If you’ve come to look for the panacea to homesickness, you won’t find it here. This one isn’t about hunky-dory things. This one has been brought on by a few questions the facilitators got asked at the USAPPS workshop last week, and most of which I’d like to address here. Here goes nothing.
There’s a common myth that university is supposed to be this orgy of socializing and reinventing yourself – a myth that I’d like to dispel. In university, especially in one as big as the UofI, lectures often involve more than 200 students. I found myself sitting next to one person during Chem 102, then scribbling notes between empty seats in Math 231, eating alone during lunch, meeting up with committee members in the evening, and spending most of the night studying by myself, or occasionally with a friend. University life wasn’t what I had expected it to be. Instead of making a huge bunch of friends that I regularly went out with, I learned to be comfortable by myself.
It sounds depressing, sure, but honestly, university is a lot of learning about how to deal with things on your own. And along the way you make friends. It’s interesting to note, though, that many of the USAPPS participants asked whether it is difficult to make ‘American friends’. Well, no doubt we come from different countries. We have different accents, beliefs, cultural quirks, and to just sweep all these things under the carpet would be a mistake. Of course these things make finding commonalities harder. But they also make great conversation starters. At the end of the day, we’re all clueless college students. Some of us merely happen to be playing the four-year game on home court.
I often get asked questions like, ‘Is there discrimination?’ and ‘Will they look down on you?’, which is normal. And while I’d like to con-fort you and say ‘No worries! Murica got your back!’, the reality is that discrimination is as much as a fact of life as the fact that Fred Weasley died. Honestly, we Malaysians have this in-built reaction to Western culture in which we irrationally admire everything they do, and as long as we give off the impression that we are less than them, that’s how long the cultural barriers will remain. Show yourself and your culture the respect that you show others’, before expecting any in return.
So yes, to my Malaysian friends making the journey overseas, racism is real. Discrimination happens. You will feel isolated, lonely, and constantly pine for the sound of Hokkien (or maybe that’s just me). The feeling of cultural vertigo never quite goes away. You will wonder why your life isn’t nearly as interesting as your friend living in California, or why your Instagram story isn’t nearly as full of international friends and live performances. You may start to regret your decision to study two oceans away. You may need to cry in the middle of the night, wondering when your international-student life will turn into the exciting joyride that every blog, Facebook and Instagram post says it’s supposed to be.
College life is stressful. You will worry about your GPA. You will lament your choice of taking a class that you were not required to take, but still did because hubris. You will miss home, and the familiar smell of belacan cooking in the kitchen. You will worry about money and rent, and whether there will be enough to travel at the end of the semester. And for international students, you will wonder if you will ever fit in, if America will ever feel like home.
I cannot give you any answers. But, personally, I just stopped caring too much and did whatever I felt I wanted to (except for booze, drugs and sex – because aku anak Malaysia yang ingin membanggakan negara). You only have four years in the US, maybe less.
So I get that food is uber-important to us Malaysians, but going overseas requires a little more preparation aside from the small grocery shop that we will be carrying in our luggage. I mentioned that I’d expand a little more on medication, so I’ll be doing that plus listing a couple of other things that helped me acclimatize during my first few months at the UofI.
I had two medicine bags – one in my carry-on, and another in my checked luggage. Here’s what went into both:
I had with me chewable vitamins, because immunity drops when you’re 30,000 feet in the air. Plus, you’ll be exposed to so many varieties of pathogens you’d probably not want to get onto the plane if you stop to think about it. I also packed a strip of Panadol (just in case I fell sick), Eno, lozenges, and Vick’s inhaler nasal stick for blocked noses.
While chewing gum is not medicine, I threw it in my pack, because my ears get blocked pretty badly while flying, and I’m not really a fan of the cotton-in-my-ear sensation.
This was my personal Chinese sinseh and Guardian Pharmacy all rolled into one. I take a lot of Chinese traditional medicine, so I had herbal pills for everything from cough and indigestion to fever and period cramps. If you’re old-school like me, traditional medicine is definitely allowed, so it’s fine to take along any kacip fatimah or ginseng extract pills, but please make sure to label them with their functions. I included prescription anti-inflammatory pills for sore throat, flu medicine from my family doctor, charcoal pills (in case American food did not agree with me), more Eno, plasters, muscle-ache patches, extra vitamins, an entire box of Panadol, and more lozenges (because I have overactive tonsils). In general, bring along whatever you think you need (especially things like inhalers or respirators), but LABEL THEM with their ingredients (if possible) and, more importantly, their purpose.
