Culture shock

One doesn’t need to go abroad to experience it, but meeting a wide and different range of people can do wonders for your outlook and attitude.

THERE is always this idea that going overseas means experiencing a great challenge to a person’s traditional Asian values. Everyone expects the students who go abroad to experience some kind of culture shock, and as an outsider, you would come to a great realisation that there is a “them” and “me”. For me, Australia never gave me that feeling — Malaysia did.

To understand my experience, you must first know that I spent most of my schooling years in a small town in Sabah that had neither a shopping mall nor a McDonalds outlet.

The only out-of-school activities that I had were tuition classes and interschool English language competitions. It was a town where scribbling graffiti on the school toilet walls defined one as a “hardcore” gangster.

So when my parents sent me to an arts college in Cyberjaya to pursue a foundation course in mass communications, I left home with all sorts of tips about avoiding the “wrong crowd” and advice to stay on “the right path”.

By the time they were done, I was all but paranoid, walking around with one hand on my wallet and expecting every thief, rapist and mobster in Malaysia to know just by looking at me that I was an easy target.

Thanks to television, I had a vague idea about what said criminal would look like. I imagined a dark sort of character, with piercings in strange places, dark clothing and probably a cigarette to top it off.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when a character matching that description introduced himself as my orientation guide at university. Before meeting him, I never knew you could pierce a cheek.

He was polite and terribly entertaining in a droll, sarcastic way. I spent that whole hour touring the campus with my eyes glued on him, the poor boy — he must have thought that I was some a stalker! But at the time, I was certain he was a serial killer and would strike me dead if I so much as blinked at him.

And don’t get me started on the smokers. No one in my immediate family smoked, and where I grew up, smokers (female smokers in particular) were rare.

Imagine my surprise after sitting down to a table full of new coursemates, and nine out of 10 of them either pulled out a cigarette or stole a puff or two from someone else’s.

The first few weeks of college was an abridged education in all that I had missed out in my teen years. I met such a range of people I had never even dreamed of.

They all seemed so mature and worldly and I was so ignorant that more than once, my friend had to drag me out of a conversation and explain, for example, that YSL was not some kind of disease, and yes there are handbags out there that cost more than RM500.

And then there were the rampant – for lack of a better term – romances.

My parents raised me with a very traditional view on sex — we don’t talk about it and as far as we are concerned it only ever happens after marriage.

Thanks to television, I was a little wiser than that, but I knew that sex was something highly personal — not something to be thrown about like confetti.

But every Monday morning, over the course of breakfast in the cafeteria, those same worldly people would loudly share their “wild experiences” of the previous weekend.

Eventually it became a verbal competition between two of them to see who could one up the other in both vulgarity and number of partners. Though not usually terribly explicit, the conversations usually left me with my knees knotted together and wondering if there was such a thing as a Hindu nun.

I was shocked at the way they were so gleefully sharing this very personal information as though being promiscuous was a thing of pride. Eventually, of course, I learnt that most of these “experiences” were total fiction, but for a while I carried around this terrible feeling that because I wasn’t joining in, there was something wrong with me.

By the end of that year, I had learnt so many things about people, about adapting, about being careful and the difference between being unique and being wrong. It was a challenging year – one that made me aware of my strengths and my limitations – but ultimately, it was a test of me as a person and I passed with flying colours.

By the time I was packed off to head overseas for my degree, I found myself quite the cool cucumber when it came to reacting to new and strange experiences.

When I headed off to class early on Monday morning to find a few of my Australian counterparts hungover and wearing sunglasses indoors, I handed them Panadol and told them to hand in their group work another time.

Moving to a new place? Been there, done that, washed the dishes.

Making new friends? Piece of cake. Once you get over the typical Malaysian illness known as the “Caucasian Complex”, you learn that people are exactly the same shade of crazy underneath the skin.

By the end of my first year in university, my best friend was a Goth girl with her fair share of facial piercings, tattoos and a breathtaking collection of replica swords.

I regret nothing that happened to me during my one year in college. In fact, I strongly recommend a good dose of culture shock for all you new university students. After all, culture shock did wonders for me.

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