Musings of a former international student

It’s been a good seven months since the big move back to Singapore. Transition has been interesting; some friends say it will take about two years for normalcy to return.

Often, people ask, “Don’t you miss Melbourne?”

In truth, there are days when the city I used to call home does not cross my mind. And there are days I miss it so much, my gut clenches up and a knot forms in my chest.

Nobody does brunch quite like Melbourne. Presenting: Steak and polenta, with purple potato chips from Auction Rooms.
Nobody does brunch quite like Melbourne. Presenting: Steak and polenta, with purple potato chips from Auction Rooms.

I miss how Melbourne gives each individual the room to be themselves. It’s okay if you’re a council worker (roadsweeper), a staff member in the hospitality industry or a university professor – you’re mostly accorded the same respect all around. I miss autumn leaves crunching beneath my feet once summer comes a close; I miss toting a cardigan and a brolly everywhere I went thanks to Melbourne’s unpredictability; I miss leisurely brunches on weekends and wine sessions with girlfriends pretty much any night of the week.

melbourne sunset

I miss walking down the alleyways with ever-changing graffiti; I miss glorious sunsets that just take your breath away.

Then there comes a time when I shake myself out of this stupor and remind myself that Singapore is a pretty great place, too.

Melbourne, that gem of a city, gifted me with eight years of memories. There are times I gloss over the hard parts – the months I wasn’t sure I was going to make rent; the time I keeled over in my apartment shaking in fear, wondering if I was going to make it to the end of my postgrad degree, and lots more – and it reminds me that every single moment, the good and the bad, brought me to this place.

The world is your classroom

While many students flock overseas to pursue a degree, what they often don’t realise is – the biggest lessons they will learn, will occur outside of the classroom.

That’s not to say university isn’t important. Dragging myself out of bed at 7am for morning classes and getting assignments done on time – in retrospect, that was worth it. Some things I learned in uni were useful too – it wasn’t just about memorising notes and regurgitating them in exam halls.

But the biggest lessons lie in the everyday. Disciplining yourself to study, instead of relying on last-minute work. It’s stocking the fridge with healthy food and actually learning how to cook. It’s sleeping at appropriate times (I still don’t, not after 8 years away) and taking care of oneself. It’s learning to clean on a regular basis (I wasn’t good at that). It’s learning to budget and tell your money where to go, instead of wondering where on earth it went.

It is knowing how incredibly blessed you are to be working towards an overseas qualification (or two).

I also learned that a degree means squat if you don’t put it to good use. As a student hailing from Singapore, we often didn’t think about internships unless they were mandated by the university, or we needed something as a time-filler during our year-end holidays – when our peers were out there getting work experiences in any way they could.

Taken on my third anniversary with Meld. (Photo: Karen Poh)
Taken on my third anniversary with Meld. (Photo: Karen Poh)

One of the best decisions I made was to intern with Meld Magazine – the very place where I started my journalism career. Sure, it wasn’t a big-name publication, but I fell in love with digital journalism there. My amazing editor gave us reporters opportunities we didn’t dare to dream of; she also gave us room to make mistakes and dust ourselves off. With Meld, I learned that being a reporter means asking the hard questions. I learned that filing stories quickly and accurately is very important. And most of all, I learned that journalism is hard work – but I wouldn’t want to work in any other industry.

To international students out there, I guess the bottomline is this: Your overseas experience is invaluable. Make the most of it. If you can, find out what you’re passionate about and work towards it. Spend your time in cafes and bars, but also try to find your strengths and work on your weaknesses while you’re at it. Put your hand up and volunteer for something you believe in. Befriend someone you didn’t think you would. You may be surprised at the doors that open for you :)

The world’s coffee capital – for a reason 

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Before Melbourne, I was never really a coffee person. And to be honest, I was more of a Starbucks girl early on (horror of horrors) – if only because it was a stone’s throw away from my hostel and was amazingly quiet, the perfect place to park oneself to study the day away.

(We often say us international students put the Starbucks along Lygon Street out of business. Just as well that it’s now a Cotton On)

The magic of Melbourne coffee lies in the entire cafe experience. It’s not just about a perfectly-made espresso shot topped with smooth, steamed milk, but the act of catching up with a friend in a cosy place where the barista gives a crap about your order. Go to the same place often enough and they’ll catch your eye, then start making your coffee without saying a word.

It became a comfort drink, not just for late-night essay sessions but also a reminder to pause and look around. Or look up from a mobile phone, instead of checking out the next social media post.

It would be perfectly acceptable to sit in a corner, order a croissant and a flat white, and spend an entire day buried in a book or scribbling away in a journal. More often than not, it would be the perfect way to unplug, recharge, and remind oneself that this life is really more than what we do.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that coffee in Melbourne tastes pretty good, almost anywhere you go. It’s a pick-me-up before lectures, after tutorials, and on Sunday mornings right before heading on stage to sing your heart out. Now, a well-made flat white takes me back to a time when tram tracks screeched every morning, while I waited for my cuppa before heading to work.