Oh yes, musn’t forget good ol’ Tiger Balm and Vicks Vaporub.
A set of winter clothes
I’ve had some friends ask me if it would be better if they waited and bought their cold-weather clothes in the US. While winter clothes are significantly cheaper here, it would also be wise to invest in at least one set of winter clothes (coat, long johns, scarf, gloves, woolen socks) before flying, as you never know when you’d be able to make a trip to the store once you arrive. Come prepared.
Spare glasses, contact lenses, retainers, shoes. At least, that’s what came along with me. Spectacles (or glasses, as they call it in the US) are pretty expensive, and so are contacts. Retainers (and any dental care in general) isn’t covered by the university insurance. So if you want to save a few future bucks, invest in spares before you leave.
I brought my teddy bear with me. I am not ashamed of myself. Things that help remind you of home may ease homesickness a little, and help you cope with your new environment. It’s also like having a bit of your family and friends with you. Bring along anything that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, be it a old blanket, a squishy pillow, a beloved book, or a smelly doll – whatever works. No one judged me – or at least, I think so.
Okay, so I’ve had a couple of friends ask me what kind of food they should/should not bring to the US, so here’s a list of common items we Malaysians typically cannot live without, and whether or not US Customs would suddenly decide they need a bottle of belacan.
1. Milo and Nescafe
JUST BRING. LIKE TWO PACKETS. I used up two large packets of Milo 3-in-1 in one semester (but that’s just me lah). Also, if you’re a hardcore Milo fan, invest in a couple of kg’s and take some along because a small tin of Milo can cost up to $7 in the US, depending on the region. If you’re a Nescafe enthusiast , don’t hesitate to invest in one or two packages. The United States simply does not have the variety of pre-mixed coffee that Malaysia does.
While IndoMee and cup ramen can be found in abundance in the Land of the Mee – I mean Free – there is simply nothing like a good, hot bowl of Maggi Kari to warm you up on an abysmal winter day. Also, you cannot find Maggi Kari here, so do bring your own personal supply along. Mind the chicken-flavored one, though. The rules are pretty blurry on this one, but if the Customs officer had a stressful day, he/she might just confiscate your Maggi Perisa Ayam.
3. Malaysian Spices and Condiments
I would strongly advise bringing a small supply of your own spices and curry powder (Babas, usually) until you can figure out where to buy decent Asian spices on the University campus. While there are at least three Asian marts selling a generous variety of powders and spices, a small stash may help you while you’re figuring out where to buy everything you need to make your Tok Ma’s rendang kambing. Besides that, things like kicap (soy sauce) and oyster sauce are totally fine, as long as you don’t bring along five bottles of each (that looks plain suspicious). Also make sure to wrap all glass bottles securely to prevent any breakage, because your luggage bag is going to be thrown about. ALSO BRING CHILLI SAUCE.
I have not yet entered an Asian mart on campus that sells belacan. That being said, the admissibility of belacan into the United States is pretty ambiguous. Sometimes it passes right through Customs with no problem, other times it gets confiscated. My opinion? Just bring it along. If it survives Border Protection, you can look forward to a nice plate of nasi lemak. On a side note, shrimp is also okay, as long as it’s dried, and does not come in insanely large quantities.
I will expand more on this later on, but for starters, make sure you have Panadol, prescription flu pills, Eno, and vitamin C chewables. The change in time zone and weather can affect some people pretty badly, so painkillers and vitamins will definitely help to ease any discomfort that you might be feeling.
With that said, I’d like to add that it’s advisable to label all food items clearly and concisely. I wrapped my medicines and any food products that might cause any confusion for the Customs officers in clear plastic bags, then labelled them with their names. For medicines, I added their purpose. For food, I listed their main ingredients.
