you don’t like. Adapting is probably not that big of a problem; it’s just a sense of finding your own method. The same thing happens for the UK and US—people have their own cultural shocks as well. The culture shock is a very big learning experience in itself. Being in Singapore, being the majority, and knowing that you have the home advantage—most people will never actually realise how being a minority is. It is really eye-opening.
Are you considering ever coming back to Singapore?
My scholarship doesn’t have a bond, so I’m not sure what my future holds. I went to Japan to explore the world and to see what opportunities there are, so I don’t know what opportunities there are… I can’t make a decision as of yet.
(RGS, 2007 & RI, 2009)
McGill University, Canada
Why did you choose to go to McGill in Canada? What factors attracted you to it?
I really wanted to get out of home and explore other countries more. My mother was already working here, so it was good to have some family here. McGill is well-known and highly-ranked for its history in Life Science and research, and the tuition here is a lot more affordable than it is in the States. I did some research online, and I found that the people at McGill were friendlier and that there were a lot more research opportunities. Montreal’s one of the best cities in Canada, so location-wise, McGill sounded great.
How did you weigh it against going to, say, NUS, or a more conventional option?
Just pick something that will make you happy! Obviously, I had the chance to stay in NUS, but I really wanted to just leave home and live by myself, maybe in a different city. I had been in Singapore for quite a while—since I was 8, and till I was 19. I knew that I wanted to leave, just to find out more about myself and be away from my family for a bit.
Did you face any pressure from your friends and family to pursue your education at a more conventional university, especially since your mum already works in Canada?
Most of my friends were quite supportive of my not picking a conventional option like NUS. My close friends had gathered that I probably wanted to go somewhere else, since I like to try new things. It was very much my own choice. I also wanted to get a better taste of research, to do something else before I did Medicine, since when you study Medicine, you have to commit about ten years. You have to make sure you like it. I might have gone around in a circle, but I found that I really wanted to do Medicine.
Where are you planning to take your career in future?
I’m still thinking about different residencies, because that’s when you specialise after four years. I did Neuroscience for my undergraduate degree, and I’m thinking about taking up a residency for Neurology. Residency is one of the main things in Medicine, as it determines your entire career. You might not get the residency you want, since there is a matching system, and the match is binding. I’m also considering Medical Education, because I’m very curious about the admission process and the curriculum. McGill had a brand new curriculum this year, so they’re receiving a lot of feedback. It’s good that changes can be seen very readily—they are very receptive to what the students say.
How has your experience at McGill been like?
In JC, everyone’s all together in a class and you have very scheduled courses. Every day in this university feels like you’re really on your own; you have to grab your own opportunities and schedule your own study time. In terms of opportunities and extracurriculars, or even friends, it’s hard to maintain a core group and to see people around campus because it’s so big. This is especially so for Neuroscience; you only see the people in the course for such a short time every day. I personally prefer seeing friends and studying while socialising, so I preferred the JC system, which is what’s present now in Medicine. The class is so small—you get to see everybody every day. McGill has over 20,000 people in total, and there are about 4,000 people doing Science. It’s very big, and each class is very independent, with their own professors and their own curriculum. There is just less continuity between things, and you really have to make your experiences your own.
How about your experience there? What activities do you engage in outside of class?
Raffles prepares you well for a lot of things. I felt very gung-ho from the start; I guess it was a habit of getting into a lot of extracurriculars that I wanted to do. I have been in Chinese Dance for two years, and every year we have a performance around Chinese New Year. Montreal has a very vibrant Chinese community, and I was surprised by that. There are two big dance troupes here, and they take it quite seriously—they have a show every year—so I was quite happy to find them. One good thing about McGill is that they offer mini classes for a cheaper price. You can learn hip-hop, salsa, or some other kind of skill.
I did take French as a third language in RGS, but after five years of not using it, it deteriorated a lot. I can speak French now, but my patients speak really fast and with a heavy local accent, which I have a lot of difficulty understanding.
I also applied for a research award with a professor which involved doing research at the Montreal Neurological Institute. I was part of the Neuroscience Undergraduates of McGill Council (NUM), where I was the VP of finance for two years. I wanted to get into student government and improve the academic and social experience of students. The student council organises a lot of other events, such as meet-and-greets with the professors for the new students.
Is there a school culture? What’s the community like?
