Wednesday, January 19 2022


Culture shock worth it when studying abroad

Update: March, 17/2019 - 07:00
Illustration by Trịnh Lập
Viet Nam News

By An Phương

Three years in Singapore were the best time of my life as I got to pursue a bachelor’s degree in one of the most conducive environments for academia and experience the uniquely diverse culture that Singapore has to offer.

This year, four years after graduating from university, I turned 26.

Studying abroad may be one of the biggest decisions a person ever makes and it’s easy to spend months or even years scouring websites, reading through prospectuses, and planning finances.

Since I was quite sure about Singapore, I spent 12th grade taking many classes to prepare for my A-level exam. To be honest, I didn’t score well on the exam and was not able to attend my desired university. However, those A-level classes mentally prepared me for the intensive course that I was about to take in Singapore.

A friend of mine, Diệu Mai, 24, whom I met in Singapore, agreed that the city-state has a distinctively dynamic and competitive study environment that overseas students should be aware of, so they can avoid  becoming shocked or struggling too much after they arrive.

Mai’s opinion was interesting, and it inspired me to think about overseas students, culture shock and academic pressure today.

“Since Singapore is close to Việt Nam and I had taken several trips there during my holidays before, I was familiar with its culture and wasn’t anxious at all,” Mai said.

“But that was only culture-wise. I must admit that studying in Singapore could be tough because of the workload, high expectations from lecturers, and sometimes locals’ kiasu (roughly translated as ‘fear of losing out’), among other factors,” Mai added.

Kiasu is a Hokkien (Chinese dialect) word that comes from kia, which means afraid, and su, which means to lose,” she explained.

I knew about kiasu prior to studying in Singapore. It’s interesting that many Singaporean friends of mine admitted that Singaporeans tend to be kiasu, or very competitive and self-centred.

To be honest, I’m a competitive person. But I’ve never felt that I tried that hard compared to my local friends, and this at times bugged me. I remember feeling uncomfortable and isolated during the first few weeks of school.

That being said, kiasu is not necessarily negative if one can use it to his or her benefit.

After living there for a while, I was less stressed out and learned to embrace kiasu as it made me more achievement-oriented. I came to adore the hard work my friends put into their projects and told myself to try harder.

I might have started my freshman year struggling, but I came out strong as I finished my degree.

This is just one example about the benefit of doing research on the culture and study environment before making a final decision on where to study.

There are other things that overseas students can do to avoid culture shock and academic pressure.

Quang Nam, 28, one of my friends who went to the UK for a master’s degree, told me that UK’s study environment was tough as well and that he was shocked for several months.

“I chose the UK because I adore its culture and the country is well-known for its quality finance programmes,” he said.

“The UK is, of course, an English-speaking country, so it was necessary to be fluent in the language. However, since the accent is quite distinctive, I trained by listening to UK podcasts for about half a year before leaving,” he said, adding that it helped him quite a lot.

“As I arrived in the UK, I didn’t attend college immediately but took a pre-master’s course to get myself well prepared for the main course,” Nam said. “It took me nine months to complete the pre-master’s course, but it was worth it. Since pursuing a master’s degree in the UK takes one year of study, compared to two years in the US, getting ourselves 100 per cent together before ‘show time’ makes our lives so much easier!”

“Take as much time as you need to be well prepared because it will save you a lot of time afterwards,” Nam recommended.

My friend Mai asked Nam if he would be okay with Western food 24/7?

Nam said: “Many of my friends missed Vietnamese food and became quite depressed, but it wasn’t the case with me. Since I had come to terms with myself and accept the fact that I wouldn’t be able to eat traditional food, my two years in the UK having Western food passed by quite easily!”

It may sound a little serious, but I agree with Nam that a strong will plays an important role in avoiding cultural shock, at least food-wise.

Công Chính, 25, a friend of Nam’s, shared a different tip that I found very helpful.

“The most ideal way to start our journey is at a college dorm. As most university students aren’t familiar with the new neighbourhood or able to make friends yet to move in with each other, a college dorm provides us with essentially what we need in an accommodation,” Chính said.

“Though a dorm room sometimes costs more than something in a local’s residential area, it’s convenient and we can make our first friends there,” he said, adding that surrounding ourselves with great friends is a must.

“I have two friends who finished their freshman year in the UK, but then decided to return home after that. Their parents told me that they got depressed as they couldn’t make friends,” Chính said.

“Of course, I’m not that close to them to know whether or not it was their fault. They must have felt very lonely either way,” he added. “I was lucky enough to have some close friends studying in the UK before me and they told me about many worthy experiences.”

In my view, cultural shock and academic pressure is inevitable when it comes to studying abroad. However, it has become less serious, considering Việt Nam has grown so much.

“Việt Nam has become more open and many young people can easily become familiar with foreign culture with just a mouse click away,” Mai said. “In fact, I’ve noticed that some of my friends were actually in reverse culture shock when they returned home.”

Embarking on a new journey may seem to be tough, but, trust me, just be well prepared!

Nothing is more rewarding than being able to return home with necessary life skills and a modern mindset, at least in my experience. VNS

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