British expats returning to the UK for university – culture clash or homecoming?

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Photo: Alamy

We’ve all yearned for a taste of home after spending a few weeks abroad, surrounded by different cultures, traditions and even food; but what about those who spent most of their lives in a country that wasn’t their own then chose to return for another chapter of their lives?

It has been estimated by the World Bank that between 4.5 million and 5.5 million Brits reside abroad, with a projected 1.2 million rise by 2025. That’s around 7-8% of the UK population with over one million living in Australia.

Samantha Ramage, Chris Jensen and Oliver Reeves have shared their experiences on living away from home, and whether they have felt a warm homecoming or a complete culture clash upon returning to the UK.

Having lived abroad for the majority of their lives, Samantha, Chris and Oliver have each had their own experiences on the matter with differing views on their situation.

“I’ve never lived in the UK until two years ago, I love it”, Samantha said. “Maybe its because I spent most of my life in Beijing, so its very different but that’s why I love it.

“The first half-year I felt out of place; every time I saw an Asian person I felt like they were my mate, my brother or sister from my home country but its not really my home country. I think once I settled in I felt like everyone else.”

Oliver, who grew up in Indonesia until the age of five then relocated to Singapore until the age of 18, said: “Being back feels good to be honest; its very different compared with Asia, there are definitely advantages. I definitely feel at home here, I’ve settled quite comfortably.”

Chris added: “I lived in England until the age of four, and then I moved to Dubai, where I lived for four years, until I moved to Hong Kong for eight years. It feels different being back. The culture is different. It’s definitely colder, that’s for sure. It’s good to be back because my family lives here; its nice to see my family more.”

Having all attended international schools that follow the British curriculum, it was etched into their brains to attend a university in the UK, but was attending an international British school enough to assimilate them into British culture?

When asked about life in the UK Oliver responded: “There’s certainly a few cultural clashes, but not so strong that I can’t overcome them. The main difference is my pronunciation: People always try to correct my pronunciation, but that’s how I grew up saying it. I kind of adapted to the norms quite quickly.”

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Photo: Oliver Reeves

Samantha added: “I’ve always felt like I belonged in the Chinese community, but after a year and a half I feel more like I belong in the British community. Because I didn’t go to a school in the UK I found it hard to make friends in London so it was hard. In Stirling, it was easier because there are many people my age and you’re kind of stuck together”.

Chris replied: “Because I spent so long away from living here I kind of felt out of place at the start, but I’ve had to adjust to be fair. I had to go to a local school when I came back, which is different because I always spent my whole childhood surrounded by different nationalities.

“So, I was so used to having friends from all over the world, and then when I came back I was with people who were all from the same area, like-minded, one-minded even, they were all just one way and it was so different. I think that was hard to adjust to but you just have to fit in wherever you go”.

But what could possibly be so different about being a Stirling student and living abroad? “Everything”, Chris said. Not just food, idioms and inflections, but – almost amusingly – the alcohol culture, and the idea of being outside. Chris noted how much greater the outdoors culture is in Hong Kong, and Skint Tuesdays certainly was not a thing.

Samantha added: “Huge culture shock because China is very chaotic, it’s polluted, their way of life is different, the way they treat you is different. I felt special in China and even though I felt like I was one of them I still felt special. I felt like I was somebody – you stand out.

“The way they go about business depends on their feelings and emotions. The people in China are abrupt and have little boundaries whereas in the UK they’re more reserved.”

Do you feel like an expat in your own country? “I think increasingly, no,” said Oliver, “When I first arrived I wasn’t accustomed to everything so I felt out of place, but now I feel very comfortable so I wouldn’t say that I feel like an expat”.

Chris, however, had an opposing view: “Yeah, because it is a new country for me, even though I’m English the first four years that I’ve lived here since I was born. I can’t remember much of it, so coming back was a whole new experience for me. Because I’d come back for summer holidays but that’s only a few months, so it’s not like I was living here. It was weird coming back to a country I’m from, I would’ve been more comfortable going back to Dubai or Hong Kong.”

When asked how UK citizens view them, each answered differently. Samantha stated: “As a person…Well they understand I’m international but depending on my accent: When I have more of a British accent they accept me more as British and forget that I’m half Dutch, because there’s no obvious evidence to show I’m from Holland.”

Chris answered: “Differently. As soon as I open my mouth my accent is different so I get the, ‘Oh! Are you Australian?’. Once I tell them I’m English they’re like, ‘Well, you’re not really from here’.

“Because everyone’s so one-minded, you have to grow up there to be considered from there. It was easier when I came to university for people to identify me as English, but when I was in high school people viewed me differently, they were like, ‘Oh, he’s more of a foreigner than anything.’”

Oliver replied, “when I first meet people they don’t expect me to have lived abroad, but when I bring up that I’ve been living abroad some people think its really interesting, while others see it as some sort of international jet setter. They think there’s some sort of prestige but I’m not like that at all”.

Finally, when asked whether they would stay in the UK after graduating Samantha answered: “At the moment, yes, because I can’t see myself anywhere else I could only see myself living in the UK after. I can’t see that far into the future.”

Oliver added: “I think I can agree that, after graduating university, I’d like to work in the UK for a few more years and then eventually move abroad again because its what I’m used to.”

Chris stated, “I’d probably move abroad again, I have a habit of moving.”

Chris, Oliver and Samantha were willing to share their experiences on being third culture children, however, with growing expat communities worldwide many expats are too ashamed to call their home country their own, as they no longer feel any kinship to it.

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