Summer Exchange at UBC, Vancouver
While perusing the Global Short Term Programmes email from NUS, I was captivated by the prospect of the Vancouver Summer Programme at the University of British Columbia (UBC). In 2022, UBC secured the second spot in Canada and ranked 13th globally among over 1,600 institutions from 99 countries (UBC, n.d.).
As a growth seeker and adventurous person, I always embraced new experiences. A summer exchange sounded like the perfect opportunity to enrich my student life, offering a once-in-a-lifetime experience before graduation. My curiosity about communications and media education abroad coupled with the allure of living independently in a foreign environment for several weeks made it an irresistible consideration (especially Canada, where many people applaud for its beautiful environment and welcoming culture towards Asians).
I enrolled in the one month course titled "Arts B: Global Journalism, Culture and Communications: Practice and Principles" for June. I was able to fulfil the requirements for a 4k communications module and a 2k anthropology module.
Day of Arrival
Aside from the administrative tasks of module mapping and applying to UBC, I embarked on my first long-haul flight of my life on an 18-hour flight with EVA Air, which included a 3-hour layover in Taiwan. While enduring such lengthy flights can be challenging, it turned out to be surprisingly bearable as I was able to sleep throughout the entire journey. Upon landing in Vancouver, the VSP team warmly welcomed us at the airport. Being my first time in Vancouver, I was captivated by the scenery while in the Uber, feeling as if I stepped right into a movie scene. I was filled with anticipation for the adventures to come, tinged with a touch of apprehension about the unknown.
Upon arrival, we settled into our UBC accommodation at Walter Gage, the cost of which was included in the 5.5k school fees.
The suite housed six of us, and I fondly recall that first night when we all introduced ourselves. We all came from diverse backgrounds, one individual from Kenya, two from Hong Kong, and three, including myself, from Singapore. The bond with my roommates strengthened quickly as we ventured out together on several occasions, such as a shopping spree at the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet Vancouver and bonded over casual kitchen conversations or cooking sessions.
Notably, cooking became a new experience for me because I never cooked in Singapore. However, with meals in Vancouver typically priced upwards of $15, we often found ourselves on weekly grocery runs. I genuinely enjoyed the cooking process, often using the Hai Di Lao soup base for noodles and indulging in pork belly.
Pictures of my not-so-tasteful cooking
Every day consisted of rigorous academic sessions: a 3-hour morning class on culture and communications followed by a 3-hour afternoon class on global journalism. Admittedly, staying attentive during morning classes was a challenge, primarily because our social activities often extended late into the night. Nonetheless, these outings more than compensated with the cherished memories they fostered. Journalism stood out as my favourite subject, allowing me to delve into topics like journalistic ethics. It also provided hands-on opportunities, where I wrote about the media landscape of South Korea, conducted a research on UBC The Pit (student nightclub) and an interview with a friend from Macau on his social media usage. Given that this programme was specially tailored for summer exchange students, its grading and workload were not as rigorous as the modules offered at NUS.
The UBC campus left a lasting impression on me, beyond just its modules.
From participating in weekend trips organised by external vendors (additional fees) to places like Whistler, Victoria, and Rocky Mountains; each experience was amplified by the company I was with.
Whistler: Taken with my Fujifilm XT4
In addition to the optional paid excursions, our programme planned specific events for each course. For the Arts course, the lineup included a welcome event, a city tour, ice cream socials, a visit to the UBC botanic garden, a pizza scavenger hunt, an outing to the Richmond Night Market, a sports day, bonding time at Wreck Beach, and an excursion to baseball games. While I personally found our self-initiated adventures more enjoyable, I commend the programme's efforts. There's potential for even more engaging events for incoming students!
VSP Sports Day
UBC Botanic Garden Tour
Richmond Night Market
The biggest takeaways from my exchange were the friendships I forged. While the majority of my interactions were with international students due to the composition of our programme, these relationships proved to be deeply enriching. I genuinely believe that the journey would've been markedly different without these individuals by my side. Fortunately, our group dynamics were devoid of drama, and we could all get along well. The friendships made extended beyond our immediate circle of classmates or suite mates, as we often welcomed anyone from the programme to join the outings. There was even a memorable time when a planned outing for three quickly grew to a ten-person adventure.
Our explorations of Vancouver revealed a city that harmoniously blends forest, city, and mountains, offering easy access to nature.