It’s a very liberal place, and you have a lot of people coming from diverse backgrounds. The general culture is that people are very friendly, and there are a lot of Asians in science. It also depends on which major you’re in, because Neuroscience was a very small major; people knew each other, and we helped each other out during exam periods which is really conducive for learning. In a way, I experienced a culture shock when I came here. In North America, people are more open about relationships, and the LGBT community is quite big in Montreal. It kind of opens your eyes to see things from different perspectives. There’s a big emphasis on common space, and on being tolerant of everybody.
Did you have any difficulty adapting to the environment?
Adapting to the accent was tough, but now I can switch accents depending on who I’m talking to! I was actually part of the Malaysians and Singaporeans Association for all three of my undergraduate years. We cooked our own food and had an annual Southeast Asian night. In my first year, I felt rather ‘out of my shoes’. Living in a dorm was like living in hotel, so it felt as though I was temporarily living here.
Initially, I felt a bit overwhelmed with perpetually going out at night, which I never did in JC because we never had time. I think you find a balance; how much you want to party and how much you want to go out are really up to you. The transition is the same for a lot of people going to universities—you end up having a lot of breaks in between, but you have to really make use of them, or else you end up wasting the whole day.
Would you consider coming back to Singapore?
I might have to stay here as the medical system is different from that in Singapore. I don’t have any relatives in Singapore anymore, but it’s still very much my home. In Montreal, I’m living in a rented apartment. It is ‘home’ now, but when I meet people I still say that I’m from Singapore. It makes me feel like going back, tasting the food, and seeing my friends. I just went to New York and met a lot of old schoolmates. It’s really heart-warming to find your friends four years later in a different country.
University of Göttingen, Germany
How did you choose the University of Göttingen in Germany? What factors attracted you to it?
I have to begin with why I chose Germany in the first place. I took up German as my third language, and I finished the A Levels with it. After that, I wanted to try going overseas. I considered the UK and Australia, but I realised that a lot of Singaporeans apply and go there. I could totally imagine that even if I were to go to these places, I would most probably end up staying within my Singaporean friends’ circle. I thought it kind of defeated the purpose of going overseas for education. That’s where Germany came into place. Because of my German language background, I thought, why not be slightly more adventurous and go to a non-English-speaking world?
At that time, I didn’t really know a lot about pursuing undergraduate studies in Germany, so I went to this organisation called the German Academic Exchange Office. This officer sent in from Germany consulted me on the schools which might have been suitable for me. This university enjoyed a very good reputation, at least in Germany. It had always been ranked 1st or 2nd. The lady also told me it was a university town with a very nice ambience, which I thought was a nice change from the city lifestyle in Singapore.
Did you face any pressure from your friends and family to stay in Singapore or maybe a more conventional option like the UK and US?
I certainly did. I would say that I faced more pressure from my friends rather than from my family. My friends who took more conventional paths might not have really understood where I was coming from. They said things like, ‘This is a bit too much…first of all, you’re going to pursue your entire undergraduate studies in German. It’s your third language. How are you going to cope with that? There are also not a lot of Singaporeans here, so how do you find out how to survive there? You are one of the first few who have ventured there.’ My family didn’t really restrict me, they just said, ‘If you’re very certain, make the decision and then stay with it. Make sure that no matter where you go, you will perform to the best of your abilities.’
With your current course of study in Economics in German, what do you think you’re going to do in the future for your career?
The reason why I chose Economics is because, honestly, as of now, I don’t really know what I want to do in the future. Even if I know what I want, chances are, it’s going to change, because the world is totally unpredictable. I decided to pursue a degree in something that offers me more choices. Currently I’m looking into Management Consulting. With my background, I can provide some different kinds of experience.
I’m open to working in almost all places. If I would have the option, I would definitely choose to stay in Europe first to have some career experience. But, maybe 5 or 7 years later down the road, I would still want to come back to Asia, be it Singapore or elsewhere, like Mainland China.
How has your experience at the University of Göttingen been like? Like how’s the student life, is there a school culture, and stuff like that?
First, the student life is very relaxed. In the Singapore context, you’d be wasting time, but here, activities such as talking with friends, lying on the grass, enjoying the sun, drinking beer, and going to parties would be normal student life. In the meantime, most of the students here are still pretty hardworking, in the sense that they can really focus and be very efficient. When they study, they will make sure that they do their daily work, and after that, they will go all out and have fun. Overall, it has been a very positive experience.
