At the beginning of this semester, the Peer Liaisons of my exchange program sat us all down to explain the intricacies of socializing at Yale. By the end of the session, we were all bewildered, a little afraid, and more than a little confused. Imagine being told that the seemingly innocuous phrase “We should totally get a meal sometime” could actually mean “Oh, I’m trying to be polite, because we’re in the same class, and I know your suitemate, and damn this college is small, but I definitely never intend to eat with you.” Okay– fine. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Still, it was a pretty steep learning curve. Because the group of exchange students here is so small, we’re easy to overlook, but the integration process would much easier if Yalies were more cognizant of the occasional impenetrability of the Yale Bubble.
I’m from Singapore, a tiny island in Southeast Asia. It’s got a total population of less than six million people, a majority of whom are ethnically Chinese. Not quite the United States, but prior to coming here, I figured that university life couldn’t possibly differ that much.Being at Yale has led me to question many things I thought I had figured out about navigating school social life. I’d like to start by saying that I’m not particularly socially inept. Sure, I sometimes get a tad over enthusiastic, but, for the most part, no restraining orders have been filed. So imagine my surprise when I had to relearn how to be a human, at the extremely inconvenient time of junior year of college.
I certainly wasn’t ready for the all-encompassing experience of Yale. Within the first few days words like FroCo, Woads, Section Asshole, and Screw all had to be deciphered. There were also multiple student publications to keep up with. Coming from a place where there are probably less than a handful of widely read publications, the sheer range of material here was astounding. It might seem completely normal to some, but the idea of a daily student newspaper that people actually read was something to get used to. These papers are usually perused alongside Facebook or Instagram, where ‘Overheard at Yale’ and ‘@sadyaleboys’ reside, respectively. This vigorous campus culture, combined with all the traditions and the ubiquitous giant white ‘Y’ adorning every hoodie, creates an of immersive ecosphere, where it’s YALE, all day, every day. In the National University of Singapore (NUS), the undergraduate population is more than five times that of Yale. So there isn’t that strong of a collective culture, not for a lack of trying, but because its sheer size makes it difficult to foster that sort of camaraderie. For instance, we don’t have events that the whole school comes together for like the Harvard-Yale game. Notions of school pride aren’t quite as strong, meaning that there isn’t really a collective, monolithic identity that students take on.
Despite the size of the student population, since NUS is one of only three national universities in the country, you’re bound already to know a whole bunch of people. In the first month of school alone, I bumped into people I knew from high school, middle school, elementary school,and yes, even kindergarten. In that sense, there isn’t a possibility to reinvent yourself, because someone always knows someone who knew you when you were a bratty twelve year old. Having so many students from the same high schools and compulsory military service for the guys also means that there are already common experiences and group identities that make it harder for a singular university identity to take hold. In addition to that, since most students live at home in Singapore, there isn’t the same kind of pressure to be part of a collective. There is usually a clear end to the school day, where one would take the train home and hang out with family or go out with friends from other schools. Even for people who live on campus, having a roommate is rare, so you could very well choose to be a hermit and venture out only at mealtime or for classes. At Yale, my home life, school life and social life all converged. It required being sociable for extended periods of time and all the smalltalk made the first few weeks of school feel like an unending dinner party.
In the midst of this social awakening came a steady buildup of stress that led to what can only be described as mini-mental meltdown. Only, I later realized that it wasn’t so much the academic pressure, but more so the social pressure of being perpetually surrounded by my peers that led to it. As a product of the Singaporean educational system, I’m no stranger to stress. Schooling in Singapore has been likened to being in a pressure cooker. Classes at Yale aren’t exactly a breeze: they’re challenging, but certainly doable. So what, then, led to the meltdown? Well, in spending every waking hour in school, everywhere I looked, people were studying. Heck, Bass Library was packed at 11pm, on a Monday, in the third week of school! Things seemed to be happening at a frenzied pace, people moved from classes, to College Teas, to libraries and then still managed to dance the night away in Box 63. I had no idea how they did it. I was used to studying at home, so in suddenly being surrounded by students with different working styles, I began to question my normal ways of doing things. Classes began to feel daunting, untouched readings started to pile up, and I was overwhelmed and undergoing a real crisis of confidence. What really helped was when one of my friends explained that people weren’t necessarily studying all the time, and it just looked like it. Another friend also said that it was impossible to finish all the assigned readings, which was a great relief, because Lord knows I haven’t been keeping up with them.
So, that’s where I’m at. I’d love to talk about other things that took getting used to, like perceived novelty of alcohol for instance, and how twenty-one is looked at like a magical age. We’re legal at 18 and alcohol in Singapore is really expensive. (Sorry, liver.) Don’t even get me started on dating or the abomination that passes for Chinese food. What I’m learning, though, is how fast things can be adjusted to. It would have been fantastic if someone had explained all of this to me before my various meltdowns. But in having to grapple with these issues, I got to know the students here better, and perhaps, in trying to explain my confusion, they learned a bit more about where I come from. While the people involved in my exchange program have been nothing short of amazing in helping us get accustomed to the school, actually integrating into life here would be infinitely easier if Yalies reached out more and were curious about university life in another country. Now, if only I could shake my deep suspicion of meal offers, everything would be perfect.