In the small, large town of Cambridge

by Samuel Goh

I have spent all my life in small towns. I grew up in Kuching, where the most exciting thing you can do on a weekend is walk along the Waterfront and try and not get mugged.

After my SPM I did my A levels in Acton Burnell, UK, where there were more farm animals than villagers and the nearest shopping centre was a half hour, 20 ringgit-taxi ride away.

By some miraculous luck — that to this day I often wonder about — I was accepted to study medicine in Cambridge.

Cambridge is also a small town. The town centre is traversable in five minutes and the most interesting thing you can do during the day is use a stick to push a large boat down a narrow, dirty river. This is called punting, and it is the most inefficient form of transport to have ever been created.

But Cambridge isn’t really a “small town”, not in the same sense as Kuching. It’s home to one of the world’s most prestigious universities. Everywhere you go there are landmarks that document the achievements of scientists, artists, philosophers, and politicians.

There are buildings where three or four Nobel prize-winning scientists work together on a daily basis. Research on the frontiers of all fields — maths, science, medicine — go on behind closed dingy halls, on every corner of the Cambridge streets.

This was a place where smart people go to feel dumb. And here I was, a kampung boy from Sarawak who didn’t know the difference between a Masters and a PhD.

In my first few months of this new course, I stuck out like a sore, clueless thumb. I looked different from everyone else. I spoke differently from everyone else.

I would say “lah” sometimes and my supervisor would think I just had a mini stroke. But I also felt out of place because everyone around me was just so, so clever.

I thought I knew smart people before in A levels. In fact, I thought I could count as one of them. But you meet people in Cambridge who can memorise pages and pages of their anatomy book even after a drunken night out; people who talk eloquently about the most complex of subjects without a sign of hesitation; people who, when they talk, have many more gears turning in their heads than you.

I went through the classic Cambridge existential crisis — I felt like a fraud, that I didn’t deserve my place in this university and that I belonged back in my tiny town on the tiny island of Borneo. I wanted to leave so many times, but I didn’t.

After many long walks, late night conversations, stress eating, I decided that I wasn’t going to let the know-it-alls and the I-can-do-it-alls affect me.

They could go on and cure cancer, for all I care. I was just going to focus on my studies, and prepare for exams that loomed in the summer months.

For all the medicine that I have learned in Cambridge, the biggest lesson I have learned wasn’t about the human body. It was about surviving in this big, cut-throat world.

Cambridge is no small kampong — it brings together some of brightest minds around the world into the same lecture hall. But Cambridge has taught me that you can’t go through life worrying about how well people around you are doing, or what they think about you.

In the real world, nobody cares if you didn’t score as many marks, or didn’t get that one MCQ question right.

All that matters is that you’re trying the best you can in your given situation, and every day you’re trying to be a little better than the person you were yesterday. The only benchmark that matters is the person that stares back at you in your bathroom mirror.

In turns out as well in the real world that nobody really has everything figured. All these geniuses that I met, who I thought knew everything? There was just as clueless, lost, and worried as me.

We all just learn to hide it because of ego; it prevents us from showing weakness. As I grew closer to my friends here, and got to know everyone’s days — good and bad — I realised that we’re all in the same boat.

We all have our moments where we think that we aren’t good enough. Because it turns out, the perfect human doesn’t exist. Not even in Cambridge.

I’ve spent five years in this small little town in the East Anglian plains. Over this time I’ve learned many things; not just about being a doctor, but about myself, my friends, and the fine balance between humility and self-confidence.

It hasn’t been the easiest of rides, but I can’t say I regret any moment here. Not even all those hours spent punting in circles on the river.

**First published on Malay Mail Online (6 April 2017)

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