What it’s like for an international student in Durham

Dinner is tea and fries are chips and everything is a lie


Just a bit more than a month ago, I found myself lugging almost 90 kilograms’ worth of luggage from Hong Kong onto a 14-hour flight to Durham, a city (or town?) that couldn’t be any more different.

It feels so bizarre to say that I now live in the United Kingdom having spent 16 years in Hong Kong (where I studied at the same school for 14 of them). I chose to leave behind the oh-so-comforting sense of familiarity to “experience new things” and “step out of my comfort zone”. To say the transition was shocking is an understatement… I was ‘bloody’ terrified.

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You know the clichéd phrase “absence makes the heart grow fonder”? While Durham’s a small quaint town littered with red-bricked houses and lined with cobblestoned paths, Hong Kong is a densely populated, unbearably humid city towered over by skyscrapers. Yet it’s these stark differences that makes me appreciate my hometown that much more.

I got so excited the second I saw a large green field with free-roaming horses and sheep. I tweeted it to my friends only to get a prompt, deadpan reply saying, “you’re in England; there are sheep everywhere”. Luckily, the novelty hasn’t worn off yet and large green fields are still very exciting.

‘THE LOWEST SETTING ON MY AIR CONDITIONER IS YOUR SUMMER’

Five degrees Celsius is as cold as it will get in Hong Kong during the winter. As long as the temperatures drop to 12 in Hong Kong, we’ll be decked out in goose feather jackets and woollen gloves. Meanwhile, 12 degree is practically summer here. However I don’t miss the humidity and unbearable heat too much, so I’m really not complaining.

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Other than that, Durham is a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively. There’s rarely ever a clear sky in Hong Kong because of how bad the pollution is from the cars and the factories surrounding the city. Durham’s air is so crisp and clean and healthy, it even feels happier to breathe. That’s not to say that Hong Kong doesn’t have stunning blue-sky days.

You can walk everywhere

Hong Kong is about eight times bigger, so an efficient transport system is quite necessary. You can cross the harbour between two sides of Hong Kong in 20 minutes by train (the MTR) provided you’re not caught up with the ridiculous rush hour. But in Durham everything is within walking distance; there’s no need to use public transport at all here, so trips to the library could be a rather tumultuous trek and it’s less than pleasant when you have to trudge up a cobblestoned hill with two bags of groceries because who even hails cabs in Durham…

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I don’t know if I’d say this is a good or bad thing. In Hong Kong, commuting with friends is a form of socialising in itself, and nothing beats having to wait for 4 trains only to be shoved into someone’s sweaty back, keep at that position as you try to simultaneously keep your balance and occasionally gasp for air. You’re also bound to witness the classic argument between locals about the most trivial things which then almost always ends up in a political spat about their views on Occupy Central.

‘I made french fries!’ ‘You mean chips?’ 

When I rejoiced at the fact that I managed to make something similar to french fries from scratch – what with my lack of culinary skills – a friend kindly notified me that “it’s chips here, not fries.” I promise English is my first language, but that doesn’t change the weird looks I get when I said “mom” instead of “mum” because I have an American accent that I’m not even aware of.

Especially when people refer to posh people as ‘rah’s and I get even more confused than I already am. It’ll be interesting to see how much I’ve picked up and whether I’ll start saying “five past” instead of “eleven-oh-five”.

Whatever you might think, the locals are far nicer

It always gives me such a warm feeling when I’m at the cashier paying for groceries and they say “that’ll be £9 darling” with a smile. A smile! Everyone in Durham is so nice and so friendly. There was a part of me that worried people here would judge or assume things simply because I’m Asian, but that is so not the case.

In Hong Kong because the locals there are lot more direct and rough, if you even spend a second too long trying to get your money out to pay for the bus, the bus driver would yell at you and ask you to hurry up.

Potatoes do not rival rice

At the white t-shirt party during Freshers’ Week, someone had written on my shirt “no rice no life”, which honestly should have said “no jasmine rice no life”. Why on earth are your rice grains skinny (basmati)? Honestly, British food can’t compare to Asian cuisine. The typical Hong Kong home-cooked dinner consists of a bowl of rice, a plate of steamed or stir fried vegetables, a dish containing meat and one containing fish, with a bowl of Chinese soup afterwards. Plus, there’s nothing quite like using chopsticks.

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That’s not to say that the food here is bad – I do quite like it – it’s just that pasta and tomato sauce or a piece of turkey seasoned with spices paired with a form of potato doesn’t give the same vibe and satisfaction that Chinese food does.

Amid the cultural and physical differences, coming to Durham for Uni has got to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

It’s always a fun time explaining Hong Kong culture and shocking people when I tell them I don’t know what Countdown is or that I’ve never seen snowfall, in the same way it shocks me when people have no idea what durians are.

P.s. If you ever were to make a trip to the 852, you might want to search up what DLLM means.