Well, hello. Thank you for deciding to read my long-winded piece of musings about not being British at a British university.
Although I am about to enter my second year of study and am writing this from the comforts of my own home in Hong Kong, I have gone through the experience of being a wide-eyed 18-year-old international student being abroad on her own for the first time. I have been there when people would yell nonsensical phrases and the infamous “ni hao” out of nowhere on the streets at me, and I would be lying if I say I have never called my childhood friends and vented about feeling lonely in a foreign land at midnight, despite the miles stretched between us.
But before I start my ramblings, please understand that my advice is derived from my experience only. I acknowledge that there are students from more than a hundred different nationalities, from all walks of life, filtering through the Parkinson Building every year, and my perspective alone could not possibly cover everyone else’s. But I will hope what I’m about to say comforts you in one way or another.
I’ll get the elephant in the room out of the way because we all know COVID has been on your mind at least once since the moment you woke up. Walking out on the streets in a foreign place full of predominantly white people, with a face of East Asian features, plus a surgical face mask, is not something that I want to deal with. And no, I still do not know what it will be like in Leeds since I am writing this before term starts. I will not sugarcoat this and say “the media reportage of hate crimes against Asians is exaggerated fear-mongering” because it has been happening everywhere and it could very well happen in Leeds. My first year in this city tells me 99% of the locals and students here are the nicest, most welcoming people I have ever met. But still to this day, I think about the apprehensive stares and occasional rude whispers I received a few months ago walking to campus with a surgical mask on although I had only been on a Christmas trip to Paris three months prior.
And don’t be mistaken, my fellow non-Asian international students. I’m afraid that it is possible you could be subject to xenophobia once you return. Fortunately, Leeds has escaped lockdown for now, while all its neighbouring districts are facing stricter measures. But I fear the virus has only been contained since Leeds is very much a student town. Once its student body starts filtering in the city, the blame for prompting the spike in new cases would most likely be laid on us.
Racism, xenophobia, microaggressions and all kinds of bigotry are bound to exist in a community as large as Leeds; how we react to prejudice is about the only thing we could control.
No matter if the perpetrator is hurling insults at you or threatening to hurt you, ignore them and deescalate the situation. Do not yell back or get physical unless it is absolutely necessary for self-defence. If they are still not deterred, remind them there are witnesses to their actions and call for help if you are in a public place. Leave the scene if you can. Your safety is your utmost priority. Contact your school if this is happening in class and call the university’s security service at 0113 343 2222 or the police at 999 if necessary. A simple Google search would lead you to resources and organisations could offer you mental health support, counselling or simply someone to listen to on campus and in Leeds, like togetherall, Elefriends and firstname.lastname@example.org. Find out more about student support on campus at https://students.leeds.ac.uk/info/100001/counselling.
Standing up for your friends and voicing solidarity with targeted people, even if they’re strangers, is also very important and effective. Assembly and unity can act as a deterrent to the aggressor. This is to everyone who sees someone being harassed and/or assaulted.
Another thing I have found worrying being a first-year international student is making friends across different cultures, especially if there’s a language barrier between yourself and other students. It may indeed seem daunting at first, but I promise you everyone is in the same boat.
Do not be afraid to take the initiative to talk to someone, even if your English is not the best or they seem closed off with their group of friends. It is only natural to be with people who you relate to, who you grew up with, who look like you. There was still a cultural and nationality divide in my course halfway into my first year. But it is okay to break the mould and come out of your comfort zone. Almost everyone I have talked to is friendly and interested in making friends with people different than them, and more often than not, they are waiting for you to initiate the conversation. Start with a simple “hello”, introduce yourself, what you study and expand from there to your interests, hobbies or what you have been up to. Meeting people from an entirely foreign culture to you is quite inevitable in university, but that does not mean you should shy away from them. If you are anxious to offend someone, confused or just plain curious, ask questions politely and respectfully! They would much rather you ask directly than to assume and reach a wrong conclusion.
One useful tip I would give to people who are especially worried about their English, who want to learn a specific language or get to know different people from a myriad of cultures and countries is to join the university’s Language Exchange programme. It is sort of like a Tinder but for university students wanting to learn different languages and make new friends. You can create a profile on Leeds For Life, list the languages you know and aspire to learn and connect with others for meet-ups. It is a fantastic way to make new friends by exchanging, appreciating and celebrating all our diverse cultures.
Culture shock is one other obstacle all my international friends have faced, and it is normal. Seeing your coursemates being much more outspoken or withdrawn in class, getting invited to clubbing every night of Freshers Week, not being used to the local cuisines and confronting homesickness are prevalent and legitimate challenges. What’s important is staying connected to your friends and family and all things familiar to you yet remaining open-minded to try new things. Leeds is a community full of people from a plethora of countries and cultures. You don’t have to confine yourself to merely local friends, cuisines, traditions and ways of life since there are plenty of diverse restaurants, shops and communities in the city. Other than keeping in touch with people at home, looking for like-minded people who come from the same country in your course or societies is an option as well. Stay close to your roots, but also come out of your comfort zone from time to time. Being in university means getting new experiences and going on thrilling odysseys.
The final piece of advice I would give might sound very cliche, but it is the most encompassing, honest thing I could ever say: stop worrying about how others think of you and be yourself. There is no point in trying to be a false version of yourself since that would only backfire and end in rejection and isolation. There are bound to be people who may not like you for whatever reason but the time you are going to spend in university is short. Let’s not waste even a second.