What it’s like to move from Poland to study at Bristol University
Zosia chats the challenges and joys she’s experienced since getting to the UK
How to describe a life that’s torn between two different worlds? As an international student from Poland who now lives and studies and Bristol, this question has been on my mind a lot. I wonder how to tell people about my ‘double life’ – people who never lived in another country, adapted to a different culture, or learned to speak another language.
My decision to study abroad was actually very spontaneous. My childhood friend, also from Warsaw, went to live in Cambridge for two years with her dad, and when we met up I was very curious about what it was like to go to school in England. Her school sounded like the kind of place I would feel good in – an international sixth form in a village just outside of Cambridge, a lot of people from different fun places, very laid back, and you could do International Baccalaureate which meant choosing your ownsubjects. It all sounded great to me. My parents were supportive, although I think my mum doubted I would have the guts to do it until the day of my departure.
I’d already been on a few trips to the UK which fed my lifelong fascination with Britain. When I was younger, I read a few Jane Austen novels and a lot of Agatha Christie, initially Polish translations and then in the original English. I loved everything that was even just slightly British: tea with milk, shortbread, the accent, double decker buses, the Wellington boots. In my English class in high school I started to try and put on a British accent, especially after having watched the BBC Pride and Prejudice.
Because of all this, I thought I was prepared well enough to live here feeling like I wasn’t a foreigner. I soon realised that everything was quite different to what I had imagined. Britain is not as romantic as its painted in many books and films. The real Britain was shockingly normal and imperfect, just like home. On average, people were maybe more polite than in Poland but it lost some of its appeal when I realized that politeness was not always equal to kindness.
I soon realised that everything was quite different to what I had imagined. Britain is not as romantic as its painted in many books and films.
But I discovered great things too, especially in sixth form. Compared to my Polish high school, students were trusted to make our own decisions regarding our future, without anyone trying to persuade us that they know what’s best for us. Guidance and support was always there and we were encouraged to be ambitious, but no one made you feel bad about yourself if university was not your goal. Perhaps this was why I started to want to aim high – because no one made me, and I realized that what I did with my future was completely up to me.
Living with a British host family during sixth form was interesting, rewarding and extremely difficult. At the beginning, I loved it because I was welcomed warmly and, as the weeks and months went by, I felt cared for and looked after. They wanted me as a part of their family and at first I wanted it too, particularly because I felt grateful for all the kindness and love they gave me. But it was really hard – maybe because I became more and more aware of our cultural differences, and our slightly different values and worldviews. Maybe if made more effort with them, it would have worked out differently. But I fixated on getting good grades and going to a good university, so studying consumed almost all my time and energy.
Before going to the UK, my ultimate goal – what I thought of as the solution to all my sorrows – was going away, being somewhere else. While living here, I thought that going to a really good university would prove my worth to everyone. So I became fixated on Cambridge – and when that didn’t work out, it became UCL. Bristol happened to be my insurance choice, so getting a place didn’t really feel like an achievement. I arrived in the city feeling emotionally drained from summer of sitting and waiting for the results of admission, with frankly quite low expectations for my university experience.
Before going to the UK, my ultimate goal – what I thought of as the solution to all my sorrows – was going away, being somewhere else. While living here, I thought that going to a really good university.
But then I made friends. I lived in pretty halls, I got involved in student theatre and I started to enjoy my course. When people around me felt homesick, I wondered what it was like, because I already felt fairly comfortable on my own. There weren’t as many international students around, so my new friends were mostly British. On one hand I missed having that mix of languages and nationalities I had in sixth form, where I got used to hearing Italian, Spanish, German, Polish and Slovak on daily basis. There, most of us there had a shared experience of living far away from home in another country so we all supported each other.
On the other hand though, having more British peers was something new and exciting. I could immerse myself in the subtleties of British culture and language, and really appreciate the British sense of humour. It wasn’t until that time that I had some significant exposure to slang. I started to be able to differentiate between different regional accents (or at least, appreciate their uniqueness).
Knowing English better was great but I found myself forgetting Polish words more and more often and I sometimes had to find a translation in reverse – from second into the first language. I kept catching myself occasionally applying English grammatical structures to Polish. I started to realise that I was slowly losing my fluency in my native language. At the same time, however, although I can express myself very easily in English, I will never reach the same level of fluency as my native-speaking peers. Speaking in Polish just comes so much more naturally, especially when I’m tired and I don’t have the energy to prepare sentences in my head before saying them. In Polish, I don’t need to worry as much about unknowingly making a grammatical mistake or mispronouncing a word, a fear that is almost always there when speaking English.
Knowing English better was great but I found myself forgetting Polish words more and more often and I sometimes had to find a translation in reverse – from second into the first language.
Being an international student is also very tricky in other ways. I always find acclimatising difficult, whether I am going back home, or back to uni. It’s a bit of a culture shock, regardless of which way I go. I also found that I developed slightly different personalities depending on where I am. In England I’m more polite and subservient, but also more assertive about my opinions. In Poland I don’t feel as confident expressing my views on certain subjects, but then I’m much less self-conscious, for example about my appearance (although this could just be because I’m at home and not at uni).
Sometimes, it’s the physical distance that makes it hard – I wish I could just pop in home for the weekend when I’m feeling down, but it would be too expensive and time consuming. I have to wait until the next holiday, until I can pack, get to the airport, go through security, board a plane, go through passport control and find my parents waiting at the airport in Warsaw to pick me up. And for a few hours I always feel lost and uncomfortable because I left one world behind and I’ve forgotten how to navigate the other one.
So are we, as international students, here to learn things and then go back to our country? Or does being indebted to this country (literally) mean that we have to stay and contribute to the economy as a way of saying ‘thank you for educating us’? Whenever I come home, people always ask if and when I’m coming back for good. Sometimes I want to. But then I realise that going back would be difficult, both culturally and emotionally. Now most of my friends are British, partly because long-distance friendships are so hard to maintain. And although I am Polish I sometimes feel like I relate to my country less and less, especially in the current political climate. But then, also, I miss Poland terribly and I can’t picture myself staying in the UK for good – at least not yet.
So are we, as international students, here to learn things and then go back to our country? Or does being indebted to this country (literally) mean that we have to stay and contribute to the economy as a way of saying ‘thank you for educating us’?
To any young person who just arrived in Bristol from another country: it’s not going to be easy, but hang in there. Make friends, be open-minded, explore the city and the country as much as you can. But don’t be hard on yourself when you’re struggling and feeling homesick. There will be a lot of people around you going through a similar experience. Reaching out and talking to them will make it so much easier. This especially applies at the beginning, when it all feels new and scary but also later on when the first rush of excitement is gone and you start getting tired and wonder why you’re even here. No matter how many times you were here as a tourist, it won’t make you any more prepared for the actual experience of living here, since a completely new sets of rules will apply. It will be more terrifying, and also more straightforward, than you imagined it would be.
Take good care of yourself. Adapt to the new culture but don’t push away your own. You will come out of this experience as a wiser person who will know, at least to some extent, how to navigate a life torn between two different worlds and find your way around colliding cultures, mindsets and worldviews. Most of all – feel proud of yourself.