The cultural differences soon left me feeling isolated and out of place…

The Challenges of Being a Newly Arrived Student from Malaysia

Coming to the UK, as an international student from Malaysia, was altogether exciting and daunting after more than 18 years of comfort and familiarity at home.

There were fresh faces, unfamiliar streets, confusing slangs and even different scents (fresher air but a milder cuisine experience if I might add). I vividly remember the first day of my induction week for university, I had to give myself a quick little TED talk style pep talk in my head just to calm my nerves down. Whilst I maintained my composure on the outside, I will admit that it was intimidating trying to navigate myself in an unfamiliar culture when I first arrived.

I did not know if I was going to fit in as I was surrounded by individuals who had grown up being accustomed to a way of life that I was not completely familiar with. Still, I reminded myself that people really are just people at the end of the day no matter where I am. However, the cultural differences soon became apparent to me which left me feeling isolated and out of place. My natural reflex was to view this as a barrier and while it naturally was, I also knew that this experience was an opportunity of growth that I could not afford to miss out on (also the fact that tuition fees are no joke!).

The Moment I felt Truly Alone

When I arrived here, my parents came as well to help me settle in. They stayed for a couple of weeks before heading back to Malaysia. It was only until my parents bid me farewell before flying back that reality truly hit me, and I realised that for the first time in my life, I was truly on my own.

At that moment, my confidence took a hit as I became aware of the absence of a safety net to fall back on as I could easily find amid the familiarity back home, because truthfully speaking, a phone call away is not quite the same as being physically present with my family and close friends.

All alone in my dorm almost 6,500 miles away from home, I suddenly felt so small and became doubtful of the capabilities of my strength to rise above my circumstances. Suddenly, all my questions were directed inwards as I found myself in an overwhelming position of emotional unavailability filled with anxiety and uncertainty, which subsequently led to me questioning God’s availability in my life.

Could God help me?

I was exactly where I wanted to be in life with an incredible chance for independence, but as a Christian all I wanted to know in that moment was if God was going to come through for me in moments when I felt I was slowly being emotionally broken into pieces.

Gradually, I realised that my struggle of faith did not mean the absence of fear from my situation. In fact, it was my fearful state that became the “fear fuel” that powered me to trust the big guy up there a little bit more each day as I came to terms with my personal limitations.

Finding Supportive Friends

I was lucky enough to end up on a course with wonderful course mates where I met some of my closest friends who are now my support system here. Thus, I got to ask my many questions that popped up along the way from British slang to sticky toffee pudding which I never had till I came here! No doubt, I would have found myself breaking into pieces if I had not met friends as such here helping me to navigate my way around.

The abundance of invitations to meals from people I recently met at churches here and the welcome from my peers in the Christian Union – which I first joined when moving to Newcastle – made settling in a lot easier too. Subsequently, I found it interesting learning about the culture here and sharing mine from back home. It definitely made for entertaining table talk seeing people here trying to incorporate slang from back home into their speech. It was this open-minded experience and interacting with a community of international and local people at Globe café where I took comfort in knowing my struggles were shared and that I had a voice that was heard.

Kindness not Discrimination

Over the years, I have heard countless stories of racial discrimination towards international individuals and I for one was somewhat nervous about what to expect now that I was an international student. While I have been lucky enough some of my friends have not been, especially when COVID-19 came about. Thus, I realised that the pleasant and the not so pleasant occurs in no matter which part of the world I am in. Still, the kindness extended to me here has been anything but short of incredible generosity which I am thankful for as I arrived in this city clueless about what to expect but filled with the optimism of great expectations for independence.

When I first arrived there were huge challenges. But, instead of allowing myself to fall into pieces, I decided to draw strength from God and trust him. Even right now, this is very much easier said than done, but as I look at the abundance of blessings in the relationships I have formed, my academic performance, my own personal growth, and the fact that Newcastle feels like my second home now, I start to see the subtle traces of God’s work in my life.

This knowledge which is a product of all the uncertainty that accompanied me when I was fresh off the plane is what I continue to take heart in and I hope you find strength in too.

Words by Joylynn, an international student studying in Newcastle, UK.

Photos by Gustavo Fring from Pexels. (pexels.com/@gustavo-fring)

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