Swapsy Scholarship Program - Life as an International Student

Kitty Xu · March 12, 2019

About the author: Kitty is originally from China. She is 16 years old, currently attending secondary school in London. 

A Hand Guide to Being an International Student

This guide is produced to help any prospective student who is deciding on whether they would be suitable to study abroad or who has already finished packing and is sitting in the plane right now imagining all the possible possibilities after the 10-hour flight and how to deal with them. It is written by a 17-year old girl who had never left her home country, China, before she turned 15, after which decided, against the opinion of all her family members and teachers, to take a one-year adventure to an idyllic village town in southern Germany, where she was the only person in her school not being a member of the Germanic bloodline. As she turned 16, she made another life-changing decision to fly to the United Kingdom. Now, she is sitting in the heart of London, where more than a half of the population is foreign and more than 300 languages are spoken, reflecting on her bold adventure into the Western world and thinking about how to help the other 5.1 millions of young students who are facing or will face similar situations. 


(first flight to a foreign country, picture by author)

Being international means a great many things – it means to leave the environment that you are used to and thrive in the thrills of a completely new world. It means to meet people on the other side of the world and to exchange often clashing ideas on various topics that you encounter. It means to get a full taste of a completely different culture, trying to digest every bit of it the moment you’ve decided to put it in the mouth. It means to get away from the family, no longer needing to tolerate your mother’s well-intentioned yet endless rantings on why you should put on your hat and scarf when you go outside or why you should not walk alone on the street when it gets dark. It means to leave behind all your friends and to have the only interaction with them being your comments on Instagram about how good they look in their new dress.


(decoration outside the classroom in Germany, picture provided by author)

Being international is definitely the best strategy if you want to get attention - the uninvited glances of strangers at your ‘outstanding’ black hair and yellow skin as they pass by, or being the topic of discussion in the cafeteria for dropping food on your skirt while trying to get it in your mouth with your clumsy hand; all whilst being the centre of conversation of your parents and relatives which mostly involves your parents proudly boasting on how well you are thriving in the Western civilization, oblivious to the fact that on the other side of the world you’ve just decided to sit on the far edge of the table in the cafeteria trying to cover up the fact that you have no one to sit with for lunch. 

Being international means that you have to be a good actor. You have to be extremely good at disguising your ignorance about teenage pop culture, mastering the smile-and-nod tactic when you have no idea what's being talked about. The technique is extremely useful but it is unfortunately only expedient. To fully become a ‘‘normal’’ teenager, you have to do much research in your spare time, understanding why all the girls suddenly start to giggle and cover up their face when the head girl announces that one of the new boys comes from ‘‘Ravenclaw’’. 


(picture from unsplash)

Being international means that you have to be an expert negotiator. You have to brace yourself to face the expressionless visa officer and use every bit of your intelligence to convince them that you have neither the intention to stay illegally after you’ve finished your study nor to smuggle your family member into the country. You have to brace yourself to be bounced like a football between the notary office, translation agency, foreign affairs office, bank, department of consular affairs, embassy, etc., while you are merely trying to get all the documents that are listed on the visa application website translated and notarized, to ensure that you will not slip up at the appointment with the visa application agency for which you’ve been queuing for several months – your only chance before term begins. 

Being international means that you have to be an expert economist. You have to keep track of the extremely complicated interaction between supply and demand in the international market. You have to know the exact moment when the currency exchange rate is in favour of your home country, so that you will be able to pay the rocketing tuition of your study, as it is an unfortunate truth that most of the schools and universities set higher tuitions for international students, and bursary is certainly not a piece of cake on your plate. 

Being international means that you have to be a good mathematician. Your brain must work quick enough to convert everything from British pounds (or American dollars, etc.) to your home currency in a café, and finally decide that you’ll only have a glass of tap water and a bowl of sweetcorn soup, as your sophisticated brain work has made you feel nothing but abysmally poor. 


(picture of campus in London, provided by author)

Being international means that you have to be a shrewd real estate agent. As you are virtually ‘‘homeless’’ on this foreign land, on your very first days of arrival, you have to scroll through numerous room renting websites, trying to make sense of what different locations (blocks) imply, the time and cost of transport between your residence and your school/university, and how the extremely complicated terms and clauses on your room renting contract interact to make sense. In short, you have to behave like a sensitive hound, smelling out the very room with adequate size, transportation, location, etc. that is going to be the new place that you will call ‘‘home’’ for the next several years.

Being international means that you will have to be a semi-qualified lawyer. You have to understand the highly sophisticated wording of the terms and clauses on your contract with your insurance company. The wording is designed in such a way as to confuse the company’s local clients, not least you, a foreigner. And thus, as a result, you will need to spend hours looking up terminology in a dictionary, when you happen to have bruised your elbow and needed to send the medical bill to your insurance company. Moreover, you will have to outsmart the company’s professionals in word games, so that you can get the reimbursement that you deserve. (Trust me, I now know the precise difference between “an acute tooth pain” and “a mild toothache” thanks to some interesting incident that happened during my year in Germany.)

Being international means that you will have to be a certified nurse. You need to know that morphine is stronger than ibuprofen or Neurofen for pain killing. You need to describe, in a foreign language, how your stomach pain is dull abdominal and not an “acute stomach-ache”. You have to listen to the doctor very carefully, trying to extract bits of information from his stuttering instruction, so that you know how you should take the medicine. And most importantly, you have to master the names and curative effects of the general OTC drugs, as unlike in your home country where you can just stride into the hospital whenever you like, here in most Western countries, you will have to book an appointment with the doctor no matter how trivial your complaint actually is. In short, if you can’t wait, learn the drugs well.

