Thursday, 22 November 2007

NUS Hall-Life - A Layman's Ethnography

This is a replacement for the post about my NUS stayover that got deleted by accident.

During the study break, I decided to head down to NUS and bunk in with Khairul on the pretext of studying for my finals. Of course, that I did, though I must say there were many other things I did that made it a lot less productive than I'd thought, but it's okay. So far, it's all been hearsay pertaining to this whole thing about hall-life and school culture and what SMU ain't got amongst other things, so I decided - to hell with the speculation; let's do this.

So I lugged my heavier-than-usual bag to that continent of a school (yes NUS and NTU seriously are continents on the map of Singapore) and was welcomed by the rain. There was quite a bit of hassle before I finally met Khairul up and settled in, but I shan't elaborate on that.

Firstly, over the course of days there, a clear distinction must be made between an NUS hall student and an NUS non-hall student. They're really very different people and if any SMU student wishes to say that NUS is more happening than SMU, well becareful which comparison is being made.

Hall-life is, of course, very happening. We're talking about a culture that exists on a few grounds. There is a tradition that is at least rich enough for this to be self-sustaining, unlike SMU I suppose.

When we talk about SMU's culture and tradition and lack thereof, I think it can be likened to Benedict Anderson's concept of nations being merely imagined communities; socially constructed and ultimately imagined and thus easily dissolved. SMU still has some way to go.

Also, the people in hall already want to partake in the activities offered. Either way, they're either genuinely enthusiastic or have no choice and thus want to make the most out of it. So there'll always be a demand for things to do and a supply of things to do.

There is a very high degree of social capital amongst those who stay in hall, not least because they almost see each other everyday. Staying in blocks and playing for blocks leads to a lot of bonding opportunities and hence everyone is very close-knit. When I was at Clementi with Sab, I found that she was always buying stuff back even though it entailed taking initiative and calling many people just to take their orders, and SMSing and then waiting for the replies if they couldn't be reached. Sab explained that this is a somewhat obligatory practice as it is commonplace to bring food back if you make a trip out of campus.

But even before hall-life even really kicks in, the notoriously raunchy NUS hall orientation camps have a huge part to play. It is no surprise when you realise that these camps are sponsored by SDU - to quite an extent, these activities are intended the way they are in spite of the numerous complaints from students and parents of students, etc alike.

Digressively, there are a couple of reasons for this. To curb the ageing population of Singapore, I guess this is about attacking the problem at the root - the academic elites who will eventually be career-minded people who will slacken off in the family-building area. Also, perhaps there's some degree of eugenics involved as they (whoever they are) wish for these academic elites to come together.

Anyway, in the end, any degree of awkwardness or insensitivity is eliminated as you'll find that there's nothing to feel bad about doing anything with anybody since you've already done whatever with whoever during orientation camp in the craziest of ways possible. So another 1-up for cohesion here.

I didn't really get to experience the vibrance of hall-life in full force as I bunked in with Khairul during the study break when everyone's more or less mugging. The difference is that most people mug in their rooms, so you don't get that shitty feeling of seeing so many people around in school studying their asses off like in SMU. But really, that doesn't mean that it's any less muggerish in NUS - the reverse could seriously be true (that SMU ain't as bad as NUS), especially when you start to factor in the non-hall NUS students.

You lose sense of time staying in hall. I seriously had no idea if I was eating lunch or dinner during my stay at NUS, as everyone wakes up as and when they like and do things irregardless of time. Supper is a really common activity and there are many cases to cater to this need of students. I met Jiamao at the Sheares Hall canteen during one such supper.

Everyone dresses in PJs and slacks so there's an abundance of girls in FBT shorts haha. Sab says all you have to do is put on a pair of proper shorts and people will start asking, "eh, going out ah?" I felt somewhat out of place with my berms and slippers even; fashion in hall was understandably that much unimportant and non-existent (which I honestly like. In SMU, fashion is a major part of culture).

