During induction week here at my illustrious university of choice in London, it was hammered home that SOAS isn't special — it's unique. I think they tell that to every new student, every year. I have no idea if SOAS really is unique. I've only ever attended two universities, and they both seemed pretty similar. I sometimes ask myself why I've come back to the UK, leaving behind nearly six years in a place I much prefer (Southeast Asia), but I live safe in the knowledge that as soon as I'm done with this cold, curious city, I will hotfoot it back to the East.
The thing about SOAS is that none of my friends without an Asian connection know what it is. I say “SOAS” and they say “So what?” They haven't even heard of the place. But I remember being in Bangladesh recently and chatting with journo and film maker Shahriar Kabir when I mentioned SOAS and he went into some depth about how great an institution it is and how he would be visiting some time towards the end of the year.
Incidents like that seemed to pop up wherever I went in Asia. People kept telling me what a good decision I had made and now that I'm here, I think I made the right move. I mean, I only applied to one university at which to do my master's, but I'm satisfied I applied to the right one. It wasn't even hard to get in. I just filled in an online form, got a couple of references, wrote a personal statement and then waited. It was much more painless than applying for my undergrad.
If you've been reading my recent blog posts, you've probably already become bored by my constant references to SOAS, but in case you are curious, I thought I'd break down what SOAS life is like for the benefit of other folks who might be thinking about coming here.
My course is Southeast Asian Studies, with a major in government and politics of modern Southeast Asia. I also do a module on societies and cultures of Southeast Asia and one on Bahasa Indonesia. This master's is perfect for me. The desire to have a fuller, more academic understanding of Southeast Asia is something that had been gnawing at me for some time. Sure, you can learn about these things by being there and living it, but I feel you can only get so far without hitting the books and delving deeper than you would normally .
The course is fascinating. It's also unbelievably challenging. The reading list is just ridiculously huge and after only one month I already have 15 books from the library thrown all about my room. It's hard work jumping back into education after six years out of it, especially at this level of intensity. If I were taking a course I didn't enjoy, this would be hell. But I love the subject matter and am therefore eager to learn.
As far as I'm aware, I have four essays to complete, along with a bunch of Indonesian tests, compositions and translations. Then come the exams some time next year. And after that I get to spend the whole Summer writing a dissertation. I have some frightening days ahead.
We only have a handful of teaching hours a week, which means the pressure is on to bury ourselves beneath books and papers. The title of “taught masters” is a little misleading, to me at least, because we don't technically get taught very much, but that doesn't mean we aren't learning a great deal.
I can't vouch for other course at SOAS, but I would assume that if you have an interest in Africa, Asia or the Middle East then SOAS would be a good place to study.
SOAS isn't especially big. There are only about 3,000 undergrad and postgrad students. My perception is that the majority of postgrad students are from outside of the UK. I've met people from pretty much every corner of the earth, except Wales. SOAS really embodies the multicultural spirit of London.
People come from all walks of life and all kinds of backgrounds. They seem generally on the ball and I don't feel particularly old or young, just in the middle, more or less, at 27 years old.
I don't think it's possible to say what kind of person makes up a typical SOAS student, but there are a few curious characters around, some of whom queue for ages just to get a plate of free vegetarian food at campus. I say free, but everyone is supposed to give a donation. It's like some kind of SOAS status symbol. I don't see the point. I'd always been under the impression that SOAS students came from reasonably wealthy backgrounds and could therefore afford to buy a sandwich and a Mars bar. Perhaps not.
I live in the SOAS postgrad halls named after Paul Robeson, who was, apparently, an interesting chap. I didn't have much choice in the matter because I arrived in London straight from Timor-Leste, which left me no time to look for a house or any such business. I don't particularly like living in halls again, but people are generally quiet and calm because everyone is doing a postgrad, I guess. Even so, it's just a bit odd walking past people every day and never really being sure who they are.
We also seem to have a lot of fire alarms going off. I feel a bit old for fire alarms. Other than that, the accommodation is small and basic, but I haven't run into any problems thus far. Being generally antisocial, I haven't made much of an effort to mingle.
Speaking of being antisocial, there have been a few instances when I've been in a room full of strangers and someone has said something along the lines of “All right now everyone get to know each other.” In terms of social situations I hate, these would rank near the top… unless I'm drunk, in which case, I'll try and find a way to talk incessantly about Timor-Leste, journalism, drum n bass or anime. I'm yet to find many people willing to listen to this.
I don't know what to say about the library really. It's large and it's full of books. I've tried reading in it multiple times, but I always end up falling asleep with my head on a desk. It's also difficult to work in there because they are doing some kind of renovations on the two mysterious basement floors that we can't access, thus denying us access to a bunch of periodicals and other things.
It's also a little disconcerting that there are only two printers for the entire student population, and that those two printers always have something wrong with them. SOAS just doesn't seem to have anything electronic in abundance or that works without breaking down. Our lecturers are always baffled when projectors or speakers fail them, even though it happens regularly and takes half the lesson to find someone who can fix the problem.
There is also a lack of chairs in most classrooms, which leads to more confusion and delays. This is kind of how SOAS operates and you just have to accept it. It's a great university, just a bit all over the place and bamboozled in some respects.
The best example of this I can give is the series of seminars we are meant to attend for our language modules that have nothing to do with what we're studying. Supposedly they had to allocate us extra teaching hours in order to fulfill some kind of quota, but they weren't sure how to do it.
The extra stuff
For such a small university, there are an unusual number of societies. I signed up for about 15 of them, including the Korean society, the Japanese society, the Thai society, the Marxist reading society, the International Solidarity Movement, Amnesty, the poker society and a bunch of others I have forgotten about. I haven't gone through and actually attended meetings with all of these, but I've been to a few. I also went to basketball practice once, but apparently I'm not very good at basketball any more, so that one is on hold for now.
SOAS also has a vast number of interesting events and seminars throughout the year, so I've been doing my best to keep up and attend those that are of interest. There is even one next month on Timor-Leste, although I'm not 100 percent sure what it's actually about.
There is a students' union with a shop where I sometimes buy sandwiches and Ribenas. People seem to congregate in the room next to the shop and just hang out or else sell cakes or do other things. There's a JCR bar that I haven't been to (I told you I'm antisocial), but apparently it's all the rage on weekends.
London is a great city, but the trouble is that you have to spend most of your time figuring out what you are going to do and how you are going to get there and back. It's not like Bangkok where I could go out at night, have drinks all over the city, hit up three different nightclubs, find an after party and then wake up the next morning somewhere relatively safe. Everything has to be planned, especially as I don't know London at all and regularly get lost.
I haven't done much sightseeing or general exploring yet. The nightlife is there, but I'm self-conscious about spending a lot of money at the moment. That being said, I did make it to the DMC finals recently and have been out a few times, including one night during which we went all over the city and then ended up at a casino until 8 am.
I'm keen to start hitting up a few drum n bass nights in the near future, including the ones they have at Fabric, which are just too large for words. But my raving exploits can wait until the Christmas and New Year break. For now, I'm happy to keep my head down and get some work done.
Financially, I'm doing all right. I am paying for all of this myself. I have neither a scholarship nor a rich family backing me, so my tuition fees, accommodation and living expenses are all coming out of my own pocket. It's a considerable sum of money, but I've been rather frugal over the past few years and have saved enough to not have to worry about worry about working for a while. To be here under this pressure and have money worries would just not be productive, for me anyway.
And that's about it really.