This piece was written almost a year ago during the Fall break of my first year of college. I’d probably liken my (then) state of mind to the season that had descended upon us—crisp like the air with freshly formed memories shaped by new friends from all corners of the world, yet inexplicably nostalgic like the golden leaves of autumn in London as I basked in the comfort of old friends from back home who’d since moved to the UK.
It’s rare for me to look back on a piece and feel exactly the same way about what I’d written, without feeling the urge to change anything. But this is one of those rare occasions, and my hope is for this piece to be relatable, provocative, or at the very least entertaining, particularly to the incoming students. Yet I must also admit that the pandemic we’re currently living in has changed the “college experience” very significantly by casting us into unsolicited solitude. But while many of the socially-oriented anecdotes in this piece might not be as pertinent, I think there’s something to be said about embracing the opportunities that are presented to us head-on, regardless of the discomfort they may elicit.
To all the people I’ve had the privilege of meeting, and to the ones I have yet to meet: this one’s for you.
Whenever a friend from back home asks about my life in university, the mention of “France” never fails to elicit gasps of awe and admiration. But the less known truth is that the transition to college hasn’t been particularly easy.
From gingerly maneuvering around tipsy middle-aged strangers in a bid to meet fresh new faces during bar nights, to mastering the art of fast-paced walking during bridge closures, to crouching in cramped spaces behind doors upon hearing the familiar sound of sirens, it’s been an eventful two months.
It’s been said that living alone is challenging, but living alone in a foreign country is arguably even more exacting. I remember helplessly staring down at a sink-full of dishes, silently willing them to disappear or magically clean themselves to white pristineness after a long week that mandated completing a P.I. presentation, Math mid-term, History mid-term, and essay outline. Needless to say, it was a period that evoked distressed tears, forlorn stares out of windows into gloomy grey skies, and lots and lots of chocolate.
Though it has only been a couple of weeks, the amount of out-of-classroom learning that I’ve done feels exponential. Sometimes, it feels like there’s no way to fully verbalise what I’ve learned, but here’s my attempt at it anyway.
1. Discomfort = growth
Based on the conversations that I’ve had, it doesn’t seem as if anyone has had a particularly easy time settling in so far. Discomfort has shrouded each of us like a fuzzy, woolen blanket; enough to make us irritable, yet not quite sufficient to make the itch completely unbearable.
The practice of la bise, which I have now come to bemusedly embrace, was admittedly extremely awkward initially. The way a vodka shot fills my core with both tingly warmth and an uncomfortable burn, under a scene of strobe lights and pulsating bodies, was also an unfamiliar experience that took some time getting used to. Even the unbearable sharp pierce of Normandy wind on a moody afternoon serves as a reminder of just how different everything in France is compared to the sunny, humid red dot that I call home.
Yet the only time when real growth occurs is when we are immersed knee-deep in discomfort, wading through uncharted waters as we push through our boundaries. Even if we only observe this growth retrospectively, this does not mean that growth has not occurred. I can only hope that I will continue seeking discomfort during my time at Sciences Po and emerge stronger because of it.
2. Your friends are your lifeline
These are the people who offer to make you a warm bowl of soup when you’re sniffling and feeling like it might almost be the end of the world. They are the ones who open their doors at 3AM in the morning for you in their own sleepy stupor, the ones who call for taxis to fetch you home after a night you probably won’t recall come morning light.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past few weeks, it’s that checking in on your friends and reciprocating their concern goes a long way. Fork out an hour to help your friend with their rehearsals for presentations. Sit on the floor with them to have a heart-to-heart even if your mind is willing you to go to bed early for your 8AM class. Stay at the club ten minutes longer so that they have someone to walk home with. All of these things might cause you slight inconvenience in the moment, but it will be much appreciated in the end. But if you haven’t found your group of people yet, my experience has taught me that the best of friends are sometimes made in the most unexpected places.
3. It’s okay to say you’re not okay
For me, this is an easy concept to understand but a difficult one to manifest. I used to think that this might be a more Asian-centric concept (think “mian zi” or the need to “save face”), but I’ve begun to realise that it’s a lot more universal than I’d initially believed. Sometimes, I think we hold ourselves to unrealistic expectations, or allow our pride to get in the way of expressing how we truly feel to others. But I’ve realised that no one will ever be able to extend you the compassion that you yearn if you don’t communicate your feelings to them.
When someone asks you how you’re doing (ça va?), give an honest answer—who knows, it might lead to a conversation that neither one of you expected but found yourselves appreciating in the end. It’s okay to admit that you’re having trouble with something, that you need more time to adjust. It’s okay to say you’re not fine with how someone is treating you, that you expect more respect or better recognition of consent. It’s okay to say you’re not okay.
My challenge to you in the coming months is to go beyond the standard “I’m good” response the next time someone asks you how you are. And if you are the one posing the question, don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions to an answer that might have taken you by surprise.
As I write this in the Big Smoke, I am constantly reminded of all the things that I miss about city life, having resided in a small sleepy town for the past few weeks. My heart subconsciously longs for all the things I’ve missed—the familiar strains of English, the comfort of old friends now leading busy lives in the midst of well-travelled pavements peppered with red telephone booths, the unforgettably sweet taste of bubble tea.
Yet in the midst of London’s haze and smoke, I cannot help but recall all the memories from Le Havre that appear in my mind as clear as day. The tearful door visit after a fiasco involving a glass of water, a computer, and a hairdryer. The late-night pizza date. The warmth of a circle of compatriots bonding over a home-cooked meal. The night we took shots, celebrated birthdays, and confessed secrets under muted lights and cold autumn air. The night we don’t quite remember. The beach.
I used to think that Le Havre was an inconspicuous, prosaic port town cursed with skies that couldn’t seem to make up their minds. But my time here has categorically proven me wrong; the things that I once viewed as flaws have slowly morphed into fortes in their own right.
After a week’s worth of rest and respite, I’ll be travelling from a big wide city back to our small little town. But even as a girl whose heart will always belong to a metropolis, I know deep down that heading back means that there’s so much to look forward to.