The arrival of my graduation certificate gladdens me with indescribable joy for graduating from a prestigious university, but also connotes to an official epilogue of my year abroad. Yet behind this paper of certificate that I long pursued for, it also reminds me of all those snapshots of the surrounding natural scenery and geese lining up near the lake, those sleepless days of studies and coursework preparation, and also the bond of companionship, a bond that would be stamped in my heart. Time passes like a blink, but none of these bittersweet moments would be faded into oblivion.
Being as a Postgraduate Student: Learning in an In-depth and an Interactive Way
Being at a new environment with a more in-depth curriculum among a sea of new faces was making me a bit nervous at first. Yet later, I gradually dived myself into those intellectual conversations. It was more than fruitful to have a sophistical grasp towards academic theories and the world order and global trend as a whole. Unlike listening to the professor and taking note of his/her points at the undergraduate level, postgraduate studies, however, emphasize much on our critical, independent thinking to delve deep into a new point, rather than cramming over the reference books. More interactions, presentations or a small group discussion by us were further encouraged to come up with an innovative idea or a conclusion. This reminds me of one of the lessons when we were divided into small groups, and the professor would like us to write about our prediction of the year 2029 and 2050 based on our imagination. Equally interactive was a role-play session when we had to represent a country or an organisation to discuss the nuclear threat by North Korea. Being among classmates from all walks of life is in itself so full of learning, as many of them were able to express themselves with eloquent words. Through discussing concrete issues and sharing blooming ideas to enrich my knowledge.
It was also an apparent fact that the workload for a Master’s is much higher than in those years of an undergraduate degree. Don’t be misled by the course structure that only allows us to focus on only three modules each semester when compared to five or even six courses at the undergraduate level. We were expected to read mounts of compulsory readings before the lessons, and our essays to be completed in a higher, more sophisticated standard, so as to demonstrate our wide-ranging research ability. Therefore, when it came to essays and thesis submission, my heart raced every time when sitting in the room, flipping through any related journals, racking my brain for any new thoughts and I eventually realise I still hadn’t completed the arguments when the deadline was approaching. The mission of writing 10,000-word analysis and several long essays seems impossible at first, I had to push beyond limits and polish every sentence in the sacrifice of my sleeping time. Yet I could finally sign with relief, as if a weight out of my shoulder, after submitting all of them just before the required time. However strenuous the tasks were, I still took pride in myself for putting such a large amount of dedication and heed into the work, and of course, deserved some relaxation after that.
Language cafe: A Kaleidoscope of Cultural Exchange
Beyond schoolwork and lessons, what is even better to chill out in a café while to have an informal language exchange with the others? Is it your New Year’s resolution to practice a new language? Are you fluent in a particular language but can’t find anyone to have a joyous chat? Or did you spend a holiday in another country speaking another language, but desire to keep improving? It is simply an informal gathering where everyone of us would have a fantastic opportunity to practice different languages while meeting schoolmates from all over the world. Just grasp a free glass of freshly-made juice or soft drink and join any language table featuring the language that you would like to practice or teach.
This was when I decided to pick up Spanish again and where I met an Indian friend, who has been learning Chinese for a year. I do appreciate how some helpful participants were teaching me Spanish conjunction that I was confused about, and how he and some others are making their utmost to learn my mother tongue. Every time when we meet, my Indian friend grabs hold of his notebook and listens attentively to my explanation. Having been studying English since three years old along with Chinese, I can fully understand the difficulties they are confronting to when learning Chinese. Chinese characters are mostly originated from pictograms and are divided into traditional and simplified forms nowadays, which in turn, some foreigners would undoubtedly feel confused about these variations. Undeniably, learning a new language from scratch is by no means easy but needs patience, determination, and continual diligence. Yet it might come useful for us when interacting with the locals during travel and business exchanges, who knows what the future would bring us?
It serves as a valuable platform for cultural exchange between participants, and to establish friendship with one another. It makes more fun when there were peer-to-peer lessons like these, volunteering to teach their own language or simply learn a new one, or network with people from all over the world that would have not happened if I were studying in my city. Relaxing, intriguing and interactive are definitely insufficient to describe this social activity in this multicultural campus. And, what was even more rewarding when hearing my Indian friend regarding me as his teacher, and saying a big thank you in Chinese, “Xie xie, Lao shi“.
Sharing is Caring: Food Brought Us Together!
Seldom did I cook and prepare dishes at home when I was in Hong Kong. Yet, things have taken a sharp turn when I arrived in the UK, and cooking becomes my basic routine, if not my new pastime. Just spend some time in a week to stroll in the supermarket or the nearby grocery store, then fill the cart with numerous appealing items and transform all of them into a palatable recipe. Usually, I would pay heed to prepare all the ingredients, place them into small bowls carefully, think thoroughly to the details of a dish, regarding when to salt and when to some of them into the oven. Gradually, I chopped the onion, garlic and the potatoes, and shredded cheese, stirred the cream sauce, milk and decorated the toppings. Pour a little amount of water, added dark soy sauce and olive oil in the pan, then sprinkled herbs and peppers on the top of the roast chicken at last. Food is made and seasoned with a pair of caring hands, and with my lingering thoughts and with wholehearted attention. Preparing and making a meal as amazing it could be should be a joyful pursuit, and that makes cooking become a lot fun.
