No doubt about it, the best years of my life were the years I spent abroad, first in the UK, and then in the States. I’ll talk about the UK segment here and reserve the American one for later.
The year was 1978. I was 17, I’d just passed my MCE (Malaysian Certificate Examination, a very important exam for 11th Graders) and was accepted by the West London Institute of Higher Education to do my A-levels in England. The fact that a cousin was studying there provided me with some solace, and I also had two other cousins living within the London area. So that passed off as great news for me—no more daily naggings from my parents, hello independence—yay!
January 1978 found me on board a Singapore Airlines flight en route to London. God, this was exciting! This would be my first time being so far away from home. My parents made sure I had warm clothing; they told me to be prepared for the cold winter weather but you know teenagers, they just shrug it off. Until we landed at Heathrow Airport—my, even the interior of the airport was cold. And when I stepped outside—whoosh! The British winter greeted me with strong winds and some snow. It was daytime but the skies were gloomy, very forlorn in comparison to the sunny Malaysian skies.
My cousin was at the airport to meet me. She had made some advanced accommodation arrangements for me near the college, but I couldn’t move in yet because the room was still occupied. So I stayed in Reading, Berkshire with a friend first. It was good, a time to acclimatize myself with the new environment and weather. A few days passed, and the landlady informed my cousin that the room was ready. It was actually a bedsit (i.e. a room with cooking facilities), the landlady (Mrs. Dunbar, I still remember her name) laid down some ground rules like no loud music after 9 PM, no overnight guests, etc. and then I settled in.
Boy, this was so different from the luxuries I had taken for granted at home! It wasn’t a very big room, but it was comfortable. There was a single bed with a work table beside it. I even had a rocking chair. There was a big cupboard to store my stuff, a lunch table and an electric cooker. I could store frozen food in my landlady’s freezer downstairs and my laundry would have to be done in a launderette. I could use her phone only for local calls (2 pence a call) and please remember, there was no such thing as the Internet, email, instant messaging, whatsoever in those days!
Man, there was like a 1001 things I had to do for myself! I had to open a bank account, I had to know where the post office was, I had to cook for myself, etc. And I had to rely on public transport—the bus, the tube (London Underground subway) and the train system (British Rail, at that time) Did I feel homesick yet? You bet. And every winter’s day would be the same—short daylight hours, with what seemed to be perpetual rain, snow or sleet with strong winds. I was freezing my arse out (of course I never admitted it)
My cousins were very helpful in this respect. One loaned me a small radio (so that at least it wasn’t so deathly quiet in my room), another took me out in his small car for my first meal at, of all places, McDonald’s! At this moment in time I didn’t even know about this burger joint (none existed in Malaysia yet) but I took to the food like a hungry savage! A Big Mac, an apple pie, and a thick strawberry milk shake was like Nirvana for this starving teenager. My own cooking started out abysmally—I actually survived on bread, biscuits, cookies—stuff that I bought at the local supermarkets. My weight must have plummeted. Necessity is the mother of invention, so I had no choice but to learn how to cook. As time went on, I improved, thanks to a rice cooker I procured at home—us Chinese folk probably couldn’t survive without rice. With my stomach now being given more edible food, my spirits returned.
Then it was off to school, and what a difference compared to home! There were students (mostly English) of my age, going around, attending their classes and hanging out; there was music everywhere because I had enrolled in a two-year Foundation Course for Music. At first, I was very shy. Aside from my cousin (who was a year ahead of me) I didn’t know anybody. Fortunately, my English was good. I still remember one day when I was having lunch all by myself in the cafeteria and this one girl, Sarah, came over and asked me very politely whether I wanted to join her group of friends. Gradually I started making new friends, and it snowballed from there.
This post is getting pretty long, so I’ll continue in the next one.