Studying Abroad – Missing out on things at home

Today I write perhaps what will be my saddest post on this blog.

Yesterday on March 23rd, 2015, Singaporeans lost our founder, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. We enter our second day of mourning and Mr Lee will be put to rest after a state funeral on Sunday.

What prompted me to write this post was the reminder that his death has triggered in me. I will write with my personal experience, as a preview to those of you considering study abroad of what you will miss out on back at home, and those feelings of homesickness that might attack. Hopefully you might be better prepared mentally or at least know what you are getting yourself into when you decide to study abroad.

1) Homesickness

You definitely, I guarantee you 100%, will get homesick. It’s just how bad the homesickness is, and when you get it.

Some people like me had my first bout of homesickness right from the beginning after my parents left Korea. I only met my new classmates for 3 days so far, and it was a little tiring trying to fit in and make friends, and worrying about what was the “correct” thing to say. After my parents left I shut myself in my room (after talking a little to my new roommate who didn’t speak English that well so the conversation was short-lived).

The best remedy for homesickness is perhaps, meeting a fellow countryman. It did wonders for me. The day after my parents left, I skipped one of the orientation events because I was tired of being conscious of my every move. Instead, I went to meet another fellow Singaporean who was going to study at the Wonju campus, Irene. It was the first time I met her but we were just so glad to have found each other, and being able to slip into Singlish freely for that afternoon made me so relieved and happy that my homesickness was practically gone. Later Irene and I became super good friends and we still are today, together with a group of Singaporean friends here 🙂

Times when you fall sick, times when it’s cold, times when you are sick of your own cooking, you will tend to miss home. In those times, don’t shut yourself away (like I almost did). It will only make you feel worse. If you feel pressured about meeting with those new friends that you still don’t feel comfortable with, you can always Skype back home and have a nice chat with your family. Meeting up with friends from your country offers a sense of familiarity so great that it will help you with it too! (For the Singaporeans, I highly encourage you to join the Singapore Club Seoul Facebook group here)

2) Family events

This struck me the most as I was watching the (now banned in Singapore) film To Singapore, With Love. One of the scenes showed a political exile in Johor Bahru, looking at his family celebrating his aged mother’s birthday across the causeway through Skype. His family members were tempting him by holding all sorts of delicious Singaporean food and waving them at the webcam.

Oh what a familiar scene! To everyone who’s living abroad, this must be a scene which they can definitely identify with. I have a big extended family and we gather quite regularly, and my parents somehow found joy in waving those delicious food at me and my aunts, uncles, cousins would take turns to talk to me over Skype. My baby niece would attempt to crawl into the computer monitor and they would teach her to know me as 姑姑 (I do feel as if I have aged just by being referred to as Aunt now) Then there would be those wedding dinners and my parents continued to send me photographs of the 10-course Chinese wedding banquet full of delicacies, and my mouth would water while slurping at my own pathetic bowl of ramyeon.

Missing out on these family gatherings give a sense of loss. There is time lost, my baby cousin was 1 year old when I left for Korea, now he is 5 years old but he doesn’t really know who I am. It’s missing out on the growth of these babies in the family, it’s missing out on those fun times with the family, sharing inside jokes. It’s missing out on building up relationships with the new members of the family (cousin’s girlfriends/soon-to-be spouses) and sometimes I waddle a little in awkwardness when it’s just me + said soon-to-be cousin-in-law. But at least I become some kind of superstar in the family whenever I go home so there’s that.

3) Death

This was the most striking part of my 4 years abroad. It was the moment that really made me wake up and I felt for the first time the extent of what I had given up on when I decided to study abroad.

I grew up under my grandmother’s care, and for 19 years of my life she was always there to take care of me. I saw her day in day out, and when I decided to go abroad, she told me that she really couldn’t bear to let me go, she’s been seeing me every day since the day I was born…. I knew that she was worried but I was more concerned with pursuing what I wanted. I wanted the education that UIC offered, so the only way was just to leave Singapore and stay in Korea for 4 years. Whenever we Skyped, she didn’t want to come over because she would tear up whenever she saw me. On the occasions that she did, she would always tell me to eat more and take care of myself. She was happy whenever my face appeared a little chubbier over the computer screen, and worried whenever I seemed to have lost some weight. As someone who didn’t like to go out (she was after all in her 80s, and she was always afraid of the cold) she always came to the airport to send me off, whether it was late at night or early in the morning. She was the one who I was always worried about, who I missed the most when I was homesick, but I thought 4 years would pass by quickly and I would be home again. Or rather, I never thought about her old age, I never gave much thought to death.