After staying here for one and a half years, I kind of opened up my mind, in the sense that now, I welcome opportunities and the unexpectedness in life. Previously, I was always very concerned about whether things turned out according to plan. As for the school culture…honestly, I haven’t identified any school culture yet. First of all, it’s a pretty huge town, and there are a lot of campuses spread out over the town. We have 7,000 students; there’re lots of research institutes, and a lot of people from all over the world. It’s very diverse and unique.
What activities do you engage in? For instance, we noticed that you are a Vice-President of the Singapore Students’ Association of Germany—could you tell us more?
In my first year, I joined the university symphony orchestra and performed in one of the concerts. Afterwards, my workload became heavier after the second semester, so I decided to take a break from all that and became more busy studying.
My experience with the Singapore Students’ Association of Germany was a very positive one. Though Germany is very big, there are not a lot of Singaporean students. We faced a lot of challenges, such as persuading people to come down for meetings and getting people to spend three and a half hours going from one side of Germany to the other to meet a bunch of Singaporeans. They might have thought, ‘If I want to meet Singaporeans, I might as well go back to Singapore, so why am I doing this?’ We needed to provide an incentive: it’s good for networking, to meet more friends so you have a wider circle when you travel around Germany. When you go over to Germany, you can always find them and they might advise you on where to travel, and perhaps let you stay overnight.
Do you have any suggestions for students who might want to go to Germany to study?
First of all, the language. Although Germany offers a lot of international programmes that are in English, you need German to survive. When you go out to get the groceries, you want to have a well-rounded experience. You want to meet the locals and become friends with them. You want to understand where they are coming from as well as their views of the world and current affairs. You need a proficient command of the German language to do so, so I would say the language is the most important thing. Other than that, here is something that might generally apply to everyone going overseas: have an open mind. When you go overseas, you have already decided to open up and be more welcoming of other cultures and other forms of thoughts. People coming from different parts of the world have different experiences and aspirations for life, so there are bound to be many clashes. It is important to be open to all these ideas and appreciate them.
What do you think of the culture in Germany, especially in relation to Singapore? How do you find the environment?
I would say that the environment is very different. Here, it is much more comfortable as you are not mentally strained and under pressure to study, get good grades and achieve certain things in work, life, etc. It is more relaxed compared to Singapore. I think the people here are generally very efficient. They can work from 9 am to 5 pm during which they really make sure that they do what they are supposed to do. When it is time to leave, they will go out and spend time with friends and just switch off their phones because they don’t want to hear anything that is work-related. They totally separate their work and lives. But I think in Singapore, it is a bit less efficient in a sense that people always do overtime and spend a lot of time waiting for things to happen. Germans are more focused and efficient, and know how to balance between work and life better.
How about adapting to the environment? When you got there, how did you adapt to the language and food? Were there any large cultural shocks?
To a certain extent, I think there are culture shocks. I spent the first few months in Berlin, and Berlin is totally different from Singapore and, in fact, different from other German cities. There is a sub-cultural phenomenon there, with strange or questionable people walking about the street who dress and behave very differently. Everyone is actually very accommodating, not bothered by such people. For me, I was shocked when I saw teenagers holding beer bottles walking around the street, which looked a little strange. The nightlife is also a lot more chaotic than say, Clarke Quay.
I didn’t have to adapt a lot to the environment, because everything somehow just fell into place naturally and I was very excited. I believe I came with the right mindset, having thrown away all the preconceptions that I had. I was open to all that Germany had to offer, everything new, and I wanted to appreciate the differences. I didn’t find it very hard to adapt. I didn’t miss home because I came to experience something different. If the environment was the same as Singapore, there would be a problem.
Would consider coming back to Singapore?
I was born in China, and I moved to Singapore with my parents when I was five. However, I would consider Singapore my homeland. I spent almost my entire life in Singapore, I attended school there and I served NS. As of now I would say yes to coming back to Singapore. It’s just a feeling, after all, that home is home. At some point in time after you’ve wandered elsewhere and experienced what you needed to experience, you need to come back. This is where your parents live, where your buddies are, where you spent the best part of your life.
Sciences-Po, Europe-Asia Campus situated in Le Havre
Liberal Arts programme, Economics
Why did you choose to go to Sciences-Po?
I studied French for six years as a third language, and language has always been an interest of mine. The only way to truly learn a language is to fully immerse yourself in it, so going to France made sense. I didn’t want to go to a place that everyone else went to. I wanted to explore other things, and do something different before maybe coming back to a more traditional path for my Master’s.
