I’ve always been somewhat of a foreigner. Though I have Chinese ethnicity, I went to an international high school — the teachers were British, but every student spoke with a rather grating American accent. As a result, I came to the UK with somewhat of mix, culturally; Americanisms coupled with Asian mannerisms. I was direct and outspoken to the point of being aggressive and confrontational. I disliked the pressure of having to make small talk with a cashier. And when someone asked me where I went to school, I thought they were genuinely interested in the details of my adolescence. Coming from an English-speaking country, I thought integration into everyday life in Manchester would come naturally, since I was already used to the bulk of Anglo-Saxon customs. Sadly, I, and anyone else who makes this assumption, would be grossly mistaken.
To the new class of freshmen arriving in Manchester from faraway, here are some tips compiled from my last year of cultural confusion, and advice looking forward to the next academic year.
What you should know about the British:
1. Get used to small talk. In Singapore when you went to eat with friends, you only ever made contact with your waiter four times: when they lead you to your table, when they took your order, when they gave you your food, and when they took your money. There wasn’t any effort expended to acknowledge there was an actual human being with independent thoughts that was serving you. The same goes for cashiers, street vendors, and pretty much everyone else working in the service industry; and to my knowledge, this cold professionalism is prevalent in most Asian countries. It is different here. Even in the most casual of exchanges — whether you are filling out a form at the student office, or bumping into a someone when you are on your way to a lecture — people will ask you how your day was and expect a reply. When I first arrived I was struck at how important these short exchanges were to making longer lasting relationships. My advice is simple: if they are strangers keep your answer short, relaxed, but politely distant. If they are people you have met more than once, feel free to chat a bit more, and when you see them, make an effort to initiate small talk.
2. Be generous with compliments, but resistant towards accepting them. I used to smile widely and enthusiastically accept any compliment extended to me, but be pretty slow at offering any myself. I thought that giving compliments when one was only mildly impressed came across as disingenuous and distasteful, but again, I was wrong. As the Economist advises, “If someone compliments you, permit a small blush to rise to your cheeks, and say, ‘Oh, it was nothing’.” Also dole out a few of your own compliments, but make sure they are measured and come from a truthful place.
3. Avoid tense confrontations and strong opinions. Though the Brits enjoy their fair share of heated political discussion as much as the rest of us, it’s probably a good rule of thumb to avoid any heavy topics when you first meet people. This applies to when you work together on an assignment and come across a disagreement. I used think that plowing through and arguing heatedly was the best way to resolve a conflict, since every party would have the opportunity to air out their opinions in a non-judgmental environment. However, the British tend to value tact, symbolic gestures of compromise, and patient diplomacy. Straight-forwardness and brutal honesty comes, if at all, after establishing a relationship of trust and mutual benefit.
4. Say your pleases and thank-yous. Exactly what it says on the tin; common courtesies go a long way in the UK. It may seem excessive to some, but I’ve personally found that it makes everyday life a bit more pleasant for everyone. So hold the door open when you can, bring a six-pack when you’re invited to a party, and say please and thank you a lot.
5. Master the art of self-deprecation. I was once horrified to hear some of the things the British said about themselves — it just seemed like a masochistic ritual of self-humiliation. I still don’t quite fully understand it to be honest; maybe it’s an intellectual reminder to never take oneself or the world too seriously, or a self-defence mechanism where one critiques oneself so the judgments of others aren’t as hurtful. But nonetheless, learn to make the occasional light-hearted jab at yourself (just don’t make it too depressing). I also made the mistake of assuming that because people were already poking fun at themselves, it was okay to tease them with their own ammunition even if we had only just met. Short story: this isn’t true. Friendly teasing comes much later in the relationship and after you have sufficient evidence to show that they are okay with it.
Making the most of first year:
1. Travel! The UK, and Manchester in particular, is accessible to some of Europe’s most amazing destinations, and in your first year you aren’t beholden to many obligations. Take this chance to enjoy a trip over one of the shorter breaks to Belfast, Paris, Edinburgh, or Amsterdam. There are plenty of things to see closer to home as well like Birmingham, Oxford, and of course, London. For many of you that have to take long flights or torturous road trips to cross state borders, your time in university presents a valuable opportunity that won’t come often. If you can’t travel far, definitely use the time to attend Manchester’s festivals and enjoy the city beyond its student-friendly pubs. Manchester is, despite having the leftover façade of an industrial town, a wonderful cultural center with musicals, concerts, and plays happening every other week.
2. Learn to do most of your socializing when you drink. It is hard to emphasise how important drinking culture is in the UK, especially when you’re a student. It is where the bulk of socialisation occurs; where, under the dim light with a pint in hand, people loosen their strings and make fun, light-hearted conversation as well as exchange more intense dialogue that may include their personal philosophical insights — dependent on how late it is, and how much they’ve had to drink. Even if you’re not too fond of drinking, tag along to pub crawls or casual beers after class and feel free to stick to a Coke. I’ve found that Manchester students are open and accepting, and while they may be the type to pursue aggressive drinking with the sole purpose of oblivion, they aren’t likely to coerce you to do the same.
3. Make local friends. While missing home and unused to loneliness, it’s easy to mix with people who give you a comforting sense of familiarity. Though it’s definitely valuable to have friends that ground you with shared cultures and experiences, try to mingle with people from all over. In my past year, I’ve met people who have been endlessly kind, humble, and wise. I’ve also met people on the other end of the spectrum. Being part of such a large and diverse student body is a large portion of Manchester’s appeal, and it’d be a missed opportunity not to take advantage of it.
I won’t sugar-coat it, the first year can sometimes be challenging. Loneliness in a strange city can be suffocating and the academia may be demanding. However, with new environments free of the burdens of past mistakes and the ingrained perceptions of others, university life as an international student can be freeing. It’s a time to fully commit oneself to being daring and open-minded. And with that, I wish the incoming class the best of luck.