On my flight to London I had 3 hours to think about what was happening in my life. I had got on my first flight ever, which was more exciting than scary I’m relieved to say. I was going to a country, notoriously known for its cold weather and cold people. I am not one to believe stereotypes, but they are after all stereotypes for a reason, and when people you know repeat again and again their observations and experiences more or less you start to build your expectations. Looking out the window just after the air hostess had announced that we had arrived in London, I was welcomed by that grey, cloudy sky I had heard much about, which then triggered in my mind the other notion I was presented.
If I didn’t have a group of other Bulgarians traveling to the same place as me, I would most likely have felt like crying at that point, but I got it together and followed the stream of people through what felt like a maze of turns at the airport. Coming out of Arrivals I was surprised to see a bunch of young people holding signs with the uni symbols and smiling widely and friendly at us. I believe I gave a sigh of relief at that sight. We had a big week ahead of us, and now that I knew we were gonna safely get there I was ready to embrace it.
What I experienced wasn’t a culture shock, though I was warned about those, but it did feel somewhat surreal not recognizing anything around me. It took me about a week to get used to everything, including hearing andspeaking in English almost all the time. I must admit I found this particularly exhausting in the beginning – I would get headaches a lot, and sometimes stop listening when people weren’t talking directly to me.
I met so many people that first fortnight, I’m sure it was more than I had in the whole year before. Many of them I have forgotten by now, some are just lingering names or faces. I still recognize the girl who first greeted me at the airport though, every time I see her around campus I go back to that moment, involuntarily it just pops into my mind.
It proved less scary than all I had imagined, I wasn’t after all going to end up alone, locked in my room wallowing in depression and self pity. Because as it turns out, everyone is scared, some more and some less, but on some scale everyone wants to find acceptace and a feeling of belonging, friends to be real with. It was no doubt exciting, being so social, but at one point one has to finally pick friends from acquaintances. And that’s when I finally felt at home, when I met someone I could honestly, wholeheartedly call ‘a friend’.
After that everything just fell into place. We went to church together and met new people together and sat together through lectures and hung out after, had inside jokes. I had a face to look for in a crowd. I had someone who shared my interests and hobbies, who understood me and I them, with whom I could relax and be myself, share my opinions and thoughts freely with no fear of being rejected or laughed at, who was genuinely interested in getting to know me and has proven an amazing support during hard times, and still is.
So my advice to international students is just to use all the resources we’re given. There are so many choices even in just the Christian world- Chaplaincy’s Global Cafe, Friends international, Christian union etc;
Be yourself, but don’t go trusting everyone you meet, some people you need to test before really opening up to. You will find friends, there are definitely people compatible with you. This is where clubs and societies come in. There are so many of those! Don’t go telling me that not one of them interests you at all. And if it does but you’re not sure- try it. Just trust me and go to one of their meetings. Chances are you’re gonna enjoy it and meet people with whom you have at least one interest in common already.
There’s probably a society for your nationality, or similar which can be really great, I’m sure loads of students find them invaluable. For myself, in contrast, I have very little to nothing in common with the rest of the Bulgarians I’ve met so far, so belonging to the same nation is no guarantee to provide a base for friendship, but it might make the transition easier. I’m proud to be a Bulgarian, of course, I love my country and my home, and I’m glad to belong in a community, but there’s more to me, get to know my personality, don’t just label me Bulgarian or foreigner.
There’s another subject that I just thought of. Fitting in with British culture and students can take a while but eventually you’ll get there, you’ll understand their jokes, their banter if you will, their references, idioms they use, manner of speech and dialect. Given enough time here and enough immersion, you will likely pick it up too. But then a rather obscure problem comes to my mind. Does that lead to loss of identity in any way? I can’t give a definitive answer but I think it could. What I’ve noticed with myself is when I switch to Bulgarian with my friends I am a slightly different person, than I am in English. Also, it happens sometimes that I forget some words in my native language and just say them in English because it’s easier. I would have soaked up English culture and mannerism and carry them on in my everyday life. I fear that is inevitable. But is this loss of identity? Or is it a development? Because it’s just another side of you, originating from external circumstances and is natural. It’s not to say you’re betraying your nationality, but rather a survival tactic, that’s just there to help you handle the change and adapt to it.
I’ve noticed most British people on my course stick to each other and don’t mix with internationals much, unless the international student acts like one of them, or pretends he is one of them. So what is so scary about us, I genuinely want to know. I ought to make a survey about that. I swear we are not at all scary or bad. I’m sure if I or someone else was stuck on an elevator with a british student for, say a few hours, we would surely get chatting and getting to know each other as people, not as ‘english and bulgarian’ but more likely ‘comic book collector and movie lover’, like ‘jazz and house’, like ‘ pb + jam and pb + chocolate’, like ‘Van Gogh and Banksy’. Wouldn’t that be beautiful?