Three less known tips on adapting in the UK

Prepare your vocabulary of positive adjectives

I found it surprising to hear how positive European people are about everything (although later I doubted their sincerity). After attending a workshop, for example, my response was only, “Meh. It was okay.”, while theirs would be, “It was amazing. The speakers are all fantastic.” You will find yourself talking with people you are not too close with, and that’s when you need those positive adjectives. And you will look stupid if you only repeat awesome, great, and nice all the time. Ah, and lovely particularly works well with grandmas and grandpas.


Say ‘please’ when asking or ordering something

It might sounds obvious but it took a while to get used to it. In Indonesia, you don’t say please that often. Say, in an airplane, and the flight attendant asked you, “Mau kopi atau teh, Mbak?” (Do you want coffee or tea, Miss?) – You will answer, “Teh aja, Mbak.” (Just tea, Miss.) while smiling politely. Your tone and smile are already counted as ‘please’ in Indonesian.

While here, you have to end every sentence with ‘please’ when you are asking something.


You: “Can I have one chicken, please?”

Him: “Dine in or take away?”

You: “Take away, please.”

Him: “With sauce?”

You: “Yes, please.”


Few months ago, there was a bomb threat in Baker Street, and the traffic was held. Everyone was panicking. My friend’s bus was stopped, and she wanted to get off the bus instead of waiting for uncertain hours. She said to the driver, “Can you open the door?” – and the driver replied, “Can you say ‘please’?” Yes, even in the time of crisis, you can’t never be too polite. Can I hit you on the face, please?


‘Sorry’ is the magic word

Use it all the time. And I really mean all the time. When you bumped into people on the street, no matter whose fault it is, just say sorry. I once watched The Book of Mormon Broadway, and during those two hours show, I exchanged ‘sorry’ five times with the lady who sat next to me. First when I arrived to my seat. She had to move her leg a bit to give me room, and we both said sorry to each other while smiling friendlily. Then in the middle of the show, my huge backpack touched her feet, and we both said sorry. Then during the break, she needed to pass to go to the loo or something, and we both said sorry again. Et cetera, et cetera. Saying sorry doesn’t mean you are really sorry. It can be a magical and practical replacement of ‘excuse me’ or ‘thank you’ in some situation.

3 things I wish I knew before applying for scholarships

1. Get your life together first, scholarship later.

Studying abroad for free is an enticing dream. Some people think, “I don’t care what I’m going to learn, I just want to study abroad!” or “I don’t mind studying anything, as long as a scholarship is available for that program.”

Wrong. Get your life together first – find out what you are best at, set your goals, and find a course/uni that will bring you closer to your vision. Explain to the scholarship provider why you want to study that more than anything in the world. Show them proofs of your capabilities: I’ve already done this much! And if I get this scholarship, I will be able to achieve much more!

2. Don’t give up – it will get much easier after the first time

I applied for scholarships 5 times. People asked how I could manage to do that, especially while working full-time in a hectic startup environment. Preparing documents for scholarship applications is a pain in the ass, I agree. But after the first time, next ones will be a piece of cake. Most scholarships require same documents – even the essays / personal statements are similar.

3. Don’t limit yourself – let others limit you

What I meant was don’t be scared to apply for top universities like Oxford and Cambridge. I didn’t apply because I thought they were out of my league. Turned out that I got accepted quite easily in every uni I applied to – LSE, Cranfield (#2 MBA program in the UK after Cambridge, and Lancaster (also in Top 10 MBA). I should have applied to the best – and let them reject me if they think I’m not good enough.

Not mere luck – How I got my Chevening Scholarship

My Instagram is full of my traveling pictures around United Kingdom. Since I got here last September, I’ve been traveling to more than 15 cities and attending more than 8 musicals/concerts/festivals, and the best part is, they are all sponsored by Chevening Scholarship.

(Clarification: the scholarship covers monthly living allowance, not specifically for traveling or other hedonistic activities, but if you are careful with your expense and eat only potato for two weeks like I do, you definitely can save lots of money to enjoy UK!)

