This wouldn’t be online content if it did not start with reference to a ‘Top Ten’ list.
The New School Free Press constructed ten steps to studying abroad – all valid tips based on one a shred of common sense, ‘failing to plan is planning to fail.’
A simple rule but necessarily reinforced. Isolation is common among international students, brought about by a lack of communication or even the means to communicate, preventing international students from feeling at ‘home’ abroad.
But therein lies the catch. you aren’t at home. You’ve entered abstraction, purposefully, estranging yourself, by choice, or perhaps not your choice.
Is studying abroad an experience, a means in itself, or for the purpose of future employment, a means to an end?
West and East answers can vary. Chinese and Indian students commonly use international study as a way to receive a premium education as well as versing themselves in globalised culture. Whereas, we associate European and American students with the ‘gap year’ phenomenon; ‘voluntourists’ looking for cultural diversification and enrichment.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, so I’ve heard, I mean I’ve never tried or even youtubed it but my point is international students like all expatriates embark on their own journey. So, I thought instead of compiling a generic and didactic ten-stepper, I’d ask three international students from the UK to explain themselves!
James Fernandez in Japan. Manchester University undergraduate James talks of the great opportunities studying abroad can offer – learning a new language and embracing a new culture.
‘For one year, I was studying at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, which is a language university just west of Tokyo. I liked that my university was Foreign Studies focused, which meant that the Japanese students there were all studying a foreign language so they were always interested in meeting new foreigners like myself.
If I’m to be honest, before I left for Japan, my Japanese language skills were still not that great, probably only enough for daily conversation. But whilst I was actually living in Japan, I was in such a stimulating and rewarding environment to learn and speak the language that my language skills improved a lot. I was so motivated studying Japanese in Japan as opposed to a classroom in Manchester as the more I could speak the language, the more enjoyable it was to meet people and get around the city. Not only did I work hard in improving my Japanese, but I also took advantage of every opportunity that I could. Aside from studying, I was also able to work in a small cafe by Shibuya Crossing. For those of you who have not been to Japan, Shibuya Crossing is the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. It is an amazing sight, seeing thousands of people swarming across the road with the neon lights and screens towering over. At this cafe, I worked as a waiter and spoke only Japanese. Because none of the staff or customers spoke any english, at first when I started it was really difficult to make myself understood. Having not worked in a restaurant or the catering industry before, everything was new to me. I had to learn all basic catering skills; taking orders, carrying plates, how to make cocktails, coffees and desserts…but, all in Japanese.
Now, if you’re familiar with the Japanese language, I also had to accustom myself to a more formal and new way of speaking which is only used towards people you respect, such as customers. Once I got to grips with this, my language started improving and the job was so fun. Because I was a foreigner working there, a lot of customers and even my colleagues were really interested in England and would often take me out drinking, which usually ended up being 6-hour, all-you-can-drink, karaoke sessions.’
Tabitha Taylor in Budapest. Tab studies at the Central European University and I asked her, ‘What is it like being an international student?’
In short, it’s weird. That’s a word I use for pretty much everything though, a thing I noticed when I began to be surrounded by non-native English speakers and Americans. They make fun of my accent ‘cos I sound like I’m “in a movie” or something. But I quite like it since they all tell me I have beautiful English and they wished their accent was like mine. Except the Americans who never cease to be amazed at my pronunciation of words like ‘body’, ‘beer’ and ‘philosophy’ (think about it). That last one happens to be one I say quite often given that that’s what I study. ‘Why did you come to Budapest to study philosophy?’ they ask me. Well, why not? It’s an adventure! Philosophy isn’t really in the world, at least not the sort I do, so it doesn’t matter where you study it really. Plus, what better way is there to live in a foreign place? You immediately slot in, you feel you have a purpose and university makes it very easy to live.
But then, I don’t really live in Budapest do I? I live at the university, in the university bubble, speaking English to everyone and telling people I really live in London at my parents’ house. One has to make an effort to penetrate the local scene, especially in a place like Budapest, which is filled with international students, tourists and worst of all stag dos and hen parties (don’t want to get lumped in with them). And when you don’t speak the language it’s particularly tricky. But you find your feet and you learn how to act like a local and say the right things to people in shops and bars and look sufficiently grumpy and like you’ve seen it all before. And then that magical moment comes when a tourist asks you for directions! Not only have they asked you, but you know exactly where to tell them and you recommend ‘the bakery on the way where you must try the pogácsa, it’s the best in Budapest’. And for a little while you feel at home…
Until the bar staff take one look at you and ask, “what can I get you?”
Amy Lees lived in Italy during her time completing a Modern Languages degree at the University of Bristol:
Of course I discovered all of the stereotypes are true. Yes, the bureaucracy in Italy is horrendously frustrating and no, there is absolutely no queuing etiquette whatsoever. Zebra crossings may as well not exist and there is no chance of getting to a shop on a Sunday. 80% of conversation revolves around food and the other 20% football. At the school I taught in, the teachers would smoke in the stairwells despite new laws forbidding it… because the kids were doing it so why shouldn’t they? Flawless logic. I also got to see the darker side to Italy; the consequences of an aging population, tension between natives and immigrants, a lack of jobs and an unstable economy. During weak moments I wished I could just pop into the pub for a consolatory pint, or at least get my hands on some Yorkshire Tea teabags. Not very Italian, though. Living as a local was crucial for me, and it fed my fascination for my town’s little quirks, its dialect, its traditions and its history.
But Italy is not a place you get used to quickly. Every cappuccino I drank was as astoundingly sublime as the first and the weight of Italy’s history was tangible, no matter how many times I’d wandered through the same streets and the fresh, green countryside and imposing architecture still mind-blowingly beautiful and, beyond this, the people who surprised me constantly with their endless supply of warmth, enthusiasm and affection.
Experiences felt abroad are diverse, so is the politics and policy that comes with it. Our next article will look at the contrasting perspectives nations take on sending out and welcoming in international students, from British austerity to Canadian pragmatism.
The Expat Survey wishes to invite international students to contribute to our research programme, whether you are conscious of it, you are expats or immigrants too and your insights prove invaluable.
Sources: New School Free Press, The Guardian.