"If I could travel back in time, I would be more proud of my cultural background"

Blog for students
09 October 2019
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The following is an account from Sha Zhou, international student at King’s College London, about studying in the UK, accessing counselling and overcoming isolation.

"It was in September 2014 when I first set foot in Britain at the age of 24. Coming to Britain was like a dream coming true as I had been studying its language, culture, history for 5 years and by then, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston and James McAvoy had already lit up my world. During my first one-year MRes programme, I was busy with reading, essays, presentations, and exploring the country in my spare time. I regarded myself as a sojourner; for I knew my return to China upon graduation was definite.

"But it was different for my second arrival in 2016. The programme is longer. I thought I knew London already after living here for 15 months and I had learnt how to look after myself. Too naïve! Doing a PhD means I don’t meet classmates or lecturers regularly. Most of the time I go to archives or libraries by myself and contact my supervisor by email. Although King’s offers much more diverse student events than my previous institute did, as well as sport clubs, I am no longer an undergraduate – a serious academic-to-be, in my eyes, should focus entirely on her research!

"On the bright side, a man, or woman, is never tired of London. Museums, theatres and attractions are more than able to fill in my days with free or reduced student-priced events. If weather permits, I can also jog or walk in parks or along the riverside. Like King’s, lots of things are on in town for those who know what they want. Winter, however, is insufferable. Long winter nights make me depressed, especially during the festive period. It felt like everyone here in the UK was celebrating Christmas with their families while I was not. And when the Spring Festival in China arrived there were few celebrations, except dining out with friends or going to lion dance shows, which aren't common practices for ordinary family celebrations and are more of a showcase of cultural diversity in metropolises like London. There was a time when I spent days inside my room watching reality shows and eating junk food. 

"With few friends around, I also felt rather isolated in my first year. In June 2017, with a friend’s suggestion, I attended a counselling session discussing a broken relationship, increasing anxiety towards financial circumstances, pressure of being an unmarried single child and doubts in my capability of doing a PhD. Things did get better as I saw progress with my studies and made more friends. However, when I think of my counselling experience now, I realize it was not the time I went for the counselling session that I needed assistance most, but the time when I kept myself to myself and cut off personal contacts. When I was hiding, how could I reach anyone, or anyone find me? To prevent this self-imposed enclosure from recurring, I got more into physical activities, doing part time jobs, volunteering and language learning, most of which are easily accessible at our university gyms, modern language centre and King’s Talent Bank (King’s students and alumni can sign up to this service for temporary work opportunities across all of the KCL faculties). The more people from different backgrounds I met, the more I learnt to look at my problems positively. 

"If I could travel back in time, I would be more proud of my cultural background and observe pros as well as cons of British society with a fair mind. Learning English for passing a language test sometimes unconsciously diminishes one’s self-esteem and perhaps leads to a haphazard presumption that everything in Britain is better. The reality tells me differently, for I am judged constantly by my gender, ethnicity or merely English proficiency on and off campus. Looking back, I can pin down how I had subtly distanced myself from students from my place of origin, determined to grasp the real Britishness. International students’ inheritance of their cultures, however, should be regarded by universities as well as themselves as a positive addition to a multicultural and multiracial Britain. While coming for academic pursuits, I am also making a difference. So is every one of us."  

Sha is an international student from China, studying a PhD in Contemporary History Research and researching Chinese female migrants in post-war Britain. Sha's photo is from West Bay in the Jurassic Coast in the UK.

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David Rolls
08 March 2019
I spent 3 years working in China so I faced the same in reverse. All went well as soon as I decided to grasp every opportunity for travel. Luckily too I was working with a really great group of Chinese colleagues. I learnt to speak the language reasonably (albeit my tones were very haphazard) which was a great help in getting around. I regularly meet students now from the more remote parts of China who are very surprised to find I have visited their area. It would have been very easy to lock myself away and brood and I certainly knew people who did that but I tried to drag them out with me if I could. They all soon realised the benefits of getting really involved. I look back on my 3 years there with great affection and still get the chance to use my Mandarin - albeit the level of skill is slowly dropping from a not enormously high start as I left China over 12 years ago.
08 March 2019
Thanks for sharing this David, it sounds like an excellent experience. It's definitely very easy to lock yourself away, it's good that you were able to encourage others to get involved and grasp opportunities!