Akash Arasu has lived in many countries, but right now this 21-year-old calls the Netherlands home. Specifically Tilburg, where he’s an economics undergraduate at Tilburg University.[media:factfile]
Akash says the choice to study in the Netherlands was pretty simple. “To be honest the main factor was that it was affordable and they taught in English. And the fact that everyone here speaks English also helped.”
But, as Akash says, the Netherlands isn’t known for Tilburg, so how did he end up there?
“I’d never heard of the place and, to be honest, where I come from, nobody has ever heard of it. But I googled economics and bachelor programs in Europe and Tilburg was one of the first hits. Back in 2007 – 2008 it was ranked number 1 in the EEA review and that pushed it up in the list of Google hits and that’s how I found out about Tilburg.”
That was good enough for Akash, so he packed his bags and moved to the “quaint European town” of Tilburg. He was immediately impressed that everybody rode bikes – “it’s just a great way to get around” – and by the amount of English spoken.
“I did not expect that. I’d heard stories of WWII soldiers saying that the Netherlands was a friendly place and that everyone spoke English... but you know, coming from Switzerland where everyone speaks German or French, that was spectacular. I really enjoyed that.”
But Akash wasn’t quite so impressed with the Dutch food! “I really still am not sure what Dutch food is. As far as I know it’s croquets and frikandels. And fries. Fries with mayonnaise. That’s one thing: it’s fries and ketchup! But you get used to that. I do grossly miss Indian food and I binge eat when I get home. The whole sandwich-all-day-thing just doesn’t suit me – I prefer three hot meals a day.” But, he adds, now that he’s used to it, eating tostis (grilled cheese sandwiches) between classes isn’t so bad.
Before moving to the Netherlands, Akash was living and attending college in Malaysia. He says the biggest difference between the two was a little surprising: transport time.
“Here I wake up, get on my bike, go to class. But back in Malaysia I’d have to wake up, get ready, hail a cab or find a bus – and it’s not like Europe where buses run every 5 minutes, you know, you just stand there and you wait however long it takes and then you get the bus.”
Of course, that wasn’t the only difference. Akash says professors in the Netherlands encourage their students to be much more independent. “Lectures there are structured more towards the exams themselves; you study what you need to learn. But here you have to decide for yourself what exactly you need. You have to rely on yourself more.”
Not surprisingly, the Dutch drug policy was another difference that Akash noticed right away.
“It’s nice that there’s such a drug-friendly culture and, at the same time, people don’t end up abusing it. And I enjoy that it’s regulated. And it’s a really stark change coming from a country like Malaysia where drug dealing results in the death sentence.”
Now, he says, he considers 'coffeeshops' (outlets where small amounts of cannabis products can be sold to the public) to be one of the best things about studying in the Netherlands. "Coffeeshops in general are just a great place to hang out - not just that you’re high, but there is food and music too. Most tourists don’t realize that the best coffeeshops are outside Amsterdam.”
Were his parents nervous about letting him loose in a country famous for its soft drugs? Not really, he says. “I’d like to think they have a certain degree of faith in me. They do know that I’ve been to these places and as long as I’m not abusing it or screwing up my studies, they’re fine with it.”
Speaking of “typically Dutch”, Akash jumps right in when the subject of weather comes up.
“It’s terrible, frankly. For the six months of winter you wake up in the morning and want to kill yourself because it’s so cloudy. And it sucks even more because that’s when the majority of my exams are. Yeah, it’s not something you really enjoy. I come from a tropical country where it’s either sun or rain. And when it’s raining it’s not a tiny drizzle that lasts 2 weeks it’s just one massive storm. Which is actually enjoyable to see. And they last a day or two and then it’s sunny again. Which is lovely. So it’s a big change from that!”
Luckily, says Akash, the Dutch people make up for the poor weather. “They’re really, really friendly people. Whenever you meet them, it’s friendly, they speak in English, you speak in English, and when you speak a bit of Dutch they’re always pleasantly surprised.”
That said, it’s not necessarily easy to go from being classmates to being real friends with the average Dutch person.
“They are, to a degree, conservative. As in they stick a bit more to themselves. Dutch students usually hang out with themselves and international students hang out with themselves. But I think that’s western Europeans in general. I found it the same in Switzerland and France. They’re not as open to strangers as, let’s say, if you found yourself in Thailand.”
But do they live up to their stereotype of being stingy? Akash just laughs. “I hang out with students and we’re all stingy to a degree! I mean it’s really hard to last to the end of the month when your parents send more money. And it’s fantastic; many of these guys here actually work for their money, that’s cool.”
Counting the pennies
Speaking of money, Akash admitted that was one of the main reasons he chose to study in the Netherlands – it was about half the price of going to school in the UK.
“I actually wanted to go to the London School of Economics but, with living costs, it ended up being about 20,000 pounds a year. And over here, with living costs, I end up paying about half – maybe 12,000 euros a year – which is a big difference for me. It’s actually similar to what I’d be paying in Australia or even Malaysia, maybe slightly cheaper.”
24 hours a day?
What does Akash miss most about living in Asia? For Akash it’s eating out.
“Asia has this thing about cheap food. Generally, unless you live with your parents, you never eat at home. You always eat out. You wake up at 3am in the morning and you go downstairs and grab yourself a dinner or something. Here eating out is a bit more of a special occasion. And I guess you enjoy it a bit more this way.”
Eating out at three in the morning? That definitely doesn’t sound Dutch. And, says Akash, that reminds him of another thing: “Supermarkets are closed on Sundays. It’s terrible. And there’s no 7-11 stores! I mean, how can you not have a 7-11 in a 21st-century country? It just baffles me. The entire lack of 24-hour shopping concept is just brutal. It really is.”
That might take have taken a little getting used to, but, says Akash, in the end, coming to Tilburg University was the right decision. “The courses are interesting and thought-provoking and the professors for the most part have been brilliant. The programme lives up to the reputation of the university.”
Read more about Tilburg University facts & figures.