The basic rule is just to bring along whatever you feel is necessary to help you acclimatize in a new environment. Don’t be too afraid of what may or may not get taken out of your luggage bag because honestly, it very much depends on your luck. And just in case you still have any doubts, head over here for more information of the US Customs and Border Protection website to find out!
Oh, I remember the (literal) dark days: fourteen hours of night, sub-zero temperatures, and consuming an entire bag of Cracker Jack on the dorm linoleum floor while sobbing piteously at the visual masterpiece that is Kimi no Na Wa. Every day I’d trudge to work at the bookstore in the morning, visit the gym for a little, cook tomorrow’s dinner after my bath, then watch some Netflix or Hulu. On the weekends, I’d go over to my friends’ place and cook a little more, maybe watch a movie. I seemed to be running on fine – or was I?
A heaviness seemed to have taken up residence in the recesses of my chest. I felt disinterested and disillusioned most of the time. I began wondering what my purpose in life was. I questioned the reason for my existence and started having some pretty dark thoughts (that I won’t disclose here for reasons that I won’t disclose here). Back then I didn’t realize I was suffering from a mild case of winter depression, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
SAD (very aptly named, by the way) is a psychological condition that affects people who exhibit normal mental behavior throughout most of the year. Scientists at the NHS have drawn hypotheses that suggest that the lower levels of sunlight during winter disrupt the production levels of melatonin and serotonin, leading to lethargy and a general feeling of discontent and frustration. The longer nighttime hours may also cause the body’s circadian rhythm to go out of whack. Other symptoms include:
A persistent low mood
A loss of interest/pleasure in daily activities
Difficulty in waking up/falling asleep
Out of the six symptoms I listed above, five happened to me. There are ways to deal with it though. Human-to-human interaction helps greatly, as working at the bookstore raised my morale during the day. Working out also does a great deal for your serotonin levels. If you’re not a gym sort of person, find some time to bundle up and take a lunchtime walk. Sunlight does wonders. Try to keep to a healthy balanced diet, and use cooking as an excuse to occupy your time.
For my fellow Malaysian students (and international students), the university campus typically gets very quiet during the winter break, so find opportunities to work part-time, or plan a trip out-of-state with friends, or take up winter courses. If you aren’t able to do that, stay over with your friends on campus, and spend more time with them. Call up your family and friends when you need someone to talk to. Try to avoid looking at Instagram pictures of your other friends enjoying themselves in sunnier states. If that is not humanly possible (blame the ubiquitous nature of social media), by all means look, but do your best not to fall into despair comparing your winter break with others’. Distract yourself with reading, or cooking, or apartment redecorating.
It gets pretty rough for people used to tropical climates here in Illinois, especially first-timers. Educate yourself and prepare for the possibility of winter depression. It’s real yo.
Bloody hell. What kind of ending is that? Anyways, you can find more on the symptoms and treatment for SAD on the NHS website.
This one is specially dedicated to my friends bound for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign this coming Fall, or anyone in particular looking to learn how to survive subzero temperatures four months a year. It’s gonna be sort of a mini-series, so I’ll be starting off with learning how to avoid death by freeze-nap.
So, I don’t know about you guys, but before coming to the UofI, I had this picturesque image of the Main Quad in my head that kinda looked like this:
But the university websites forgot to mention a couple of itsy bitsy things like:
And hence this little PSA. So here are a few things that helped me (your friendly neighborhood Equatorial-country native) survive my first Winter (and late Fall).
Woolen inner wear
These include long johns, socks, and leggings. They essentially function like a second skin, and can be very comfortable if you buy the right one. Woolen ones are harder to come by in Malaysia, but synthetic ones work just the same. Synthetic material also tends to be more water resistant, which is something you’d want for your socks (especially during Fall of the Perpetual Rain). However, you’d have to wash synthetic inner wear more often than woolen ones, because they tend to develop an iffy smell if you don’t clean them for more than a week.
Invest in good-quality inner wear, though. If possible, don’t be stingy about it. A good set of long johns can mean the difference between comfort and ants in you pants.
