A Benedictine monk and a Ghanaian walk past each other…
No, this isn’t the beginning of a joke. This is university. In the UK, our universities serve to bring together all nations, colours and religions in one place, an eye-opening experience for any student and representative of one of our country’s great assets: multiculturalism and diversity. I have met students from all over the world, from Iran to Cyprus in my time as a student. Their experiences have in many ways marked me, with a sense of our common humanity, and also, with a profound understanding of how differently we see the world.
International students often come to the UK to work hard, learn and experience new things: for example, a German friend of mine, Hans*, refuses to speak in German whilst he is in England. He wants to respect the land he is studying in and improve his English, or, as he puts it, what’s the point of coming here? This enthusiasm can enable international students to not only learn but teach UK students to appreciate their country. I knew a Nigerian, Ikenna*, who was sitting next to me as the first snow fell. The look on his face was like a child’s; so delighted and awestruck at seeing what had only been in pictures actually falling outside his window. He was grinning like a boy on Christmas day, while trains and cars came to a standstill around the campus. I had never appreciated the cold white stuff so much. The weather we grow up to complain about had become a magical thing again.
Other cultures can often teach us to let go and have fun. In the endless repetition of going out, getting drunk, and recovering from a hangover, I was shown one night that I had forgotten how to enjoy myself, how to listen to the music and actually dance. At a reggae and R&B night on campus, I found myself in a group of students from Trinidad and Tobago, Nigeria, and El Salvador. Decidedly, this was the most talented group of nations in the art of dancing. So we had a street-dance type contest in the middle of the bar: African vs. Caribbean vs. Latino. Having learned to dance in West Africa, I represented the group I most identified with, but we were soundly beaten by the Caribbeans, who had the benefit of a soundly muscled dreadlocked guy who rolled his hips like no man I’ve ever seen! Clapping and whooping in a circle of so many different faces was exhilarating. That night, I learnt to feel something different, to let go of my English inhibition and really enjoy myself.
On the other hand, this lack of inhibition can be daunting for some students who have come from a country that has stricter codes of behaviour than ours, often enforced by law. For example, I met a postgraduate student at a karaoke bar named Yousef*. He was put off by the noise, the binge drinking and the sexual promiscuity, all things that would not have been allowed in his native Iran. He said that the culture shock was, at first, hard to get over. The most controversial part of UK life, he told me, was something we take for granted every day: I, a woman, not his sister or aunt or wife, was sat talking to him in a bar. Men and women mingle everywhere, talking and laughing and hugging each other, all in the spirit of friendship, and this is entirely normal; but not for Yousef. He recalled an incident in Iran where he went for a drive with a childhood friend, drinking coffee and talking. Sounds innocent enough, no? Apparently not, as the car was pulled over by the Iranian police and Yousef was almost arrested. He had to beg for mercy and was let off with a warning, for the crime of sitting next to a woman in a car. This was his idea of normality. And after the free socialising of different genders in the UK, when he went home for the holidays he admitted that it was hard to keep himself in check and his time away sometimes shed a harsh new light on his native country. Despite this, he is apprehensive of the promiscuity of women and men in the UK and the damage this may be doing to our young people. I can see his point.
How does one return home after a taste of such freedom? Yousef admitted that he was considering staying in England, and I’ve heard this opinion before, from Ikenna, who has not returned to Nigeria after his Postgraduate degree. He found life in the UK far too tempting and really made himself a home here. I guess, for him, the grass really was greener on the other side. Some people don’t integrate so well, however. A flatmate of mine from Bermuda, Serena*, never seemed to leave her room and found it hard to socialise with our all-white, loud, mostly English corridor of students. I don’t blame her. She was a long way from home and obviously found it hard to be away from everything she had ever known.
There are others for whom the choice to stay or to go is not so easy. Another postgraduate friend of mine, Fatima*, is from a troubled country in the Middle East. She found herself unable to return home, fearing for her safety in her war-torn homeland, and spent the Christmas holidays on campus. She faces not only danger but prejudice back home; being a lesbian, she has been free to explore her sexuality and meet like-minded people at university. Back in her home country, homosexuality is illegal. There have been many stories like hers, of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) people making the most of their liberty in the UK and dreading the return to a homophobic culture. I know people who have come from Middle-Eastern and African countries that can’t be out on Facebook, have to control their interactions carefully, and could never come out to their families and friends back home for fear of victimisation and even imprisonment.
On the one hand, our more tolerant society offers opportunities to live openly and unashamedly as an LGBT person, as a woman, as a person with equal rights. On the other hand, as me and Yousef have discussed at length, how will their respective native countries ever change and progress (in terms of tolerance) if the international students never return home to contribute their experiences and knowledge to their national future? I can see both arguments, and would never judge either choice. All I know is that I personally am glad to have widened my worldview, met some extremely interesting people and learned to understand and appreciate the unique benefits that living in this country provides.
*Names have been changed to respect the subjects’ privacy.
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