Written by Yvonne Newton, BA Theatre (ig: @eve_yve)

Moving to a different country is always going to be challenging. You are entering a new culture, experiencing new languages and meeting new people. However, what happens when you move to a country you have always considered a part of your identity? I talk to students about their experience of coming back to the UK to study after life abroad.

***Before I get into this conversation, I would first like to express my awareness of the current climate surrounding immigration and the issues many people face due to discrimination. I am fully aware that my position comes from a place of privilege and am in no way trying to diminish or compare experiences. The difference in the words ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’, clearly shows this division and I believe it is an important to recognise that both words come with assumptions of race, class, education, and of course, privilege, which we should be mindful of.

That aside, I simply intend to reach out to all students who feel in the middle ground between a ‘local’ student and an ‘international’ student. I am talking to those who maybe struggled to find themselves back in their ‘home’ country and culture. I feel that what makes a community special is our diverse selves and experiences. We should strive to embrace that on a personal and global level.

So, if you relate to this, you are not alone! We are here and we hear you!

My Experience

I was born in the UK and lived there for nine years until my family and I moved abroad to The Netherlands. Being half British and half Malaysian-Chinese meant that from a young age, I had grown accustomed to transitioning between cultures and at nine years old, I didn’t find moving countries too difficult. Making friends in an international school was a unique experience as we all were connected on the basis of our move to The Netherlands.  It was when I came back to the UK, that I found I had developed slightly warped expectations of how I was going to feel living here alone. Over the years, I had done my best to visit and stay in touch with my childhood friends, but I had changed and didn’t know where to place myself.

My decision to move back to the UK for Uni was not just based on the course, (as a theatre student it felt right to be near London) but it was also an attempt to ‘reconnect’ with my British ‘roots’… little did I realise how many new roots I had also planted in the Land of Cheese. Moving back to the UK, for me, was about creating a more established connection with a large part of my cultural identity. But I found that due to my time away, I was often left feeling slightly out of the loop.

This actually didn’t bother me initially because I really enjoyed exploring all the things I missed out on. It also allowed me to create strong friendships with a lot of Study Abroad students. However, I wasn’t expecting to sometimes feel so alone and unable to fully express myself. There was a fear of coming across as ‘showing off’ or annoying for bringing it up all the time. But I truly didn’t relate to the dominant narratives around me or placed on me.

BUT here I am writing a blog about it as I don’t want anyone to feel ashamed for speaking their truth! Embrace yourself but also know when to save your energy. Sometimes it might feel like you have to work harder to make friends or ‘prove’ everything you say about yourself whether that’s racial identity, languages or nationality; but also know that not everyone is worth the patience!

Everyone’s experience is different and I love to embrace that within myself and those around me because it’s what makes us unique.

In Conversation

I reached out to students across England who were willing to share how they felt when they first came to university and if there were any obstacles to overcome when reconnecting with British culture.

I first asked about their backgrounds and what they consider their nationality, which as you might know, can be a complicated question.

Elizabeth Evans, PPE, University of Warwick: “I’m British (half Welsh) and was born in London.  My family left the UK when I was one year old, and we then lived in Switzerland, the USA and Barbados. At ten years old, we moved to The Netherlands, where we stayed until I finished secondary school. Then coincidentally, the summer before I started at university, my family also moved back to the UK. I’ve always told people I was British. That has often felt like a bit of a lie, but that’s what I go with.”

Erin Parkinson Tee, Geography and International Development, University of East Anglia: “I’m a third culture kid who has spent their early childhood in Hong Kong but mostly grew up in The Netherlands, despite my UK nationality. I’ve always felt it was difficult to pin down where I’m exactly from. In The Netherlands, I tend to say I’m from the UK because I don’t seem like a typical Dutch local, however in the UK I say I’m from The Netherlands because I don’t quite fit in there either. I feel like I’m in a strange hybrid-nationality situation.”

Gabriella Shaw, Law, University of East Anglia: “I was born in England but left soon after. I lived and went to international schools in Luxembourg (European school), Germany (BIS), The Netherlands (ISH) and China (CGS/BGY) before coming to England for university. I’m British/Colombian and consider myself as such, but sometimes I feel like a very fortunate kid of the world? Or an alien (not in the negative sense), as my brother says.”

Tegan Imbert, Theatre, University of Reading: “I grew up in England until I was 12. Then, because of my mum’s work in International Development, I ended up moving to Malawi in Africa and then Bangladesh in Asia. I consider myself British.”

I then asked why they chose to come to the UK for University.

Elizabeth: “I was quite keen to come and discover what it would mean to actually be British, having spent my entire life telling people that was my nationality.  I also felt that because university is quite an important experience and often described as being people’s last ‘formative’ experience, it would be a good way make the UK a place that was special to me beyond my family all living there”

Erin: “Going to the UK for university seemed like the most obvious option for me. I had grown up with my extended family going through the UK university system and it seemed like it was something I too had to follow through. It was further prompted through the lack of options for my course in The Netherlands. I felt like going to the UK was going to be a new experience seeing as I hadn’t lived there previously despite holding a British passport throughout my entire life.”

Gabriella: “So I could experience what it’s like to be in my home country, connect with my roots and see my extended family more.”

For Elizabeth, Gabriella and Erin, this would be their first time properly living in the UK and I wondered if, like me, they had experienced any unexpected challenges.