A down coat
A down coat is (duh) a coat stuffed with down, a material typically made of goose or duck feathers, or synthetic fibers. They come in all styles, colors, sizes, and fashions, but I would personally recommend getting one of those Michelin-man ones that extend below your knees. Reason being that those coats are designed to increase surface area to trap more warm air. Also, a long coat is better at preventing the winds from riding up your gluteus maximus. Some of them even come with an inner layer that you can zip on and off, depending on how cold the weather is. Also, get one with a large hood (preferably with synthetic feathers) to prevent the wind from getting at your face.
Mine kinda looks like this:
It’s not fashionable, but it works amazingly well.
A sturdy scarf.
No, one of those flimsy cotton ones isn’t going to work. Neither is a soft fluffy one. Get serious, heavy-duty scarves that can stay upright on your face, even when the wind is blowing at 70km/h. Knitted woolen scarves are really good (my friend made one for me and it helped me survive November and December). But in January, when things start to get bad, you’ll want a stiffer, thicker scarf. I bought mine at Target, and it’s the green one in the picture below:
And since I’ve shown you this picture, I’ll talk about leather gloves.
I bought them at Target, too. They double as half-mittens, and have an inner synthetic lining. I wore them throughout the entire winter. They helped me stand -20C weather, piercing winds, and torrential rain. I am not exaggerating one bit. And as I am cursed with perpetually cold hands, these gloves are a $39 blessing. I’ve tried mittens, woolen gloves, touchscreen gloves – but nothing worked as well as the leather ones I now swear by.
BOOTS. Mustn’t forget boots.
There are two kinds of boots that you will need if you’re studying at the UofI: rain boots and snow boots. The former because it rains non-stop during the later Fall months, and cold, wet feet is the last thing you want to have on a day with five consecutive classes. The latter is absolutely necessary. I have these pair:
They are huge, chunky, and rather ugly in an endearing way, but they are also warm, waterproof, and non-slip. Do not skimp on these. I repeat: DO. NOT. SKIMP. ON. WINTER. BOOTS. You will live, miserably, to regret it when you cannot walk to class without slipping on ice at least seven times and arriving home at 5pm with damp, wrinkly feet.
Jeans. Mankind’s savior in all weather conditions. I would advise getting a few pairs of reasonably baggy jeans for winter wear. Baggy because you’d be wearing layers of inner wear underneath it, and I would not recommend walking around like an overstuffed bratwurst. You can also survive Fall if you have a couple of good-quality pairs without any inner wear.
Flappy hats and beanies
I got a one of those flappy-eared hats for warmth, and BOY does it work well. It looks terrible, though, so I don’t wear it unless the wind is blowing and my hood will be rendered null and void. I also got a floppy beanie, and that works fine, too. The basic principle is to get something that covers your ears, because that’s where you lose a lot of heat.
Layer your clothes. I made the mistake of buying the thickest of everything that I could get when I got here, and wasted some money. The trick isn’t to buy the thickest jacket or scarf on the market, but to wear your clothes in layers. Each layer of clothing traps a separate layer of warm air, and that’s what actually keeps you warm. So basically, more layers = more warm air = more comfy. Here’s an example of what would typically pass of as ‘warm’ for me in the winter.
Thin inner jacket
I get cold easily, so it might be overkill for some of you.
You can also find some things that really helped me here and here.
There you go. That’s all I can think of for now. Whoever you are, I hope this helps you, and please feel free to ask me questions in the comments below!
Anyways, SPM results are out, and I have a burning sense of obligation to spread the good news of financial aid for higher education.
Just kidding. Mid terms are over, I just had a bag of chips, and I want to write something. Hurrah Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand! I will now proceed to divulge the secrets to the application process of
THE YAYASAN TENAGA NASIONAL SCHOLARSHIP
Why this one? Well, they’re my sponsors and the only one I can be sure not to give you faulty second-hand information of, so here goes nothing.
Yayasan Tenaga Nasional (YTN) offers two types of financial aid: study loan and full scholarship. I’ll only be talking about the full scholarship, because I ‘Jon Snow’ on the former.
The application process of this scholarship is pretty straightforward. There’s an online application that you have to fill out, but they go old-school with the supporting documents. You have to mail them your certificates, exam results, identification documents and the like. I also strongly suggest including a resume and a reference letter. They may or may not read it, but it’s just better if you have something extra they can refer to. I had to wait for about two weeks for the application results to come out. You need to remember to keep checking their website to see when the results will be out. Also keep tabs on their application page, because that is where they post the results, and where you’ll have to confirm your attendance to the interview.
