Yes, I’m currently in Sweden for a six month exchange at Jönköping University. I’m into my third week here and it feels like a long time has passed. Even though the days pass quickly because of about 7 hours of sunlight, it feels like I’ve been here a long, long, time. And that I’m ready to go home.
But alas, I’m not even a month into exchange so I’m not going home anytime soon. I’m happy to report that I’m not homesick yet – I’m happy living here alone and I’m happy taking in so many new and interesting things. I’ve never felt so free before – to be able to plan everything on my own, to account for everything myself (of course, to my dad back home as well), and to live the way I choose to. Everything here is my choice. If I choose to go to the club, or stay in my spacious room, it’s all up to me with no one to tell me what I should do. I’m discovering a lot about myself and my values here and I’m very excited to know what kind of person I am and how I motivate myself.
Jönköping has been an amazing quaint little town. It’s located at the southern tip of Lake Vättern and as I always tell other exchange students, you could fit two Singapores into Lake Vättern. That’s how big (or rather, long) this country is. When the professor said that Sweden is a small country, I had to scoff.
Admittedly, Sweden is far longer than I’ve ever been able to imagine or estimate. Abisko is in northern Sweden and it takes more than a day to go there by train. The distance to northern Sweden is as far (or maybe even further) than the distance directly down south to Italy. It’s really, really big.
This country is full of nature. There are forests with pine trees and cones everywhere, and lakes dot the landscape. The air is fresh and cold (save for the areas where people smoke), the skies are really clear, and the pace of life is slower than Singapore. People love the sunshine and come out as much as they can when there is sunlight. After all, the sun rises after 8am and sets by 4pm.
I took a five-hour train down here from Stockholm. Cities rolled by with large distances between them, and from the plane I saw white everywhere – snow covering the roads, landscapes and even the tops of trees. In this subarctic climate the people dress up thickly in puffy winter clothing, but they dress very well. Their makeup is on point even when they’re in school. They dress stylishly and take care of their appearances. It’s really different from how people simply throw on a shirt and shorts in school back home.
I walk everywhere here. It’s either the bus or it’s walking. Strangely, it’s sparse outside – especially on weekends. There are very few people on the streets on weekends, and buses run every half an hour as compared to every ten minutes on weekdays (that’s for bus 1 and 3 here). It’s a stark difference from Singapore, where the malls are crowded and packed with people, and nearly everywhere you’d see people. It’s difficult to have your own personal space in public. Here, personal space is everything.
Last Sunday I went to eat a proper meal at a cheap Swedish restaurant. In Singapore, the staff love to seat people as close to each other as possible, and close off a part of the restaurant. They’d usually lead me to a seat beside someone else, which I have never liked. I like being alone and being far away from people so that no one hears my conversations and I have a lot of space. I’m someone who hates small spaces – I was once claustrophobic.
In Sweden, they sat me as far away from everyone else as possible. You cannot believe how incredibly happy I was. I was happy to be alone, and I noticed how almost every occupied table was in its own bubble, as far away from the next occupied table as possible. It’s their culture here – they like to leave each other alone. They’re not willing to make conversations randomly, but they are friendly people.
Other parts of their culture include fika, which is the Swedish word for coffee break. They love fika. They will take a break from work or school to have some cinnamon buns and a cup of steaming hot coffee. My lectures are filled with breaks because it is a must.
Another word I learnt was lagom, which meant something like having everything in balance and in-between. No loud clothing like bright reds, yellows, or greens ridiculously hashed together. They like black because it’s easy to match outfits and it’s not striking. Swedish also are fairly quiet on the streets, and you don’t really hear little children screaming and shouting. When I came here with the Singaporeans, we liked to call each other across quite a distance when someone wandered too far off. A big no-no; we tried to behave and blend in with the Swedes.
I stay at Råslätt, commonly referred to as the hood of Jönköping because many foreigners (immigrants) stay there. There are also three rows of blocks reserved solely for exchange students. I live with a Mexican and a Dutch exchange student in an apartment where we share a bathroom and a kitchen.
