090215 – 060615 | Just like that, 4 months of my exchange has come to an end. It has been a unique experience, and a process of self discovery. The toughest part is leaving when I’d just adapted.
February 2015 was when I left home for one semester of international exchange in Warsaw, Poland at the Warsaw School of Economics aka Szkoła Głowna Handlowa w Warszawie (SGH). SGH has the oldest business school in Poland and is one of the top universities in the country.
Adapting to life in Warsaw was daunting. The first challenge was definitely communicating with locals. Poles communicate primarily in Polish even if they speak English. And it was not always easy to find someone who spoke English – even in the international student hostel of the university, there was only one adminstrative manager who could speak English. Simple tasks like asking for directions and buying groceries suddenly became very difficult.
It was only days after we arrived that we learned that some locals were very proud of their own language as a representation of their nationality. This was especially important to them given that Poles had to speak Russian during the communist period. We tried to pick up some basic vocabulary to show respect to the Polish culture. Strangely enough, people did seem friendlier even if we could only greet them “Dzień Dobry (Good morning)” or “Do widzenia (Goodbye)”!
Part of going on international exchange is to learn and embrace differences. But if there’s one exception, it would be that racism should not be embraced or tolerated under any circumstances. Once, a fellow student came up to me and shouted “Asian”, amongst other offensive comments, right into my face. I barely knew this student and I was honestly quite offended by his actions. I told myself to let it go because I was alone in a foreign land. In hindsight, perhaps I should have stood up to him. It is a shame that despite living in such a globalised world, there are still such insular individuals. Incidents like this make me more appreciative of the racial harmony we enjoy in Singapore.
Attending classes taught in English meant that most of my classmates were exchange students and it was really a platform for me to learn more about other cultures outside of Poland. We had to do a project about MNCs in different countries. While my group chose Singapore, the project was a different experience because I could not take it for granted that my classmates understood what I was talking about. It was crucial to set the context for them and I felt like I became an Ambassador for Singapore!
Another element of going on exchange is definitely the opportunity to travel to different parts of the world. One of my most memorable trips was my trip to Iceland, where I saw the northern lights and explored an ice cave.
The trip to Iceland consisted of 7 friends including fellow ambassadors Wen Yun, Hong Wen, Laura and Bryan. A bit of familiarity while being overseas is a great feeling to have! Apart from the fun moments, we also encountered a minor traffic accident where our vehicle skidded off the road and crashed into the snow walls formed at the sides of the road. Luckily, we were all unharmed. It was at times like these that you experience friendships in its rawest form – Bryan, who was at the wheel at the time, made sure we all stayed in the car while he braved the gale to check out the situation. The others checked to make sure everyone was safe before cracking a joke or two.
One of the biggest takeaways is that going on exchange really pushed me out of my own comfort zone. Experiencing new things is a part of growing up isn’t it? Going on exchange, there were times when I had to eat alone (one thing I really dislike) and I learned to embrace that and many other things that are not the norm for me. I’m glad I picked a place that’s entirely different from Singapore for exchange because it showed me a lot more than I’ve ever expected, and I too, surprised myself with my ability to adapt.
Exchange can be lonely and difficult sometimes, but it will be as exciting and adventurous as how you allow it to be. For those heading off to exchange, good luck, and safe adventures! And for those who are considering an exchange, if you can afford the time and money, go for it – it’ll show you a whole new world, a new fantastic point of view; no one to tell us no or where to go, or say we're only dreaming (: