San Diego Baby: 5 Highlights of My Student Exchange Days

As of 2020, it’s been a decade since I got my first taste of living abroad – a semester on the West Coast as an exchange student. I question the relevance of writing a guide this late, so here are the things that stood out during that stint.

Takeaways from my San Diego stint

San Diego
The California Tower in Balboa Park

The weather

Winters in San Diego may be mild compared to the rest of the States, but 6 degrees centigrade is still too damn low for tropical peoples. All the exchange students had to attend orientation at the university and at lunch, those from the tropics huddled in the sunshine to keep warm while the kids from sub-zero Europe remained in the shade. It became easier to narrow down where everyone was from that way.

Not having to deal with temperature fluctuations associated with air-conditioning whenever I went outdoors was nice though. I acclimatised quickly and got used to wearing no more than two layers, which became one as spring wore on and temperatures started nudging 20 degrees. As a consequence, summer became suffering, but having said that, there was never a bad day to explore the beaches or national parks near San Diego.

One thing that remained constant, though, was how long the sunsets in San Diego lasted. When the weather was good, they were a joy to watch and gave plenty of time and opportunities to photograph or paint.

Julian CA
Snow on this side of the mountain and desert on the other

Food issues

Speaking of suffering, the portion sizes in the restaurants were ridiculous, especially in Italian restaurants. A four-course meal filled me nicely back home; over here, one dish was made for a family of four. I had a veal scallopini in Little Italy one evening and I ended up eating it the next day too.

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Then I went to Hash House for breakfast and didn’t eat again until the following day. Here’s why:

I had that Sage Fried Chicken Benedict that was on TV
I had that Sage Fried Chicken Benedict that was on TV

Fast food portions were more reasonable, depending on the order. I had the famous In-N-Out Burger, and that was great, but Hodad’s and Burger Lounge were on another level altogether.

Burger Lounge San Diego
I haven’t had anything sandwiches quite as fresh as this Burger Lounge creation since.

I rarely ate Chinese food but I had my first encounter with Chinese take-out. There are many noodle dishes in Singapore but “Singapore fried noodles” isn’t one of them. It’s basically vermicelli seasoned with curry powder and anything else in the mix is up to the cook. I would try almost anything once, but I wouldn’t order this again.

I experienced farmers markets and craft fairs for the first time too. They’re wonderful places where I could shop for groceries directly from the producers, enjoy live music and laugh at passing hipsters. One can only do the last two at Pasarbella.


I don’t watch much television, not even via the internet, but the number of TV channels was ridiculous. I did tune into some sports though, and the equally ridiculous number of ad breaks in the sports programmes was one of my pet peeves. The Superbowl was virtually unwatchable to people used to uninterrupted coverage – play and ads seemed to alternate every two minutes. One could lose 4 laps of a Formula 1 race to an ad break (more if it’s an IndyCar oval race), especially if it included one of those supplements that had a medical advisory that was longer than the ad itself.

I never felt unsafe despite the gun violence that regularly made the news back home or the occasional news helicopters which passed overhead. In turn, I never felt unsafe in Mexico too despite the travel advisories that the university issued and the concerns of my American friends. (Which country do Mexicans receive bad news about most frequently?)

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As for the people…

The people I met were genuinely curious about where I came from. Sure, a few did ask which China Singapore was, and what “Singapore language” sounded like, but it wasn’t anything malicious. For a change, they didn’t question the way I speak either. People back home are never happy when I try to speak in grammatically correct English.

Making small talk with the staff on the shop floor and the wait staff was fun, even if I didn’t make any purchases. Initially, I’d run out of things to say very quickly, but I learnt to articulate the questions in my head, rather than rely on myself to look for answers. It can seem a bit trite sometimes, but I appreciated that more when I started working similar jobs – Singaporean consumers return any attempts at interaction with silence, and I couldn’t stand that.

It was a common thing for people to say whatever was on their minds, whether it was a nagging question at the end of the class or a compliment on one’s dress or singing. My housemates returned home on a couple of occasions with anecdotes of strangers pouring their life stories out to them on public transport. All the storyteller wanted was a listening ear. Time was on their side; we weren’t inclined to return the favour, and it’s a never-ending ride to get into the city.

People watching the baseball game at Petco Park
People watching the baseball game at Petco Park

The great impression

What impressed me the most was the go-getting spirit of the people around me. Perhaps it’s a product of the American Dream. Most of my classmates worked part-time and they often had advanced positions in their workplaces. Some of them were mature students who had returned to school after leaving their jobs at a difficult time.

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I guess it’s a product of the American Dream – anyone can do well as long as they work hard. I can’t think of a place that doesn’t encourage this work ethic, even if it has its flaws. Singapore definitely promotes it. Perhaps we have more in common than we’d like to think.

I still miss having someone to bless me whenever I sneeze. Perhaps I should drop by again.

#studyabroad in San Diego, or anywhere for that matter

You might enjoy living independently and the new culture as much as I did.