When I first landed in Canberra in 2017, I remember already missing home. It was not that I had spent a grand total of 8 hours away from a place I had called home my whole life. Rather, it was the sudden realisation that a journey I had chosen to embark on was actually starting. The doubts and excitement had been replaced by the feeling of a daunting challenge. Looking back on that moment right now, I realise that I had let that feeling overwhelm me far too much. And while my parents were also there to tide me through my first few days of university, I only barely managed to keep my head above water.
My guess is that the feeling of haplessness was not uncommon. However, after 3 years of being in Australia and interacting with international students from all over the world, it was apparent that there was no ‘right’ way to manage the newfound freedom. Some people are more than happy to use it to seek a more liberal lifestyle, not confined by the clutches of so-called conservative Asian expectations. Others preferred to focus solely on their degree and in earnest the next flight home could not come sooner. While there are no ‘right’ ways to handle independence, it is important to acknowledge that there are inherent challenges that come with it.
For many young Singaporeans, we have taken the availability and abundance of cheap, cooked food for granted. It is common for students here to constantly lament the absence of a simple $3 chicken rice or your grandma’s home-cooked dishes. Eating out is expensive in Australia which forces many students to confront their long-held fear of turning on a stove and turning fresh produce into something mildly edible.
Personally, I have admittedly not turned into a MasterChef, capable of dishing out a 3-course meal even after 3 years of cooking up my own meals. However, I have slowly gained the confidence to invite friends over to eat food I make and am personally pretty happy to eat my own food almost every day of the week (even if most of the time it is Spaghetti Bolognaise).
Managing your own finances is also something I had to learn quickly. Even if your source of money is funnelled in externally (from parents or scholarships), it is a great time for you to practice efficiently tracking your expenses. Groceries, rent, gym memberships and textbooks are costs that all add up. This is where budget management apps like Wallet or PocketGuard come in handy. They can be linked to your bank accounts and are extremely helpful in automatically keeping track of your daily expenses and recurring bills and allowing yourself to set budgets based on your income.
It is also common for international students in Australia to take advantage of the extremely high minimum wage in Australia to find part-time or casual jobs to supplement their income. For some, this may even be a necessity to help parents pay off the exorbitant university course fees. These jobs can range from anything between a Dominos delivery and a research assistant at the university. The prevalence of university students working part-time also means many workplaces have learned to be extremely flexible with their shifts and are willing to accommodate the busy schedules of undergraduates.
Creating an Overseas Support System
A foreign country will almost always present many forms of discomfort, especially at the beginning. The unbearably cold winters or sometimes even the absence of the comfort of familiarity that you would get from being at home are not things you get used to immediately. But most of all, it can be difficult to create your own personal support system or circle of friends while grappling with the challenges of adjusting to the cultures and norms of a new country.
Finding people you can truly be yourself around is not a process that is particularly straightforward in a new country where you hardly know anyone. I have found instances where I have simply not been able to connect with an Australian because the usual topics of conversation I would normally lean on when meeting new Singaporeans simply would not resonate.
A few ways to expedite this process is by going to events you already feel comfortable in. For example, I would feel fairly confident about making friends during badminton sessions on Sunday because I loved playing badminton, and I was around people who felt the same way. Bonding over things you have in common with people is a natural part of getting to know someone and seeking out social activities where you are practised and can thrive can be considered a bit of a social hack.
That said, a support system isn’t just about the friends you make during your overseas education. It also about maintaining the relationships you have back home and adjusting to its new dynamics. The distance however does not have to be a bane and can actually help you realise things about your relationships that you never did before. I personally believe distance has helped my relationship with my sister. Not being around each other all the time has helped us process our own individual needs, and I find myself looking forward to catching up with her at the end of our weeks.
Centering Your Purpose
Living alone also gives you a lot of time for self-reflection. A common and dreadful existential realisation many students go through halfway or towards the end of their degree is that a lot of sacrifices and money have gone into their being on those foreign grounds, and that it is supposed to amount to something truly meaningful or groundbreaking at the end. For some, this expectation can be one that is crippling.
Personally, the best place mentally to be is somewhere in the middle, where you can take full advantage of the amazing opportunity given to you, while granting yourself the space to make mistakes and discover new things about yourself in the process.
Enjoy yourself but remember that you are immensely lucky to be where you are and use that as motivation to contribute to your community once your degree is done.