Revisiting the Yale-NUS Bubble
story | Terence Anthony Wang, Arts Editor
photo | Rachel Juay
Everyone who enrolls in Yale-NUS College quickly becomes acquainted with the infamous Yale-NUS Bubble. It’s like an uncomfortable signpost that latches onto us and follows us to our social hangouts, online conversations, or the UTown Starbucks. But so far, there has been a curious lack of discussion around what this ever-prevalent Yale-NUS Bubble is all about. Why do people—the public, NUS students, and even our own community—so often say that we “live in a bubble”?
While everyone has different conceptions of the Yale-NUS Bubble, I believe that at the very core of the issue, Yale-NUS and its community is very different from the people and nation that surrounds it. Too often, however, we forget about this crucial fact, and that’s when the problems begin.
The first hint of these differences arises the moment one becomes acquainted with other students during orientation, or even Experience Yale-NUS Weekend (EYW). As every new cohort quickly discovers, one of the most complicated questions you can ask any random student here is “where do you come from?” The answer usually follows the general structure of, “Oh, I’m ethnically Indian but I was born in Hong Kong, then my family moved to California for five years and after that I went to high school in Berlin…” Replace the underlined localities with any others of your choosing, and you’d still come pretty close to someone’s actual life story. It’s one of those fascinating bullet points that makes life in this College so interesting—where else do you really get such a medley of cultural experiences, even in a single person?—and likely a major reason for some of us in choosing Yale-NUS.
However, this rarity also belies another, more somber fact: that many of our students lead exclusive lifestyles, one that often puts them distant from those of “ordinary” folk, even in the very countries that they may be residing in. It is a life of impermanence, a residency never more concrete than “visitor,” causing them to be attached only to people, cultures and institutions as fleeting as themselves. It is a visceral mix of long-haul flights, blurry memories, address changes, and international schools.
The last point is a particularly, but not unsurprisingly, common trend among those here who have lived in more than one country. It’s worth bearing in mind that in most countries, international schools are usually the nexus of the wealthy and privileged, advertising themselves as a gated community, separating and elevating those inside from their local counterparts. And I mean this in every way possible, be it in the use of completely different education systems, the access to mountains of resources or the availability of a billion more opportunities than their local counterpart in his or her plain-Jane secondary school. How suspiciously familiar, then, to a certain college in Singapore.
And that’s not to say the rest of us are excluded from such privileges, either. Even a “regular,” non-jet-setting student in our College often has a history of academic excellence, going from one elite institution to the next. That’s more problematic than one might realize, because when the playing field is already so imbalanced in an already-elitist society, the selective admissions process of our College can’t help but select for those who have been put ahead of the curve from the very beginning. In other words, we are contributing right back to the vicious cycle of a self-serving meritocracy.
Ultimately, what we end up with is a very finely selected group with incredible backgrounds, histories, achievements and—most importantly—privileges. By itself, however, all this is fine. No, really, it is. No one can choose where they were born, determine how they were raised, or select the number of commas in their parents’ bank accounts. After all, were we to flip this around, we wouldn’t be blaming someone for having less-fortunate circumstances either, so I think it’s completely fair. Neither do I think we should be ragging on our College’s selectiveness too much; I’d argue that trying to choose great people is part of what makes any college so special in the first place. Also, let’s be honest: that same selectiveness is another reason Yale-NUS appeared on many of our college applications in the first place.
Where this becomes not-fine is when some of us demonstrate our lack of self-awareness about living in a bubble at all. As awe-inducing as the lives of many in our community are, living in close quarters with all these people for a good while simply normalizes it. And we forget. We forget that the norms in this College, the values we might espouse, and even the thoughts we may have, are a product of being surrounded by such a unique community and are therefore very often different from those coming from those outside.
As a result, time and time again this forgetfulness manifests itself: it happens when we speak of booting ambassadors off of governing boards for not supporting LGBT rights and issues, forgetting that we are residing in a country famously intolerant of protests or queers to begin with. It happens when we bring up Modern Social Thought (MST) topics in classes at NUS, with the full expectation that everyone should know what we’re on about, only to come off as snobbish or arrogant. It happens when we talk of raising our Bookstore clothing prices without giving a second thought to students who already find them expensive, because it’s difficult to imagine poverty in a largely middle-class-to-rich environment. This is the Yale-NUS Bubble; not only does it prevent us from empathizing with others, we sometimes even forget they exist, making us seem very much out-of-touch with the very society we reside in.
To a cap it all off, Yale-NUS excels at preserving this bubble. The privileges we get at this college are unparalleled, especially in the context of Singapore. A buffet for every meal? That’s jaw-dropping luxury. Overseas opportunities for pretty much every student? Not in any other university here. Gender-neutral housing on campus? Virtually unheard of. Screening a restricted documentary with the director in tow? Insanity! But of course, while we might be dazzled by it all in our first few weeks—maybe our first semester—soon the glamor wears off and we normalize it. The more cynical among us often remark that it’s not the dream school it advertizes itself to be. What we forget is that to many others outside our metal gates, at least within this country, it is still very much a dream. Too often we forget that outside these walls, others fight tooth and nail to get the opportunities we have, and the freedoms we take for granted. And once again, we forget about the Yale-NUS Bubble, happy in our blissful comfort.
But that brings us to a final question: is this Bubble really all that bad? I don’t think so. There’s a little shining jewel under the murkiness of all the negative bits. We call what we have “privileges” because they’re good things, after all. I’m glad there’s a place in Singapore where I can talk about Chinese privilege without (too much) repercussion. I’m glad I got to fly to Morocco and attend COP–22 late last year, thanks to amazing faculty and staff. I’m glad to be part of a resurgence of the liberal arts, which are threatened in many other countries. What I—and you Kingfishers out there—have is rare, and I’m grateful for it.
We all just need to try really, really hard to remember that.
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