Tell us more about Sciences-Po.
Each campus has a distinct regional specialisation, and puts in a lot of effort to create classes that are specific to a region. You have language and history classes about the region. I spent my first year learning about Eastern Central Europe, entirely in French. I decided to change campus because I wasn’t very happy with life in that campus, so I went to Le Havre, an Asian campus where they teach in English.
Because there’s such an international environment, a lot of the people that come to Sciences-Po have the same mindset. They’re not here for hard work and academics; they’re here more to interact with people. What Sciences-Po, especially this campus in Le Havre, does is that it gives you time to explore other things apart from academics. I’m doing K-Pop dance, and there’s also a film club, which does projects on Asian films all the time. Recently, there’ve also been Bollywood showcases.
Did you face any pressure from your friends or family to stay in Singapore for your university education?
I’m not Singaporean to start with. A lot of the pressure was not about staying in Singapore to study, but because I had spent ten years of my life there. My parents were very supportive of my decision to eventually leave Singapore. Beyond that, choosing between France and the universities in the US and UK was a bit harder. A lot of what I had to do was to convince my parents that the first Bachelor’s degree has no influence on your Master’s. Employers really look at your Master’s, and not really your Bachelor’s. As long as I could prove to them that I had the academic drive and the desire to go on further after this, they were okay with me coming to France to study.
What do you think you are going to do as your future career?
I always knew that I wanted to teach, but I didn’t know what level I wanted to teach at. When I came here, I knew that I want to become a university professor, that my life is in the academic field, and that I want to study economics. That makes it a lot easier to choose what I want to do for my Master’s.
How’s your experience at Sciences-Po been like?
The first thing is that when you grow up in an environment like Singapore and Raffles, the environment pushes you to study on your own. Unfortunately, Sciences-Po is also an environment where, because it’s designed to allow you to dabble in all these different fields, you never really go in depth into anything. If you’re interested in something, the onus is on you to do your own research, which is a good system—unless you’re surrounded by people who are not as driven as you are. You end up having to constantly find that source of motivation. That’s one bad thing about Sciences-Po—it’s not as academically fulfilling as any traditional UK or US university.
The second thing is that because it’s such a small campus—there are about 170 of us, over two years—it means you know everyone, and everyone’s there for you. Little activities on the side give you a lot of opportunities to explore and interact with a lot of people you wouldn’t interact with in Raffles or in any other university.
Do you have any particularly memorable experiences in your university?
At the end of every year, the different campuses of Sciences-Po get together in one city and hold a Mini-Crit. It is a sporting and artistic event where all the campuses put up a performance, and at the end there’s a winning campus. It’s the highlight of the whole year. Last year, it was at the Opera de Reims, across the road from the cathedral where the kings are crowned in France. Imagine that rush of adrenaline when you get on stage and you’re acting and at the end when people stand up and give you a standing ovation—that feeling just takes your breath away. Our campus is hosting the Mini-Crit this year. This year’s art venue is in a rock concert-style stadium, and it was really hyped up.
On the academic level, some of the best experiences I had were the opportunities to go overseas and do exchange programmes. Last summer, I went to Hungary for five weeks. Sciences-Po does so much to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to go out there and explore; in the third year, it is compulsory to go overseas either to study or to work.
What is this Asian campus like in Le Havre?
There is a main campus in Paris, and around France there are other campuses: Le Havre, the Asian campus, Dijon, the Central and Eastern European campus, Menton, the Mediterranean campus, Reims, the American campus, and so on. They talk about the relationships between France and these areas, and have the same base fundamentals and direction, such as courses like History and Law. How they treat those subjects to make them a little more specific to the relevant regions depends on the campus, though. In Le Havre, we compare the histories of Europe and Asia, and we talk about communism across borders in Asia. If you did the communism course in Dijon, it would be a lot more specific to each country in Eastern Europe.
What are your opinions on France in general? How would you compare it to Singapore?
One of the biggest cultural shocks for Asians in general is that they have a very structured working hour system, which is from 8am to 5pm. Shops close punctually at 7pm and nothing is open after that, which can drive you up the wall. Shops are even closed on Sundays as well.