Our rooms are huge. It’s unbelievably large for a single person and should be since space isn’t an issue for Sweden. I thought my room was large when I had a big square that’s bigger than my bedroom with three girls staying inside. I have a lot of storage space and empty space in the middle of my room. I could practise dancing in my room more easily than I ever could back home.
But I entered my flatmate’s room and I was blown away. Hers was a large rectangle, as big as two rooms combined back home. For one person. All rooms have a coffee table and a reading chair along with a reading lamp, but she had a huge empty corner with two reading chairs just because there was too much space. She had at least six shelves and cupboards, and her bed was tucked behind two cupboards, almost like a room within a room. She had so much space. I can’t believe how I’ll live if I got that room. (Her rent is higher, of course.)
It’s true; everything in the house is from Ikea. From cupboards to pillows to beds to pans, they’re mostly from Ikea. And Eldorado is another cheap and popular household brand here in Sweden. They have everything from different kinds of foods and cereals to toilet paper and shampoo. To save money, buy their products – they’re pretty worth it. I bought 1kg of sliced cheese from them.
Sweden is expensive, so eat at home and cook your own meals. Supermarkets like Netto and Willys are pretty cheap here and everyone buys from them. Swedish also have a bring-food-from-home culture. In school, we have an entire room of at least 12 microwaves for everyone to heat up the lunches they pack to school. It’s very crowded there during lunch. Everyone brings their own food and some will store them in the fridges provided.
They also love salads. They’re healthy people and I was served salad for lunch on my first day at school. They’re big on cheese as well, so the salads were filled with cheese that became too gelat after a while.
And of course, they exercise. Even in winter people are running outdoors as long as the sun is out.
The park was filled with young children and their parents. There was a playground and children were all running around even if they weren’t screaming loud enough to break the tranquility. There were also more than a hundred ducks that were being fed by the kids. It was amusing to watch the ducks because they kept fighting over the food thrown at them and some would steal them and run for their lives. It was entertaining to watch. The white ducks were more aggressive and kept flying around to get the food. And because it was mostly ice on the rocks, the ducks looked like they were ice skating.
It was golden hour then and the place was beautifully lit. I loved the warm glow of the sun against nature and the long shadows and stretched out on the other side of it. The warmth made the park look like a happy place and nothing like the mild winter it was going through. By then, there was barely any snow. The snow only lasted a few days upon my arrival in Sweden, but it quickly warmed up and melted away.
Yesterday, I had a dutch pancakes party with several exchange students from Holland, Mexico, USA and Australia. We started sharing about our lives back home and it was mind-blowing to see the large differences in different societies and cultures. I became a lot more aware of my own culture after coming here and having to explain what Singapore is to everybody, but I was fascinated by actually knowing how another culture was like, hearing it firsthand from someone from there.
(I’m very glad no one thought Singapore was in China or part of China. I’m glad no one lives under a rock here. Maybe only my Intercultural professor, who said that Singapore was China in class.)
I heard a lot about Mexico, about how corruption is present on all levels, from the government to the businesses and to the citizens. It’s become a way of life. They don’t blink an eye selling the answers to an upcoming examination and people actually buy them. They get into good schools and universities through money and connections. They won’t bat an eyelid running someone down on their horrific streets. That’s why nobody walks or cycles – sometimes they don’t even have pavements for that. Everyone drives. Even public transport isn’t common – apparently only the poorer people who cannot afford a car take public transport. And that becomes a sign of status in society. It’s inevitable.
My flatmate was telling us about their buses being nothing like Sweden’s – Swedish are big on punctuality and their buses and trains usually come and leave on time. They have an app that tells you what time the bus is coming and it’s mostly accurate. She was telling us that Mexico had nothing like that and sometimes the buses didn’t even stop for you. Sometimes they didn’t even come if the bus drivers didn’t feel like driving.