After I completed my freshman year at UIC, I decided to stay in Korea for the summer. It was my first summer in Korea, and it felt like there were more opportunities for me to find internships or if not, make use of the time to improve my Korean. My parents came to visit me at the beginning of the summer vacation, and it was then they broke the news to me — my grandma was diagnosed with lymphoma a few days ago.

At that moment all the cheers and magical feelings of the first year disappeared. I was extremely happy and contented every single day in Korea, and every passing day was a new experience I couldn’t get enough of. But at that moment, that world crumbled, and all I wanted was to go home. I never knew my grandma recovered from lymphoma 20-odd years ago — it was something the adults didn’t find necessary to tell us about. I wanted to go home and take care of her, but my mum tried to reassure me that it would be okay. That didn’t stop me from worrying the entire July, trying to find cheap air tickets that I could afford with whatever money I had in my bank account. I even considered taking the next semester off so that I could stay with my grandma and take care of her through her radiotherapy. Eventually I went home in August, and after 6 days of staying by her bedside, accompanying through her hospital stay, she left her pain and suffering behind.

That episode gave me a rude wake-up call. I realised the extent of what I had given up on when I chose to come abroad. It was not only my family per se, but precious time with my grandma or other family members who were already in old age. I never considered that they would leave one day, and had always assumed that they would be there when I go home. But now I realise I should have spent more time with her, and I realise that I should spend more time with my family as much as I can. It’s not that I shouldn’t have come to Korea; I didn’t regret coming here, not even after I realised how it took 9 months of time away from my grandma. It was the realisation that time is precious, and if you wish to pursue your studies abroad, spend more time with your loved ones before it’s too late. Don’t always look forward, look outside, look far, and forget about your family that you will leave behind. Don’t leave any room for regrets and more importantly, stay strong in any difficult period to come and once you’ve resolved to come abroad, make sure that you do your best and not waste your time.

4) National events/National trends

The same here for Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing. Singaporeans are saddened by the passing of our founder, but here in Seoul it’s weird because no one is bothered by it (well, it’s technically not so relevant to them). It’s weird to be mourning alone, though I’m grateful for friends here who sent me condolences which I received as a daughter of Singapore. But being abroad, you can never have that same sense or feel the same atmosphere as when you are at home if there is a huge national happening. The sense of alienation is felt more acutely as you come to realise that you are different, that in a way you don’t really belong here. Times like this you actually want to be home to join in the mourning, to be bombarded with documentaries after documentaries of Lee Kuan Yew’s lifetime instead of resorting to scrolling through Facebook for any new updates from Straits Times and Channel Newsasia.

You might slowly feel dislocated as other people back home are using new slangs that you have no idea what they mean. They talk about the most popular TV commercial that if they hum one short verse everyone knows about. Friends complain about the time when the haze hit 400 points on the PSI, and you can only imagine how that was since you’ve never experienced that (unless maybe, you count the annual Yellow Dust storm from China but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t go as bad as 400 points). You just feel like somehow you don’t quite belong anymore since you understand less and less of national happenings. You may not even be able to vote (if there’s not voting station set up in your local embassy). You start to feel unfamiliar and then it really hits you that you’re missing out on a lot of common memories or commonalities that tie your countrymen together.

But fret not! Continue to keep in contact with your friends back home, meet up and talk to your friends from the same country (or even those who are not but who are concerned about the same issues), and it will make you stay in touch with local happenings and ease your sad mood when terrible things happen at home. We did the same thing for our Malaysian friend through the tragedy of the MH370, it felt especially close perhaps because it was close to us too.

As a 19-year-old, I thought I was “mature” and I knew a lot of things. Now on hindsight I admit that I was too naive when it came to the implications of studying abroad, or rather, I chose not to see those potential difficulties. I hope that with posts like these, you can understand what are the sacrifices you might have to make, and be better prepared for how to deal with them. Remember, everything comes with a price, and don’t let these things scare you off. Just know to be prepared for such challenges and don’t get beaten down by them! You will emerge stronger after this 🙂

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