By Ianna Chia
I’ll be honest: this article has been sitting in my Google Drive for more than a year.
In February 2018, I attended The Gender Collective’s discussion about exchange experiences, “There and Back Again”. I was armed with my reservations about exchange. Was it not an expensive and terrifying endeavour? At the gathering of about ten people in Chatterbox, I raised my questions and concerns while stories were shared.
We talked about adjusting to new environments. Culture shock. Manuals on how to live independently. Some seniors talked about the fear of missing out while staying in Singapore, and a couple of my batchmates asked about specific overseas programmes and what to expect.
Later that month, I went to Arizona State University for the Desert Nights, Rising Stars writing conference — a taste of living overseas, albeit a short one.
I decided to combine my notes from the discussion with my experience with going overseas on a school trip, but I was lost on how to approach the topic. I didn’t want to just regurgitate the discussion and snippets of advice, neither did I want to publish an indulgent piece about being in Arizona.
I find myself back at this Google document about a year later. Most of the seniors who attended the Gender Collective dialogue have graduated, and Arizona feels like forever ago.
The tables have turned, and I’m preparing for my own exchange in AY19/20. I’ve become a broken record of sorts: yes, I’m going on exchange. Year 3, Semester 1. University of Connecticut.
That marked the beginning of my exchange journey. Cue the module mapping, travel plans, shopping lists. This was real, and I was on my way to living my best life overseas.
But there’s so much that we don’t like talking about when it comes to exchanges, of which some were raised in the Gender Collective discussion, and some I personally felt when I was in Arizona. Things like financial planning and general administrative clutter reminded me of my fears of exchange in the first place.
The fears became visceral near the end of 2018: several friends had already flown for exchange, and a couple more were flying in January 2019. I spent as much time as I could with these friends knowing that wouldn’t see them for most of 2019 (with me being out of the country for the later part of the year).
The send-offs came with a new form of grief: seeing my friends walk past security and waving through the glass panels was heart-wrenching.
There are no words for the weight I felt in each taxi ride back from the airport.
If this was how I felt while in Singapore, how will I feel when I walk past those glass panels?
When I first wrote this article, I thought exchange was a privilege I didn’t deserve, and an expensive one at that. After seeing my friends’ lives through Instagram stories of their travels, I can’t help but fear that I am so, so far away from the people I call home.
I was afraid, and still am, of the loneliness and distance that comes with exchange.
After my first send-off of 2019, a friend of mine consoled me about how I felt.
My friend had been through cycles of sending friends off, too, and reassured me that these fears are normal. They mentioned that the loneliness really hits when you need a break from school or work, but you realise you can’t just ask these friends out on the fly.
But they reminded me that the Internet exists, that communication has never been easier.
Maybe distance does make the heart grow fonder.
I eventually found solace in waking up to goodnight messages. Discord calls at obscure times. Spending copious amounts of money on mailing packages to all corners of the world.
I think I’ve come to terms with this temporary separation, and I have reasons to be happy for my friends who are overseas. I have reasons to be happy for myself, too, when I fly to the U.S. for my exchange.
So as I (finally) finish this one-year-work-in-progress article, I realise that there is no uniform experience of exchange, whether your friends are flying off or you’re preparing for your own. It’s a unique coming-of-age ritual that’s just one part of the university experience.
In a year, I might look back at this article with fond memories of my time overseas.
Who knows what might change?
Ianna is an English Literature student who cares deeply about poetry, music, and taking naps. It’s pronounced eye-yeah-nah, by the way.