FOR those of us from developing countries, being able to study abroad, especially in developed countries, is always a privilege. All my siblings were accorded the privilege to do so during our university years, my eldest brother having studied in the United Kingdom, while my late second brother and myself went to the United States. Despite what I think were quite presentable high school academic results, we were not accorded the good fortune of being given state scholarships for reasons perhaps unique to my home country (and which I may discuss in future), and had to depend on what I would euphemistically call “parental scholarships,” at least for the initial periods of our advanced studies overseas.
We grew up in a typical middle-class family in Sabah, where our parents had to work very hard to be able to send us to study overseas. From my early youth, I remember my mom lamenting to me that she and my dad had to sell off a suburban house to put together the cash for my eldest brother to study accountancy in the UK, and that the sold-off house has since appreciated significantly in value. My second brother soon followed suit, to go first to Canada and then the US to study urban and regional planning. This sort of “double-whammy” of having to support two children for overseas studies understandably imposed a huge financial burden on my parents.
Fortunately, I am a late child and there is an age gap of about one-and-a- half decades between my two older siblings and myself. So, by the time it was my turn to go overseas for studies, my parents had somewhat “recovered” from the heavy financial burden of supporting my two elder brothers’ overseas studies. And my brothers, who had by then developed their respective professional careers in Malaysia and California, also chipped in to support my studies in different forms. I had visited California when I was younger and had almost immediately fallen in love with its warm inclusivity and advanced technological developments. I had decided that I wanted to do my university studies there. I did quite well academically during my high school years in Sabah, but mostly I was prepping myself for my then future US studies. When I was accepted to study in the US, I was overjoyed. So, there was a “division of labor” of sort between my two brothers in terms of supporting my studies in the US. My eldest brother was primarily “responsible” for my school fees, and my second brother who had by then settled down in California, mainly provided “logistical” support, including accommodation and transport. It helped of course that by the second year of my college studies, I was able to secure scholarships, big and small, from my school which helped defray a large part of my school fees.
Recently, while meeting with some scholars from China who had gone to study in the US at about the same time I did, the topic of conversation somehow turned to reminiscing about our student years in the US. Although we did not study together, we had remarkably similar experiences. First, having known full well that it was indeed a privileges for us to be able to go overseas to study, we studied very hard indeed. Being all science majors (in my case, for my first few degrees), we had all spent countless nights essentially sleeping fitfully in our respective labs, watching over our delicate experiments such that results could be collected almost immediately as they come out. This is of course not to mention the various all-nighters we pulled over the years in preparation for exams. In my particular case, I studied a few majors simultaneously, retaining perhaps the unenviable record of having clocked in the most credit hours in a semester in my university.
And to make up for the inadequacy of funds for our school fees or living expenses, most of us also had to take on extracurricular jobs to earn extra money. Many of these friends worked in Chinese restaurants in various capacities, from cooks to waiters, and some others even worked in factories. Though working conditions in a developed country like the US are of course much better than in developing countries, they are nevertheless still very demanding in terms of output. I must confess that I was rather fortunate in that I was able to secure various on-campus jobs. I worked as a teaching assistant, research assistant, reader (grading student homework and exams), postgraduate researcher and so on, earning quite decent wages in an academic setting. Nevertheless, it was still challenging having to balance my studies and those admittedly academic jobs, at least time-wise.
My main point is that while studying overseas is always a privileged experience, and can be of tremendous help later on in one’s career development, especially in developing countries, it was never an easy one. We learned to discipline ourselves and to become cross-cultural messengers to bring our societies closer.