Adventures in Southeast Asia: Senior Natalie Sutton Reflects on Time Abroad

October 2010  UNC Global News

I cannot believe it has been a year since I studied abroad in Singapore. The transition from studying abroad, or the reverse culture shock, has been far worse than I imagined.

It's not that I am not extremely excited to take full advantage of our amazing Carolina community in my final semesters here. I interpret my reverse culture shock as an extremely positive indication of my full immersion in Singapore’s unique culture. I fell in love with Singapore, and really all of Southeast Asia, in my semester abroad. I feel a deep yearning to go back and eat Mee Goreng and dance in a sudden monsoon downpour!

More than anything, I feel compelled to share my experiences and encourage others to travel abroad, especially to Asia. With blond hair, blue eyes, and a buoyant personality, I often felt out of place everywhere I went. However, I never imagined the extent to which I would feel at home, connect with people, and invoke my passions.

Expatriates now comprise over a quarter of the population of Singapore. As such a young country characterized by different peoples and formed through foreign investment, Singapore is still struggling to define its “identity” and only the generation born here can truly call themselves “Singaporean.” I discovered this type of incongruity in many parts of Asia: a flux between history and development and globalization that was actually exhilarating!

After a month or so in Singapore, I felt very comfortable there. The city is extremely clean, developed, and Western, which facilitated my transition to life in Asia and eliminated fears of culture shock. It is a tropical island that is the only true “city-state” in existence. One can travel across the island in about 45 minutes by car, although I quickly became accustomed to the efficient “MRT” or metro network and the public buses. I missed driving so much, but loved living in a big city. The government of the tiny republic is incredibly involved in the people’s lives and poses strict fines on littering and jaywalking. Drug trafficking is punishable by death!

With regard to my assimilation to the culture, the two toughest challenges were definitely the weather and the food. The weather was unbearably hot and humid. It would be 95 and sunny and then, literally, all of the sudden, you would hear earth-rattling thunder and a monsoon rain would commence, creating a flash flood in minutes! Then there was the extremely powerful “food culture” in Singapore. A common greeting is “Have you eaten?” I am finally pretty proficient with chopsticks. You can find every type of Asian and international delicacy throughout the city, and if you eat in the “hawker centers” or small individual food stands (like food courts in our malls), you will never pay more than 5 Singapore dollars for a meal…that's about 3.50 USD! Eating and shopping are their favorite pastimes there.

Since returning, and continuing my academic career as a business major concentrating in entrepreneurial studies, I have found a greater appreciation for the incredible pace of development and innovation in Asia.

While abroad, I took a new venture analysis course at the National University of Singapore’s business school and lead a team in developing a full business plan for a social network start-up. At the end of the semester, we pitched our venture to an all-star panel of investors from all over the world, including the co-founder of Skype.

In my global marketing course, I worked with a team to devise a plan for introducing a new business into Vietnam, and was able to travel to the proposed site for our stores in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi before final exams. I never imagined that I would combine my academic pursuits with such powerful, real-world applications, especially in a foreign area of the world.

NUS is renowned as one of the best universities worldwide and, although there is school spirit, the dynamics are completely different from those here at UNC. I realize now how much I missed the engaging atmosphere of public services that characterizes Carolina.

Singaporeans are very reserved and motivated. Their work ethic is inspiring!

In October of my semester abroad, I initiated the first annual “NUS Show Your Love Week" along with one of my teachers, four of my classmates, and a student organization. Modeled after the “Every Moment Counts" initiative to honor Eve Carson at UNC, we asked students to do a different task each day (for example, tell the bus drivers and canteen workers "thank you" or surprise a friend with his or her favorite snack) for one week.

In organizing this event, I encountered a student leader in a service organization whose older brother studied abroad at UNC in the fall of 2007 and knew Eve.

He explained that his brother had been extremely upset at a family dinner after he had heard of Eve’s death, and thus, my friend had learned about Eve’s impeccable way of connecting with people. This serendipitous discovery was one of the happiest moment of my entire semester abroad. I realized how small the world is, and how many people one individual can impact.

My new friend helped me organize the event, and it was so wonderful to see more interaction and expression between the faculty, staff and students! It was certainly crossing some cultural barriers, but I hoped it would become an annual tradition. It was a very rewarding way to honor Eve’s legacy and share the Carolina Way.

Above all, one of the greatest aspects of studying abroad in Singapore was the opportunity to travel! I travelled to Bintan, Indonesia (an impoverished, yet picturesque beach island); Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (the bustling, progressive capital city famous for the Petronas twin towers and fascinating Batu caves Hindu holy site); Phnom Penh, Cambodia (capital city and famous for the tragic Khmer Rouge massacre); Siem Reap, Cambodia (the amazing Angkor Wat ruins of Khmer temples where Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed); Bangkok, Thailand (a chaotic metropolis with unbelievable Buddhist temples); Phuket, Thailand (a beautiful island hit by the 2004 tsunami), Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia (a breathtaking tropical paradise known for the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia), Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (a young, active city in the midst of rapid development where I visited the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War), and Hanoi (I travelled to the breathtaking Halong Bay, ate pho, and took in the war sites).

I knew that studying abroad in Singapore would be an eye-opening experience - one that would challenge me in new ways and force me out of my comfort zone. But I learned more from my travels and my interactions with people than I ever learned in the classroom. I stood out wherever I went in Asia, but always ultimately found warmth and acceptance. I hope that people coming from Asia to Carolina can say the same, and I feel empowered by the Phillips Ambassadors Scholarship and my unforgettable experience abroad to make their time in America memorable.

Natalie Sutton, '11, is a senior business administration major from Chapel Hill, NC. She received the Phillips Ambassadors scholarship to study abroad through the National University of Singapore/Kenan-Flagler Business School exchange program in Fall 2009.