I received many comments about how lucky I was. I am indeed lucky, but it’s more than mere luck – it’s hard work. This is my journey to pursue a scholarship to study abroad:

Quick background

I’ve been dreaming to study in the UK since I was 7, because I read Enid Blyton books about girl boarding schools. When I finished high school, I had to watch all my close friends going abroad to study, but my parents just couldn’t afford it. I knew that my only chance was by getting a scholarship, but I also realised that it’s incredibly hard.

First attempt

At the end of my undergrad year, I applied for a scholarship to study for 8 weeks in the US. It was my first time applying for scholarship, and I found out that the preparing the documents was a lot of hassle. One of them was university transcript, and it had to be a legalised copy. My uni administration staffs were jerks so I couldn’t complete it on time.

Here’s how the conversation went:

Me: “Sir, I want to legalise my transcript.”

Him: (munching gum annoyingly) “No can’t do. The guy responsible for it is taking a leave.”

Me: “When will he come back, Sir?”

Him: “I don’t know.”

Me: “But, Sir, I need this document badly.”

Him: “Do I look like I care?”


So I submitted my documents without being legalised, and my application was rejected right away.

It upset me – what’s the point of preparing thousands of documents when in the end, my application just got thrown to a bin? The effort is not worth it!

Years went by,

but the dream hadn’t gone away. One day I have this imaginary conversation with my future kids:

Me: Yeah, Honey, I’d always been dreaming to study abroad too.

Her: Then why didn’t you go?

Me: Because I didn’t want to take an expensive TOEFL test, I was scared I would be rejected after putting lots of efforts.

I decided that if I was about to kill my dream, it would be after I had worked my ass off and tried everything I could. So I took the leap – I took the ridiculously expensive TOEFL test which would expire in 2 years, and that’s the same timeframe I gave myself. If in 2 years I didn’t succeed, I would just focus on my career in Indonesia.

Second & third attempt

I applied to Chevening 2013 and LPDP 2013. (I only applied to government-sponsored scholarships, because I was aiming for full scholarship + living allowance.)

Both were rejected. On retrospect I learned that in both times, I wasn’t clear about my vision, about what I was doing in my life, about the purpose of my study and why was it important for my career and for the society.

When you are overweight…

How to make yourself looks more attractive? You can learn Adobe Photoshop to edit your pictures. Or you can eat more healthily and exercise. Perfecting your essays and personal statements will make you look better temporarily, but what you really need to do is developing yourself.

So I took steps to develop myself. I challenged myself to take a leadership position. Started with managing 3 people, until in the end I had 11 people in my team, many of them are older than me. Being a leader was a humbling and crushing experience, but also brought most satisfaction.

Fourth attempt

was Australia Leadership Award 2014. I knew I was much more qualified than ever. I prepared everything perfectly… and I got another rejection.

I was really down. I did my best, I gave all I could – why wasn’t it enough?

So I decided that I would give myself another chance. If this time I failed… I would stop trying for the next 2-3 years. (Yeah, even then I didn’t give up completely.)

Fifth attempt

Chevening 2014. After the interview, one of my interviewers pulled me aside and said, “I think you are the best person I’ve interviewed so far. I like it when I’m not the smartest person in the room, and it didn’t happen very often.”

My jaw dropped. Yes, I got in. And I couldn’t be happier. Not only because I finally got the chance to study in my dream country, but mostly because this scholarship was an acknowledgment of my zealous adventure. I wasn’t insane believing in my dreams – it paid off in the end.

I learned many things on my scholarship applications journey, but if I had to summarise it into one sentence, I would say:

You have to want it more than anything else in the world.

Beasiswa Sejuta Dolar

Api cita-cita ini sudah terpendam di hatiku sejak lama. Awalnya waktu aku membaca novel-novel Enid Blyton tentang sekolah asrama di Inggris. Serunya pesta tengah malam, asyiknya memperdaya guru dengan berbagai keisengan, dan kerennya murid-murid yang terpilih sebagai dewan sekolah. Waktu itu aku baru umur 7 tahun, dan belum paham bahwa sekolah maupun kisah itu hanya fiksi. Aku masih ingat benar, suatu malam aku duduk di tepi ranjang ayahku, dan berbisik bahwa aku ingin bersekolah di sana.