Falling in love 

Relationships born overseas take on something very different compared to starting something in Singapore. For one, living overseas gives you the opportunity to see each other constantly. You can talk and laugh to no end in cafes, and then adjourn to the nearest bar to talk somemore.

My friends and I once estimated that three months’ worth of dating (the same person, in Melbourne) is probably equivalent to dating someone in Singapore for a year. This is not based on any scientific evidence, of course, but just a guide considering a couple can basically hang out every single day if they wanted – especially if they are in the same group of friends, or live in the same building.

Melbourne is an incredibly romantic city, too. In every season, there’s a way to make memories. Strolling down Lygon Street, walking in Carlton Gardens are typical things international students do anyway, but when someone significant is by your side, suddenly those mundane, everyday things take on something different.

I have never been one of those girls who had boyfriends. I’ve had people ask, “So, you study overseas – and you’re not dating anyone?” Almost as if an overseas education automatically grants me a coupon which reads: ‘Permission to date. Go forth.’

And so no one was more surprised than me, when I started seeing someone – almost right before I left Australia for good.

It took me more than seven years to understand the magic of falling in love. In Melbourne, no less. Even though it wasn’t with the right person, it’s still something that I’m likely to not forget in a long, long time. From late-night chats to reading side-by-side and resolving arguments on a lawn, it was a crazy tumultuous time – one that I can look back at and smile, because hey – something like that is hard to come by, and whatever happened, it’s okay. At the risk of being cliche, I can smile at the fact that it happened, and that it’s over. :)

On my second last night in Australia, I remember sitting in his lounge room with a million thoughts. I had 48 hours left in Melbourne, and it dawned upon me that eight years really turned my life upside down. I didn’t only fall in love with him, but also with a city, the media industry, and life itself.

Deciphering me

Above all, I think 8 years away from Singapore gave me the time and space to figure some things out. At 17, you believe you can take on the world. You say stupid things and put them on blogs; you make silly promises about “forever” only to realise things change and people change.

Being away from home gave me the chance to navigate faith in a vastly different way. On nights where you miss home like crazy, you have to trust that you are in the right place just because. When things back home are going south, you pray, knowing that God is taking care of everything. In every decision, He is there – and He doesn’t even always need to hear us pray out loud.

It gave me the space to understand what grace truly meant – getting everything we don’t deserve. The very fact that I lived in Melbourne, and pursued two degrees, is testament to that. Being part of two amazing churches, and meeting incredible people along the way – that was a massive bonus that I didn’t expect. And all this wasn’t because I had a perfect church and cell group attendance (Lord knows I don’t), or because I tried to be good and tick off a checklist, but because He loves and gives.

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Thank God for roast beef, Shiraz, and cheese. Amen.

It taught me the finer things in life. Not the Chanel bags and Ferragamo flats (can’t afford them anyway), but the art of being thankful in every circumstance. While I was still in uni, “treating oneself” meant strolling down Lygon Street at 9.30pm after texting a friend, and deciding to pop into Koko Black for chocolate cake.

When I was extremely broke and hunting around for a full-time journalism job while working two part-time jobs and volunteering at Meld and church, “treating myself” meant eating frozen dumplings, and having half-price Lindt for dessert.

But I wasn’t any less happy. :)

I learned that adversity only builds strength, that a good attitude sometimes takes you further than talent, and that good things will happen – if only you believe.

Full circle

Tell the 16-year-old girl who boarded a plane bound for Melbourne on Feb 9, 2007 that she’d be typing this today and she’d laugh in your face. That girl was determined to be a lawyer. That girl thought she would move back to Singapore after completing a Bachelor of Arts, then a Juris Doctor, majoring in Family Law.

Eight years later, I’ve come to realise that the more we know, the more we don’t know, and that is okay. The joy is in working it all out. After all, the point of growing up is the undoing of who we have come to be.

Being an international student taught me many things. It helped me understand that a degree isn’t a one-way ticket to success, it takes so much more. That life is really what you make out of it – the good, the bad and the ordinary, will somehow culminate into something beautiful.

Be kind. Take risks. Make mistakes. Fall in love – not with things, and definitely not just with people, but learn to love. Most of all, learn to love yourself.

Melbourne's CBD.
Melbourne’s CBD.

And at the end of the day, when you return home, don’t forget the memories you’ve made. Look back at the person you were, and the adult you’ve become (even if you feel like a kid still, sometimes. Or most of the time). Cherish the lessons. Smile at the good times, or even at the time you were so drunk, you couldn’t remember much. Remember that we are here to make a dent in the world; to make history – and not just memories.

Every single moment of your time overseas has equipped you to do just that.

Now, go. Be inspired because of your time away. Be amazing. Build something of worth. Don’t be stuck in the past, because the best is yet to come. x

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2 Replies to “Musings of a former international student”

  1. Diane this is a beautiful write up. The lessons learned away from home are always very profound. They put a lot of things in perspective.
    This is… Inspirational travelogue? It’s a good one. You just got a fan, by the way.

  2. Hi Diane, very nice write up. I was from Melbourne too there a long time ago studying. Miss the food and weather. A good timely reminder about my Degree is not everything. Life is also a long journey.

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