Over the past few days I have been to places that I occasionally go to and consciously thought to myself that it would be my last time here, like the Waterloo rail station when I travel to New Malden, or some other cities. But when the time is ticking to the final few hours in London, it struck me that I am also counting the lasts for all the places I frequented very much, such as Oxford Circus, Soho (mainly Wardour and Dean Street), and even UCL since my student card is now of expired status. In fact, my student ID will no longer need a place in my wallet. I will henceforth no longer belong to the categories that I proudly proclaim to others: “Londoner”, “a student at UCL”, or simply “I study overseas.” These were elements of myself that I enjoyed telling others all these years, sometimes in a toned-down Singaporean accent at the British immigration counters.
I loved London more with each passing year. My opinions and emotions were very conflicted in the first year. I felt like a tourist in this city, and I could not belong. I did not understand why Sundays were so quiet and dead, that it felt mildly depressing waking up to a weekend morning in the winter. In a beautiful, bustling and bright city, I felt lonely in the nights. Why does Sainsbury close at 6pm? Why does it turn dark so quickly in the winter, as early as 3-4pm? Why is it cold all the freaking time? I hardly got used to the flat culture here as well, although admittedly living with that nightmarish flatmate next to me was more fun and exciting (moaning sounds) that I could overlook the horror of her not washing dishes for weeks. It was still a mild annoyance at the back of my head, that I was in a shared space of people I do not know very well, and vice versa – this meant that I could not even express my annoyance to anyone, not even when her dishes started to take up the entire sink, and when her pan obviously stank from a week-old carbonara. No one was willing to wash it because this had happened way too much, and me, I was just a stranger with a name to my flatmates. All the hopes of having great conversations with new people just dissolved into nothingness, when I found myself hoping that the kitchen and bathrooms were empty each time I came back home. I could not get along easily with my flatmates. It took great effort to listen intently on their accents and I am sure they felt the same as they probably felt bad having me repeat what I wanted to express. The conversations never flowed smoothly, they were all mere variations of “you alright?” and “how’s your day”, and I hoped for familiarity so much. I looked upon Instagram posts of fellow schoolmates enjoying hall life and orientation camps in their various new institutions with envy. My friends seemed to all be fitting well in university hall life and made many more friends, which made me rethink my considerations for coming here. I wanted good conversations into late night too, and I wished we could enjoy jokes over bubble tea instead of cheap alcohol too. Lectures and assignments were also very different from what I had been used to, to the extent that it was difficult to adapt. I often started on my essays earlier than my British counterparts, but I just could not do well (i.e. falling short of a First). I struggled to make friends outside of the international student body despite trying; in my weekly lectures when I expected to not have Weixuan with me, I intentionally turned up to lectures later just so I would not be the lonely one standing awkwardly outside the lecture hall in the crowd of noise and laughter.
Because of all these I missed home, I missed home so so so much. I missed the comfort of home that allowed me to always wake up to someone, I missed my familiarity of places, and less awkward social interactions with people. “Meeting new people”, “getting out of my Singaporean bubble”, my foot. None of that shit happened, other than becoming more independent for sure. Many weeks I also painfully saw people meeting up over drinks and meals that I obviously could not be a part of. I missed many birthday parties, and I missed my family holidays. I do not remember crying over homesickness, but it did once get quite bad to the point that I had to delete all social media accounts for a few days when it came to RV’s 60th anniversary and the 74th MIDS commissioning parade. “I wish I could be there” continually occurred to me whenever my group of friends met up. I do not think anyone would ever feel this way if they never have been away from home for a prolonged period of time, the “cons” of migration I learnt in H2 Geography about cultural misfit and the lack of assimilation into the local community were strongly felt by me. I started communicating to people that an overseas education is far more glamorised than it should be, but I often found it difficult to put these thoughts across because I have had this overseas experience that most people within my social circle never underwent. I started becoming more withdrawn and kept these thoughts to myself, for the fear of coming off as unaware and insensitive. I knew that whenever I said something along the lines of “I know, my position is enviable, but…”, these would easily get dismissed. How could I have any rights to complain, when the world was at my feet, when I was being paid to study, and when it was a conscious decision to leave home? How am I supposed to convince people that overseas institutions are not degree mills, when it seemed that we were always travelling and enjoying ourselves? I travelled the most in my first year, but I missed home in each of those travels. Honestly, I wish I could go back in time to negate these thoughts.
Overall, Year 1 was the year I struggled to grapple with the idea of London being my second home, and having to constantly seek familiarity in unfamiliarity. I think everyone has faced these struggles, struggling to find a group of friends that we can connect emotionally with, and to find a footing in our lonely city. But I suppose your attitudes towards these things shift when they occur to you one too many, and your emotional mechanism just deals with it better gradually. Every phase in your life presents its own challenges, and I gradually dealt with those. I had no close British friends yes, but I found Korean, and I found the piano. On a usual school-going day, classes would likely conclude by noon, and on my most hardworking days I would do readings until evening, after which I would dedicate an hour to the piano, and two hours to Korean subsequently. I learnt a lot in those slow and lonely months. It was a coping mechanism through those lonely nights, that now instead of listening to old songs and feeling bitterly nostalgic, I could listen to Korean songs and learn. Week by week, I saved a lot of money by not having friends and not enjoying drinks. In no time it was the examinations and in no time I was headed home. It passed extremely quickly without me doing much, especially since my mobile phone had died on me and I had deemed it too troublesome to get a new one since my WhatsApp number was associated to my old phone.