Tahun-tahun berlalu dan api cita-cita itu masih tetap menyala. Hal itu yang membuatku selalu gelisah, seperti orang ambeien yang berusaha duduk diam di kursi kantor. (Suwer, aku tak pernah ambeien, tapi kubayangkan rasanya mirip seperti itu.) Di umur 20, saat aku putus dengan pacarku dari SMA, salah satu alasan yang kukemukakan adalah: “Aku belum siap settling down. Aku masih pengen S2 di luar negeri.” Setelah lulus kuliah, aku bekerja di ke Astra International, salah satu perusahaan terfavorit di Indonesia. Seharusnya itu membuatku merasa bangga dan puas, tapi setiap detik yang terlewat di bilik kantorku terasa seperti halangan bagi impianku mencicipi kehidupan di luar negeri. Saat aku pacaran lagi dengan orang lain, nyaris bertunangan, dan akhirnya putus di usia 23, lagi-lagi alasan yang kukemukakan adalah: “Aku belum siap settling down. Aku masih pengen S2 di luar negeri.”

Api ini tak jua padam dan aku bukannya tak mencoba mencari jalan. Beasiswa demi beasiswa sudah kulamar. Aku punya satu folder di laptopku yang kuberi judul agak cheesy: Mimpi Sejuta Dolar Saya. Di dalamnya ada berbagai subfolder: Swedia, Australia, US, LPDP, dan Chevening. Semuanya merupakan beasiswa penuh plus biaya hidup, karena aku tahu beasiswa parsial takkan bisa menopang hidup dan studiku. Tapi beasiswa penuh itu juga seperti kembang desa yang diidam-idamkan pemuda dari segala penjuru. Persaingannya ketat. Hanya pemuda berpaket komplit—six pack, tajir, setia, plus bisa main gitar dan bersuara merdu—yang bisa mendapatkan gadis ini.

Setelah empat kali apply beasiswa dan gagal, aku sudah siap untuk menyerah. Saat itu aku juga sudah memegang karier cemerlang—posisi kunci sebagai head of business development di salah satu perusahaan startup yang sedang berkembang di Indonesia. Aku yang mengasuh perusahaan ini dari 4 orang hingga 40 orang. Dari dugem (duduk gemetar) di siang bolong, menatap nanar rekening bank perusahaan yang tinggal belasan juta saldonya, hingga kini revenue jutaan dolar mengalir deras. Dari yang semua-muanya dikerjakan sendiri, hingga kini punya anak buah 10 orang. Rasanya menetap di Indonesia tak terlalu buruk juga.

This is my last shot, tekadku waktu aku meng-klik submit untuk lamaran beasiswa Chevening, beasiswa bergengsi dari pemerintah Inggris. Kalau sampai gagal juga, aku akan memaksa diriku untuk puas hidup di Indonesia.

By the way, frasa Mimpi Sejuta Dolar dipopulerkan oleh Merry Riana, yang meraih sukses dalam bentuk sejuta dolar pertamanya di usia 26 tahun. Sejak aku mengenal sosoknya (kisah pertemuan kami ada di buku Follow @MerryRiana), diam-diam aku bermimpi juga untuk meraih prestasi yang layak dibanggakan di usia 26 tahun. Angka 26 ini memang magis. Beberapa tokoh, seperti Adam Khoo atau Yoris Sebastian, juga meraih suksesnya di usia 26.

Mungkin kau sudah bisa menebak ujung kisahku. Dua minggu setelah ulang tahunku yang ke-26, aku mendapat email itu:

Dear Debbie,

We are delighted to inform you that the selection panel were very impressed with your application and interview and have conditionally selected you for a 2015/2016 Chevening Award. Chevening Awards are prestigious and highly competitive so congratulations for reaching this stage!

Ini bukan cerita motivasi yang pesan moralnya adalah “Jangan menyerah! Dicoba terus, maka Anda pasti bisa!”, bukan pula tentang “Shoot to the moon! If you failed, you’ll land among the stars” yang ditulis oleh orang idiot yang tak tahu berapa jarak bulan dan bintang ke bumi. Aku membagikan kisah ini sebagai pecutan bagi teman-teman yang masih tidur siang atau jalan di tempat.

Dulu, aku pernah mengobrol dengan para pelamar beasiswa lain (tak usah disebut nama beasiswanya, yang jelas tidak ada batas minimum pengalaman kerja di sana). Banyak yang sudah lulus S1 tiga bulan, bahkan enam bulan yang lalu. Tapi mereka sama sekali tak punya pengalaman kerja. Kenapa?

