I reflect on my first year in Melbourne: experiencing culture shock, adapting to Australian life, my homestay experience, and the foundation programme I did.
Hey! How’re you going. This is Alena and welcome to the Along Came English podcast.
For this episode, I thought I would talk about what my first year in Melbourne was like. I’m going to focus on my experience moving here as an international student. I’ll talk about having to adapt to Australian life. What homestay was like for me. I’ll explain what words like “hostel,” “dormitory,” and “college” means in Australia, which are different in American English. And my experience in the foundation programme I was enrolled in.
Now this was a long time ago, so some details are a bit hazy.
Okay. I might have mentioned before… maybe. I moved here in February 2002. This was nineteen years ago.
I came here as an international student. I did something called a “foundation year,” which is a pre-university programme, or a Year 12 equivalent, to prepare you for entry into the first year of university.
I graduated thankfully, and got into Monash University here in Melbourne.
So this was something that was planned and expected for a number of years. My siblings also came to Australia as international students. If I’m not mistaken, they actually did high school here instead of a foundation year programme.
They didn’t study in Melbourne though, they went to Adelaide instead, which is a city in South Australia. Somehow I ended up in Melbourne.
Now because of the age gap between me and my siblings, they had left for Australia when I was like 9, I think. So it was kind of expected that I would eventually come to Australia to study as well.
By the time I moved to Melbourne, about seven years later, they had all left Australia and moved back to South East Asia.
I was 16 years old when I moved here. I was turning 17. So because of my age, my mom decided to put me in a homestay. I was there for two or three years? I don’t remember how long I was there for, but I know I moved out after I turned 18.
18 is when you’re legally an adult in Australia. In Victoria, this is the age when you buy alcohol, buy cigarettes, gamble if you want to, buy a house if you can, marry, and legally drive.
In my school or in the college that I went to, I was one of the youngest ones. Many of my classmates were already 18 and lived in student accommodation, which is a hostel or dormitory associated with the college we went to.
For those who were younger than 18, they had to get parental consent to stay in student accommodation. And well, my mom opted to put me in a homestay instead.
So a “homestay” is a private home that accepts overseas students to live as part of the family. Basically it’s a host family. It’s kind of supposed to be a cultural exchange between the international student and host family. That would be ideal, but I can’t say that that’s the case for everyone who has stayed in a homestay. Yea.
Culture shock & adapting to life in Australia
So I’d say the first few months was a bit rough. My mom did accompany me when I came here, but of course she eventually left. I was a bit like a… like a fish out of water. “Fish out of water” is an idiom to say that someone is uncomfortable in a specific situation.
So even though I had previously travelled to Australia and my siblings had lived in Australia for a number of years, there was some culture shock because of actually having to live here.
“Culture shock” is a term to refer to the feeling of disorientation or confusion experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.
I had to get used to the weather. There’re four seasons here, but it was hot everyday in Brunei. Although it was summertime when I arrived, it can get quite cold in the morning and then get really hot during the day. So I wasn’t used to that. I hadn’t quite learned to check the weather forecast… the daily weather forecast, and deal with the four seasons in one day, that’s typical of Melbourne weather.
I had to learn how to use public transportation here. I had used public transportation when I lived in Singapore, but in Brunei, we got around with cars. Here, I spent two hours everyday commuting to and from school, which is not something I had ever done before. I mean, this is not something I would want to do now anyway.
I had to learn how to budget. I went from getting a small weekly allowance to spend on my social activities in Brunei to getting my monthly allowance in Melbourne to manage my homestay rent, phone bills, transportation fees, etc.
This was probably one of the biggest adjustments for me because it meant I was kind of thrusted into being responsible for my livelihood, or aspects of it anyway, that I’d never done before. Managing finances was a struggle throughout my studies until I finally got a job and got extra income.
There’s an informal term called, “adulting,” which refers to actions and behaviours that are considered typical of adults. Quite often people will use the term when they want to bemoan the challenges of adult responsibilities.
So yea. So I was thrusted into this adulting stage of life that I was very unprepared and ill-equipped for.
I had to make new friends. At that time, I didn’t realise how much this would impact me, but I left all my friends to a place where I didn’t have any.
And I had to get used to living with other people who had very different lifestyles, very different ways of communicating, and different expectations of living together.
The funny thing is, everyone that lived in that household came from Brunei including my homestay mother who had migrated to Melbourne many years before. However I didn’t really get along with the people I lived with, including my homestay mother.
Yea, it’s a bit weird. You’d think that there’d be some kind of bond because of our shared background or something, but not really.
I was also slightly homesick. I remember writing an essay talking about missing Brunei. It’s possible this was exacerbated by all the things I was going through or that the things I was going through compounded my feelings of homesickness.
