University has a bit of a reputation as being the time we can ‘find ourselves’, explore new places, discover our passions, jump outside our comfort zones, and the list of sayings goes on. Three years ago, 18-year old Anusha would have eye-rolled if anyone said those things to me. I was very much the sort to think: “I’m going to London to study Dentistry so that I can come back and be a Dentist in Singapore, what more is there to it?”. That part is true – attending lectures and studying in the library wasn’t so different from all the studying we had to do in school. But looking back, I realise it’s about all the other things associated with our time at university – it’s the increased freedom to have new experiences in life that gives this period it’s well-deserved reputation.
Being an international student, in my opinion, takes this experience to a whole other level. For most, coming to university was new because it wasn’t school, but for me, the university was new because it was in a whole other country.
Some aspects were the same as anyone else starting university – I figured out how to study independently, I made new friends and got involved in student activity groups. And, like anyone living away from home, I learnt to cook, do laundry, set up direct debits and all that. But I do think, being a 13-hour flight from home and in a different time zone to my family and school friends meant there was an added layer. Small things were different – the mannerisms of people, the currency, the accents, the deafening tubes, the way Sainsbury’s in London is somehow so different to Fairprice in Singapore even though they’re both grocery stores. It was these tiny things that in reality didn’t matter but still made me feel like I stood slightly apart from everyone else.
I felt a little more alone and thought I didn’t have the same security blanket as anyone who was living in a country they’ve grown up in.
Now I should say I spent 5 years in London as a child and with English being my first language and having a mixed British-Indian accent, in some ways, it was easy for me to adjust to the move. But it turned out, ten years in Singapore was a long time and was enough to make me feel like I was in a new place again. Three years later, my friends still laugh when I say “pants” instead of “trousers” and I’m still wrapping my head around some of the slang – I will internally cringe when I hear someone say “peak”, but the occasional “innit” might slip my tongue. Also, people don’t realise I’m
an international student; most think I’m from London – I suppose I fit in well, especially in a course that is full of South Asians. But truthfully I do feel different. I am a third culture kid – I grew up away from India, I have a Singaporean passport but attended an international school. My identity is
made-up by the fact that I lived in five different countries, attended eight schools and have lived in more houses than I can be bothered to count. I suppose I now feel at home anywhere I go as long as I find a community, a group of wonderful friends and a purpose. The reason I’m bringing this up is this has affected my outlook – perhaps someone who grew up in Singapore their entire life has had an entirely different experience of being an international student in the UK than I have.
The big question I get when people find out I’m not from the UK is: Where do you want to practice?
Even before I started the course, my friends and family back home would ask if I’ll come back to Singapore after university. Out of my immense love for the life-style in Singapore, I replied with naive certainty that I would indeed return as soon as my degree ended, despite not actually having
stepped foot in London yet. I continued to receive these questions from fellow students, and in those early months of university, I still responded with “Singapore for sure”. However, as time passed, I grew less certain and wasn’t so sure what I wanted anymore. After three fabulous years of living in London, I’ve made friends I would hate to leave and my little, cluttered flat in Elephant in Castle has become my second home. Singapore might have been the country I grew up in for 10 years, but London is the city that I have grown into my own person. I know that decision, ‘London or
Singapore?’, is going to depend on a multitude of factors external to Dentistry and I am excited to see where I’ll end up – maybe even somewhere else entirely, who knows! But for now, when I get asked “Where will you settle down after university”, I respond with a little shrug of my shoulders and two words: “We’ll see”.