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What Does It Mean to Study Abroad?

Published by Afterschool.my on Jun 28, 2016, 11:55 am

A Malaysian student who is studying abroad, Hisyam Takiudin shared his critical perspectives on what it means to study abroad in terms of culture adaptation.

Studying Abroad (as a Malaysian): A Critical PerspectiveBy Hisyam Takiudin (Originally published on Linkedin on Nov 8, 2015)

What does it mean to Study Abroad?

I am one of the lucky ones that gets to study overseas on a government scholarship -  something I now know is almost unique to Malaysia in terms of its scale.

When I explained to my non-Malaysian friends that my scholarship covers pretty much everything (including a return airfare as well as monthly allowance), they expressed either one of two things: disbelief or plain jealousy.

I don't have hard feelings about that though. Human capital development is one of Malaysia's key strengths, ranked 52nd globally based on the World Economic Forum's report. It's already a norm that an overseas education is no longer limited to high-earning Malaysian households. Racially divisive factors aside, it's quite an amazing feat for a nation that has only been independent for 58 years.

Back to why I'm writing this whole blurb. I'll start with the elephant in the room:

Mixing with Locals

Before I left for my studies, families and close friends who have been abroad converged into a couple of solid advice: stick close to other Malaysians, and avoid being too close to foreigners in fear of bad influence.

Well, unfortunately (or fortunately) for me, there were barely any Malaysians back when I did my IB in Wales, and living in non-locked dormitories (with strict in-house only curfew) made seclusion near impossible. I was put in a position where I had no other choice but to adapt.

The thing is, it's not as scary as many would think. I grew up picturing that 'mat salleh', a colloquial Malay term for foreigners, are idiotically ignorant, alcohol addicts doomed for depression-laden careers and miserably wasted old lives. A little too crude? You'd be surprised by how many people live their whole lives thinking this way.

'Mat sallehs' are people after all, and I found pleasure demystifying what my culture tells me about them. I can even say that I've met the most intriguing and well-composed human beings more in these cultures than in my own. I arrived at the conclusion that, putting complete blame on the possibility that the people you meet would influence you in a bad way is not only flawed thinking, it's unnatural.

Statistically speaking, having properly interacted with people from 6 different continents (excuse the humble-brag), there's probably five or six individuals I can think of that would have contributed negatively towards my character development (had I not been careful enough).

I hope I'm not blowing the wrong bagpipe here, but I've observed that partly due to this mentality - the thinking that mixing too much changes you in a bad way -, there seems to exist mini Malaysian universes in some universities abroad. What I mean by this is the practice of seclusion limited to other Malaysian students, or at least the lack of local-centric interactions. When I asked my Malaysian peers abroad, one well-voiced perspective also amounts to the illusion that locals generally deem you unfit for their society, hence these 'universes' exist as cushions you can always fall back on.

In no condescending manner to these people's circumstances whatsoever, my opinion is that this 'confinement' (both metaphorically and literally) defeats the purpose of going abroad altogether. I've heard many arguments about focusing on getting the first-world education on top of everything else, and I'm tired of it.

If you want an MIT education, you can access them online for free here. Truth be told, and you very well know it, everything you end up learning academically abroad are mere clicks away. In this day and age, we're too well-connected to be defined by what knowledge is geographically available.

You might be thinking, what exactly am I proposing here? Am I spitting at the writing on the wall? I am proposing that, as hard or as nearly impossible as it may seem, please do get out of the Malaysian bubble.

Experience the actual difference of being in a culture outside your own. I'm not referring to travelling and taking selfies with local scenery so you could fill up your Instagram quota, I'm talking about cultivating life-long friendships with people you'd never meet back home. It's not only different, it's refreshing. You'd be surprised with what different filters different cultures have, and that is something I'll always appreciate about studying abroad.

Preserving Your Culture

I think I echo a lot of the common fears of students abroad when I say that “preserving your culture” is the main reason why we're so reluctant to get out of our comfort zone. In the context of traditional Malaysian culture, 'preserving' here means to not embrace Western ideals of liberal social interaction, with specific implication towards consuming alcohol as well as losing the more hierarchical sense of respect Malaysians practice.

It has somehow been set in stone that these characteristics not only mismatch those of Malaysian's, but is by default impossible to coexist. There is the prevailing notion that the more dominant culture would always overpower, and that the best way to overcome this is to avoid a clash of the two altogether.

While historical reasons may have been a contributing factor, I have a faint suspicion that this is the result of my people's own introspection. “If the roles are reversed, and a foreign student were to study in Malaysia, locals would expect them to compromise competing Western values in favor of the more conservative Eastern counterpart. This is highly ironic; 446 years of colonialism should have taught Malaysians a thing or two about the pointlessness of chasing dominance.

I believe that assuming superiority of one's culture over another is a little egoistic. Cherry-picking bad features of other cultures while ignorantly masking the flaws of your own is at the very least cringe-worthy. Giving specific examples here might be a little out a place (and unnecessarily controversial), and suffice to say that this behavior persists in how Malaysian culture has viewed Western ideals.