Here, I’m using the verb, “compound.” This can be used as a noun, adjective and verb. This is one of those words where different syllables are stressed depending on whether you use it as a noun or verb. With the noun and adjective, the first syllable is stressed, “compound.” With the verb, the second syllable is stressed instead, “compound.”
Okay. So “compound” means to make something worse or intensity the negative aspects of. “Compounded my feelings of homesickness.”
Anyway, this was… this was a very long time ago.
My homestay experience
As I mentioned earlier, homestay is a private home that hosts overseas students or visitors.
It’s actually very common here in Australia. When my siblings first came over, they were also in homestay arrangements before they were legally old enough to move out on their own. Unfortunately they also didn’t have very good experiences.
Of course, not everyone who lived in homestays had bad experiences. But, I think in general, living with strangers or learning to live with strangers can be challenging for a variety of reasons. There can be personality clashes, different cleaning and hygiene standards, cultural differences, or even culture shock, miscommunication, different expectations, different personal boundaries etc.
Despite all that, I have met people who had positive experiences. I met someone who said they had a homestay mother who really cared for them like her own children because her own kids had moved out of the house. Apparently he’d gained a lot of weight because she loved to cook for them.
Yea it’s not all bad.
So back to my homestay experience. Now this was also the only homestay experience I had. Overall, I’d say it was a fairly negative experience, but it wasn’t so negative that I had to move out. Unfortunately I’ve also heard of those stories. So when I moved out, I pretty much just never looked back.
However, I am also aware that I was very young and I was in a new and unfamiliar environment.
My homestay mother was single, I think, and looked after 3 students, including me. If I’m not mistaken, her son moved out just before I arrived.
The reason my mom put me there was because they knew each other in Brunei. I think in her mind, it was like putting me with relatives…? Maybe? There are services that can connect you with host families if you’ve interested in staying at a homestay. But in my case, my mom and my homestay mother knew each other.
One housemate had already been there for a year or two and was studying at Monash University. He actually had a really good relationship with my homestay mother. So I’d say he had a great experience there compared to mine.
The other housemate arrived a few months before me and we actually went to the same college in preparation for the same university. But we had different classes so we kind of had different lives, I guess.
It was fairly sizeable house. She actually had an extension added to the back, so there were 5 rooms, 3 bathrooms, 2 living rooms, and a kitchen and dining area. She also had a pretty nice garden that she maintained.
So she gave me the master bedroom with the ensuite, so I had a fairly big room compared to the other 2 housemates. The main issue I had with it is that the room faced the highway, so it’d be completely silent during the night, and then you hear the occasional rumbling of a truck or car or something.
And we actually had a telephone line installed in my room so that I could get internet. And this was the case for my other 2 housemates. It’s funny looking back at what we had to do to connect to the internet. I don’t remember if this was dial-up or not – it probably was.
So cleaning my room and toilet was my responsibility. Otherwise, she maintained the rest of the house. She did the groceries. All meals were provided for. She did the laundry. Yea, I think that’s about it.
I’m not sure what kind of arrangements my siblings had with their homestay families, so I can’t say that this is expected of every homestay.
For the most part, it was a pretty comfortable life. However, as I mentioned earlier, there were issues, most of which I’m not going to get into.
It was pretty clear my homestay mother and I just didn’t get along. Looking back, I think she had projected her expectations of some kind of studious, pure, obedient, conservative young girl onto me. And clearly I fell short of her expectations.
Yea, it was complicated.
But yea, homestay experiences can be good or bad, unfortunately mine wasn’t that great.
Alright. Moving on.
Hostel / dormitory
Let’s go back to the other types of student accommodation like hostel or dormitory.
So by definition, “hostel” is a form of low-cost, short-term sociable lodging where guests can rent a bed, with a shared lounge, bathroom and kitchen.
The word “hostel” is often used to refer to cheap accommodation for backpackers and travellers. They do provide private rooms, but you can also rent a bunkbed in a large room with other strangers.
So here in Melbourne, we use the word, “hostel,” to refer to these cheap accommodation for budget travellers, but we also use it to refer to student accommodation.
“Dormitory,” or “dorm” for short, is a building on the campus of a university or a college where the students live.
Now the word, “dormitory,” is considered American English. And even though it’s a common word, it’s not a word that’s used here in Melbourne to refer to student accommodation. So if you ask a local if there’s a dormitory at Monash University, they will know what you mean, but it’s not term we use here.
So terms like “student hostel,” “student accommodation,” “student housing” tend to be used to describe accommodation for students, even if they are on campus or not.
Now the weird thing is that one would assume that student accommodation would be cheap – but I don’t think it is. There are options to share a room with another student, but quite often it is a private room, and sometimes even a studio apartment with a kitchen and private bathroom.
