By Darrell Lian
It’s a truism that every student exchange experience is different. Consequently, I didn’t have too many expectations when I descended upon the town of Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan (UMich). What I did know at the time:
- I would be reading modules at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, one of the highest-ranking colleges in the United States.
- I would be staying at West Quad, a terrifically situated residential hall right smack in the middle of UMich’s Central Campus (online forums revealed that the building was old though, and the food mediocre). Central Campus is the home of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, the undergraduate Ross School of Business, and the school of Education. The Architecture, Engineering, and Music schools were all situated on North Campus, an ulu but ginormous site some 20 minutes away by bus (think the distance NTU is from NUS).
- Michigan is in the North, and Winter was Coming.
It all began mundanely enough. I arrived at the tail-end of summer, when it was still very warm outside. I recall walking down South State Street in t-shirt and shorts, en route to Bank of America to open my bank account. Ann Arbor is a quintessential college town, the center of town being the UMich campus, with a plethora of cheaply-priced restaurants (cheap by American standards, at least), grocery stores, cafes, book stores, and pharmacies surrounding it. It’s a large town at 500,000 people, but the UMich enrollment alone stands at 40,000. I repeat: Ann Arbor is a college town.
Sports are another defining feature of life in this town. The Michigan Wolverines boast the largest football stadium in the country, Michigan Stadium. Average game attendance easily exceeds 50,000, and the opening home game with historical rivals Notre-Dame (the “Flying Irish”) set the record for the highest attendance at a college football game at an astounding 115,109. I went for one such game, and was struck by the sea of maize-and-blue supporters. The crowd of supporters, amazing cheerleading performances, and wonderfully synchronized marching band were all sights to behold. I’m not quite an American football convert yet (the game proceeds a little too slowly for my liking), but I have to admit that the sporting atmosphere was unparalleled. Definitely go to a live game if you get the chance!
Some interesting observations on daily life there. In Ann Arbor the pedestrian is, apparently, king. Every car slowed down, perceptibly, for me. Jaywalking isn’t illegal. This mode of traffic began to influence the way I lived…my sense of public and private space began to blur (yes South State Street really became my “grandfather’s street”), and also I stopped hurrying from place to place. Food. Although the food in my residential hall was average, my dining meal plan allowed me access to any dining hall on campus. Immediately I set off for East Quad, the newest dining hall; 10 options – vegetarian, farmers’ produce, pizza, soup, salad bar, Asian vegetarian, Asian, grill, desserts and ice cream, granola/bread/spreads, and drinks! The food was top-notch, fresh-tasting, and best of all, FREE FLOW. My friends know my appetite is “healthy”; on average, I’d polish off some 8 mid-sized plates of food. I still have fond memories of the monk fish, salmon with maple sauce, beef burgers, sweet potato fries, chocolate milk, beef steaks, etc. Asian food in dining halls was interesting; not quite faithful to “genuine” Asian food, but decent-tasting nonetheless. I appreciated how their version of Pad Thai was clean-tasting, and not over-fried. Outside the dining halls, however, the quality of Asian food is fairly dismal, and such foods are expensive to boot. I was crushed at the sugariness of USD 4.50 bubble milk tea. Sigh…
My classes were pretty cool. I read three History modules on Jazz, Byzantine Art, and European Integration. Truth be told, I skipped some 80% of all my lectures, but I did learn very interesting things in the classes I did attend (you can stop judging me now, the rules don’t apply when you are on SEP). I learnt about John Coltrane, that mystic with the saxophone. I learnt about how Orthodox church-spaces are intentionally arranged, such that they generate sacrosanct meanings (massive ceiling domes drawing your eyes heavenward, Jesus painted over a doorway literally enfolding you). I learnt that in postwar Europe, the Germans are long-suffering, while the French, despite being incredibly demanding and irritating at times, are to be admired because they still get their way. Outside my history classes, I received a crash course on environmental issues, and volunteered extensively on the campus farm. Now I balk at the thought of using extra utensils (increased water usage, encourages run-off of phosphorous from detergents), though I’m still not great at controlling my meat intake. The final class I took was an anthropology class on childbirth; my female friends may be pleased to know I can now assist during their deliveries! I could also give doctors trained in the Western, biomedical paradigm a piece of my mind on employing intrusive technologies and pharmaceutical products unnecessarily!
Travelling, of course, was a huge part of my SEP experience. I went on two camping trips in Michigan, to Sleeping Bear Dunes (a series of huge dunes at the shores of Lake Superior, a Great Lake), and to the Manistee River region (for the fabulous fall colours). Sleeping Bear Dunes was cool because what was actually a beach bordering a lake appeared, to the uninitiated, to be a desert bordering an ocean. The fall colours at Manistee River were brilliant, thanks to the natural beauty of the leaves of deciduous North American trees. The nature-geek in me was pleased.
Also of note were my trips to major cities. Chicago, a 4-hour bus ride away, yielded gorgeous skyscrapers, the iconic Millenium Bean sculpture at Hyde Park, world-class restaurants, awesome fried chicken, and great shopping. I caught the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday sales! The Canadian megalopolis of Toronto, a 7-hour bus ride away, had urban attractions similar to Chicago, different but just as delicious foods like Poutine and legit tasting Cantonese fare, and the beautiful & tranquil Toronto Islands. Finally, I made a day trip to the infamous city of Detroit which, though known for its decline since the heyday of U.S. automobile manufacturing (it’s probably the most-studied city in public policy studies, with regard to urban decay), still boasted highlights like the Motown Recordings Museum (Supremes, Jackson 5, anyone?), and open-air art installations centered around decorated, abandoned houses.
The last thing about my SEP experience was the people and cultures I was exposed to. UMich is a large public school, so I met all kinds of people there: science nerds, jocks, computer geeks, aggressive business kids, fraternity/sorority-types, airheads, passionate advocates, etc. Racially, the school was incredibly diverse too: Caucasians, Africans, Asians, Native Americans, etc. Culturally, I observed that Americans do indeed tend to be “louder” than people of other cultures; I felt they were also more risk-taking and go-getter than Singaporeans. There were certainly things to learn from them, although certain cautionary lessons too can be picked up. Most importantly though, I made good friends who treated me warmly, kindly, and who showed genuine interest in our country’s culture, and my life back in Singapore. Without them, my life on exchange would not have been quite so zesty.