What is life, without delicious food and the people you love to share it with? Place yourself a cozy couch and savour the fruits of your labour, as the aroma of the food starts lingering in the common room. Celebrating the simple act of cooking for yourself and the others, and sharing the delight of food, from seafood paella, Chinese dumplings to baked chicken wings. What is more fun than hosting a dinner gathering for friends, sharing plates and opening taste buds to a broad variety of food? Consider these meals a gift to yourself and themselves, because we all deserve nice dinners after a day of busy studies. Immerse myself in cooking with a pair of caring hands, and feed the others with full content and satisfaction. Then enjoy the meal to the utmost, and also those music of laughter and playfulness. The wider kitchen and the common room were all infused with cheerful spirit by a happy, relaxing group of friends, making the meal alive. Not only do I grow generous in preparing dishes as the focus of my endeavour, but also to crave a meaningful bond with the others, and to bid today a farewell in a high note. Bon appetite!
Sometimes, being invited as a guest to come to other’s place was also a pleasure. Once, we were together sticking around to enjoy a hotpot together in a freezing winter, while the other time, arriving in another common room with a bowl of congee and three to four dishes placed in the centre of the table. The meals tasted brighter and were presented beautifully by the others, while we extended our sincere appreciation of their time and effort in food preparation and to our host. To brighten up my study year abroad, I was also cordially invited to be at my friend’s house, rejoicing a traditional Polish/Romanian feast to celebrate his birthday. That brought all of us together, beyond nationalities, when our life path intersected with each other in the same place at this moment. That evening, let us celebrate the magical moment of togetherness with joy!
Volunteering for the Refugees: Many a Little makes a Mickle
“Salam Alaikum. Ismee Bauhinia. Ana min Hong Kong.” I came up with all I knew in Arabic, greeting a group of refugees and asylum seekers, wondering what this unique experience will bring.
“Hong Kong?” Some of them, with their eager eyes, responded with their limited English, surprised to see an Asian like me knowing their mother tongue. To my delight, they already treated me like their friend initially, with their opening hands, “Welcome!”
There I was, along with some schoolmates, organising a conversation club for them twice a week, teaching them English in a fun way, to help them better integrate into the community. Under the Resettlement Scheme by the UK government, the country is taking in a few thousand refugees each year from Syria and Iraq until 2020, and around 20 families are brought into the city where I was living in every two months.
In one of the activities, after distributing worksheets to them, the participants were to read a mini story, answer some questions about it and paraphrase it in their own words. I was having a conversation with a woman who had difficulty in understanding some vocabularies. She kept racking her brain, paused quite often to search for the word to answer my questions. I attempted to explain it to her in simple English terms, speaking as clear as I could and using gestures and memes, but she had a blank look on her face. Another student volunteer who spoke Arabic came by to help her. These lessons, indeed, created a golden opportunity for them to be in a supportive environment to practice their English.
What impressed me most is that in each session, sharing languages, stories and cultures can fill you with an immense joy or you to be filled with sincere empathy towards their bitter situation. Before the Christmas holiday, we all had a touch of festive cheer by holding a Christmas party with them wearing a paper crown, tasting mince pies, and playing bingo games. We want to be able to give the refugees we work with each a little present as a token of our support. As the session continued, we had another interactive activity that encouraged everyone walking around and asking each other questions in the room. That was when I got to know Fatima, who came to the UK just months ago. She was in tears when being forced to leave her country due to the Syrian civil war. She then showed me valuable photos of her family and neighbours taken in her house, as well as her hand-made traditional food, like falafel, hummus fatteh and a big pot of chicken stew. It is heartbreaking to imagine her and many others’ beloved hometown, once graced by the magnificent architecture and historical heritage in bygone eras but now are all turned into ashes just in a few bloody nights.
Yet, when one door closes, another opens. There is always light at the end of the tunnel. She is now making the most of her cooking calibre in the new vegetarian cafe specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine in the city centre, staffed entirely by the refugees and funded by the City Council. Most of the profits earned would be proceeded to the project for facilitating the settlement and the integration of other newly-arrived refugees. While Khaled, another refugee, shared his passion in his poetry writing to me, and even didn’t hesitate to let me have a look at his literal creation in the social media, though in Arabic. His face lit up when I mentioned Rumi, an influential poet in his region. All these hours of volunteering and cultural exchange, simple though fruitful, mean a great deal to them. These weekly sessions boost their confidence in enhancing their English oral fluency, and it also shows how much we could learn from each another if we listen and engage in the conversation.
Many a little makes a mickle. It is an incredible joy to devote our endeavour to make someone’s life easier in an unfamiliar land, to sow the seeds of care, support, and understanding into their heart. During our last gathering, they each expressed their heartfelt gratitude to us with a contagious smile, and some ladies even hugged me goodbye, wishing me a safe journey wherever I go. With lingering footsteps near to the door, I last asked them what their future plan would be, and this is what they answered:
“Insha’Allah”. In God’s will.
And it is also my conviction that God will prepare and brighten their path with His grace.
Apart from the aforementioned descriptions, I once jumped with excitement when opening packages, with postcards, big boxes of chocolates inside and other gifts inside, showered with the warm wishes from my friends. And, what still lingers in my mind is a special person of mine that will forever occupy an irreplaceable position in my heart. Those were the days when he pulled me into his inner circle, never missed a chance to make me feel valued and adore my overall essence of being. Nothing can be compared to the way we embraced all those priceless connections with gratitude and wonder, and never will I forget those tiny gestures of kindness and unique experience that I am blessed to have. ♦