We are very pleased and happy to introduce to you Ong Peck Boon, also known as Mike, who is an undergraduate student at the National University of Singapore. He is now almost three months into his Student Exchange Programme in Assam, India. This is his first piece, where he gives us the low-down on life in another part of busy and bustling Asia.
As part of the National University of Singapore (NUS) overseas partnerships programme with educational institutes worldwide, I was given the chance to embark on a semester-long trip to one of India’s premier educational institutes – Institute of Technology Guwahati (IITG). IITG is located in the state of Assam, northeast of India, where it is famous for its tea. IITG has a captivating scenery, as it is located in a mountainous region that has vast lands and open spaces, and is located away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It is also home to India’s widest river – Brahmaputra River. I choose India because firstly, the costs of living here are more manageable. Luckily, NUS has an bursary programme for needy students going on overseas exchange programmes. Secondly, I wanted to have an overseas experience because I felt that young people like us should expand our horizons beyond Singapore whenever there is an opportunity. I yearned for an overseas adventure, but at the same time, I wanted to feel close to home. Thus, India was the perfect choice. I believed that the journey to India will allow me to have a taste of the real world out there, and to better appreciate what I have in Singapore.
In a country as big as India, you can expect to be overwhelmed by large swathes of people. When I first exited Guwahati Airport, I was surrounded by at least 10 taxi drivers who were eager to take me around. Luckily, I arranged for the school personnel to pick me up from the airport. They were very friendly and frequently asked if I had any requests to be made. City Life I guess when you are overseas, lower your expectations, because it is unfair to judge other countries based on our existing standards. The city here is definitely not as clean as Singapore. You can see litter everywhere and rubbish clogged in the drains. I think this is mainly due to India’s huge population. It is very difficult to make sure that each person does not litter. There are also a lot of mosquitoes and houseflies. But I think all of these is just a matter of getting used to.
There are not a lot of proper roads with clear road dividers in most parts of the city, so traffic can be very congested and messy. This is worsened by the unattended cattle on the roads – they roam freely since Indians consider them sacred animals. I love to go to the city on Sundays, because traffic is greatly reduced and the streets have lesser people. Many shops are closed and most people rest at home on Sundays. Hostel Life The facilities at IITG are pretty decent. I am staying at their newest hostel – Brahmaputra Hostel – and it is awesome. Each of us have our own private room. There are also clean toilets, canteens and common areas such as the mess and the sports courts.
I believe the very first thing that people have to adjust to when living in a new country is the food. Indian food is very different from Chinese food, as the former focuses very much on spices and strong flavours. There is a difference between eating them occasionally in Singapore and having to eat them daily in India. I admit I had a hard time at the start, and I barely survived on just potato chips, biscuits and instant noodles. If you are tired of cooking, the canteens here sell samosas (curry puffs), fried eggs and Maggie mee. Each hostel has their own mini canteen. I brought along a mess tin to cook instant noodles, porridge, and pasta. Food is really cheap here – each of my meals costs less than SGD$2.
One thing that shocked me was that people here do not use toilet paper. They mostly use water for their toilet needs and because I am not used to that, I buy a lot of toilet paper. In India, it is cheaper to buy in bulk. They give huge discounts. Toilet rolls can be bought in the cities. However, tissue is quite expensive here, even more expensive than in Singapore. To save money, I substitute tissue with toilet paper and bring them wherever I go. Fortunately, restaurants in India provide napkins. Another interesting thing is that it is common for people here to run out of change. So in return, they would use sweets or chewing gums (which cost 1 rupee each) as loose change. (SGD$1 is equivalent to about 42 to 43 rupees.) School Life People here usually cycle to school and IIT Guwahati campus is huge. It is one of the few IITs that still allows the use of bicycles. Unfortunately, I do not have a bicycle, so I walk to school every day as a form of exercise. The journey takes about 20 minutes. My friends give me a ride sometimes if they see me along the way. The IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) are considered the top universities in India and are scattered across different states. There are currently plans to increase the number of IITs to meet the increase in demand. A friend told me that every year, around 500,000 students take the Joint Entrance Exams (JEE) but only 5,000 to 6,000 make it to the IITs. The JEE is considered one of the toughest examinations in the world and those who make it to the IITs are considered elite students. So I am very honoured to have the chance to study together with them. In India, lecturers and professors are held in high regard. Students here address them as ‘Sir’, whereas in Singapore, students usually address them as ‘Prof’. Here, they have a unique teaching system, where lecture materials are presented only during lessons or uploaded only after lectures. It discourages students from skipping lessons. In Singapore, however, the lesson materials are usually uploaded before classes begin and students are expected to read up before they attend lectures. We even have video recordings made available online so that students can view them comfortably from anywhere, at anytime they want. But this system gets abused sometimes. The students at IITG are very helpful – whenever I have doubts, I can clarify with them. Sometimes, I have difficulties comprehending what my professors or lecturers say due to their accents, so some of my friends act as my translators. I have made a lot of friends here, most of whom are my schoolmates or hostel mates.
Initially, I felt really uncomfortable getting all the attention, as I was one of the first exchange students at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering. Wherever I went, people would stare at me curiously. I felt like a campus idol! Personally, I find Indians very friendly and sociable. They love to make friends with strangers. Many of them initiated conversations with me and we even exchanged contact numbers. They helped to ease my insecurities and uneasiness, and I settled down and assimilated into the environment here very nicely. One of my friends explained that it is part of their religion to make guests feel welcomed and at home in India. This explains why they always treat us with respect and shower us with hospitality. I will write about the importance of having Indian friends next. Come back soon and watch this space! (We hear the next story will come within the next two weeks.) Mike will continue to share his experiences until the end of his semester exchange.