During the Christmas break, I went to visit my friends in the UK. We were from the same high school and now studying abroad. While we were eating Chinese takeout on a makeshift table in the dorms, one of my friends asked:
“Do you remember how we thought of the international students back in our school? The UK students here must feel the same way about us.”
I was taken aback. And no, it wasn’t the chinese food.
It was a relief to see that they too, faced similar inconveniences whilst studying abroad. But that single question made everything click for me, and put my struggles in a whole new perspective.
Coming to the UK has been a very fulfilling experience. We learn the most about ourselves as we adapt to new environments. We learn about things we never thought could offer anything new. Here, I realised that the privilege of speaking comfortably is something I cannot take for granted. It has never occurred to me how difficult it is to speak with the intention to communicate, rather than speaking off the top of your head.
Back in high school, I knew for a fact that international students liked to stick together. I assumed they were unsociable. They weren’t. Some of them became close friends, and I soon realised were clearly more capable and sociable than myself. I also made efforts to talk to them and include them in our activities, yet I never sought to understand why they still liked to stick together.
Only after coming to the UK and becoming an international student myself did I finally understand. Hanging out with friends from back home allows us to speak comfortably. Despite how well we speak proper English, nothing can replace speaking in our native tongues. It’s a way of coping with life abroad. And it’s something I would have never experienced unless I studied abroad..
That’s not all. I realise how oblivious I was to a large part of their lives. Studying abroad brings with it a set of challenges unique to international students, something locals can never understand.
In retrospect, claiming that I understood them as a friend all those years ago seems laughable after stepping into their shoes. Truth was, I never bothered to understand them beyond my comfort zone as a local student.
Needless to say, it’s a humbling experience after having seen both sides of the academic life, both as a local and an international student. If there’s anything I learnt, it is that we tend to see things the way we would like, rather than for what they really are.
I got to understand my international friends after being an international student at Imperial. I was able to empathise and understand them much better. But I was lucky. Not everyone gets the privilege to experience both sides of things. I daresay I would have never given my past experiences such thought if I had never studied abroad.