During our event, many valuable and enjoyable discussions were held on the subject of international research and life in general for internationals in Britain. From the humorous to the disturbing, anecdotes were shared and perspectives widened! Here are a few extracts from the writing that participants did on the day. Writing has been minimally edited for clarity.
Pleasures of Being an International PGR
I felt the supposed advantage about speaking more than one language more when I was in my country, because I felt I had access to more opportunities than the rest of my work mates, and one of these opportunities came with the acceptance to study an international PhD. Here in the UK it has been as if starting a new life. Here I have learned to crack new codes, and new ways of understanding the days and people.
Some other times I have felt useful when people in the street ask me about an address or simply smile at me. As if I am accepted. When things like this happen, I feel that the decision of being here has not been as bad as some other times I think it is. I have considered myself as a nostalgic person, and when the weather becomes grey this feeling persists. I have learned to be more in contact with this part of myself more than before.
Speaking more than one language is helpful. It helps me to hold more perspectives and have access to more resources. This happens in both my living experience and my research life. I can read resources in two languages. They often hold very different perspectives and emphases. For example, English-speaking news about my home country often gives priority to dramatic stuff, and often political and sometimes negative things such as human rights violation. The home counterpart can be more interesting. It talks about all aspects of life: the humorous, the miserable, the cultured, the extravagant and the questionable. It is fun to follow because I can get it. However, to follow the English-speaking channel gives a perspective of how people focus on different things. Even translations are read differently; I mean with an awareness of differences and similarities.
In my research life, the ability to speak English allows me to read more broadly. English is the global language; English speakers and writers are more diverse than those of any other languages. For example, while researching in human sciences subjects, I encountered Bourdieu, a French thinker. Although I read faster in my mother tongue, there are more English translations of his work than there are of my native language. This became an advantage, which itself links to do a degree in a global language.
As a Chinese here in Bristol, it’s quite easy to be recognized with my Asian face. I was often greeted in Chinese, which is very sweet. When I first came here, I often got lost. People would come to me and kindly offered their help, especially those Chinese who have been here for some time. They would approach me and asked me whether I speak Chinese, and they would communicate with me in Chinese. Speaking the same mother-tongue makes us feel closer, even as strangers. It warmed me heart, so whenever I came across some Chinese in trouble, I would offer my help.
Pains of being an International PGR
Yes, the awkwardness can become a typical situation as a Ph.D. student, but at the same time is the way to learn. Being awkward has stopped me sometimes from continuing interacting with people, but at the same time, I know the importance of failing as a way to understand, learn and improve my communication skills. Because of that, I would like to get to live without prejudice about feeling awkward, because this sense of failure doesn’t help me to move forward; sometimes it paralyzes me and makes me overthink about wrong things I have done.
Awkwardness becomes familiar at the beginning of your stay in the UK if you are not a native speaker. It is possible to misunderstand phrases or just understand nothing. Probably talking with my supervisor the first time was the most awkward and frustrating. I had the idea that British English was easier to understand than American because I was sure that, at least in British movies, it was clearly and elegantly spoken, but after arriving here, I found that my idea was wrong. I needed to get used to English accents.
But the time I felt more awkward in my UK stay was after a talk while we were taking some drinks. One of my supervisors asked me some questions about how my research was going and suddenly another researcher joined the conversation and asked me different questions about my topic. He was very interested because one of his students was studying something similar. He asked me something that I thought I understood, and when I finished my explanation, he just kept silent. Then my supervisor asked me the same question more slowly, and that was the moment when I noticed that I had misunderstood totally. I started to sweat, and as best I could, I gave him a coherent answer and asked for apologies because the first time I gave him an incorrect answer to what he was asking.
I was sitting in the middle of the rows. As I started to speak over the mic, people looked back at me. I felt a little nervous but still felt ok to speak. I thought the point of international people on campus was to hear how each other thought and spoke differently. But perhaps I was talking unintelligently, because an East Asian-looking professor sitting in the middle of the front rows in the audience, who I later found out was a professor in that particular area, looked fed up with me and directly cut in and said openly and obviously publically in English, ‘What is your point?!’ I put an exclamation mark there to demonstrate how emotional he was. But what I really wanted to express was how shocked I was. I was a student, he was part of the audience, so it seemed to be at least. And he cut off my speaking and questioned my point; the speaker on the podium hadn’t had a chance to respond. I thus quickly put one sentence to the question to end it. I was trembling and never raised a question in public setting. This also made me realise that some people, international people, women, and many others with various differences are less engaged in conversations for many reasons and lack of encouragement and self-censorship are among them.
