In mid-October 2021, the news of an exchange program between Fulbright and Yale-NUS College, the first liberal arts college in Singapore, came to Fulbright students as a pleasant surprise. Longing to return to Singapore, a country that had left a deep impression on me since my first visit in 2020, I lost no time in applying to the program. As if ông trời (the sky) had heard me out, I was selected!
My exchange semester at Yale-NUS College (which I, in the spirit of Singaporean acronyms, would endearingly refer to as YNC) commenced in spring, at the height of a COVID-19 outbreak in my hometown, Haiphong, and when travel restrictions in Singapore were still in place. It came with overwhelming uncertainties: I received a letter of entry approval that got the dates wrong, came into contact with a positive case a few days before my flight, and had to delay my flight at financial costs. The thought of serving the required Stay Home Notice (SHN) for seven days in a strange hotel and being away from home right before Lunar New Year unsettled me. However, in retrospect, I’m deeply grateful for having been given—and brave enough to grasp—an opportunity to study at the lovely YNC.
The semester at YNC is one of the most academically fulfilling semesters to me. My course choices were determined by my interest in anthropology and curiosity about urban studies. Anthropology of China, the course that I had kept my eyes on long before the semester and went to great lengths to get enrolled in, is my top favorite. I appreciate reading well-written ethnographies about contemporary China (the country that has intrigued me since I was a child), being facilitated to critically discuss and evaluate them, and encouraged to co-produce knowledge with my classmates. It was encouraging to see myself manifested as (Dang 2022) in my classmates’ writings. In Anthropology of China, I felt like an aspiring scholar, constantly challenged and supported to engage in thought-provoking conversations with my “colleagues.”
Social Life of Cities, my first urban studies class, was more practical. I was introduced to concepts that I had heard of but never really understood—gentrification, segregation, place marketing, and so on. The highlights of the course were our field trips to two interesting neighborhoods, Joo Chiat and Geylang, and my research into Vietnamese marriage migrants. I appreciate Social Life of Cities for connecting me to the spaces of Singapore—whose diversity challenged my preconceptions of the city-state as boringly modernized—and to an important part of the Vietnamese diaspora in Singapore.
Meanwhile, Introduction to Anthropology equipped me with knowledge of foundational anthropological topics and familiarized me with anthropological writing. My learning experiences would never have been as rewarding without my supportive Profs (the way YNC professors are addressed) and critical classmates, whose ideas I learned tremendously from.
I cannot bear speaking about my YNC experience without mentioning my residential life at the beloved Saga College, one of the three Residential Colleges (RCs) at YNC and doubtlessly my bias. By a strange configuration, everyone in my suite (flat) was exchange students. We decorated our suite with self-made red lanterns and shared Lo Hei—a Cantonese-style salad integral to Chinese Singaporeans’ New Year celebration—to welcome an auspicious new year.
It was the meals I shared with my friends that added warmth to my YNC life. I won’t forget our walks to the Saga Dining Hall—climbing down two floors as the elevator didn’t work on our floor during the semester, reading event posters and smelling somebody’s perfume in the elevator, greeting the lovely dining hall auntie, presenting the Green Pass on the UniVUS app, scrutinizing the food samples, and getting full dishes (or dabao, means takeaway) with infused water. My laundry experiences are also unforgettable—for the meditative strolls across the beautiful courtyard to the laundry room, the washing app, efficient dryers, and funny encounters. My residential life was filled with quotidian rituals that, no matter how many times they were repeated, always got me spirited.
Oh, and the friends I made. They, and my affections for them, are simply beyond words. Their diverse backgrounds—and yet common kindness—exposed me to stories and experiences I had never encountered while in Vietnam. Discussions about race are a major part of them: born into a majority ethnic group in a racially homogeneous country, I listened to my friends’ sharing about their experiences as bearers of hyphenated identities in awe. Apart from these critical discussions, we also had so much fun! Much as I’m sad not being able to mention them specifically, I’m happy to recount some of our memorable shared experiences: learning Teochew-Singlish phrases, seeking Vietnamese food, exploring parks and museums, hanging out at hawker centres, enjoying shiok mala, celebrating birthdays, chatting about Heavenly Official’s Blessing, Cardi B’s MVs, and…mini-crushes (^^).
I want to end this piece by reminiscing about the places that will always have a place in my heart: the aromatic, soothing forest-like YNC campus; the one and only Saga College; my room—especially the bed next to the window overlooking a magnificent landscape at sunrise and sunset, from which I, every night, gazed at the suites and corridors that remained warmly lit against the darkness of exterior space; the Saga courtyard where I rested idly inside a hammock; the airy and cozy Saga Dining Hall; the Saga laundry room; the inimitable YNC library (for its vintage style—cozy brown-colored furniture and yellow lights); the University Town Green, where I loved strolling around and ending the stroll with soya ice cream or hot cheese waffles from Shiok Shack; NTUC Fairprice, where I bought most of my stuff; NUS Cheers, where the ept uncle attending the outlet instructed the clumsy me how to insert my second SIM card; the well-trodden corridors; the scenic eco-pond and air-conditioned Performance Hall building; the bus stops—New Town Sec School, University Town, NUS High School, Yale-NUS College—and buses—particularly 196, 33, and 96, where I felt an odd sense of fulfillment as part of the commuting crowd; the well-shading footway from the University Town bus stop to Saga College that felt like a hiking trail; the MRT stations—particularly Clementi and Buona Vista, the crowded East-West line, and the MRT cabin itself, where I enjoyed observing people and watching the shifting landscapes; all the neighborhoods that I visited—especially the quaint Toa Payoh (where I could see my paternal grandmother living the quiet life that she enjoys in a lotus-themed HDB complex near the old Lian Shan Shuang Lin Temple), Tiong Bahru, and Woodlands.
I’m attached to these places not only because of the people associated with them, but because of themselves. To me, any place has a soul and a charm perceivable by those vibing with its energy. As much as I appreciate the people that walked into my life, I appreciate and dearly miss the places that generously accommodated me, including the unlisted. I have told my friends that Singapore, as the biggest place of all, has a charm that grows on you the more you spend time here—a charm that may not be perceived by short-term visitors, or those who spend time around touristy places only.
To me, the semester abroad at YNC is more than an academic journey. Looking back, those precious four months was an extended opportunity for me to meet the diversely identifying people I would never have met had I remained in Vietnam, to inhabit particular places—big and small, some of them unimaginable in Vietnam (the safe and efficient public transport system, on the whole), and to understand Singapore in a much more nuanced light. Thanks to these endearing people and places, my stay in Singapore has continued as soon as it ended: right now, sitting at my desk to type these words out, I’m convinced that I will be back, if not to my dear YNC, then to the Singapore where English is spoken in a uniquely, charmingly emotive manner.
Đặng Thị Hoài Linh (Co-design year Student)