I would recommend the following places when you are in Vancouver during summer:
Gas Town Vancouver
Acadia Beach with a mesmerising sunset
The adventure leading to Acadia Beach was anything but ordinary. I'd ambitiously planned to cycle the entirety of the English Bay shore, visiting all its beaches, from Jericho to Kitsilano and beyond. Our journey, complete with bicycles equipped with less-than-reliable brakes, led us down an unexpectedly steep path. Add to that the challenge of crossing a highway, and it's safe to say our expedition had its fair share of thrills. Nevertheless, the breathtaking sunset and shared memories made every heart-stopping moment worthwhile.
Interacting with peers from countries like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau not only expanded my cultural horizon but also facilitated personal introspection. For instance, through conversations with friends from Hong Kong, I learned about the intense pressures of their society. My conversations with them also illuminated some amusing cultural idiosyncrasies I had. I often found myself unconsciously slipping into Singlish. Phrases like "bojio," "ulu," and especially "can one" left my non-Singaporean friends puzzled. Yet, despite our varied backgrounds, we found common ground in shared experiences and mutual understanding, creating a comforting support system while navigating a foreign environment.
The bonds we formed continue to thrive after the programme. For instance, when my friends from Hong Kong visited Singapore this August, we had a delightful reunion. Furthermore, the fellow Singaporeans that went on this programme reconnected with our recent outing to Halloween Horror Nights, which transported us back to our Vancouver days. While most connections are maintained through social media, I'm optimistic about in-person reunions in the future. The thought that I have friends scattered across the globe, ready to meet when I travel, is exciting and comforting.
While in Vancouver, I experienced a series of culture shocks. First and foremost was the tipping culture. Given Vancouver's already steep prices for most goods and services, the expectation to tip between 15-20% of our bill in restaurants was causing a hole in my pocket. For takeaways, I typically refrained from tipping. My initial experiences left me puzzled about the appropriate amount to tip, but over time, I learned the ropes, whether it meant leaving a small bill or selecting the tip option on the credit card machine.
The second shock was the prevalence of homelessness and the overt use of marijuana. Initially, I felt uneasy encountering homeless individuals on the streets, but I later understood that they generally kept to themselves unless provoked. East Hastings in Vancouver is notably populated with homeless communities. Experiencing this side of the city was a stark reminder of my privileged position and made me appreciate the high standards of living back in Singapore. A particularly memorable incident was when my friends and I unintentionally ended up in East Hastings late at night. During our 30-minute wait for the bus, we witnessed unsettling scenes, including an individual aggressively wielding a golf club. The strong scent of marijuana, especially in Downtown Vancouver, was something I could never grow accustomed to. Witnessing individuals evidently under the influence in public spaces was heart-wrenching, as they were probably at the lowest points in their lives.
Perhaps the most delightful culture shock was the openness of Western culture. Random strangers would offer compliments to me on the streets. Whether it was a chat with an Uber driver or store owner, conversations typically began with a warm "how are you," followed by genuine interest about your story. As passengers disembarked from the bus, they would express their gratitude by shouting "Thank you" to the bus driver. Over time, I began to adopt this courteous habit, which I was never able to do back home due to the prevalent social anxiety in Singapore. The freedom of self-expression was exemplified at Wreck Beach near UBC, which is an optional clothing beach. There, I witnessed confidence from a woman who was dancing joyfully on stage completely unclothed, unbothered by societal expectations but just having the time of her life.
Conversations with a classmate from New York City opened my eyes to the depth of individualism in Western culture, a stark contrast to the conformist tendencies observed in many Asian societies. Furthermore, the Canadian emphasis on work-life balance was evident in their laid-back lifestyle. With shops closing by 6 pm and even a club within UBC campus, it's clear that there's a prioritisation of personal time and leisure. Amid the cooling weather and breathtaking landscapes, I found unparalleled joy and a sense of freedom in Vancouver.
All good things eventually come to an end, and this chapter of my life will forever be one I remember upon fondly. It has showed me that there is endless possibilities with what you can do in this lifetime, even planting the seed of perhaps working overseas in the future. We often get caught up in our own bubble, but there is an expansive world beyond filled with people we’ve yet to cross paths with and stories untold.
Thank you for the best summer. :)
UBC. (n.d.). UBC’s Institutional Rankings—The University of British Columbia. Retrieved October 29, 2023, from https://ubc-prod.it.ubc.ca/about/institutional-rankings.html