As for the types of scholarships they offer, YTN sponsors students interested in the Civil, Electrical Power and Mechanical Engineering. They also offer scholarships for Accountancy. From what I know, they offer both local and overseas scholarships. The local scholarship is for engineering and accountancy programs at UNITEN. The overseas option will have students complete their first year of university at a Malaysian prep college (probably INTEC), and complete the remaining three years of undergraduate study at a university in the US. Students can also opt to apply to study in the UK, Australia, or New Zealand. I’m not too sure how those work, however, and can only give solid information for the US program. As for the type of sponsors they are; from my experience, YTN has been accommodating and efficient. They’re caring sponsors, answer emails promptly, and it doesn’t hurt that they support their students pretty well, financially speaking.
On the side, here is a list of things that you will need in preparation for scholarship applications:
At least 10 copies of certificates of your significant achievements or koko activities
At least 10 copies of your identification documents including (but not limited to) your IC, passport, and birth cert
At least 5 copies of your parents’ tax release forms
At least 5 copies of your parents’ paychecks
At least 10 copies of your exam results from From 1 to Form 2
More than 10 copies of your exam results from Form 3 to Form 5
At least two reference letters from teachers/mentors/employers
At least 10 copies of your CV/resume (learn the difference here)
A sturdy file to keep all the paper in
At least one packet of A4 envelopes to mail your documents
BLACK BALLPOINT PEN
A muka tembok to keep going back to school to ask the headmaster/mistress to sahkan all the documents
A guilty conscience for all the trees you murdered
More information regarding other scholarships can be found here. If you have any questions, please post it in the comments, or PM me via Facebook. I’ll be happy to help out.
Also, I have to mention that this post was inspired by my friend’s blog post about JPA scholarships. Give it a read! I cannot promise possums or cherry blossoms, but it will be awesome.
Lastly, to all SPM 2016 candidates: BRACE YOURSELVES – WINTER IS COMING (or the sheer scariness of adulthood, at least).
The story begins with an agonizingly slow day at the bookstore. The only thing there was to do at the cashier was nothing, so my friend and I decided that talking might be better than staring dolefully at the entrance, praying that some Good Samaritan might waltz in and buy something – anything – so that we'd have something to do.
"Are you celebrating Chinese New Year?" I asked her. The season was upon us at the time, and I was gleefully anticipating the excuse to overeat at a fancy dinner.
"Not really." I was a little surprised, because she's from China, but apparently the celebration isn't a big thing in her family. "Are you?"
And that began my 15-minute-long soliloquy on all celebrations Chinese, including a brief description of my favorite mooncake flavor, durian.
It was her turn to be surprised. "You celebrate all that?" she asked. "But you're Malaysian."
And that wasn't the last time, either. I sat down about a week ago, when my RA approached me to discuss social identities as part of her duty to get to know all the people on our floor. She asked for my ethnicity. I told her I was Chinese.
"But aren't you Malaysian?"
Akak, banyak cantiklah lu. Ini Cina punya orang mata sepet boleh nampak hidung penyek pun ada, pelat semua lengkap ada, rojak punya bahasa pun ada, lu mahu apa lagi.
Namun demikian, beginilah persepsi masyarakat Amerika terhadap diriku yang OCBC (orang Cina bukan Cina).
So back to the topic at hand. It seems that people were under the impression that 'Malaysian' was an ethnicity. And I won't deny that I felt a slight twinge of pride when they first identified me as Malaysian. But that brings me to my next topic.
She asked me, "What do you identify most as?"
I gave it a couple of seconds' thought. "Malaysian-Chinese, I guess."
That was when my neurons started firing. I had never given it much thought before, but I had somehow always identified myself as Malaysian-Chinese. What else was there? The first time I'd gone to the US, I told people I was Malaysian, because the Chinese part seemed obvious. Besides, 'Chinese' is a pretty broad term, like calling a German 'Caucasian'. I always wanted to reinforce that I was Malaysian, though.
BUT WHY LAH.
"Probably because I feel like I have to constantly prove that I'm Malaysian," I replied.
