Singaporean exchange student in Denmark: ”I learned to question the norm”

Katherine Seow Wan Xuan, 23, attended NTU in Singapore for her B.A. in Biological Sciences.

In Singapore, a lot of students take a semester abroad to improve their resume and become more employable graduates. Katherine Seow Wan Xuan is no exception. She chose to go to Denmark for six months during her bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences, wanting to add some engineering classes to the palette. In Denmark, she learned a lot from the new culture and study environment she met. However, she also learned a lot about her own culture while being there.

Katherine Seow Wan Xuan, 23, arrived in Denmark for her exchange in 2015. In January.

“It was cold. There was snow, but it was beautiful. In Singapore, we don’t even have seasons, so it was refreshing. It was breathtaking,” she says. She had heard from friends that people were friendly in Denmark and that the culture was casual and open, and that is also what she met.

“It’s a very nice culture, very inclusive and very open. You can question the norm.” Katherine says. Comparing, she explains how in a lecture hall in Singapore, even when the lector asks a question, no one will raise their hand – except for the international students in first row.

“Singaporeans, we are not encouraged to question. It’s not normal for us. But in Denmark, I actually learned to question. I learned to be more curious, to be hungry for more information. So, in that way I feel it is more open, and I think that is the best way to learn.”

Miss Seow enjoyed the interactive learning format she encountered at DTU in Lyngby, where collaborate project work gave her new perspectives on education. Meeting up with other students to do group work was very given, she thinks, because people can discuss the matters with each other, and so you are not just learning on your own. Also, you meet more people this way, she explains.


More alcohol – less stress

Something that was a bit of a cultural shock for Katherine was the amounts of alcohol, Danish people drink – and where they go to get it.

“The most surprising thing about studying in Denmark is that every building – every faculty has a bar. No way can you find a bar at school in Singapore. And if you could, no one would dare to go in.”

The alcohol prices were also very different than what she was used to back home. However, Katherine sees no problem with the alcohol culture she met in Denmark in terms of the study environment, because since the bars are located at the school, people can go straight after class and then be in bed by 9 pm, ready for class the next morning. Another thing she noticed about the culture is how people take good care of each other in situations where alcohol is involved. However, in terms of health, the vivid alcohol culture is not without problems. Nevertheless, that does not diminish the Danish study environment to be unhealthier than the Singaporean, she explains:

“Yes, Singapore is healthier in the sense of the amount of alcohol we intake, but as in terms of stress, it’s another story.” Denmark is more chillaxed, she describes, a composition of ‘chill’ and ‘relax,’ which she does not find similar in the Singaporean study environment.

“In Denmark, you take it as it is. You do not rush,” she says, “that is something I think about now: how fast Singaporeans walk. We rush. You guys take your time, and you take time to chitchat. You also have more open spaces for chitchatting.”

That is a difference that Katherine also applies to the two educational systems. Where the Danish system is more project based compared to the Singaporean, which is more lecture based.

“In Singapore, you only get evaluated after the semester, when you have exams, so you chill through the first three months and then rush through the last two months. But in Denmark, because it is more project based, it forces you to improve very quickly. That is probably why you guys are more relaxed, cause you take things as they come.”


How to make friends with Danes

At DTU, Katherine met a lot of other international students, whom she quickly became friends with because as she says everyone arrived as strangers. Had she attended a local university, she is sure it had not been as easy to make friends so fast, because locals would click with each other. However, that did not keep her from making friends with the Danish students, on the contrary:

“When you make friends with other international students you are also able to click better with the Danish people. You guys are also quiet and keep to yourself, but a lot of you dig down your fun – I know some part of you is fun, and so you just need to dig it out of you.”

When asked how to do that, she replied rapidly:

“Get you guys drunk! That’s how you unlock an Asian person too. Booze is the way. Booze and project work!”


Get out of your comfort zone

Miss Seow would recommend Singaporean students to go on exchange and try studying somewhere else – and preferably out of the region because you can always go to Asia she argues.

“When you go for education – go to a place where the culture is different. Give yourself a challenge. Aim higher! There is definitely going to be a culture shock, but you are going to learn a lot more. You are getting yourself out and away of you comfort zone.”

Being at a distance from her own culture, Katherine Seow Wan Xuan suddenly understood some things about it, which she had never thought of before.

“We are afraid to show our vulnerable side,” she says. “Showing emotions is comprehended as weak. I didn’t realize this about my culture until I went to Europe.” Katherine thinks that is something that should change about the Singaporean mindset as she does not view it as healthy.  Again, the ability to ask questions comes to mind:

“For example, we do not question authorities because we don’t want to show that we don’t know.” Now, two years after Katherine has returned from her six months exchange program in Denmark, she has been trying to incorporate these new methods into the Singaporean way of doing things. However, not entirely:

“I think a mixture of both cultures is the best way to do it. The key here is to ask with confidence. It is all about how you portray yourself because if you ask like you know that you should know, then people will not take you seriously. But I guess now I am not afraid to be criticized anymore.”

Katherine was also one of the Singaporean students present at the Danish booth for the Study in Europe Fair 2017, where she enlighted other students about her experience in Denmark.

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