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The struggles and joys of being far from home: An international student's perspective

Being away from home to study abroad and being able to gain more independence can be thrilling but for a lot of us, it can also be a struggle. Living such a distance away from home is stressful, especially with the added combination of a significant time difference, change in environment and culture. Although some of these struggles may seem trivial at first, it can sometimes affect international students quite significantly. We talk about some of the struggles and joys of being far from home based on our own experiences in the hopes it will help some of you.


 

The Struggles


You can’t just go home over the weekend.

This may seem pretty obvious but what we mean by “you can’t just go home over the weekend” is that going home takes a lot of planning. Flight tickets are expensive and sometimes direct flights are unavailable, which means you might need to take a train and then a flight or multiple flights to get home. Going home during the COVID-19 pandemic has made going home to Malaysia even more of an ordeal than before. You need to take into account the amount of days and extra cost of being in quarantine for both back in Malaysia and when you return to the country you’re studying in. In addition to that, there is also the cost of the COVID-19 tests you need to take.


Going home for short periods of time is also not ideal as the time and money it takes to travel home is rather significant. You will also have to consider the amount of time it takes to adjust to the time difference when you travel back and forth.


The fear of missing out.

Travelling abroad means being away from home and that means being away from friends and family. Although technology has allowed us to be connected even when we’re miles apart, it can never replace actually being around the people you love. As a medical student especially, with the degree being so long, you will inevitably miss out on significant events like Deepavali, Chinese New Year and Hari Raya which are not celebrated as grandly as they are back home. It can feel lonely as you watch your friends and family spending time together but on the other hand, it will make you appreciate the limited time you have with them when you do get to go home.


A part of growing up also means that you may drift apart from friends that you were once close to. Unfortunately, being far away from them makes it harder to maintain friendships. There is also the issue of a significant time difference which can make communicating even more difficult as there is a smaller window to speak to family and friends.


Adjusting to the weather.

Having lived in Malaysia all your life, adjusting to the weather abroad can be a challenge especially if you were to study in Europe as it can be quite chilly most of the year. It is even more testing in the winter as the days get shorter. With the sun rising later and setting earlier (it can start to get dark before 3pm at the peak of winter), some people are prone to feeling a little down during winter. There is actually a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which is also known as “winter depression” as the symptoms of low mood are usually more severe and apparent during the winter months. Although the idea of winter can be quite exciting and magical, the reality is it is usually cold, dark and rainy which can really take a toll on your mental health.


On the brighter side, literally, summer is a very pleasant time in the UK! The long days (the sun sets at 10pm) and cool weather (15- 19C) makes a great time to do outdoor activities with your friends.

The little things.

And then there are just the small things about being abroad that will make you miss home. Being Malaysian, we take pride in our food and the sheer variety of cuisines available everywhere. Being abroad means adjusting to the food and not to mention the lack of Asian ingredients at your disposal. Of course, if you go to a bigger city like London or Melbourne, there are definitely going to be more options! However, if you choose to study in a smaller town, be prepared to pack some of your comfort food staples as they won’t be as available when you are abroad.


Being in a foreign country also means that you lose the opportunity to speak your mother tongue. You may also have to adjust to the different accents and slangs used in the country you move to. It can be a little tricky especially in the beginning but after a while, you become accustomed to it.


 

However, when all's said and done, studying abroad isn't just made up of doom and gloom. There are so many benefits that come from living and studying in a foreign country, which brings us to...


The Joys


Growing as a person.

There is a lot to look forward to when studying abroad, one of them is gaining independence. This means that you will learn to do things for yourself and be responsible for things you never had to worry about before. This may seem like a huge drawback but it is a good learning curve and will help further prepare you for adulthood. As an example, being abroad will encourage you to develop your cooking skills as eating out is far more expensive overseas compared to in Malaysia. It may seem like a burden at first but after some practice, it becomes an enjoyable and satisfying experience.


You may surprise yourself with how much you develop and grow as a person when you are essentially on your own. You learn to be more organised with school work, your finances and other household responsibilities. The best part about all of this is being able to see the world with a different pair of eyes as you interact with new friends, strangers and a completely different society.


Gaining new experiences.

The culture abroad is definitely very different to what we are used to back home. The festivities are slightly different depending on where you choose to study but it is exciting to experience and embrace other cultures as well. For example, Scotland is famous for their Cèilidh which involves a group of people dancing to Scottish folk music at large gatherings like weddings, birthdays and other celebratory events. Immersing yourself in other cultures helps you make new friends as well as make you feel more comfortable in a foreign environment as you gain a deeper understanding of their customs and traditions.


One of the big perks of being abroad is the opportunity to travel and discover new places. There are plenty of historical landmarks and beautiful towns to visit during the summer or if you are on a short break. If you study in the UK, other countries in Europe are very accessible by bus, plane or train. You can travel on a budget and take advantage of discounts offered to students. Unfortunately, with COVID-19 still on the rise, travel at the moment is very limited but once the situation settles, make use of your free time to go on trips whether with friends or even by yourself!


Wider opportunities for career advancement.

For some people, studying abroad is a good opportunity to seek jobs in the country they study in. Although a lot of people choose to go back home immediately after graduation, for some, working abroad has better prospects. Sometimes, working overseas helps you to gain different skills and experiences which will be invaluable to bring back home to Malaysia. When you study abroad, the degrees you obtain will likely be recognised by the organisations or companies abroad that employ you, meaning you can avoid having to do extra exams. Furthermore, working abroad can make you even more employable when you return to Malaysia as a lot of companies will value the knowledge and experience you have gained overseas.


All in all, just like everything else in life, being abroad has its ups and downs. “The grass is always greener on the other side” is very applicable in these situations. When you are abroad, things back home may seem so much better and the opposite will be true for the people back home. If you are fortunate to have an opportunity to be abroad and explore new things, always take advantage of this. There is so much in the world for you to discover and this is the perfect chance for you to do so!


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