My other flatmate then commented that it was like a religious faith there – trusting and believing that the bus would come because nothing would tell you whether it was coming or not. Everyone laughed. It was a good night telling about how differently we live – in Amsterdam, everyone cycles and people would think you’re crazy if you drive. The Dutch people also said ‘get a baby’ and they learnt that it was better to say ‘have a baby’. It was these little quirks which I really enjoyed. The Australian didn’t know the English abbreviations so when the American texted her ‘lmk’ she went, ‘what’s mmmk?’ as a single word (she thought the l was an i). It was really funny.
What was interesting was seeing how everyone became aware of their own privileges. Aside from my flatmate commenting that she was really privileged to be able to have money to own a car, study at the university and come on exchange, we also realized, from listening to her, how privileged we were as well. For me, I realized not everyone had the same opportunities to study abroad as I had. I was finally fulfilling my dream of studying overseas and travelling in Europe. I had always taken it for granted as my university had the exchange programme and I qualified, so I could go. But then, thinking deeper, there were a lot of factors that seemed like a given, but was actually privilege. I am privileged to be able to have the finances to study abroad and travel even though I am on a tight budget. I am privileged to be able to be selected for the university and the country I wanted because God blessed me with decent grades. I am privileged to be staying in Singapore, which is a first world country and is safe. I am privileged to be brought up with the ‘right’ moral values and to be taught ‘good’ things (both ‘right’ and ‘good’ are subjective – I’ll leave you to consider what you think is right or good).
It was one of the most fun nights I’ve had here. I was deeply interested in hearing about other cultures and how they represented them. It was also enlightening to find out what Singapore’s culture and identity really was through such exposure. ‘Singaporean’ is a nationality, not a race of people – we’re a country made of up different races that all come under one identity as a nationality. And we all live under the same ‘Singaporean’ style. We all speak Singlish, for example. It doesn’t matter which race we are, we are still Singaporeans.
That’s not the case in other countries – for example, Swedish people are mostly whites. Duh. The ‘original’ Swedish are whites and therefore the other races here are immigrants or refugees. And they don’t live the same even though they try their best to adapt to Swedish culture. It’s totally different from Singapore and quite a hard concept to grasp if I wasn’t exposed to it here and didn’t discuss about it in my Conflict class. What seemed like a natural thing was totally not to the others. For example, washing machines in homes should be normal, right? No – they have communal laundry areas here in all apartments. Even for locals.
Exchange is a wonderful experience. You will not only get to live in a totally new place and learn a new culture, you will get to see many new things and understand a lot more about many different cultures worldwide. You will learn to be independent, cook your own food, and manage your own finances and expenses. You will cooperate with other people and make friends who can’t understand ‘aiyo so jialat ah’. You will speak good English (more slowly, and maybe with an accent that you unconsciously put on), and you will invariably try to find things that are familiar to you. An Asian mart, a familiar song, or a home brand. Anything at all.
There’s also the less glamourous part of exchange no one likes to say. You will have work to do and exams to take. You will get homesick along the way when Skype calls are all you have to sustain your relationships with your friends and loved ones back home. You may break down and cry even when you have friends during exchange. That’s normal. Embrace it, and if the tears threaten to flow, let it flow. Let it go.
So three weeks into exchange, I’m adapting to this new environment and I’m satisfied to be able to say that I love this place and I’m comfortable in my own skin. It took me a few days to come to terms with myself and reality over some issues I personally faced a week into exchange, but I overcame them and became stronger myself.
Time actually flies. It’s February and as I look into free weekends to book trips, I realize that I don’t have a lot of time at all. Before I know it, it’ll be time to leave. I don’t want that to happen so quickly. I want to be able to enjoy and savour every moment of this refreshing new experience I may never get to experience again.
So, a quick look back on the first two weeks of exchange – I’ve filmed a short vlog, and it serves as a form of memory for myself. What I’ve seen and heard, what I’ve gone through, and what will be a part of me.