I don’t get snobbishness as much as you would if you lived in the capital. I could already speak French fluently when I got there, so I did not have many problems with conversing in French. What France does is that it makes you inherently more Asian than you would be if you were back home. You are more hardworking and driven; you also become a little closer to the community of Asians. You can call it self-defense in a foreign land. As bad as I feel saying this, when you are Singaporean and you arrive at Sciences-Po, you are already among the best, not because you are smarter, but because the Singaporean system forces you to be a driven, motivated learner. When academics are less of an issue, you can go and explore other things. The constricted nature of the Singaporean education system is relaxed here, and we have more freedom.
How do you adapt to the new environment? Do you miss anything in Singapore?
After you get here, you are fine for a month and a half. After that, you suffer from withdrawal symptoms—we would travel just to get Asian food, and we would make it at home. I have Indonesian friends who would make rendang and bring it to share—it might not be the best rendang in the world, but because you are in France and you eat sandwiches for lunch every day, you go crazy over these foods. We miss Singaporean food so much.
Other than that, I think it is not fair to talk about adapting to France as we are not entirely in the French system because of the way our campuses work. You feel like you are in an international high school, and you form little cliques so that every now and then you can fall back on your cliques if you need to feel a little more of home. If not, everyone is there and having fun because the campus is English-speaking, so you are not that stunned. Most people don’t speak French, so it’s very hard for them to do things like getting a phone at the beginning. A lot of us who speak French in the campus have to go with the people in the first year to the phone company to seek help. It is hard if you arrive in France with no friends whatsoever, but you do pick up fast.
Are you considering going back to Singapore or your home country?
I don’t know yet, because I don’t know where the rest of my education journey will take me. l might come back to Singapore because it’s the only place whose academic rigour stands up to the expectations that I have for myself and the people around me. I think it is very normal to want to go back the places that you grew up in. Perhaps after my studies I will explore a little bit and see other countries, and if I feel like that’s not the way I want to go, I might go back to Singapore or Hong Kong.
Waseda University, Japan
Sakura, Sushi, Sumo
These were the three things, together with the beauty of the Japanese language, that lured me to Japan six years ago. As simple as they may seem, they each carry a significant aspect of the Japanese culture—the Japanese way of thinking, Japan’s food and its traditions. Sakura epitomises the Japanese appreciation of nature, and the transience of our short-lived and blemished lives. Sushi represents Japanese cuisine and the rich cultural history behind it. Sumo, Japan’s national sport and also a manifestation of Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion, symbolises Japan’s old traditions that are still being preserved today.
Japan is a country full of mysteries and ironies—a fusion of the new and old, western and eastern cultures. Studying and living in Japan gave me incredible and precious experiences that broadened my horizons and expanded my outlook on life.
Studying Japanese and Studying in Japan
I picked Japanese as my third language in Secondary One, as it was the start of the J-Pop boom in Singapore. Never did I know that this casual decision would open up a whole new world that totally changed my life.
After graduating from Raffles Junior College and serving two years of National Service, I flew to Tokyo and entered the School of International Liberal Studies (SILS) of Waseda University. SILS was one of the first few schools in Japan that offered undergraduate liberal arts programmes in English. Waseda University is known to be the Japanese university with the most number of international students. I was attracted by its diversity, bustling school life and prestige, and so I made the decision to enter SILS in 2008. Under the liberal arts programme, we had no specific major, but I took courses mainly on culture and communication.
Japanese universities are fundamentally different from those in most other countries—whilst studying is an important aspect of university, it is not the only purpose. Generally, university life in Japan comprised studying, taking up part-time jobs, joining circles (club activities), job-hunting and so on. Having grown up in an environment where school grades were at the top of the priority list, I felt uncomfortable at first, but gradually grew used to it. In fact, these multiple aspects of university life exposed me to the benefits of learning outside classrooms, and provided me with many invaluable experiences I would otherwise not have had.
Living in Japan gave me a fresh perspective of life; that it is so much more than just getting perfect grades and making money. I constantly remind myself that I should not get too busy making a living that I forget to make a life.
