They said they wanted a SEP Report, or else they’d ask for their money back, so here it is.
I spent 6 months at University of California, Davis. I made many new friends, ate a lot of interesting food, traveled some, sometimes skipping school to travel even more, and even managed to study along the way.
I stayed at a hostel close to the UC Campus, where there were many exchange students. Some of my neighbours were exchange students from Korea. Some were middle-aged Fulbright Scholars from more exotic countries like Afghanistan and Greece. We got to know them better over lunches and dinners. A big part of a culture is its food. Especially when you’re away from home, food can help remind you of home and comfort you. For Chinese New year, I received some home made pineapple tarts from home, although the barbecued pork was confiscated by Customs. Our foreign friends were also very friendly and generous enough to cook for us on some occasions. Our Korean neighbour treated us to kai bi – beef, rice, chilli paste or soybean paste, all wrapped with lettuce. My dutch neighbour treated us to hutspot – mashed potatoes, onions and carrots. He also prepared a “traditional” breakfast of bread, dutch cheese, and some spreads to celebrate Easter Friday. Then there was also some junk food I always wanted to have in America – Krispy Kreme doughnuts, or rather, donuts, and Twinkies. And Ben and Jerry’s selling for the ridiculous price of 3 USD per tub.
Other than the happy memories of the meals we shared together, other incidents also stick in my mind.
It so happened that my Korean neighbour was taking the same Philosophy class as I was. The Korean students had English as their second language and so had a harder time in school. I admired how they could cope in school and thought at the time that I should perhaps have stretched myself by going on exchange in a country with a foreign language instead. Because of their difficulties in English, I remember helping her to edit her Philosophy essays. At the end of the semester, to my surprise, she did better at me in philosophy class, probably a testament to how hard-working these Koreans are, and perhaps, how lazy I was.
This same neighbour of mine knocked on my door on Valentine’s day and gave me some chocolate. She then went on to give chocolate to everyone else on the same floor. Apparently, it’s the custom in Korea for women to give chocolate to men on Valentine’s day, and for men to reciprocate on White day, one month after Valentine’s day. Unfortunately, I was unaware of this custom at the time and did not do so.
I remember asking another Korean neighbour of mine whether Japan or Korea was better at soccer. He indignantly replied that Korea was better of course. I laughed, but stopped when he asked me how good Singapore was at soccer. This same neighbour of mine also asked me, while I was scrambling eggs in the kitchen, whether Lee Kuan Yew was a dictator. Of course, he couldn’t believe that we banned chewing gum either. For myself, I was surprised cannabis was legal in the Netherlands.
The chewing gum question was especially popular, and there were the inevitable questions on the political system in Singapore and its authoritarian government. It was questions like these of things that one takes for granted at home that made me think harder about what it meant to be Singaporean. Most Americans I met could not tell where Singapore was either, some thinking it was a province in China. I realized that globalization might have made the world a smaller place, but even Singapore is insignificant in some places.
It’s not all good though. Twice I was on the receiving end of racism, when some strangers drove by and shouted at us. It was unnerving, but there was nothing to do but shrug it off. I suppose the take home message would be to be appreciative of the racial harmony in Singapore. It was interesting to be in the minority for a change.
There was also some adapting to do of course, to the weather, the different accent, even supermarket courtesies. My first night in America, I visited the nearest supermarket. At the checkout counter, the cashier smiled at me and asked me how I was doing. I froze and managed to mumble, “fine” as she looked at me expectantly for a response.
To earn some extra cash, I got a job in a dining hall on campus, got to make even more friends with other student workers, and got to eat even more food, this time for free. Unlike hostel food in NUS, this dining hall offered a buffet with many different kinds of food. It had a grill, a bistro, a mongolian wok, (basically this is where you pick your own food, hand it over to the chef who then cooks it like teppanyaki), desserts, and a salad bar.
Of course I traveled around. That same dutch neighbour of mine, Floris, tagged along with us, a group of NUS students, as we traveled about the west coast. In Los Angeles, we stuffed ourselves with all you can eat pancakes for breakfast at hostels. In Las Vegas, we tried to con bellboys into keeping our luggage for us even though we weren’t hotel guests. In Yosemite national park, we had snowball fights in Yosemite park, and Floris also taught us a hilarious gnome dance. At Lake Tahoe, we went skiing and snowboarding, drove around on icy roads and had the car slide about because of the ice. Everywhere we went, we tried to sneak into hostels and hotels by cramming as many people into a room as possible.
I especially remember Lake Tahoe. After 2 days of lessons, I felt confident enough to take on a route beguilingly named Sugar N’ Spice. Floris, being the accomplished skier he was dutifully accompanied me as I tumbled and fell along the route of the course. A particularly bad fall gave me a mild concussion and temporary memory loss. I also bumped into another skier who cursed at me. OF course, its memories like these that you take back with you.
Since I was having so much fun, I also thought that I should take some interesting classes to have even more fun.
Fun classes, such as Art History, where. I got to look at pretty Gothic Cathedrals and religious art. I learnt one of the characteristics of religious art during Byzantine time is that it has a golden background, and other equally useless but interesting tidbits.
The most memorable of these modules was Intro to Acting. Classes were hands on. We did improvisational sketches, along the lines of Whose Line is it Anyway. Groups of us were also assigned scenes to rehearse. We also played different acting games. As this class involved interaction, I got to know some of my classmates more closely. America, like Singapore is a country made of immigrants and immigrants continue to make up a large part of its population. One of my acting partners was a Mongolian who had emigrated to America. Another of my acting partners was an exchange student from Korea. Another was a Hispanic. I had a lot of fun in acting class, and when it ended, I remember feeling sad that I had to leave. After a goodbye hug, I took one last lingering look at the studio and left.