I flew off to San Francisco solo to attend a summer program at UC Berkeley. I also took the chance to travel to two other main cities in the United States, namely, Los Angeles and New York. I haven’t travelled for close to a year, and picking up my luggage, flying halfway around the world alone was quite a daunting task for me. I had the same worries just as with almost everyone else: safety, friends and loneliness.
I decided on the trip as some my relationships were blowing up back home in Singapore and I wanted to take some time off the country. Studying in San Franciso seemed like a good idea to me.
1) Western Media is Blown Up: The World isn’t Out to Get You
Well, needless to say, I got semi-paranoid in America. The majority of the countries I’ve been to don’t legalise guns. However, in America, guns are legal.
I got semi-paranoid when walking the streets, taking the metro at night and getting was a lot more aware of my surroundings when getting one place to another.
I’m not being racist here, but it’s the first time I’m exposed to a black population. I remembered getting on the metro in Los Angeles. You had a variety of people from Mexicans, Caucasians and blacks all in one cabin. Of course, those fears are unfounded, and it’s just Western media conditioning popping out in my head.
2) I Cope with Anxiety Through Food
I also became more aware of the fact I medicate my anxiety by eating. This is probably the reason why I never had 6 pack abs in my entire life. I just eat way too much, and too much junk. In addition to that, the American diet doesn’t really help either.
However, I guess it’s normal when you’re in a new city where you’re all alone, unsure of the culture and you can’t get a grip on what’s going on just yet, you’re going to feel anxious. The rest of the students from the summer program had groups of friends from their respective countries, I spent more of my time exploring alone. On some days, I preferred it that way anyway. I like making quick decisions and getting the most out of my travels. Getting around in big groups is often a hassle due to the different needs of everyone in a group. Nonetheless, I made some good connections and friends during my summer program.
I was also really stressed out academically in my University as it’s the top public University in the States and the program was intensive and cramped.
3) The Nuances of Singlish in America
The spoken (and written I guess) American English is much better than Singaporean English. Back home in Singapore, we tend to speak in broken sentences, and mix in other languages from Chinese to Hokkien in our English.
For the first time in a really long time, I felt really insecure about my command of English. It’s hard not to notice the subtleties when I’m interacting with an American whose English is really crisped with good pronunciation. It’s also hard not too nice that I find myself adopting the American accent rather than staying with the Singaporean one.
For my dear Singaporean readers, I know you like your ‘LAs’, ‘MEH’s and all that good stuff. However, I think stressing on getting English right serves you well when you travel, or in general. You come off as more educated and sophisticated if you speak well.
Should and are Singaporeans be proud of Singlish? I don’t think so. It’s a broken form of English. From my experience travelling, Singlish is often referred to as a slight joke to the foreigners in other countries.
I also found myself feeling less confident when interacting with girls from America. I tend to stammer and my weird Singaporean accents drip through. Well, I guess the typical Asian stereotypes played a role in my insecurities. Not to beat myself up, there were a couple of situations that I overcame that, and had great interactions with the locals as well.
4) The Importance of Staying in a Good Location when Starting out in a New City
Lastly, I learned that getting a good location when starting out in a new city is crucial to your social life.
Singaporeans are definitely spoilt on this one. Our little island and country are arguably too accessible. However, it’s not like that in America or other cultures where there’s a division between the city, the suburbs and etc.
If it means paying a little more for an apartment near the clubbing/partying/social/cool areas, I think it’s well worth it. I also figured that making friends in a new city should be the priority instead of checking out the touristy attractions.
When I was in Los Angeles, I was with a friend who was running from one touristy landmark to another, all a long. Well, granted, he was much younger than I was, perhaps less travelled, and didn’t know better, however, I wanted to scream at him: what’s the point of chasing touristy landmarks all alone. Just for a picture? For bragging rights?
If you’re there for more than a week, then making friends first and then finding time to hang out or hit those touristy spots together will be much more meaningful than just showing up alone one by one.
When I was in San Francisco, in summer school. I made it a priority to put myself in every single social event that I can get my hands during the first week, completely neglecting my academical duties. However, it paid off, I made friends and visited many of the touristy attractions with them.
5) Geographically, It’s The Same Everywhere
As I chalk up my travel experiences, there’s something I realized about the world.
The touristy landmarks, the mountains, the cities, there are almost similar in major cities around the world. Going to the Taroko Georges in Taiwan is some what similar to climbing Mount Fuji in Japan. They all fall under the same category: huge mountains and nature. When you’ve been to one of them, the next one has to decrease returns of happiness.
I found myself less invested in going to museums, the run of the mill touristy landmarks this time round. Interestingly, I started paying attention to food for the first time in my life. Even in Singapore, the food wasn’t that much of a big deal to me. I don’t really go around chasing food like most other Singaporeans are notoriously guilty of. However, this time round, I paid good money for a good meal in an Indian restaurant in San Franciso, and a meal along Santa Monica beach in Los Angeles.
6) The Little Details Matter
I’m more of a big picture guy.
I see myself more as a visionary rather than a detailed oriented person. This worked against me for this trip to the States. Firstly, I didn’t apply for a student Visa. Singaporeans are spoiled in the way where they don’t have to apply for a Visa to most of the countries they visit, US being one of them of them ONLY if you’re a tourist. That cost me a good $545 for a waiver fee. It was either paying up or being kicked back home. I chose the former.
Secondly, there was a huge administrative issue during my Summer program at the University of Berkeley. Despite doing well for my modules, I might not be able to get my transcript due to that administrative issue. Basically, I didn’t read the fine print, and I over enrolled into classes. So now, I owe the University money for classes that I didn’t attend.
The little details matter. This is how travel shows your sides of yourself you aren’t even aware of in your day to day life. I suck at details at times, granted. It’s something I got to work on in the future.
I credit a lot of my independence and growth as a person to my solo travels over the last half decade. I started taking solo trips out to Asia when I was 19 years of age. For the last one year, I decided to settle down in Singapore, get my academics duties down, focus on my business projects, and look forward to make some financial leeway in my life.
All in all, American culture is pretty similar to Singapore’s. Singapore is pretty Westernized. It always surprising to see someone’s reaction here when I tell them Singapore’s first language is English and Singaporeans too have got Mcdonalds there.
I’ve got slightly more than a week here to go. I’ll be heading out to New York, and then back home to Singapore. So far, it’s my longest period away from home: 8 weeks. In due time, I plan to travel for for a extended period of 6 months or more, when I get my things right back home in Singapore.