Being international, you’ll have to be an expert at reading and interpreting maps. You’ll have to have a picture of the underground network in your mind (especially crucial when you’ve decided to go to a metropolitan city like London). What’s more, you’ll have to know which stations have stair-free facilities and which don’t, as most of the time, you’ll be travelling in a “visitor-like” manner with your two or three suitcases and backpacks. Also, you’ll need to understand the different type of train delays – a worker’s strike means that you’ll definitely not be able to use this train for a whole day, while a technical error possesses more variability, giving you a waiting time ranging from a quarter of an hour to half a day or longer. 


(picture from unsplash)

Being international, you’ll also need to be a fast runner, especially when running with big suitcases. You will need the legs of an athlete to support you to run across the maze-like train station to catch your in-five-minute-departing train with one suitcase in each hand and two backpacks. Remember, speed is time. The last thing you would like to do is to sit there with your suitcases and wait for the next train which is due in an hour, trying to figure out what the line “advance ticket – only for this train” on your train ticket means.

Most importantly, being international means that you’ll have to be a persistent optimist. When the foreign office turns you away, when the embassy tells you to call tomorrow, when the police registration office asks you to come in a month, when the bank refuses to offer you a student loan, you have to keep the smile on your face and tell yourself to try again – everything will be better, just another try!

If, being international means, as listed above, having to perform so many roles simultaneously, why choose to take that fight at the first place, when the weight of that choice seems to demand you to be a superman or superwoman? 

Because being international, while bringing loads of challenges, brings you a great amount of joy too – the time you open your passport with hope and your finger immediately sense the visa stamp that you’ve been looking forward to for half a year; the second you see the right train heading towards you standing on the platform that you’ve asked five people to get to; the moment you see the hotel name that you’ve been looking for ages with your huge suitcases on the lonely street at night; the “Ding-- ” of your phone the moment you’ve landed, from your parents whom you haven’t seen for one year and who have driven for 300km to give you a hug at the airport…. 

Such moments of wild excitement are countless. The fact that you are alone in a foreign country makes every tiny kindness that you’ve received particularly treasurable, be it from strangers, or from people whom you know. For example, when a person that you don’t know buys you a tube ticket and tells you how to get to the hotel that you’ve been looking for; when you find out, having come back from a meeting, that your host has left the dinner for you on the table and attached a short note reminding you to warm it in the microwave before eating; when a man who was only passing by gets off the car and explains to you how to use the medicine, having seen you struggling to read the medicine instruction paper outside the pharmacy – it is these hearty moments that keeps your smile even though life has sometimes been harsh on you; it is these small kindnesses that cheer you up and makes you think, “look, there are, after all, more good people in the world than bad ones.” They make up your life and remind you to carry on, as you never know how exciting the next adventure will be and how many brilliant people you will meet in the trip ahead. 

Here, I would like to use the chance of writing this hand guide to thank all the amazing people who have offered their kindness. Without their support, I would not possibly have had the courage and strength to walk along this difficult path. It is their act of kindness, big or small, that has lighted up my path.


(picture from unsplash)

Also, a big thanks to my parents too. Not every parent has the courage to let their teenage girl or boy go aboard, especially to countries so foreign that they themselves haven’t even been to. It is a process of letting go, and the difficulty of making the decision is beyond imagination because letting your young child go abroad is like cutting off that parent-child connection. You have placed your child on the other side of the world and he or she is no longer within your reaching distance. Suppose, when something happened to your child, the fastest you could reach him or her would be at least after 15 hours – that is, with the assumption that you managed to book the earliest flight and that the airport just located in the city that you live in. Suppose, that “something” that happened to your child was kidnapping or acute illness, how certain were you to ever see your child again, alive? 

Thus, letting a young child go abroad is an extremely difficult decision. It means that you will have to live with constant fear that something would happen to your child and that you could do nothing about it. The only thing you could do, probably, is to trust and to hope – trusting the ability of your 15-year-olds to distinguish between people with good intentions and people with bad ones, and hoping that all the people they will meet are with no bad intentions.

As for me, the meaning of being international is, really, to grow up. Going abroad, you go through a metamorphosis. I left as a girl who was listening to a podcast while my mom was trying to pack up everything into my three suitcases, complaining that I would never grow up. Two years later, I returned as a young lady who, after landing, got swiftly into the airport cab that she had arranged for herself and adroitly booked the plane tickets and hotels for her next trip. 

Life always has its magical power to force a child to grow up. The moment I left my parents and stepped into the plane to Germany, I had to become an adult – it’s not about reaching the age of eighteen, but rather, reaching the time that you’ll have to take full responsibility of yourself. Realistically, there is no one there to guide you anymore in a foreign country. Far away from parents and far away from friends, the only person you’ve got that you could fully rely on is yourself. You have no choice but to grow up. You have to grow up to handle all the crisis in life, and you have to arm yourself with skills and knowledge to overcome the various difficulties that you are going to encounter; you have to take up all the above-mentioned roles that life has required you to play. All of these you will have to do at the age of fifteen or younger when you are supposed to be told to wear a coat when it is snowing outside and to be driven to the department store to get a pair of new shoes. Therefore, you have to grow up, and quickly, as you know that on this foreign land, you are no longer that child to be protected and to be taken care of; here, you can count on nobody, but yourself, so if you are going to be an adult, be a responsible one. 

Lastly, I wish for all brave young international students to find a place for themselves in foreign countries and carry on however difficult the circumstances might seem to be – they are only temporary – for I believe, after all, there truly is light at the end of the tunnel, and it is reserved for the bravest who dares to walk to the end.

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