R: Hello! Why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are and where you’re from…
B: My name is Bethanie. My dad’s Chinese, from Macau, and my mum is British; they’re missionaries so I grew up in Macau, which is next to Hong Kong, and moved to the UK seven years ago.
R: Could you tell us how you came to study in Manchester?
B: Like a lot of students from Asian countries, I intended to go abroad for university, and my mum asked if I wanted to go to the UK. We [decided] that I would go for my A Levels, do a gap year, then transition into university. I was in Marlborough, and then London for a year, before I came to Manchester.
R: What was it like coming to Manchester?
B: Coming from a really small town it was the biggest culture shock because there was no diversity whatsoever where I came from, and in London I was mainly with local British people. When I came to Manchester there was every level of diversity imaginable, which I wasn’t expecting.
R: How did you find getting used to British culture and then almost going back to multiculturalism?
B: It was great! I arrived [in Manchester] and there was a China Town and Chinese friends and people who had multicultural backgrounds, but at the same time I feel like I kind of had to choose between being an international student and being a local student. I think I just chose being international and therefore all my friends ultimately became international students.
R: Was this a conscious choice?
B: I didn’t come with the intention of doing that because in London and Macau most of my friends were British. Coming to university, I had a couple of friends from China and Singapore and I met a lot of international students through them, but it wasn’t a conscious decision at first!
R: Do you think there is a typical international student experience? And, if so, do you think you had it?
B: I think a lot of international students meet other international students and not so many British students. I came with the expectation of going to an English-speaking church and meeting British people. There was one point where [I was going to three student groups on different nights] and then on Sundays I had to decide where I would go. A friend of mine [said], “You really need to choose where you should be,” and I think that was [when I realised] I had to make the decision about where I would commit, which is why it took me my [whole] first semester to choose a church. I ended up going to a Chinese church but still going to the English service, surrounding myself with international students, and that closed off a lot of other connections. Now, most of my friends are British-born Chinese, or those with multiple cultures– people similar to myself. So, I think in terms of a Christian international student, I probably was quite typical.
R: What effect did university have on shaping your identity?
B: It started off by confusing me. Growing up, I always felt out of place because I was from two cultures. I always [thought I felt this way] because I’m half English but arriving in the UK I realised that, comparatively, I was definitely not English. I was even further away from being fully English than I was from being fully Chinese.
I questioned a lot of my identity but I feel like God redeemed my cultural understanding of myself and I began to see the importance of fully walking in, and truly believing, what it means to be a child of God. The importance of that was [understanding] that I was a child of God first, and my cultural identity was secondary to that.
R: As Christians we get new identity as citizens of heaven. Are there some keys you’ve learned in terms of managing the different parts of your identity and putting heavenly citizenship as your primary identity?
B: Before I came to the UK I had never heard about identity. Coming from a culture where it’s very community based, it’s less about you [and more] about who your family is and where you’re from. I definitely think that some people from other cultures may have never discussed what it means to be a citizen of heaven, what is means to have that identity and be able to walk in the truth of being a child of God [with] a heavenly Father. I had to really dig deeper to find out what it truly means. I unpacked this when I was around people from a different cultural background, so I think that was key.
R: I feel like we talk about identity a lot in the Western Charismatic church but what you said about a communal society is probably what a lot of kids growing up in the church in England need– to understand that it’s not only about them and their relationship with God.
B: The only reason you never question identity before you leave home is because you feel a sense of belonging to where you grew up; even though, for example, I looked like a Western outsider, at least I still knew that I belonged there because I carried the passport, I was born there, I spoke the language and grew up there. When you move [to a different country], everything around that is shaken, and you begin to question things that you thought were normal, like signposts and how to navigate your way around the supermarket.
R: What are the opportunities and challenges you found about having access to international spaces like the Chinese church?
B: I felt God tell me, “I want you in a Chinese church.” It was not necessarily the place I wanted to go, but having been there for nearly three years I’ve seen that they needed people to bridge the cultural gap. [Church leaders] would come to me sometimes, asking me about local mentalities when it comes to cultural differences, so it’s interesting to be someone who kind of carries both. And in terms of challenges, sometimes my heart is torn between where I want to go and which communities I want to be a part of. On one occasion, I was doing some evangelism around the university and I went up to a group of Chinese students and asked if they wanted prayer and all of them were in shock that I speak Chinese. Even at my church, when you feel like you belong, people still get shocked when you open your mouth and speak the same language as them.
R: You mentioned finding yourself in the position of bridging the gap between local and international students; how can other people and the church as a whole be better at that?
B: In my opinion, I think international students love food more than drink, especially as an entry point. Any Asian student would like eating their own food in a foreign place because often they want something that makes them feel at home. You could head to where they go to eat – not a British Chinese takeaway but the authentic Chinese restaurants – and maybe get the Chinese menu instead of the English and let them introduce their cultural identity to you, so you’re meeting them where they’re at. It’s a bit different from just moving from [one city to another] within the UK, and I think food is always a good start.
They are very community based. The reason I was so close to two of my course mates was because we went to coffee shops and we would just sit and do coursework and study together, which I would say isn’t as common in the UK.
Just be open and honest. Even if you don’t know where they’re from, they’ll be happy to show you.
R: Last question: You’re sitting next to someone who’s similar to you in terms of background and moving to a multicultural city, and they are just about to start uni. What would you say to them?
B: I think the most important thing is that they build confidence in themselves, because I came to university terrified of many things. [I’d say] they will find people who are similar to them and they will find family, and they will find people who are culturally similar, [but that they shouldn’t just become comfortable in that]. Don’t wait until your third year [to step out of your comfortable bubble] because I think then you’ll look back and [realise] it wasn’t that hard, it just took you two years to build up the courage.