Elizabeth: “Moving to the UK and starting university were slightly different experiences for me because of the timing of my family’s move. I remember feeling lost before university started in October because I was in a new town with nothing much to do, especially because my family had all started school/work. I think because of this I was extremely excited to start term, but then (I think like a lot of freshers) found it harder than anticipated.

Of course everyone struggles with fitting in and finding friends in the first few weeks, but I think the thing I found the hardest was not feeling like I had anywhere to go back to at the end of term, when all my uni friends were excited to go back home and see some familiar faces/sights. I felt for a long time that I didn’t have anywhere that felt like ‘home’ to go back to. I hadn’t met anyone I could necessarily relate to about this aspect of starting university at the start of term, even though I was lucky enough to make some great friends in the first few weeks who were happy to listen. Also, I didn’t want to come off as showing off, which made me even less willing to discuss the move in general.

I think in a way the reason it was harder than I expected was because I thought I’d adapt instantly, having already made quite a few transitions. It’s definitely the small things that matter – to a lot of people I sounded fairly English, especially after a few weeks, but small things like understanding the word ‘banter’ and finishing texts with an ‘x’ weren’t what had been normal for me at secondary school.”

Erin: “I found that moving came with a lot of unexpected situations where I really did feel like an international student. I always thought I was raised in typical “British culture” however I found difficult at first to relate to my flatmates. For example, they used slang I hadn’t heard of and had a drinking culture I wasn’t used to. At first I did feel a little excluded, but I slowly integrated when I realised I also had a lot in common with them in regards to my upbringing.”

Gabriella: “I expected some things were going to be different to what I was used to so I wasn’t completely surprised with things such as the drinking culture but perhaps the attitudes were a bit surprising. There’s also a lot of bureaucracy, which was a bit frustrating – I had trouble with being classified as a home or international student for student finance AND at uni, but in the end it was alright so NB.”

For Tegan, her experience was slightly different as she moved back to the UK for 6th form before Uni. I asked her instead about how living overseas shaped her, as well as if there were any challenges coming to Uni in the UK.

Tegan: “I feel that living overseas made me incredibly open to everyone and everything. Very restless, I never feel content in any place and I’m always ready for a new adventure. Super adaptable, I’ve learnt how to be able to get up and move and meet new people, which has its pros and cons.
I think the biggest struggle moving back to the UK was figuring out where I identified as home. Leaving the UK at 12 I didn’t have any friends in the town I grew up in and going to international schools meant that all my friends live everywhere, so I don’t have one place I see as home”

Finally, I asked them what advice they would give to other students like us who might be struggling with expectations or finding a sense of ‘home’ back in the UK, or any country you might be going back to.

Elizabeth: “I think the most important thing is that it’s ok for the transition to be difficult.  I’m so glad I went to university where I did, even though it took me far longer than I thought to feel a sense of home – I would say that midway through second year my university town definitely felt like it was my home.

I also wish I’d spoken to my friends from school about the experience more.  It’s very easy to get caught up in the beginning of university so it’s also important to stay in contact with the people you’re close to. Especially in first term when you’re just beginning to form friendships. Having gone to an international school, even if my friends weren’t having the exact same experience as me at their universities, I felt like we related to each other’s’ backgrounds more strongly.  When I eventually did have a few Skype chats with my school friends it did make everything seem less lonely.

On a more practical note, when you meet someone for the first time in Welcome Week and they ask you where you’re from, definitely don’t just say England.  I panicked and did this at a party once, and it lead to a lot of confused faces.”

Erin: “I think my main piece of advice is not to dwell on the differences but find your common ground. There are obviously going to be differences in everyone’s cultures and upbringings but there will be things you might not expect to have in common. Re-adjusting your focus helps you feel more integrated and push through feelings of homesickness. On a simpler note, joining societies from your home country can be a great way to stay in touch with your home identity and find others who are in a similar situation to you. I think the combination of feeling comfortable in the UK as well as staying in touch with your nationality is the best way to settle happily in a new country.”

Gabriella: “There will be surprises and you may or may not like them – but there will be people like you or those who can empathise with you who can help deal with your struggles.

  • Don’t feel pressured to do things to make yourself feel “more British”. For example, if you find yourself not wanting to do things other Brits might want to do, suggest something else. If they don’t want to help you feel welcome, move on.
  • With your newfound independence, uni is a time where you’ll grow a little more assertive and confident in yourself (I definitely did)- which is necessary when talking to fellow non-expat brits because I’ve found they don’t open up very easily to new people. There is no obligation to stick with people you don’t particularly have anything in common with. Being British doesn’t necessarily mean you should only find British friends. Find other expats if you want! If you don’t, that’s okay as well!
  • Home doesn’t necessarily have to be a geographical place (especially for expats) – it’s where your friends and/or family are. Keep that in mind when you feel like you don’t belong! Life at uni is a lot less stressful if you don’t try and make yourself fit in too much. If you find yourself worrying about it, talk to your family or old friends. They’ll understand what you’re going through – or even talk with staff at your new uni i.e. your adviser, student support etc.”

Tegan: “As cliche as it sounds, home is where the heart is. It’s the most amazing privilege to have friends that are from all over the world. Be proud of your upbringing and own it!”

Obviously these experiences can also apply to students all over the world who have had a life of moving around! I hope this helps someone and good luck to everyone in their Uni journey!