Studying overseas taught me to value my unique identity

When I first boarded the plane to California in 2009, I thought I was more than prepared for life in an American college.

After all, I had grown up on a regular diet of American pop culture staples from Friends to the Black Eyed Peas, caught up with the latest Hollywood gossip, and was pretty good at mimicking the twangy accent.

Heck, I had even picked up baseball knowledge, and tried to understand the enigma that is United States politics.

 

You see, I was convinced that if I proved myself to be American enough, fitting in would be a breeze.

But I was in for a few surprises at Pomona, a small liberal arts college an hour east of Los Angeles, where I went to study.

Once, I told my American dorm mates that I had left my spectacles in the toilet. What I thought was a rather mundane morsel of information amused them immensely.

The writer (second from left) with his friends welcoming freshmen during an orientation event at Pomona College in Claremont, California, in 2012.
The writer (second from left) with his friends welcoming freshmen during an orientation event at Pomona College in Claremont, California, in 2012. PHOTO: YEO SAM JO

"Oh no, I hope you didn't flush them down," one of them said.

"How very British of you to say 'spectacles'," another remarked.

And so I learnt that "toilet" to them did not mean "restroom", but the actual commode. Words like "spectacles", "singlet" and "dustbin", while perfectly intelligible in British English, had their American equivalents - "glasses", "wife-beater", "trash can".

I also discovered in my first year that Thanksgiving meant nobody, be it professors or students, would be in the mood for classes, and the otherwise bustling campus would be a ghost town for a few days.

Yet, when Chinese New Year came around, hardly anyone blinked and there was no bak kwa to be found - something which rendered me a little homesick.

And although I was always the extrovert who was way too talkative from primary school to junior college, my loquaciousness seemed meek before my American peers.

I had to persuade myself that thinking aloud even the most amorphous ideas was a form of class participation that was favoured, and not my coming across as annoyingly overzealous.

Studying at Pomona also taught me tonnes about being independent - from doing my own laundry to moulding my own unique curriculum.With such freedom of choice came responsibility over my life and, somewhere along the way, I had the first taste of being an adult.

But perhaps the most important lesson of all was realising that fitting in was never something I had to consciously do.

For all the effort to come across as Americanised, that was not why people wanted to befriend me. Students and professors were interested in finding out more about Singapore - and I was their walking window to my country and culture.

I often found myself explaining that we are not in China, and that English is, in fact, my first language.

I did my best to extol the wonders of nyonya laksa and char kway teow, and showed them how we, like Americans, love our karaoke.

Ultimately, colleges like mine admit students for who they are - because they can add diversity and are genuinely curious about people who are different from them.

Some of my best friends from those years are an Ohioan who always had pink or purple hair, a Guatemalan guy who speaks six languages and a lass from Hong Kong who can sing you the phonebook.

Eventually, like these friends, I simply became myself. I picked up Russian and spent a year in St Petersburg, sang in an a cappella group and acted in plays. I mentored other international students and organised activities like food outings for them.

I worked hard but also played hard. The result was a very fulfilling four years abroad as a proud representative of our little red dot.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'Studying overseas taught me to value my unique identity'. Print Edition | Subscribe