When is the perfect time to travel alone? Well, one of the best times would be during a semester-long exchange programme. Let me just be honest about how it was for me.
Being on exchange for a whole semester, ALONE, was a scary thought to me. It was the last day of application, and I had only realised that day that it was the last day to submit my application. So, with the minimal research I had done, I submitted it. Afterwards, I tried to convince myself otherwise for the sake of comforting myself, what could really be so bad? I had applied to the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. 6150km from Singapore, from home, alone, for five months. But this is possibly the best decision I have made in my life.
Travelling alone has truly been the scariest and most liberating life-changing experience of my life and five months was a great amount of time to really understand the culture of a country I’ve never been to. As an exchange student, in which I just had to pass the modules I was taking here for my academic credits, it was just an amazing time – I just needed enough effort to do reasonably well and I could spend the rest of my time exploring Brisbane, getting to know the locals and to learn about the culture.
Settling in was hard initially, what with having to get a bed frame, a mattress, a pillow, bedsheets, a table lamp, a tabletop mirror, a folder, and many other little things I failed to notice I would need during my stay here, and would have to possibly dispose of after only using them for five short months since I can’t bring them all back to Singapore with me.
To add on to all these, the new culture I had to integrate into. I stayed in a sharehouse where I was lucky enough to have had really nice housemates who were friendly and welcoming towards me and tried their best to help me settle in as smoothly as possible. However, culture was not something anyone could help me with. It is highly related to my own mindset, and when you do it- you’ll understand why. You have four options when you are faced with a new culture: integration, assimilation, separation or marginalization. These are four types of acculturation strategies that are based on just two factors – maintenance of home culture and connection with host culture. So, whether you will connect with your newfound culture, or clash and maintain your old roots. The best strategy, from my own experience, is integrate, have tofu with your cheesy pizza, and introduce your new western besties to some Pee Mak aka Thai comedy horror. The most harmful strategy, where unfortunately some end up, would be one of marginalization, this is where you lose both your home culture and the connection with the host culture. Thankfully, the Australian culture is not hugely different from the Singaporean one and I was able to settle in relatively well. There are a few differences but they weren’t hard to get accustomed to.
“Hi, how are you doing today?” was a phrase you would never pass a day without hearing in Australia and as a Singaporean, I was frozen whenever I was asked this question at the cashier counters. I stuttered and struggled to think of an answer which was really actually a simple one – “I’m good, what about you?”
Nonetheless, it was not in my nature to have small talks while paying for my groceries at the supermarket back in Singapore and I struggled with it till a week later when an expectation that I would be asked this question was finally firmly formed and I was ready to give an appropriate response to it.
Saying “thank you” upon alighting the bus in Australia was something new to me as well. Technically if I’m alighting the bus from the back door, I would be shouting across half a bus of people and I just wasn’t used to doing so. These are but a few practices that are different from Singapore.
The biggest change I had to adapt to was the way I spoke English, which is my first language in Singapore as well, albeit it sounded very different in Australia in terms of tone and enunciation. There is a lot more variation in tone when Australians spoke English and I realised that speaking in a Singaporean way, which has a much flatter tone, might cause some locals to not be able to understand me. It was funny how when I spoke to people from home that they would comment how I sounded different now and that I had forgotten the use of Singlish. Furthermore, Singapore is a bustling city and Brisbane is more of a laidback city where shops closed much earlier than they do in Singapore at averagely 6-7pm on most days. I was at a loss regarding what to do during the nights and this freed-up time actually allowed me to spend more time on past hobbies that I had lost touch with, and to explore new hobbies as well.
Making friends with the locals is never an issue because they are ever so welcoming and friendly to everyone. I have made a couple of really good friends myself and was surprised that I managed to because I initially thought I would be a loner due to the culture differences and this trip alone going to be plain miserable. They helped me settle in and when one of them knew I had no bedframe and didn’t want to spend money on a new one only to have to possibly dispose it after five months, she connected me with a domestic student, who had a spare one and for a fraction of the cost, I could rent it. That’s the first time I heard of Shimmy, a start-up that has created a renting platform for students to rent objects they may need while staying in Australia for a short-term.
My other housemate then helped me put it together. It honestly made my stay so much comfier and I couldn’t be more grateful that they went out of their way to help me. They have been there for me whenever I felt homesick or simply wanted to explore more of Brisbane. There’s no better way to know a new country than by exploring with the locals! Thanks to them, I was able to see the more remote places of Brisbane and also the Gold Coast that I would never have gotten to know if I were alone and kept to myself (and my instagram feed would have suffered without those beach pics).
Travelling alone was probably the most adventurous thing I’ve done and when you’re alone, every single bit of help goes a long way and is very much appreciated.
Nonetheless, it was definitely a life-changing experience travelling solo and it’s the time where you learn the most things and they’re usually things that you never realised you would or needed to learn in the shortest period of time possible. Truly, travelling opens your eyes, warms your heart, and frees your mind.