Same, Same but Different
What does it mean to be home? I’ve been back for two months now, a length of time that has given me the space to reflect on my experiences away, but also allowed for the raw and visceral elements to begin to fade around the edges.
Looking back on it, I’d have to say that the differences, not just between education systems, but more importantly, in how learning is perceived and thought about was one of the most jarring and surprising parts of my time abroad. I think in many ways, I went into my time at Yale-NUS expecting it to feel like a smaller version of Amherst transplanted in a new and foreign city. Both schools were liberal arts colleges with a strong focus on residential life, diversity, and close student-faculty relationships. Although one had existed for almost 200 years and the other for less than 6, both schools were in the process of considering how to adapt and shape their institution to fit a changing range of students from varying backgrounds. What I found surprising (and which, in hindsight, I probably should have expected) is that a school is in infinite, sometimes intangible ways a product of its environment and its students.
One of the biggest criticisms of Yale-NUS, especially by its peers at the neighboring National University of Singapore, is that it exists in a walled-off bubble, with even its architecture of soaring white-walled buildings and stainless-steel gates serving as isolation from its surroundings. Yet, despite this, outside cultural and political forces and criticisms found a way in.
An event covering Operation Spectrum, the controversial detention of 22 Singaporean citizens in 1987 in an attempt to quell communist sentiment, in which four of the actual detainees were brought onto campus and a documentary was shown, proved to be so popular that over 100 students expressed interest. Yet, instead of hosting the event in a larger auditorium, it was held in a small living room space, students perched on couch corners and sitting with knees folded on the floor to take up as little space as possible. We heard rumored through the grapevine that a regulation and a fear of being seen as supporting something so politically controversial had kept the event from being held in a more public (and larger) setting.
In a way that my Environmental Studies classes at Amherst have always felt more emotionally tied to an idea of conservation and preserving “nature,” my courses at Yale-NUS felt more pragmatic and politically focused. I spent a lot of time wondering why this was so. Was it because, as a small island nation, Singaporeans had, so-to-speak, “nowhere to run”, in the event of an environmental catastrophe and rising sea levels? Perhaps it came from living in such close proximity to other, less wealthy and more vulnerable nations, from seeing the effects of climate change begin to manifest themselves first-hand.
Every so often, an article would surface written by the Singaporean media that was critical of the school in some regard. Students felt a responsibility to protect the reputation of the institution in a way I haven’t found at Amherst. This isn’t to say that the study body didn’t have their issues with the curriculum and the administration—they did. But Yale-NUS faced added pressure as the newest and most expensive experiment in liberal arts education in a country where pre-professional education was often given the gold standard. I forget sometimes within the context of my Amherst experience that a liberal arts education is not a right or casual choice, but for many people, in many places, a small act of rebellion.
I miss the verdant greenery and view of the harbor from the balcony of my residential college, the shipping boats and oil refineries rising as sharp metal silhouettes against a rose and ember colored evening sky. I miss the way that family in Singapore is often more loosely defined and encompasses many more people than we sometimes think of in the U.S. Older adults not immediately related to you are often referred to as “Auntie” and “Uncle,” a term that connotes respect and sometimes endearment. The man that served you naan in the hawker center was uncle, but so was your best friend’s father. Maybe this stands out to me in the context of returning to a U.S. that feels more polarized and divided than ever before. There are many ways to criticize Singapore’s attempts at fostering nationalism but there is a lot to be said for the sense of solidarity and camaraderie that this breeds, even among strangers.
I won’t miss living in a country with 95% humidity on most days. It’s a true story that I broke my own laptop because the milk tea I was drinking developed so much condensation that it began raining down on my computer, dripping into my trackpad and rendering it useless. I’d be hard pressed to want to spend my Saturday evenings feverishly working on an Urban Political Ecology essay or studying Climate Change economics to keep up with weekend deadlines and a high-pressure academic environment. Certainly I’m glad not to be eating the strange, rubbery pizza that is somehow served (profitably) in restaurants throughout Singapore.
Yet, I’m grateful that I took the chance to study in Asia and that I left behind my 10 years of French education to spend a semester speaking English instead. I think my time in Singapore has shown me that language is more than simply a differing lexicon but a range of cultural nuances, an entirely different way of thinking and seeing. It is surprising how different two parallel versions of the same language can be, and what can be learned from placing oneself between both.
I am indebted to Amherst for preparing me, both academically and socially, not just to approach the liberal arts in a new environment, but also for providing me with the capacity to think critically about my experience. I will always be grateful for the students, professors, and administrators at Yale-NUS for welcoming me with candor and thoughtfulness, for treating me as one of their own.
I don’t know what it means to be home, except perhaps that “home” is a more nebulous and unanchored concept than I could have conceived of before.