I'm not sure if I left out any other facets of observation during my stay at NUS, but on the whole, while there were many expected things, there were also interesting things to learn and it was fascinating seeing the differences between a hall kind of university vis-a-vis SMU. I think it'd be really swell to bunk in during a more bustling part of the term, though I'm not factoring in the awkwardness of being a stranger in a place of extremely high social capital.

If there's really one thing I'd pinpoint about everything, it'd be that there is a lot more happiness to gain from having a good social life than getting good grades. SMU students falter in their attempts to be content because their pursuits inherently do not causate with happiness. To achieve that, we're all better off making time to form genuine social bonds.

If it weren't for marriage, men and women would have to fight with total strangers.

Today's Listenables:
Fall Out Boy - The Carpal Tunnel Of Love


[22/7/2010 0147h caveat]

Given my awareness that a sizeable number of people happen to read this post, I think it is necessary for me to state that my view on hall life or communal hostel living isn't as rosy now as it was back then.

Actually, that's mincing my words regarding how opposed my present views are in relation to those here.

However, the thoughts of this post were true to me at the time of writing, and I will not alter them.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Of School Culture And The Like

School can get unbelievably busy at times. That might sound like an extreme understatement to make for a LOT of other SMU people out there because everyone is seriously stressing themselves out. Maybe I might have less to do, but that doesn't explain I'm fretting alot less than my classmates. I guess I'm really an anomaly of sorts. Though I'm indeed busier than before, it's not like I'm spending 40 hours in the library mugging my ass off.

Which brings me to the recent development of events about SMU's culture which has come under question and under fire, culminating in the very timely release of a SMU documentary reflecting what we've become and why, done by a year 1 by the name of Joshua Nair. It is an impressive piece of work.

In a nutshell, in my opinion it reflects both sides of the picture - those who have lost hope in SMU's culture and those who haven't - and touches on a brief bit of SMU history before semi-concluding about why things are the way they are now, while at the same time giving the viewer space to reflect as well.

3 or 4 years at the Bukit Timah campus has given rise to a culture that definitely rang of being different. The old campus had a very open structure that gave everyone space to think, share, connect and reflect, and was set away from the hectic pace of the city. A culture then grew that truly prided itself in being different from NUS and NTU and was one that eventually flourished with innovation, vibrancy and energy. With that culture in place, the school then relocated to it's current city campus where it nestles with its cold, clinical structure. Each faculty building is set apart from each other if not for a stoic underpass that joins Dhoby Ghaut to City Hall. The structure of the underpass is such that everyone just flows along, with as much discouragement for communication as possible. Unless you really had something to do there, nobody in their right mind would really just start standing around in the underpass and hold a decent conversation. Of course, there are other places such as Frujch and the Big Steps to do so, but the underpass forms the physical heart of the school and this is eventually manifested in the soul of its students. We then become cold and calculated and everyone just moves along to their next practical destination, and when we're done most of us would just wanna go home and stay away from school as much as possible (the irony is that you can't! Haha). And for most people, finally being able to find a bench or room somewhere would dictate that you'd plonk into your seat and whip out your laptop to do more work.

We speed from class to class day after day and lasting friendships are hard to come by unless a special effort is made. That doesn't sound like an issue in itself, you might say, because it is afterall the onus of the individual to decide if he wants to make friends, but the flipside is that the school system simply does not encourage an enriching social life amongst other things other than giving students the perpetual impression that studying and grades is the only thing that matters in SMU.

You can say, "alright, I'm gonna get to know some new friends in school." Then you go to class, but you find that unless you already have friends there, it's hard to just sit beside someone on the pretext of making friends, cos they'll usually already have their own friends they're sitting with and the ones sitting alone are often foreign students (what this implies, I'll leave it to you to think). Then perhaps you'd think, "okay it can't be that bad, maybe I'll make more friends when I get to do project work with people, since I'll get to hang out with them more often in pressure-cooker fashion." But still this doesn't always work, especially when most people are rushing from class to class just so as to return to our original social lives. Once the project meetings are over, it's not common to hear that your groupmates have other commitments and "gotta go", leaving your dinner plans void once again if you haven't got many friends.

