What I Wish I Had Known: An interview with author Marcella Purnama

Travelling to another country in pursuit of study is a brave decision but deciding what’s best for you once you get there, even when it’s a risky choice, is just as important to emphasise.

For author Marcella Purnama, she underwent just that and in her new book, What I Wish I Had Known, the writer chronicles this experience and many others from her formative years as an international student in Melbourne.

“I want others to be able to relate to my experience and perhaps learn a thing or two without them having to make the mistakes themselves,” the former international student said.

Her book is a revealing look at what it means to be young as Marcella writes about her decision to leave Jakarta for Melbourne, meeting people from different cultural backgrounds, working in Melbourne, and falling in love. All of these important life experiences from her 20s reinforced her decision to always do what’s best for you.

Humble beginnings

Marcella initially came to Australia intending to study a Bachelor of Biomedicine degree at the University of Melbourne — arguably the institution’s most coveted degree. But once she began her course, she soon realised it wasn’t what she was after.

“[As] soon as I got in, I felt like I was not happy with it. I wouldn’t want to study for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t want to do research; I hate research,” she said.

Realising that her future was not in biomedicine, Marcella chose a different path — one that would have upset most Asian parents. She opted for a Bachelor of Arts.

“It was a [serendipitous] moment when I thought ‘Oh, I quite like writing and public speaking and doing presentations. Maybe I should do media and communications — it might be fun!'”

Immediately, she felt a burden was lifted from her shoulders. “I was scared, but at the same time liberated. I felt like I finally chose my own path instead of [following someone else’s] path.”

Yet Marcella knew that pursuing a career that relied heavily on the written word meant having to improve her English. She started a blog where she wrote about stories which, at the time, seemed mundane. Little did she know these experiences would help her write her book.

“I blogged extensively about my studies and early working years — about learning English and hating group work, about falling in love, getting a job, and having my first paycheck,” Marcella said.

On her time with Meld

She was keen to write, and wanted to write more. Knowing this, her friend Steven Tannason, introduced her to Meld Magazine.

“When I was still in my first year of uni, my friend Steven, who probably brought at least ten people to Meld — he was kind of a legend here — texted and asked me whether I’d want to join him,” she said.

It was at Meld that Marcella flourished as a writer. “[The] experience shaped me as a writer and I’m really grateful for it.”

She also cited Meld founder Karen Poh as being crucial in helping her find her voice. “Karen taught me a lot as a writer. She also gave me the opportunity to discover the kind of writer I want[ed] to be.”

At Meld, she was best known for her opinion-based pieces. She wrote about relationships, what it was like to be the youngest child in her family and how international students can be made to feel second-class in Australia. These pieces, and many more, still resonate with readers today.

Returning to Indonesia

Once she completed her studies, Marcella returned to Indonesia, though the decision to do so was not by choice.

“I couldn’t stay in Melbourne and look for jobs due to visa reasons so I packed my bags instead,” she said.

The adjustment at first was difficult. Marcella admitted that re-adjusting to Indonesian society wasn’t the most challenging aspect of moving back — it was “living as an adult daughter with [her] parents under one roof again”.

“After three years of living independently, of paying your own bills, of going out a certain hour and coming back home at another certain hour, you move back to your hometown and suddenly you have parents again. It’s hard. If you wake up late, they will comment on how lazy you are. If you sit down in front of the laptop for too long, they will think that you’re playing all the time, even when you’re working.”

She felt miserable returning to Indonesia but over time learned to compromise.

“I had to learn to communicate with my parents as an adult instead of just as a daughter. They had to accept that they needed to give me more freedom, and I had to negotiate on curfew hours,” she said.

And while she may have been unhappy at the time, she later acknowledged that moving back to Indonesia was perhaps a blessing in disguise.

“If I kept on thinking that I’d be happier in Melbourne, I [would have missed] a lot of opportunities. And I might not become a published author now.”

Embracing yourself, change and growth 

Her journey has indeed seen its fair share of highs and lows, all of which are documented in Marcella’s book. As Marcella begins to prepare for the next major phase of her life — marriage — she wanted to remind international students of their capacity to achieve greatness.

“We international students know a lot more about other things, and we can contribute by offering the insights that only we can offer,” she said.

“And do not underestimate your own experience, your own cultural upbringing. You’re exposed to different types of people, different types of culture, so you learn more [about] empathy than other people. You’ve learned to be independent. You’re resilient. These are all valuable skills that will help you in your career — that will help you in your life. Do not underestimate your own ability,” she added.

For students who feel pressured to return home after living independently for so long, Marcella also encouraged them to see it as another opportunity to grow and not languish in self-pity.

“[T]reat ‘going home’ as another season in your life where you embark on a new adventure, and know that you’ll be able to thrive anywhere if you put your heart into it,” Marcella said. “In other words, grow where you are planted.”

For all young people, Marcella advised for everyone to become more welcoming of criticism and feedback.

“Be open to criticism. My mentors always tell me that I have to be able to separate myself from my work. What people criticise is my work and not me, but oftentimes we get everything mixed up and we [think] the critics want to attack the person — they want to attack us. We couldn’t be more wrong.”

She also recommended young people be as open to any opportunities that come their way.

“Say yes to opportunity,” she said. “You might get your big break, you might learn new things, you might meet people who would introduce you to other people who could get you to places.”

So take it from someone who has been there and lived the life of an international student. Learn from Marcella’s life experiences and discover what it means to decide what’s really best for you.

What I Wish I Had Known, written by Marcella Purnama, is now available to purchase at all Gramedia bookstores in Indonesia. An e-book version of What I Wish I Had Known is also available at this link.

You can also preview the book’s first chapter and read an excerpt of What I Wish I Had Known at Marcella’s personal blog, where you can find more of Marcella’s writing.

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