Immigrating into first year: a field guide for international students

Moving away for uni is a common experience. You look for an apartment, maybe bunk in with a friend, start cooking and cleaning for yourself and learn much too late that not turning on the vents above your stove WILL set off the fire alarm in small apartments. New school, new city, no more parental supervision, fresh start.

Starting uni as an international student is kind of like getting the Apple Student Experience Plus version – it’s a bigger deal, some friends are impressed by it, others think it’s a waste of money and it stretches your pockets more than they can really comfortably take.

As an international student who’s been here for over two years, I’ve compiled a list of things that pretty much sum up my experience here in Melbourne.

1. Your parents aren’t physically here, meaning you have the freedom to screw up however you want

If your parents are anything like mine (I wouldn’t say controlling, but Stockholm could learn a thing or two from my mum…), you’ll know that there’s a certain level of conditioning in you to obey them. Thing is, you’ll be separated by thousands of kilometres. I expect all of us to have a little “Smeagol is FREE!” moment once we realize this. If you can’t imagine, here’s some things to help you realise:

  • ‘Balanced nutrition’ is a very subjective idea. I mean, if you’re alive and semi-functional, who cares if you’re living off caffeine, alcohol, microwave meals and hopelessness?
  • No curfews. Our parents will still try as hard as they can to satisfy their need to know our location and ensure our physical safety at every waking moment – this is a sign of love. However, love is blind, and you can smokescreen your whereabouts with a few pre-prepared photos of yourself in the library and a quiet room to talk.
  • If you screw up an assessment, you don’t have to tell your parents till the end of semester. By then, they’ll be so happy you’re back in their arms that it’ll soften the blow. Hopefully.

2. Food from home is a LIE

I’m Singaporean, and like our cousins in Malaysia, food is a big part of life for us. We live to eat, not the other way round. So it’s particularly devastating for us here when we sit down to a bowl of noodles advertised as ‘Singaporean/Asian Cuisine’ and take a bite of What-The-Flying-F**k-Was-That?!

This is true for most places advertising food from a particular region. Maybe because of Australia’s biosecurity laws, or just because most white people haven’t tasted what real food is supposed to taste like, things rarely taste as they should. There are a few legit places, but they’re rare and often quite a ways away.

Look out for these places. Note them down. Don’t go to them too often otherwise they’ll lose their effect (besides, eating out in expensive). It’s a great way to quell that crushing sense of homesickness when it reels its ugly head, like when it’s SWOTVAC and you wonder where your mum is and why she’s not making you dinner. The food still won’t be quite the same, but it’ll do for now…

My personal favourite haunts include: Ikkoryu Fukuoka Ramen on Russel Street or Sarawak Kitchen on Elizabeth Street. Highly recommend, totally not a plug (although bribes would be nice).

Alternatively, you can cook dishes from home for yourself (depending how good a cook you are). I often call my mum to ask about recipes and cooking techniques. Sometimes, I’ll bring back key ingredients, like soy sauce from home (it tastes different, I swear). Hey, I need all the help I can get.

3. You’ll hear your local friends complain…a lot

“Oh, I’m so broke”, is a favourite of mine. I just wanna say, “Man, you get government handouts every two weeks”. You’ll be paying four times what they do for the privilege of attending boring lectures and the honour of sleepless nights before assignments while they’re working a few extra hours a week for booze money.

Heck, they’re not even gonna pay back their school fees until they can earn enough to do so. No wonder we get the stereotype of the ‘smart immigrant’. If I’m paying thousands for this degree, I’m absolutely gonna make it worth my time.

4. Learning to ‘adult’


The practice of acting in a manner that allows oneself to ensure one’s own survival after separation from parental units. Traditionally includes skills like budgeting, cooking, household chores, and not being a dick.



As international students, most of us can’t rely on our parents too much, at least not to be here physically. It makes us appreciate what they’ve done for us till now. It doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t know how to live on our own, but that we can’t rely on someone to do those shit chores for us when we can’t or don’t have the time to. Things like managing your time around laundry, finding an apartment to rent, buying groceries for the week, or paying bills.

I reckon we’ve got to grow up a lot faster. Not to say that local kids don’t have to go through these things as well, but they typically don’t have as many expectations or hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in them.

Heck, I’m doing Fine Arts, the go-to butt of all employment jokes (yet somehow still better than a normal B-Arts degree. Suck it Arts students). Still, my mum trusted me not to waste that money, to take care of myself, and not goof around for three years. This means taking care of myself.

Which is an awesome segue into:

5. Call home

At the end of the day, you’re alone here. Friends can fill some of the void, but there’s nothing like your real fam. Be like me and make a call back at least once a week. It doesn’t need to be for long – just long enough to hear mum’s voice and keep up to date with what’s the haps at home.  Chances are, mum and dad are getting along in years, so we should cherish them a bit before they kick the bucket…

They sent us here (or let us go) because they trust us not to be (too) stupid. Always end your call with an “I lub you too…”

Then go for the pre-drink party with your friends and get trashed. I mean, c’mon, just because you’re becoming an adult doesn’t mean you have to be one TODAY.


About the author

nick author pic.png

Nick Lam is a final year student at the VCA. When not constantly reading or writing, he wonders why he’s not either reading or writing. Nick enjoys long walks on the beach and other b*llshit people do to fill the void in their lives. He made us use this horrifying picture as his author photo.


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