Some might say that I am a dreamer, that I am ignoring history, that I have 'changed' too much from being abroad for too long. That's complete nonsense. If any, I feel like I gained so much just from putting myself out there even though I am on the vulnerable end. I feel privileged to have been able to learn from a myriad of perspectives, in that there are unthinkably so many ways to trace the logical path of why certain things are the way they are.

How has this preserved my culture? It's the realization that I've been worrying too much that people would change me for the worse that I ignore how more likely they would change me for the better. It's 2015. Not many are really trying to get you to be more like them. Anything goes.

Don't get me wrong though, there are some truths in what is perceived as the norm. There are people who have, by widely accepted definitions, 'strayed away', but it is so often rashly linked to the mat salleh's influences that it ignores one important aspect:

Critically Evaluating Your Principles and Beliefs

I was born into a very conservative Muslim family, where I was given a long list of do's and don'ts to follow, complete with what seemed logical explanations to me at the time. Perspectives were sparse, and I was conditioned enough that singular explanations were more than enough to satisfy my curiosity.

Has it ever occurred to you that maybe lack of perspectives is the problem? That maybe, just maybe, we have been educating our children to blindly follow things that they do not necessarily understand nor develop a truthful connection to? Is teaching religion solely from a perspective of your own necessarily the best way to go?

To my own ignorance, these were questions that didn't become prominent enough for a significant part of my life. I've always had them in the back of my head, but at the mercy of my fear for nonconformity. It was simply out of the question, a no-no if you want to fit in. I have a feeling that a lot of my peers share my sentiments, yet never got to the point where they are willing to voice it out loud.

I arrived at (UWC) Atlantic College with the thought that I was mentally well-prepared. Farewell remarks from families and friends were still ringing in my head, all pointing out to wariness towards those who might try to change me. What's interesting though, to echo my earlier point, the 'change' described here almost always referred to the negative.  It was not surprising then, that when the contrary was presented to me, I ended up having some of the most conflictual discussions with myself.

One by one, I was finding the 'truths' that were told to me growing up to be mere ignorant interpretations of what my people simply refused to properly understand, perhaps due to fear of the unknown, or maybe, an extreme case of superiority complex. On my 20th birthday, I got what is perhaps the biggest reality check in my life. During a low-key celebration in my dorm room, I was asked the question, "Why Islam?".

If it were any stranger on the street, I could probably conjure up some phrases referencing to the beauty of the Quran or the virtues of being sure about the afterlife, but this was someone who knew me inside out. I was silenced to my innermost wonderment. I had no words, nor thoughts that could satisfy his curiosity.

There was a part of me that was wondering then, is any of this true at all?

The running thought that followed that night was pure fear. Mostly fear of thinking that, maybe it was this very dumbfounding moment that made some of my Malaysian peers 'lose it', stuck between the promise of new truths and a crumbling belief.

To perhaps my own fortune, I had people around me who kept me sane. I bombarded them with these questions I've never asked before and more often than not, it fruited into discussions that allowed me to dissect and rediscover why the things that I was supposed to believe in are the way they are. It was a long process, but I know for sure that I needed to shift from an institutional-based belief to one that I shaped on my own terms, one that I understand on the level that I've allowed myself to understand it, and not purely on what is deemed socially fitting.

Some who are reading this are probably opposing my new paradigm, but this is how it's going to be, and there's not much you can say to change that. I am sure that some of you will think that I'm contradicting myself, that I've gone against my own words about coexisting with a culture different to mine, but this is different.

Part of the coexisting process is mutual learning. Much as I've felt that my non-Malaysian friends have learnt a lot from me, I have taken a few pointers myself on how to live my life. And that has been largely about being sure of what I believe in, to constantly ask myself whether or not the logical trade-offs of my beliefs are worth investing the energy in. I don't think that's me betraying my culture, I think I've enhanced it. I'm no longer a product on an assembly line, I am now its master.

In case you were wondering, I haven't changed my practices, and I can list a lot of people who can attest to that. What's different is that I now take pride in acknowledging that I've been approaching religion for the wrong reasons, for far too long.

Concluding it all

With that being said, the main takeaway I want to say here is that there is more to being abroad than just the quality of education that you get. Sure, there are things that you need to be wary about, but that's an unjustified reasoning to not make full use of your potential.

Also, I am in no way saying that those who didn't get to go abroad are on the losing side. Some of those that I feel have gotten to the point where I am right now have not in fact gone abroad. Everyone goes through different learning curves; I am merely suggesting that some of those studying abroad are missing out on developing themselves by succumbing to irrational presumptions.

Last but not least, as I feel that a cliché ending would be fitting after such a heavy discussion, do challenge yourself in new ways while abroad. Take a new language course, join a scramble band, learn how to make an Italian-approved risotto (p/s: meatball spaghetti is not Italian); generally, just things you're not as likely to try back home. After all, life is short. Carpe diem!



Disclaimer:This is an expression of my own thoughts and observations. Any similarities to anyone else's are coincidental. It may or may not apply to you or your child. The main context here is my experience abroad coming from a conservative Malaysian family. I do not represent my whole culture, less do I homogenize perspectives of other Malaysians, just parts of which had been critical to my upbringing.



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