What’s it like to be an international student

At the age of 18, I accepted a university offer from the UK. I’d never been there before nor did I think about what would happen if I didn’t actually like it. The only thing I cared about was the opportunity to live on the other side of the world. After landing in Heathrow Airport, I was amazed by the beautiful landscape along with the smell and excitement in the air. The strong ‘westerners’ deodorant smell was my first very memorable impression of the UK.
So far, I’ve stayed here as an international student for almost 3 years. Looking back, this decision for that little girl born and raised in China to move to a western world alone was pretty daunting.

Uni is a LIFE challenge and a struggle!

People often ask me how life is different from China? What is it actually like to study in the UK?

It’s hard to describe it—try imagine you woke up in a city of Asia, knowing only a tiny bit of its culture, people and language. The overwhelming cultural shock and differences, and even people who look completely different from your ‘original setting’ along with the fear and helpless feeling in your heart. That is exactly how it feels as an international student who’s not born in a western context.

Being an international student can come with challenges. The most challenging part in academic is reading, it was just killing me at first! I wasn’t used to reading full English texts without any Chinese explanation or translation so it often took me ages to finish a recommended chapter or an article. The different language system meant that I never read anything related to my mother tongue.

British Universities are impersonal places – for example, there’s less hand-holding. They promote an independent way of thinking, and to a large extent you will be expected to plan and organise your own learning and to work alone outside of formal study hours. It’s also frustrating that lecturers and module leaders’ office times are very limited and meetings have to be booked beforehand, and their email replies are often slow or absent. This all made learning a struggle to me.


The damn British weather really drives me nuts sometimes, as I hate rain VERY MUCH. And what’s more, I can’t really tell what season is it right now as it’s always cold every day. For shopping, the best part of living in the UK is that I can get tax free most of the time, which is probably the best way to compensate the inexpensive £12,000 tuition fees (no we don’t have student loans) and makes me feel better.

As we all know that 80% of the world’s products are made in China. This is seen in the UK. Every time I shopped, I could tell exact which part of the product was made in China and how much it really costs there. The actual prices are so cheap that it would drive you mental! It’s always so frustrated to bring it back at a price that’s 6 or 7 times higher.

As for the renowned NHS. I couldn’t understand why I have to wait for more than a week to meet a GP or 3+ hours for accident and emergency. In my opinion, it wouldn’t be called ‘emergency’ if it’s that long and the disease could be cured on its own before you see the doctor.

I haven’t spent much time away from home and had been spoilt in China. Moving to the UK sometimes made me feel quite homesick and depressed. The hardship I suffered came in being lonely without family to encourage or support when unexpected circumstances arose.

Moreover, I’ve always been very culturally sensitive, so I naturally feared of being unaccepted. But it has been comforting to have people around who speak the same language as me and understand my background and culture.

On the other hand, Uni life is also fun. The university has given me lots of freedom to develop my own hobbies; my reading gradually improved, which helped my writing that led to my participation in newspaper and online writing.

I’m so amazed by the diversity here. I made an effort to throw myself into meeting people from other countries and cultures whilst keeping in touch with my friends and family back home. Aafter all, I’m living in an incredibly exciting multicultural society and should make the most of it! Meeting people I have never had a chance to meet before allows me to practice language skills, learn about other cultures, and try out other foods.

In this way, not only am I distracted from feeling homesick, but I also learnt about so many different lives. It taught me something about my life and feelings too.

Nonetheless, when it comes to Chinese New Year, unfortunately Chinese students don’t have that luxury to go back home and to celebrate the most important festival of the year. Home is around 8,000 miles away from UK and often it’s in term time, so we all missed it. Yet, we also celebrate it in here, so that made me feel right at home.

Coming to the UK for the first time may be a shock to the tastebuds! Especially for me, I for one am not too keen on the local cuisine. I have had to cook for myself or make joint meals with flatmates. Luckily, I lived with 2 super experienced ‘chefs’ in my second year which that was an extra bonus.

For us, to be honest, life is a struggle here. From managing personal finances to resolving conflicts with peers and flatmates. From coping with depression to defying the status quo. Without a family in the country to call on for help, we’re sometimes quite vulnerable and overlooked. But I believe that the ups and downs throughout my time have made me who I am today. I feel more prepared and confident to take on whatever the world throws at me next. When I look back, I really appreciate the experience of studying at UK as an international student.

Have you ever studied abroad? Or would like you to? Join the conversation @MyStudentStyle!


Sally Mu

This article has been posted on My Student Style: http://www.mystudentstyle.co.uk/international-student/