Now I’ve never had the experience of living in a student hostel, but I have visited friends who did. There is a fun social aspect of it of course, but for the most part, it sounded like a soap-opera as well. From what I remember, there was a fair amount of back-stabbing, cheating, miscommunication, arguments, catfights, as you would expect from hundreds of hormonal teenagers living together in a building.
So maybe the crap I dealt with at my homestay was more manageable than what I might have to endure if I’d moved to the hostel.
One of the benefits of staying at a student accommodation is that they’re usually close to the university or college, and therefore save on travel time and cost.
In my case, the homestay I lived in was an hour away from the city. I know it’s fairly common for people to travel a fair distance for work and study, but looking back, I wish my parents actually thought this through.
“To think something through” is a phrasal verb that means to consider the possible result of doing something. So here I used it in the past tense, “I wish my parents thought this through.”
I say this because even though the cost of living in the suburbs was cheaper, it wasn’t that much cheaper after adding the cost of transportation.
It also affected my ability to socialise. I mean I made friends in class, but I couldn’t participle in many social events or hang out with friends as conveniently or as easily as I’d like to. And even when I did, it wasn’t convenient at all. Buses didn’t come by very often. I think, if I remember correctly, I think, there was one bus every hour and the last bus was at like 7pm in the evenings.
I mean I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t call myself a social butterfly or an extrovert, but I’ve come to appreciate that socialising with friends on a regular basis is an important aspect of my life and well-being.
My experience in foundation year
As I mentioned earlier, a “foundation year” is a one-year pre-university programme to help you get into university. In my case, the programme I was in was associated with Monash University.
Now you don’t need to do this programme to get into Monash, but apparently, from what I was told anyway, they give preferences to those who did the programme.
It’s also a programme that’s only available to international students. So although there were other programmes, apart fro m foundation, available at this college I went to, all my classmates were from overseas.
I should explain what “college” actually means in Australia.
I know in American English, the word “college” is the equivalent of what we call a “university” here in Australia and many other countries. “University” is a high-level education institution where you can study for degrees and where academic research is done.
The word, “college,” in Australia, is not a university, but refers to any private or independent primary and secondary school that is different from a state or government school. However, “college” is most often used to refer specifically to secondary schools, rather than primary.
So I was enrolled in a foundation programme at a college in the city, that was a pathway to Monash University.
Considering that this was almost 20 years ago now, I don’t remember much about the people I met in school. I’d lost contact with pretty much everyone. I remember their faces, but I’ve forgotten most of their names.
So I remember many of my classmates were from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Some were from China. And then the rest were from different parts of the world like, Russia, the UAE, South Africa, Japan. There were others but I can’t remember where they came from.
Looking back, we actually had a lot of students from Hong Kong. I actually knew someone who was able to improve her Cantonese speaking skills because of it.
And I remember what my teachers looked like and my impressions of them, but I don’t remember their names.
Now as part of the programme, we were required to choose five subjects. However, we only needed to pass four in order to graduate. So if you felt you were struggling with one and it was too late to change subjects, you could opt to drop out of the class and focus on the other four.
And this was something I ended up doing. So I started with Music, ESL, Biology, Chemistry and Physics. At the time, I wanted to study science. Unfortunately I really struggled with Chemistry and Physics, and I eventually dropped Physics.
Now I know I’m a native speaker but because the foundation year was only for international students, ESL was what they offered.
Now if I’m not mistaken, I think ESL was also a core subject. A “core subject” is a compulsory subject that is required for the completion for a course. So this is different to an “elective subject,” which is optional.
ESL was quite interesting. From what I remember, the curriculum focused largely on Aboriginal history and culture. We studied a book written by an Aboriginal author, and watched movies based on relevant themes.
Now being a native speaker didn’t make me the best student nor the top of the class. There were other native speakers in the programme and there were also different criteria and factors that contributed to the final mark.
Music was actually quite fun. I used to play the piano and I went up to Grade 8, which is the level required to study music in university, I think. I had considered studying music in university, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the level of commitment and motivation required, so I didn’t go down that pathway.
Now doing Music in this programme actually required extra money because you had to pay for music lessons. And because I played the piano, I had to buy one. So more expenses.
Unfortunately, it also had the reputation of being a subject where you can get an easy pass. If I remember correctly, I think about half of the class had no musical background and elected singing as their choice of instrument. When in reality, one or two were actually classically trained singers. Most of these people had actually failed the foundation programme and had to do the whole thing again. So they chose Music to help their grade.
We also held a concert but I don’t remember what we did or what songs we sang. This was way before recording videos on your phone was a thing. I remember it was recorded, so there might be a tape somewhere of the concert. Who knows?
Anyway, I’ll finish this episode here. Subscribe and like if you found this interesting.
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