Adrian Ngiam is currently a student at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He writes for The Saint which is an independent newspaper written and run by students.
In the following guest post, Adrian shares his experience of being an international student in the UK, he describes the highs and lows from the differences in humour to the loneliness of being so far from home.
So you’ve chosen to come to St. Andrews (replace/insert with demographically, tonally similar college) a wise decision, I should think. I made the same one. This little missive should serve to regurgitate a few hoary insights that my experiences have vindicated (if I, do indeed, suffice for you as an a priori authority) along with an offer of a few precious nuggets of wisdom if you’ll humor me enough to pick through the dross. Don’t worry, I’ll try to spread them about, so to keep you continuously entertained.
For liftoff, we’ll begin with a candid contemplation of the cultural zeitgeist, as it pertains to matters of ethnicity and race. The hills and valleys of your face, be they rolling or alpine, shallow or deep, will immediately conjure the incantation of “Asian”. This is an unavoidable definition, but by no means an important one. It mostly depends on how you interpret it. By my experience, barring this one racist I had the luck to become acquainted with, the majority population in St. Andrews is kind, curious, and more interested in what you say, than how you say it. Accents will not overwhelmingly deter your ability to be expressive, or to communicate. Soulful interactions here are like lingering balloons, with their strings waiting to be grasped and, good for us, they are available in every store of worth.
As I’m sure you’ll also find, it’s not in the lack of eager companionship that will haunt the soul. Very much so, it’s the superficial, minute things that keep the loneliness from leaving you alone. You may find that switching from your mother tongue will change your personality somewhat. To illustrate, take the case of humor. It requires a certain fluency in a language to be comfortable with irony and wit, so perhaps you might become less funny. Afterall, it is indeed true that the subtleties of humor differ colossally from culture to culture. But, there is some comfort to be found. The fact that everyone can laugh at the poor old man who painfully tripped is promising news, which proves that there is some common ground when it comes to the funnies though perhaps not particularly sacred ground, if its only denizen is slapstick. Language, though, does constitute a lot of identity, so be prepared to change, and to be treated differently according to how well you can adopt their way of speech.
Continuing on culture, not all the same things will be cool here. The majority consumes a different set of media than you probably did, and although there is some intersection, there might not be too much. Thus, there does exist a painful adjustment period, during which you’ll have to learn the intricacies of the locality’s vernacular and aesthetics. There is a price to be paid before you can be initialised into their ranks. But, I’m sure, you’ll fight through that gauntlet victoriously, and be rewarded with the prize of worldliness and, sadly, also a great deal more approval from your new comrades one might imagine that they they would instead lament your loss of individuality, perhaps in another life. Additionally, you’ll notice your speech patterns will change I for one have become lighter on my consonants, and vowels, to keep up with the swift splatter of words that every one of my British friends splashes at me. Well, at least I’m closer to speaking the “real English” now.
In continuation of the little things, which actually look pretty large at this point, forget any consistency of good tastes in your food. Culinary delights are far and in between in St. Andrews,
only attainable for an extravagant price, or through a lengthy journey to the neighbouring Dundee. For the most part, if you’ve hailed from any of the exotic spots of Asia, you’ll be incensed by how lacking flavor is in this country. They can’t help it. So, be a good sport and don’t complain, just bring your own little packet of MSG; a bottle of your favorite soy sauce; and a salt shaker, that will help liven up your food, I’m sure. And, try to cook for yourself, when you can. You’ll find that the palette is some kind of arch by which you can travel through to visit home, if only for the duration of that short burst of flavor. Trust me, the taste of home is a good salve for the blues when you miss your mother’s embrace, or your father’s awful fried rice.
Depending on your type of Asian people forget how big a continent we are you may be afflicted with the demonly Flush which though may not hamper you too much during your drunken sprees, will, still, remain a thorn in your side. Don’t expect to be able to down glass after glass of vodka shots without chundering, and if you’re more seriously afflicted by the Flush, forget even that one glass of red. It’s simply unsustainable for most of us who possess the Flush to drink generously. Be wary of that devilish road the flush is there to remind us that drinking, for us, is a much shorter trip to the cancer ward than it is for the unafflicted. If you insist, do drink a pint of water every two lagers you can thank me later.
To end: when it comes to expressing certain cultural idiosyncrasies, there is only a small ephemeral window that you can speak through, once every few days. The global framework of diversity is a little insufficient at the moment, and so there will come moments when you wish to share your culture only to hit a brick wall. Additionally, to be frank, Freud tells the truth about the narcissism of small differences. The majority population has enough trouble understanding their (for now) European comrades. So perhaps hoping for a persistent curiosity about the qualia of your values might be too much to ask, and in fact if it were to truly occur, might even begin to irk you after not so long a while (after all, overarching values subsume the individuals inside). Maybe I’m exaggerating, because a few are always curious, and most are sometimes curious as well, which is always super duper cool.
An admonition: simply put, they might not accommodate your music, artistic tastes, or your hobbies. Not that they will shun or disapprove of them, but the CantoPop or Bollywood you offer will be, for the most part, treated as mere novelties and rarely seen without rosey lenses. Different cultures and languages, you see, that’s the rub. I think you should try, though, to explain your music to them, or whatever media you consume. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Russian and Tanzanian music through my friends who were happy to give me translations as well as comparative critiques. I’m sure you’ll be able to experience and provide the same. You may no longer be able to sync up your brains with your friends by blaring out the same song lyrics while stoned and pissed on the rooftop of a skyscraper, but you are compensated by being fed a spoonful of the consciousness of other cultures, which is a worthy trade, I think.
That is to say, though they won’t necessarily treat your reverence of Chinese calligraphy with the same appreciation they do for Tennyson, you can still share and learn from each other. Some day though, I believe there will exist an intervening moment when your culture can
intersect with others in an equal way, without the overwhelming power of a cultural hegemony, where both participants can walk away with a smile, without one of them pulling a smirk and, or, suppressing a scoff I imagine so, at least.
Before I part, I urge you to not take the easy route of finding the same people you knew at home, which you’ll very much be able to. Step outside of your imagination and meet new and interesting people, and broaden your horizons (gosh I’m filled with platitudes today) and exchange, exchange as much as you can, your world with theirs it’s a wonderful and rewarding sensation.
Until next time.
3q for reading,