“The Master invites you into the hall for dinner”, bellowed the Dean, to the sound of a gong.
Decked in the navy Cambridge gown, fresh from the chapel ceremony, and then waiting within the centuries-old walls of St Edmund’s College was surreal.
I remember my undergraduate matriculation in Singapore— a frenzied non-event outside a lecture theatre where we sweatily signed for, received our university cards, and dispersed.
And this? This was. . Harry Potter come to life. At least, in my head, having never watched Harry Potter.
We shuffled into the dining hall. Dimly-lit that evening, glows cast on the oil portraits, it looked particularly hallowed.
I sat with college mates of Israeli, Bangladeshi and German descent, all excited to begin our Cambridge journey.
And that scene encapsulates St Edmund’s— historically classic, intellectually wealthy and mindblowingly international.
Dreams come true
When I was 2, I told my family I wanted to go to Harvard. A few years later, I learned of Cambridge.
Some things move you personally, that you don’t tell anyone. And so she became my secret dream.
In my head, I was headed to the States eventually.
Somehow everything changed as I researched options in 2008.
The memory of clicking on Cambridge’s site on my MacBook is visceral.
“Did I dare to?”, I wondered, a doubt stoked by imposter syndrome. So I emailed my wisest and favourite professor and casually mentioned postgrad in the UK.
When he— who also was a Cambridgian— told me “Cambridge has a great program” and “I’ll write your references”, I knew in my bones I’d be in Cambridge ten months later.
It was surreal, my table mates and I at Matriculation mused, to be part of the intellectual lineage of Issac Newton, Stephen Hawking and Charles Darwin. For me, it was also the footsteps of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, whose foresight I respect.
The funny thing about growing up is that you never know how much you needed to grow up until you have actually done it. And that applies to many points in life, no matter how many rounds of growing up you’ve undergone.
St Edmund’s was my first home away from home.
Being well-traveled, knowing how to cook, and making your own money are one thing; living abroad is another.
Suddenly, you learn how to factor in money for laundry powder and rice. Cooking isn’t just about entertaining guests or random amusements anymore, it’s an everyday reality.
And it was in the large kitchens of the Brian Heap Building that I broke bread with fellow college and university mates, cementing new friendships. Whilst using my St Ed’s canteen fund to buy Divine brand dark chocolate, 30 bars at a time, to feed everyone with.
I remember an amused college mate, stumped by the parcels I was dragging back from the main office.
“It must be your birthday?!”, he said with a Eureka-type flourish.
“No! I got a new coat rack to organise my coats. That’s probably a leather jacket. And that’s probably boots. The rest, I have no idea”.
I won’t lie, coming from tropical Singapore, the idea of actually wearing knee-high boots, leather jackets and cashmere coats for longer than a two-week vacation was exhilarating.
It was the start of collecting vintage Parisian faux fur coats and Annick Goutal perfumes; I’ll never forget walking into Giulio’s and buying my first pair of Pradas. Then there were friends popping in to get styled for events because they quipped I have “clothes for every occasion”.
Cambridge was where I learned a different pace of life as an impatient Type A+++ City Bumpkin— “Cows everywhere!!”— and discover another part of myself.
It was where I walked everywhere because you don’t perspire, past picturesque fields and old colleges, nature painting a different picture with the seasons. There were the strolls to Grantchester meadow, and the simple joys of sipping tea everyday. And whilst I’d convert currencies mentally with a heartbreak, cussing the price of toilet paper and eggs, the Marks & Spencers was my heaven. Every week, I’d pop boxes of Triple Chocolate Crunch cereal and Madagascan vanilla double cream into my basket, getting more friends hooked on them.
And of course, to be in the natural habitat of afternoon tea— something my mother had accidentally trained me in as a little girl— was bliss.
The beauty of studying in a university that’s woven into a town is how you can pop into a café and write, attend as many lectures on disparate subjects, shop for a dress, buy old books scented with history, have a great time with friends, and feed your love for art in the many museums.
It’s maudlin to expect any place to be perfect, there were trying periods; I’ll admit nostalgia and hindsight add a tint of romanticism.
It was the start of my decade in England. Where earlier seeds that had been planted where forced to grow.
At a fundamental level, it was blossoming from a socially-awkward girl to a global citizen who happily talks to everyone, and who is comfortable in her own skin.
It was discovering my resilience and never-say-die nature.
And whilst becoming more exposed to big ideas and bigger relationships, simultaneously cultivating an appreciation for my Singaporean-Chinese roots.
Fast forward 2020
“St Edmunds, it’s the only Catholic college, God works in mysterious ways”, my mother mused, because she was worried I wouldn’t go to church in the UK.
10 years later, indeed, life works in mysterious ways.
I moved back to Singapore 9 months ago, irreversibly transformed by my British chapter, living a life better than I’d ever imagined.
My friend Kris and I caught up over afternoon tea not long ago. We’d met coming off the same British Airways flight; she was in the college behind mine. We laughed about the blistered hands and sore derrières we suffered through the long National Express ride and then lugging our luggage. And we mused about how excited we were.
Looking back, we could have just shared a taxi and saved ourselves that physical pain.
But it’s moments like that that also seed lasting friendships, memories and habits.
Beyond my Cambridge-ingrained habit for lapsang souchong, I still walk everywhere, even if I don’t have the luxury of not perspiring anymore.
Glancing at the physical reminders of that chapter in my apartment, I’m grateful.
I’m a psychologist who coaches Type A leaders to be in-control of their mind, energy and relationships, whilst redesigning their environment for quick yet lasting changes. One of my specialisations is turning around the fallout from involvement with Dark Personality Types, such as psychopaths and narcissists.
Again, my Cambridge life pulsates through it— that time reading my MPhil in Criminological Research, with the intellectual round tables and topics that sharpened my thinking and reflexivity. I remember the depth and breadth, from prisoners’ rights to regicide (assassinating royals) to deviance.
I’ve lectured at London Business School and London College of Fashion. I also write and consult for publications like MindBodyGreen, Forbes and Vogue, and my work’s in 37 languages.
I reckon, life was telling me even from that evening at matriculation, how globalised my reality would become.