THREE MEMORABLE EXPERIENCES IN JAPAN
Working part-time in a Singaporean restaurant
I took up several part-time jobs over the span of four years at university, including teaching at cram schools and working in a Singapore restaurant in Tokyo. At the Singapore restaurant, I learnt how to serve customers in the Japanese way, how a restaurant is managed and, ironically, I learnt a lot about Singaporean food. My Japanese boss, who wields a rich wealth of knowledge about Singapore’s food culture, was the one who taught me the origins and varieties of Singapore food such as laksa, chicken rice and bak chor mee. (Did you know? Laksa is the Persian word for ‘noodles’ and it is believed that laksa was created when Persian traders interacted with the Chinese immigrants in Melaka in the 13th century.) Interestingly, in most countries, a ‘foreign cuisine’ is usually seen as more prestigious compared to local food, like how beef bowls (gyudon) or ramen are highly regarded in Singapore, despite being a commoner’s food in Japan. Similarly, Singaporean food in Japan is seen as exotic and stylish. Therefore, in the restaurant I worked at, we often saw Japanese customers sipping glasses of red wine as they gracefully cut the succulent chicken meat; carefully dipping the bite-sized chicken meat into the chili sauce, before elegantly placing it into their mouths.
Appearing on Japanese variety shows
I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to appear as a Singapore representative on Sekai Banzuke (World Rankings), a show that ranks countries according to random themes, such as ‘countries that most frequently use bicycles’, ‘countries that use the most amount of toilet paper each time’ and so on. I have been on Sekai Banzuke eight times to date to talk about Singapore.
Singapore is a country very well known amongst the Japanese, but not many people know much about it—how big the country is, what language we speak or what food we eat. Many Japanese, or people from other countries in general, were surprised to know certain facts about Singapore, such as how caning used to be popular in Singapore, how much we trust our government, and how Japanese food is crazily popular in Singapore.
Apart from the fact that I got to meet famous Japanese celebrities on the show, it was an interesting experience for me, seeing Singapore from the Japanese and global perspectives. Also, as I interacted with my fellow foreigner participants, many of whom have lived in Japan for a long time, I learned much about their countries, as well as their experiences in Japan.
Traveling around Japan and writing a book about it
I love traveling and I have traveled to all 47 prefectures of Japan during my four-year stint at university. On trains, planes and buses, I went to the tropical Okinawan beaches, the Tottori sand deserts, the mesmerising old capital of Kyoto and the summer festivals in Tohoku. Japan is a beautiful country rich in culture and tradition, and it was fascinating seeing the different aspects of the country and meeting different people.
Some of my more memorable travel experiences included a visit to a candle craftsman in Shiga prefecture to learn about Japanese traditional crafts, and my multiple visits to the coastal regions in Tohoku after the devastating earthquake and tsunami disaster. The earthquake and tsunami might have crippled the growth of the coastal regions, but beyond that, I saw the brave resurgence of the local people, and saw how valuable Japan’s experience was to the rest of the world, having endured such natural disasters and recovering from them.
My Japanese friends were very surprised when I told them of my plans to travel to all 47 prefectures. Many of them had never been to even ten prefectures. It was then that the idea of compiling my experiences into a book flashed across my mind. I thought it would be interesting to write a book about Japan, in Japanese for the Japanese, from a foreigner’s perspective. As Japan prepares for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the number of foreign tourists increases, I feel that it is time for Japan to be more open to foreigners, such as accepting foreigners’ perspectives of the country and their interpretation of its culture.
I started writing the book in 2011 and finished it in a year, but ended up getting rejected by all the publishers I submitted to. It was only in December 2013, when I decided to rewrite the book, this time in both English and Japanese, that I managed to self-publish it with the help of several acquaintances and my father.
In my second attempt, I categorised the chapters into 4 ‘T’s—Tradition and Religion, Trains, Tokyo and Tohoku, which I believe are the four factors that aptly represent the Japan that we know. Japanese Tradition and Religion form the foundation of the unique Japanese culture and language. Japanese trains are an epitome of the Japanese technology and service industry. Tokyo is not only the capital of Japan, but also the economic centre, cultural centre and the stereotypical image of Japan. Last but not least, the Tohoku region gained worldwide attention after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that struck the Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures.
My Career Path
I graduated from Waseda University in 2012 and worked for a year in Japan after that. I quit my job last year and will be entering the University of Tokyo Graduate School to research on the revitalisation and globalisation of the rural coastal areas in Tohoku. I also hope to join an international NGO to aid in the revitalisation of rural areas in the other parts of the world.
Advice to Students
If you are considering studying in Japan or studying abroad, my advice to you is just to take the plunge. The world outside is much broader than you could ever imagine, and stepping out of your comfort zone is the best way to experience it. Furthermore, as a foreign student, you get to enjoy what your host country has to offer without having to experience the rough realities of society and the working world (yet). Live abroad while you are young, and your life will definitely be the better for it.
Follow Dennis on his personal blog at http://www.dennischia.com.