An awkward situation in a foreign land… A friend of mine went to watch a football match wearing the T-shirt of his favourite team. After he went to the toilet, the team scored, and he could hear the loud noise of people shouting, cheering and screaming. When he was about to come out of the toilet, a tall guy blocked his way out around the corner of the passage, and in his shadow, he heard “Give me five.” He was so frightened as there were no other people around, and he didn’t dare to look at the man in front of him, he just reached into his pocket and took out a five-pound note and handed it over with a trembling hand. You can imagine how embarrassing it was when he saw the confused face. Actually the man was just also a fan of the same team, and wanted to celebrate the good news with him by slapping his palm.
First, keeping a daily routine is very important. It is believed that your body and brain work better if you follow the same time schedule every day. You’d better get up, have dinner and go to bed at the same time every day. It takes very strong self-discipline to do so.
Second, we should set a goal. And whenever we are making a decision we should take our aim into consideration. If your aim is to enjoy life here, you’d better have more life experiences such as hanging out with friends, travelling around more often. But if research comes first in your opinion, you’d better spend more time in the library and read more books. It’s never easy to balance living and researching. One’s energy and time are limited, you can’t do everything. You have to make a choice, for example, there’s a presentation next morning, and your friends are inviting you to a party in the pub tonight. You’ve got to choose. You cannot present well enough if you got a hangover after the gathering. There’s some kind of sacrifice if you really want to accomplish something. You must be self-motivated to do that.
Third, prepare for the worst. We must plan ahead of time, always have a back-up plan in case things don’t turn out as expected.
Last but not least, hope for the best. Be positive, and always think of the sunny side of things even if in the worst situation!
It’s always easier said than done. I’m trying my best to do the above.
It could be an unproductive day, bad weather, or a song that answers our need to be melancholic, but they are all our expressions of some moments. Powerful expressions that if we reflect we know more about ourselves: how much we wanted to be reminded of being hopeful and seeing hopes. These are qualities that I remind myself of and use to carry myself forward.
I meditate over sufferings, just like mine but others’; sometimes it was others who told me and shared me with their pains, and sometimes it was what I perceived as suffering despite deep contact. These were the moments I asked myself if I was balanced in my thinking, and how balanced. Too much idealism makes a person easily miserable, because we set the bar very high. But who are we? Here we are international people, enjoying an age of great mobility, and regardless of how much unforeseeable trouble that also brings, we are the lucky generation to experience it and draw our potentials out of it. This is something we shall celebrate deeply. It’s based on some simple but deeply rooted assumptions of being human, not perfect but aspiring to be better.
After the mentality, I would say the strategy for balance is to calm down. I calm down by talking to very few people. I’m lucky to have very supportive people around me. In psychotherapy, it was about using languages to overcome difficulties. On many occasions it wasn’t all that difficult but often just a short circuit in my implicit thinking. Sometimes this derives from my not knowing enough about things and sometimes it’s about me not knowing enough about myself. For example, I thought I might want to work more, but would find myself sighing for not spending enough time with my beloved people. I thought I wanted to succeed but would find myself not all that impressed with many successes. In my small socialising circles, I have always been interested in some people quite a bit older than me. I admire charming and composed outlooks a lot. To think calmly is the first step to knowing what to give up, when to stop and where to take up new things.
Meeting new people and hearing new perspectives is something I do when I lose a life balance. This may sound odd. I didn’t realise this either until just now when I started, for the first time to think properly about what balance really meant. To have an extra thing, as to seek to meet new people, sounds a burden. But what it involves is to displace myself from a temporary imbalance and pay some effort to broaden my mind set.
I have tried in different times in my recent life to apply a morning routine. These times have given me wellness and joy, and have made my mornings more efficient, helping me to have a good start to give meaning to the rest of the day. Some of the activities that I used to do were meditation, writing in my diary, running, and repeating a personal affirmation that helps me to stay focused. According to the topic of this writing, I think this can be a good moment to overcome the negative thinking that has been in my head during the last months and do these activities again in the mornings to come.
So, now I have two excellent books that I am sure can help me to understand myself better and be focused. I will use the first 10 minutes of the morning to do a focus exercise; that is a short meditation to be present. The next 30 minutes will be useful for reading some bits of the books I mentioned, and after that start running again. The spring season is quite fantastic for early morning running sessions, and I have different options of spaces to use that are close to my flat, so these are opportunities that I need to use. So, this is not only the way I would like to start my day tomorrow, but the way I will do it, instead of being distracted by social media, which is a timewasting activity which I have been distracted by in the mornings of the last few months.