“Mau fokus cari beasiswa,” jawab mereka santai. Mereka bilang, memoles CV dan esai membutuhkan konsentrasi dan dedikasi waktu. Kalau disambi bekerja, pasti tak akan optimal.

What?? Menurutku, itu sama saja dengan gadis yang kegemukan, yang bukannya mengubah pola makan dan olahraga, ia malah belajar cara-cara untuk mengedit fotonya di Adobe Photoshop agar terlihat lebih cantik menarik. (Kalian tahu Camera 360? Aplikasi yang bisa membuat foto kita jadi cantik, imut, dan mulus. Ada lelucon di kalangan mahasiswa fakultas hukum, bahwa apps itu seharusnya dinamakan Camera 378. Nama 378-nya merujuk kepada pasal Undang-Undang tentang penipuan. Entah berapa banyak orang yang tertipu foto profile yang jauh berbeda dengan kondisi nyatanya.)

Di tahun-tahun sebelumnya aku gagal mendapat beasiswa. Bukan karena esaiku kurang keren, tapi karena aku memang belum cukup matang sebagai pemimpin di ranah kecilku. Belum ada pembuktian, sehingga aku belum bisa diproyeksikan sebagai pemimpin bangsa ini di masa depan. Beasiswa Kembang Desa ini hanya akan diberikan kepada orang-orang yang dianggap berpotensi menjadi kepala, bukan ekor.

Beasiswa yang kudapat memang tidak benar-benar seharga sejuta dolar, hanya puluhan ribu poundsterling. Tapi bagiku nilainya sungguh sejuta dolar. Karena demi menjaga api cita-cita itulah aku bisa menjadi diriku yang sekarang. Nyala api dari lilin kecil 19 tahun lalu, yang menjadi obor dan penggerak bagiku selama ini. Api yang kini juga memberi cahaya dan panas bagi lingkungan sekitarku. Dan semoga, api ini juga menjagaku agar tetap hangat di tengah menggigitnya udara dingin Inggris nanti.

Train your mental muscles

Beauty is pain, that’s the saying we often hear. For beauty, women are willing to wear high heels shoes, go on an extreme diet and workout schedule, wax unwanted hair… Well, they are all painful, but nothing compared to foot binding in China.

In the 10th century in China, there’s a tradition to bind little girls’ foot when they were 4-7 years old. It was done by binding the foot with thick cloth for three years. Before being bound, their toes were bent strongly towards the foot palm until the bones were crushed. All of these were executed without anaesthesia, obviously, so imagine the girls’ pain. The result was tiny feet (10 cm / 4 inches long), which were seen as beautiful and elegant.


Can you imagine a normal adult with 10 cm foot? Her foot couldn’t support her body properly – it would be almost impossible for her to work. Walking was too painful already.

And interestingly, those women were perceived as ideal wives. Why? Because she was weak and she fully depended on her husband. It boosted the man’s esteem, because the whole village would know that he was able to earn a living to feed his family without any help from the wife. In short, without the man, the woman couldn’t do anything.

Until now, I still shiver when I remember that practice. Being dependent to anyone is the thing I avoid the most.

I wasn’t born in a rich family. Well, I never starved or couldn’t pay my school tuition – and I’m grateful for that. But since I was a kid, I have to work and save money to buy things I want, such as Tamagochi, Harry Potter wand, cellphone, or my beloved Macbook Air.

My favourite lecturer once said, “Your mental strength, your endurance against pressure, and your resilience are like muscles in your body. If you exercise and train them regularly, they will become strong. Lucky are those who have trained their mental muscles since they are young! Because then when you face big problem, you are prepared and strong. While you, who have lived comfortably your whole life, you will find troubles when you finally face real life.”

Yes, I just realise how lucky I am. As I grow older, I realise more and more that I can’t and I don’t want to depend on anyone else. I work my ass off to earn a living, I invest my money, and I pursue my own dream. The journey is exhausting – there are moments when I just want to lie on my bed, whining and complaining. Then I remember this quote:

“We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weigh ounces while regret weighs tons.” – Sean Covey

So, which one would you choose?