So these coupled with the fact that alot of people do not really bother unless they're told (the school is primarily made up of Singaporean Business students anyway) create the atmosphere and subsequently the culture that is seemingly prevalent right now.

Perhaps a bunch of competitive dragon year girls coming in also paints a bleaker picture.

While I have personally been unaffected by the stress because I refuse to be embroiled in it on more grounds than one which I will mention later, a vicious cycle of anxiety has been created by the individual himself/herself and I don't really see how this will break unless either the system makes a change or the majority is able to take a step back and realise that all this GPA-chasing isn't the real deal. I am unaffected because my very reasons for coming to SMU to study psychology stems from a different one from most of the other business or accounting people (I cannot discredit those who know they want to study business or accountancy because they like it, but the truth is most of them choose these disciplines because of superficial or material reasons or that they have no idea what they want to do). I study psychology here because I know I want to study it and the value I see in this is more than just a good grade. And the inherent difference is that I could very well flunk my grades but I wouldn't feel a thing because that's not what I'm interested in. I am happy enough to be able to study psychology in a school that puts more emphasis in presentations than examinations.

There was this guy who said he can't believe he spends 40hrs in the library every week (and disillusioned as he is, he still continues to do it!) simply because he has a personal agenda to meet and he just can't bear to let up in the 'effort' (that is an illusion in itself that undoubtedly has been created by everyone else like him) by trying to be different, and compromise on his own goals. Heck, I hardly even spend a minute in the library a week. Perhaps many others feel turdy because they simply chose the 'wrong' school.

Which brings me to my next point. Many people come to SMU with a set of expectations and when those expectations aren't met, then there is anxiety that contributes to the vicious cycle of unhappiness. Many people are told that university life is slack and that it's fun and you can still have a social life, so people establish expectations that include a generous amount of social life. But considering the aspect of social life expectation simply cannot be met because the student can't get himself or herself to let up on the academic rat race doesn't help at all and eventually people start to question what the school has promised. The video even has one person who goes on to declare that she feels cheated. Why? Because nobody expected SMU to be like NUS and NTU and most people join SMU because they didn't wanna be an NUS/NTU kinda student. And the biggest irony is perhaps that this has been brought on by each and every stressed out student who couldn't see that stress is only as much as you'd allow it to affect yourself.

To sum things up, for most of the unhappy people at SMU, the lack of social enrichment due to the school structure and system together with the stress from all angles make school a shitty place to be. The tagline that SMU is different then becomes blurred, and people start saying they might as well have went to NUS or NTU. 3 or 4 years in the old campus with the culture somewhat established, and a total change of environment and barely 3 years on, SMU is still a young university. Give it time; we're only just beginning to shape (or reshape if you will) our culture. The video couldn't have put it any better in the ending: do you dare to be different?

It's study break tomorrow onwards and I've got plans in bits and pieces. I'm crashing Khairul's hostel at NUS on tuesday. Liz has started the ball rolling on considering ZoukOut '07 (I've never been to one and this year will be the last? That's quite some imperative). There's a trip down to Klang on the 17th of December with the Social Science people so I've gotta update my passport.

LTB has FINALLY come to a close much to my relief. I've had my management communications individual oral presentation which was pretty alright though I thought could've been better, and a couple of other presentations and reports along the way. I think something just isn't clicking for me with sociology because I haven't been doing too well although I thought I'd do alright. Leonard's also done with his LTB championing the removal of discrimination against gays, something I'd wanted to talk about too and have been researching about myself for my psychology essay, but I'll have to leave that to another time.

Met Sab on friday and brought her down to SMU to catch a gig, and then we ended up going to Starbucks to talk all the way til 2am. Despite what every skeptical SMU student thinks, every outsider really believes SMU is different. Even the Indian taxi driver ("SMU is a weli goot school!" *thumbs up)

And yes Arsenal is the greatest joy to watch at the moment. Seriously contemplating a conversion of faith here haha.

Hard work has a future payoff. Laziness pays off now.

Today's Listenables:
Fall Out Boy - I'm Like A Lawyer With The Way I'm Always Trying To Get You Off Me And You