“Welcome to the jungle,” Axl Rose chanted in 1987 about Kingston, Washington, as he realised how scary that strange town could be. Well, the 1980s have long passed, none of us shares the Axl Rose survival skills and London is certainly no Rural Town, USA. London embraces thousands of foreign students every year, most of whom in their early and innocent 20s, seeking a home away from home while adapting new lingual and cultural skills. Welcome to the jungle, version 2011, London, UK
Over the past 15 years, the number of Chinese students in the London School of Economics increased from 20 to more than 600. As a foreign student myself, I’m no stranger to the social anxiety one adopts in such a strange milieu. We come here to study, enrich our distant worlds and explore a new culture. But how much are we allowing ourselves to taste?
“I don’t see myself fitting in socially. Nada, Zero,” said Noga Kaplan, Tourism and Planning student at the University of Westminster, originally from Israel. “It’s a combination of having no opportunities and the locals not giving you a chance. I thought being in university would make me socialise with them, but it didn’t happen. They don’t share the same mindset.“
Noga wasn’t the only one facing the culture shock. Iranian student Talieh Zarezadeh told me of her experiences at South Thames College. “I honestly didn’t know how to talk to people or react to some of the things they said: are they kidding me or is it serious? Should I laugh or should I just listen to them?”
Thames Valley University music student, Julia Kalnobricka, from Latvia, experienced a more culturally suitable welcoming: “My first encounter with the culture was having drinks in a pub, at noon, which is weird. The local students were always bragging about how much they drank the night before. To them, for some reason, I seemed like a posh and extravagant stuck-up girl who doesn’t like them, which wasn’t the case.”
Apparently binge drinking is a consensus when it comes to British things one has to get used to. Mor Bakal, Israeli student at Goldsmiths College, told me: “Whenever we go out, it’s always drinking in a pub. It’s very British. I find it lovely, from a distant perspective. Like a need for a catalyst to express feelings and lose control. They all tell me they really want to see me get drunk – I don’t usually keep things inside, so I don’t feel I need this alcohol to let go. It’s nice every now and then, but I couldn’t do it too often. I’m not used to it.”
Daiki Ichikawa, Japanese student at Goldsmiths, sees it as a blessing: “I’m a typical Japanese character, so pretty shy. Pubs are a good opportunity for us to get friends, socialise.”
Julia isn’t particularly fond of “pub crawls”: “That’s just not for me. That’s a big difference between my culture and the British one: it’s all about getting drunk.” Indeed, a resistant liver is one of the most crucial things one must equip himself with when arriving to the Kingdom. But there is more to the British culture than alcohol.
During the 1970s, the Chinese students living in a university residence in London shared one TV set with the British ones, and were only interested in watching current affairs. They set up a rota of guarding the TV from the British students, who wanted to watch football. But it seems like times have changed: most of the foreign students I talked to enjoy the ball chasing culture. Even girls: “It’s charming, being part of a community and belonging to a group,” said Mor.
So, is it as scary as we make it out to be? Apparently the major difficulty for most foreign students is the language barrier, which makes them seem less accessible to the locals. “Nobody likes waiting until the other person gets a sentence out,” Noga testified, understandingly. “It’s tiring.”
But the cultural barriers go beyond that. “Even though I speak English, the whole mentality is hard to get into,” said Nicole Micha, design student from Greece. “They have their own slang and celebrities, which I don’t know, so I don’t always get the jokes,” Noga added. “I copied them by observing them,” Talieh explained her way of coping, “researching words like ‘chav’ and ’posh’.”
Accordingly, the famous British “quiz nights”, where us students might find ourselves sometimes, socialising with the locals, could be tricky. “I refuse doing pub quizzes because I didn’t grow up here,” Julia explained, “so I don’t know the TV personalities and politicians. My British friends don’t realise it, as I spend a lot of time with them so in their minds I’m one of them.”
And yet, at the end of the day, this forging experience is invigorating. As Nicole stated, “you learn something new all the time.” Talieh even increased her appetite to go around the world and experience different cultures. “I haven’t had this feeling before I came to London,” she admitted.
So maybe not all of us always fit in, or it might just take more time than we expected. One thing is for sure– the best way to survive the jungle is to fully engage in it. And don’t forget to have fun.