Studying Abroad For The First Time

I remember how daunted I felt about going to university in Manchester, UK when I was 17. I spent nights fretting: What if I didn’t fit in? What if this was a mistake? What if I wasted my parents’ money?

Though I eventually went on to spend four amazing years at university, I realised there were some things people failed to mention in ‘Going Abroad 101 Guides’.

So, to save you from incessant Googling, here are 11 things I wish someone had told me before I studied abroad.

1. ‘You alright?’ is a greeting, not a question

When someone asks “You alright?”, don’t make the rookie mistake of telling them your whole life story, like I once did to a barista when she asked if I was okay.

Unless they ask “So…how are you?”, no one actually cares about what happened to you on the bus or if you had enough sleep last night.

The only appropriate response to “You alright?” is “Not too bad, how ‘bout yourself?”.

2. It’s possible to get cheap food

Groceries are often said to be overpriced in the UK, but that’s not true if you shop at local markets.

Abel & Cole delivers boxes of fresh and organic ingredients to your doorstep. Each box comes with a few recipes, and the generous portions are usually enough to last more than a week.

If you can’t cook, most supermarkets offer meal deals starting from £3 which include a main course, a fruit and a drink.

Too Good To Go is also a useful app to have when late night cravings hit. The app ‘gives away’ leftover buffet food for as low as £2.

3. Student memberships will save you so much money

Initially, everything will feel expensive because of the high conversion rates. For the first few months I was there, I was reluctant to spend more than £10 on dinner.

Then I discovered the NUS card, which gives you discounts on everything from retail outlets to Deliveroo.

I also created a separate email account to sign up for updates and newsletters from retail brands to get discount codes not advertised in stores.

4. The cold is really no fun

Growing up in Asia, I’ve always dreamt of living in cold climates. But after living in the UK for four years, I realised the ‘winter wonderland’ is a lie.

No one actually snuggles next to the window with a cup of hot chocolate in their hands, or roll on the ground making snow angels.

It’s usually miserable, raining and the temperature never goes above 10 degrees. Unless you live in the South where you lucky ducks get three whole days of summer.

5. Run errands in the day because everything closes early

It’s important to get errands done early as banks, shopping malls, and post offices usually close by 5.00pm.

While you can get things done online, European services aren’t as efficient as Singapore’s, and you are often required to be at the place in person .

So don’t make the mistake of leaving grocery-shopping to Sunday evening, or you’ll be stuck with boiled pasta and ketchup for dinner.

6. Transportation is confusing

Unless you live in London where the Oyster card is used, there isn’t efficient public transportation.

Trains rarely announce their next stations, and buses don’t always stick to their given routes. Imagine sitting in a bus en route to another city because the driver made an unexpected turn.

Your best chance of getting to your correct destination is by standing near the doors and keeping your eyes peeled for signs.

But if you’re studying in the smaller cities, places you’d need to get to are usually in close proximity, so walking is your safest bet.

7. Chinese/Indian/Malay food generally sucks

Nothing comes close to the char kuay teow or chicken rice we find in our local kopitiams.

Most Asian food in the UK is catered to Western taste buds. Curries are sweet and un-spicy, and ordering a roti kosong means being served a pancake.

But getting a taste of home isn’t impossible. The Singapore community abroad organises food fairs multiple times a year so you can get your bubble tea fix if necessary.

Also, London has Gong Cha. *screams*

8. Pack only the essentials, seriously

Many people who go abroad make the mistake of overpacking.

Your wardrobe will change with the weather so there’s no point packing all 30 pairs of shorts. Instead, stash up on your go-to beauty faves, especially if they’re Asian brands which are hard to find in the UK.

Plus, clothes are generally affordable overseas. From Primark to thrift shops to premium outlets, you’ll be surprised how affordable quality clothes can be.

9. Everyone drinks but it doesn’t mean you have to

Europeans drink a lot. Aside from how alcohol is dirt cheap, drinking at mealtimes is part of their culture. But for us Asians, drinking is usually not a habit and most of us fall victim to the Asian flush.

As self-conscious as you might feel, it’s important to know no one really cares about your red face as long as you’re having fun.

But if you’re really embarrassed about it, just skip the blusher and cover up by layering on lots of foundation.

10. Dating isn’t as simple as swiping right

Dating becomes complicated in the UK. Yellow fever/Brown fever is real and you have to be cautious when filtering Tinder dates.

If his Tinder profile explicitly says “Asians only”, or his opening line is “I’ve never dated an oriental girl before”, unmatch him ASAP.

You might be flattered by the sudden influx of attention, but you really don’t want to be treated like a sexualised, exotic object.

11. Dealing with racism

One of the biggest culture shocks I experienced was the frequent racism I faced. I didn’t anticipate feeling excluded from conversations, or having racist slurs like “Konichiwa b****” being used on me.

Though unpleasant, these experiences made me more appreciative of Singapore’s social climate which advocates racial tolerance.

Adventure Of A Lifetime

While there is truly no place like Singapore, studying abroad gave me a different perspective about the great, big world we live in.

Despite the never-ending rain and sub-par chicken rice, I have no regrets because of the experiences and amusing stories I now have to share.


Related: Zula ChickChats (YouTube discussion): Living in Singapore vs Living Overseas As A Millennial