A return to London to begin Year 2 was filled with dread and worry. I remember returning on a gloomy Sunday morning, seeing the unopened Goodge Street food stall, the familiar underground staff, and feeling so extremely lonely. These feelings quickly dissipated however, as I started changing my lifestyle habits in Years 2 and 3 with the savings I had from the year earlier. I loved my lifestyle in Years 2 and 3. I have associated my pace of life in London as what has mostly defined my London student experience, and due to what we associate with student life I think it could only be memorable. In the midst of the busy and stressful seasons, I still could always find time to grab a meal at Soho, and I could always find time to watch dramas mindlessly without feeling guilty in the late nights. I continued to busy myself with Korean language because I was a terribly slow learner, which meant that I spent many days and hours studying the language. I had my Wednesdays and Friday evenings filled in Years 2 and 3, Saturday mornings filled in Year 3 when I started attending classes in SOAS. Other than that, I found myself mostly in the Science Library catching up on what I deemed unsatisfactory grades, looking forward to going home that night to watch more cheesy Korean dramas or listen to trashy Korean songs as part of my intended exposure to listening and reading Korean. Listening to Chinese music at night on headphones also no longer made it painfully nostalgic like it did in Year 1, instead it made me feel more relaxed and at peace.
I lived day by day with a routine that could not get any simpler especially through the holidays when there were zero contact hours. Most of my weekday and weekend nights were also free after 7pm, the time when I generally would call it a day at the library or when my Korean language lessons end on Wednesdays and Fridays. I would take this time to have meals with my friends, and often walk through Dean Street hurriedly to meet a friend at Leicester Square, or somewhere close by (or what we Singaporeans term as Chinatown). Walking through Wardour Street with Peng Ning and Nicole made me realise that I have unwittingly tried the food in so many outlets along that food street. I also frequented Gaza Cafe at Soho, where I would often head for dessert with the company of KPop MVs. On a few occasions when I am feeling it, I would leave the library earlier than 7pm and walk alone through the streets of Oxford Circus and Covent Garden as well. I would buy a fried chicken breast from Good Friend (a spin-off of Shihlin in Singapore), bubble tea usually from Happylemon unless the queues were too long, and some bread from Chinatown for breakfast the next morning. My Asian eating habits never left me. I would walk in circles and circles for hours around the entire West End area until I felt like going home. I did this pretty often, sometimes in response to a trigger that my time in London was running out. I enjoyed being among the crowd, the crowd of tourists taking pictures in every angle with the grand entrance pillars. Seeing families and couples go by me no longer made me homesick or nostalgic, but it made me happy seeing people travel together. It made me feel extremely lucky to be living this city, a stark contrast from the feelings of loneliness felt whenever I saw crowds in my earlier years.
After the massive travelling in Year 1, I also found that travelling excessively to more places did not necessarily bring me as much happiness as staying in a single place for a longer number of days, and enjoying the sights slowly. In all honesty, I also got lazier to plan itineraries and make travel plans — if I were to be self-entitled here, there were so many elements of travel: flight tickets that are usually difficult to purchase immediately at the initial stages of planning, accommodation plans that would usually require a rough itinerary to deem the best place to stay, and the itinerary. These would get quite tiring after a bit of repetition, and quite a bit of trouble for the 3-day to 4-day travels that most of us were only permitted due to our timetables. Coursework also started to become more intense and it meant that our holidays became busier with time, which could not make travelling worry-free. Over the years, I hence travelled less by choice, but it made my time in each city more memorable.
Now that I am home in Singapore, I feel at odds with myself. In the future I am unlikely to continue having any affiliations with this city, as I will never marry into an English family, nor will I ever seek employment in this country. I am undoubtedly happy to be back in my comfort zone, being able to take buses without checking the GPS every 3 minutes to check my location, being able to walk to the train station without even an inch of thought about locating it, being able to order food or buy things with my accent, very comfortably. Yet my overall detachment from the city of London as a whole makes me feel really sad, that I no longer belong to London, and now that I am here it seems as if the ‘me’ there and then had never even existed in the first place. Global cities like London are just a transient piece of land for the many who create associations and move on somewhere after a number of years, being rooted fundamentally in a different place. I am just one of the many who had the honour of calling London his or her home once upon a time. Even today, looking at Instagram stories of people travelling in London makes me feel slightly odd, and seeing pictures of the many corners of the UCL campus I once frequented washes an extremely strange sense of nostalgia over me. I struggle to put a word to this feeling, that the entire overseas experience felt little more than a dream, my piece of the London dream that has now concluded for good.
Despite the differing feelings felt through my time in London, I thank these 3 years for letting me see so much, think so much, and most importantly, grow so much. Thank you for allowing me to realise my dream of studying and living abroad. I think London has changed me in ways that I am unable to put a finger to myself, be it through the sights and sounds, the academic components, or even through the wild thoughts that were triggered in the long and quiet winter nights. For the rest of my life, my undergraduate years will be a huge part of how I define myself.