I learnt that my ancestors immigrated to Tanah Melayu all those years ago for some reason now lost to the annals of history. Don't remember when, don't remember how. Later on I discovered that I had different rights from some of my friends, because I was 'Non-Bumiputra'. That term didn't make much sense to me back then. All I knew was that 'putra' meant prince, and non-bumiputra probably meant that I wasn't royalty or something. And sometimes I'd read articles in which A would tell B to 'balik (insert country here)', ensuing chaos and another unproductive debate on the state of racial and social justice in our country. But it all didn't mean much to me until something like this conversation happened:
Friend: I hope things don't get too bad in our country.
Me: Yeah, afterwards we all go down the drain weih.
Friend: Ah, you don't have to worry. You can go back to China anytime.
She probably meant well, and didn't know the impact of her words, but at the time my brain was struggling to juggle the sudden deluge of indignation, frustration, and sadness. All I could manage in the end was a nervous, "Hahah, even if I go back they also don't want me lah."
Was I not Malaysian enough? Was I still so "Chinese" Chinese that I cold hop on a plane, lickety-split, land in China, locate my hypothetical long-lost relatives of the Liu clan, buy a small apartment in the middle of a polluted Beijing, learn to speak Mandarin overnight, and settle down like my great-great-great-great-and-then-some-grandparents never migrated? How much roti canai and nasi lemak and sirap bandung did I have to consume to qualify as Malaysian? How many ulas of durian – scratch that – how many biji durian do I have to inhale every season to prove that my 'home' home is in Subang, and not some little village in China? How many karangan do I have to write? How many peribahasa do I have to learn? How much must I score in BM? How well must I do in PLKN? How Malaysian is Malaysian enough?
But there is a strange beauty in all of this. There is a constant struggle to balance the urge to assimilate, as well as to maintain the uniqueness of one's culture and heritage. And that, I believe, has given rise to diversity (and probably my inability to speak Mandarin). I don't think I would've appreciated being Malaysian as much if I didn't have to think about all this. I have moments where I wonder what life would have been like if my ancestors had chosen to stay in China. But the apple fell 3,512km from the tree, grew roots and proceeded to allow more apples to grow and fall where the progenitor landed. So I will never know, and that's okay. If I can be mistaken as Malaysian in a foreign land, that's good enough for me.
On a side note, I finished three exams in one day, and have the bad feeling that the engineering life has only just begun.
At 7am this morning my phone started going bonkers and I was woken up with a very bright, loud,
In my half-conscious state, I yanked my cellphone away from my ear and tried to hit the red button. After fumbling for about roughly three seconds, I hit it and remembered, in my stupor, that I was supposed to call my family at 6am that morning.
Thank you, Physics and Linear Algebra.
I apologized to my cousin via WhatsApp and told her that I had to go brush my teeth. Being astute, she told me that she would not be able to smell my breath across a screen.
Ah, Pei. You have not been exposed to the oral fumes of yours truly.
I brushed my teeth and sat down with my iPhone and a pair of earphones. Then in the next 30 minutes, I was enthusiastically shown around my home and reintroduced to everyone I had not seen in four months. Amah seemed okay, albeit thinner than usual. Everyone was about the same. Jessie was notably rounder. QiQi looked slightly taller. Lucky was shivering under the chair because the fireworks scared her. Pei Li was as lanky as always, and Yean enjoyed saying hi multiple times over the phone. I wished Ji Ko gong xi fa cai through Mei Choo Jie’s handphone (it was, as she put it, a phone-ception).
The rest of the day was a flurry of photos of family, yee sang, steamboat, reunion dinners, and Rooster Year pictures courtesy of multiple friends and relatives. I looked at the food and salivated.
This is the first of four Chinese New Years that I will be missing. It only just occurred to me today how much I had taken for granted while I was back home. I also wonder if students aspiring to study overseas are aware of how much they will have to give up to fulfill their ambitions. While family and friends will be spending the New Year celebrating, I have a meeting and dance practice due tomorrow, as well as a concrete mix to make (which my grad student advisor will hopefully not reject). Sometimes, the stark contrast still catches me unawares.
So, in celebration of the 2016 Year of the Rooster, here is a picture of my favorite chicken: