Britain beckons, bleak weather and all


  • Education
  • Sunday, 28 Sep 2003

Oxford, oh Oxford...

University life in Britain is loads of fun, provided you’re ready to pitch in and discover all the eccentrics of British life that make up the fun, writes JAMIE KHOO 

WHILE it remains easy enough to hide away and study for three years until the golden certificate finds its way comfortably into your hands, a university degree spent between bookshelves can only make a place like the United Kingdom even wetter and more miserable than it already is.  

And you must believe me, and every other Briton, when we say that the British Isles has to be the wettest, soggiest place you’ll ever visit. Away from the warm bliss that hangs low over mamak stalls and the comforting smells of teh tarik, England can be incredibly foreboding and chilly; moving there two months before the winter does not cheer things up.  

Ah! But what’s a spot of rain? University in the UK is the best fun you’ll have, provided you’re ready to pitch in and discover all the eccentrics of British life that make up the fun. There are three main areas to nail down – the nitty gritty of finding your feet and familiarising yourself with your university, the social scene and the academic system – the first of which will be covered here. Once you’re in, armed with the sturdiest of umbrellas and a mug of beer, nothing can go askew or spoil your fun. 

KITCHEN KINSHIP: Much of your student life will likely be spent in the kitchen for latenight chats and a few laughs with flatmates,not to mention lots of snacks and drinks.

The only thing that remains to be said then is that you must remember that you have chosen to go halfway across the world for university and sitting in your room with a book will never give you the full British experience.  

Get fully involved in the life around you and, odd as they might seem at first, get to know the local British students. If you choose to surround yourself entirely with other Malaysian students and not live student life as what British student life is, then you may as well stay right back here in Malaysia.  

Accomodation: Warm room with a beautiful view 

Check out: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/admission/accommodation/halls/houses.htm (John Dodgson House; compare to similar rooms in York) 

http://www.warwick.ac.uk/info/accommodation/residences 

Alright, maybe not the view. But warm and dry is imperative (blankets do nothing in the winter!). Universities in the UK usually guarantee accommodation for students in their first year and some even provide for overseas students throughout the duration of their course. 

Sort out your accommodation far in advance before you set off and make sure you get written confirmation that you have been allocated a room. Complete all necessary accommodation application forms before you leave for university, because turning up on their doorstep at the start of term without a room only makes for grumpy administration staff. And no room.  

First of all, opt for undergraduate accommodation, preferably one which is just for freshers (first years). That way you will meet people who are all in the same boat as you – figuring out how the rusty stove works with someone who is also new to the place is always more fun than having to ask a snobby second year.  

Certain halls of residence within your university may let you keep or stay in your room over the holidays, so be sure to check the letting period of the room you sign up for. Rooms which are rented out only during term time will mean that you are expected to pack up and move out of your room each holiday. You can usually still stay in campus accommodation during holidays but will have to move to another hall of residence and pay a nightly rental fee for the room.  

Some universities like the London School of Economics, Leeds or Birmingham have letting periods of 38 to 40 weeks which cover the Christmas and Easter vacations, but you still have to move out during the summer. Others like York and Manchester have 50 to 52 weeks accommodation in certain halls which will let you keep your room throughout the year and during all holidays. You will, of course, have to pay more rent for this.  

In terms of rent, bear in mind that you get what you pay for. It is worth paying a little more for your room for better facilities because cheap accommodation can really be sparse or badly furnished and miserable.  

Rental rates will obviously differ according to the area that your university is – weekly rental in London ranges from £50 to £100 (RM300 to RM600), whereas rates in smaller cities, like Cardiff, are lower at £40 to £80 (RM240 to RM480).  

You are also given the option of catered (meals provided at a canteen) or self-catered accommodation. In self-catered accommodation, halls are usually equipped with a kitchen where students can prepare their own food. This is usually the preferred option; it means being able to eat whatever you want, whenever you want and not having to force down soggy chips (the British equivalent for rice, it seems) at every meal. It is also much cheaper to buy and cook your own food than pay for drivel on campus.  

LIVE-IN: Typical on-campus student accommodation, at James College, University of York.

Keep in mind that kitchen facilities vary greatly between accommodation: cheaper, grottier accommodation comes with the corresponding cheap and grotty kitchens with not much more than a stove and fridge and such cramped spaces that you have to eat off your lap. Expensive accommodation usually has better equipped kitchens with everything from microwave ovens to toasters and kettles.  

Shared facilities for students also differ in range and quality between residences so it is important that you find out what each has to offer before making your choice. Most of them should have an on-site launderette and a common social room (known as a Junior Common Room or JCR) for watching TV or playing pool; some have TV sockets or computer points in individual rooms that link up to the university network. Often, there are communal toilets and bathrooms on each floor and washbasins in each room; certain rooms may come with full en-suite bathroom facilities but these are usually much higher in rent.  

It is important to find out if your rent covers fuels costs, such as the use of gas and electricity. There are universities such as Hull that charge their students for this and you don’t want to have to pay more just to be warm!  

Options for single sex, smoking or non-smoking accommodation or double rooms are sometimes on offer too. If you have specific room requirements for religious or disability purposes, you must inform the accommodation office – they usually have allocated rooms for this. In Sussex, for example, students can request specifically for all-female, female Muslim, smoking or quiet accommodation.  

Alternatively, you might opt to rent a flat or house off-campus although this is usually not recommended in the first year. Living off campus will mean that you are out of touch with the buzz on campus and the extra hassle of evil landlords, bills and waking up earlier to walk to lectures is something that you can do well without in your first year.  

However, should you still decide to rent somewhere on your own, your university should be able to provide you with a housing list of university-owned or private rented property and landlords that you can contact independently. Do note though, that you will be paying higher rents for privately rented houses or flats as well as utility bills – water, gas, electricity and phone.  

There may also be off-campus university accommodation on offer if you still wish to live off-campus but do keep in mind that you will be out of touch with the activity on campus; also, walking that extra 15 minutes just to get home is never nice on a particularly blustery cold night. It is more advisable to live off campus in your second or third year when you are more settled, when you know the people and area around you better and when you have gotten used to walking in the rain.  

Choosing accommodation that is right for you will be the hardest hurdle but do remember that wherever you end up, you will have a lot of fun. And anyway, you’ll be spending most of your first year partying or sleeping, so it shouldn’t matter too much where you are!  

And once you’re settled in, with everything in order and posters on the wall, just hope and pray that you don’t have a neighbour who loves playing his trance records at three in the morning or a flatmate who steals all your bread.  

Food – Cuppa tea 

Sorry me’dears, no chapatti after clubbing or nasi lemak for breakfast. Stock up well before you leave for you will be hit with uncanny cravings for the most unlikely things when you can least have them. (The rendang cravings at midnight! The unquenchable thirst for kopi-o!) 

The lucky ones in London can still hang on to the Malaysian samplers dotted about town but for the rest of us scattered into the nether regions, you won’t find a scrap of it! In London itself, the Malaysian hall provides cheap halal food for Muslim students and cheap halal Malaysian cooking or food stores can be found on Edgware Road (just off Oxford Street), Shepherd’s Bush and Bayswater.  

For those that can’t live without their rice, buy yourself a rice cooker and try to scout out a local shop that sells Asian food because even British rice tastes different! Note, however, that even if you can get things like Maggi Mee in the UK, it will normally be much more expensive than it is back home – a single packet of noodles can cost up to £1 (RM6).  

Bring it all with you when you pack – Brahim’s instant curry sauce, dodol, even the cliché of all student food – instant noodles. Don’t think you won’t need it because you probably will. And even if you don’t eat it, it is always good fun offering spicy Malaysian food to fellow British flatmates and watching their bland palates burst unexpectedly from shock.  

However, once you’re over your late-night Malaysian hawker food cravings, tuck heartily into local British fare. We’ve all heard about the blandness which characterises British food, but once you find the little gems you’ll never turn back: fish and chips in all its greasy glory, the indelible British obsession with tea and biscuits (the nation is fuelled entirely by this), warm toffee puddings in the middle of winter and thick, tepid, flat beer called Bitter, which big rugby boys guzzle by the pintfuls.  

Much like their queen, their castles and the sterling pound, much of British cuisine stems from its staunchly guarded tradition, and it must be tried along with everything else.  

For those who have chosen catered accommodation, meals are one thing less to think about but the rest of you will have to buy and cook your own food. Heaven-sent for the lazy student are frozen and ready-cooked meals, available in most shops in the UK or in cheaper supermarkets such as Asda, Iceland and Kwiksave. Never will you see a greater, more bizarre collection of food in giant freezers, all suspiciously packaged and frozen – stodgy meat, cauliflower florets, aisles and aisles full of fish fingers.  

If you want something more substantial, larger supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco stock a much larger variety of food, sometimes even Malaysian and Asian cooking ingredients. These supermarkets usually do their own brand of food which is much cheaper than the commercial brands, but be careful – shopping in supermarkets with over 20 aisles means that you’ll end up buying a lot more than what’s on your shopping list. I myself, and almost everyone I’ve known at university, has been guilty of chalking up over £60 (RM360) when we’d only intended to buy “bread, milk and cheese”!  

And in case you’re feeling too lazy to even get out to buy your ready-made frozen dinners, some supermarkets like Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda have an online service where you can order food to be delivered straight to your door. (www.tesco.co.uk , www.sainsburys.co.uk , and www.asda.co.uk). 

Alternatively, there should be cafes and canteens on your university campus which should sell food cheaper than what you can buy from places in town. Taste and quality can never be guaranteed though, and sour-faced dinner ladies generally do not like students, or having anything to do with them.  

When you fancy a break from the grey mush of campus food, you never have to go far to find something greasy, fattening, full of salt and happily suited to every student’s palate. The British are great fans of junk food – all kinds, in every conceivable shape and size. Indian food, Chinese take-aways, kebab shops, pizza and fish and chips can and will be found at every shop corner in every British city and will satisfy every sort of craving.  

Big important note: Chinese food in England is never like it is at home. Everything is stir-fried, doused in an excess of unnaturally coloured sauce and served with chips.  

Beware, particularly, of something called “Singaporean Fried Rice”, a dish we know not to exist in the first place and which is usually just a fabrication of what the chef imagines to be Singaporean. Also, chop suey – a hodgepodge of leftovers (literal translation from Chinese) which the British invented and find exotic and tasty, but which leaves the rest of us gagging.  

Another favourite among the beer-guzzling, partied-out youth of Britain are burger vans which sell everything from kebabs, to pizza to cheeseburgers. These replace the hawker stalls of Malaysia, around which crowd ardent late-night clubbers waiting for their packets of deep-fried junk. And it must be said that nothing cures hunger after a night of clubbing better than kebab in cheap styrofoam packing. Also, most kebab stalls are halal as they are run by Turkish or Arabic Muslims.  

Eating junk food and takeaways does not come cheaply, however – a cheeseburger costs about £2.50 (RM15), fried rice can be anything between £3 and £5 (RM18 and RM30), and the cheapest pizza from Pizza Hut is about £7 (RM42). 

In total, you would need to spend about £20 to £25 (RM120 to RM150) a week on food, although I have known of people who get by on about £10 (RM60) by starving or living entirely on frozen sausages.  

Whatever you think of British food, you’ll have to learn to like it or lump it whilst you’re there. You’ll get used to the blandness, I promise, and if you don’t you can always just live on chocolate biscuits. Like the rest of the nation.  

A taste of home and a shoulder to cry on 

You are, without a doubt, going to miss eating proper curry, the nonchalant “lahs” thrown into conversation, and kaya. The only people who are going to understand what roti canai is will be those in the Malaysian society in your Students’ Union. Find out where they are and how you might contact them. They offer invaluable support for first-timers going into the UK and will be able to tell you where you might find Asian supermarkets or the best Chinese takeaway in the region.  

And if you ever miss dancing the joget, Malaysian societies also serve as a hub of social activity by putting on cultural shows or events that involve local British students and other international student societies.  

For example, Warwick University has a very large Malaysian society that holds an annual Malaysian night, giving students (Malaysian and British) the chance to take part cultural dances and plays. Nottingham, too, has one of the largest and strongest Malaysian societies. It is well-known for organising the annual Nottingham Malaysian Games which all Malaysian societies in Britain are invited to take part in and to meet fellow Malaysians from other universities.  

Certain Malaysian societies organise gatherings in Kuala Lumpur before the start of the new year; it is a good idea to meet them and establish some contacts before you go. They will be able to help you with any problems as you are settling in and clue you in on the social scene of your university or city.  

Smaller universities such as York and may not have a large Malaysian student population and no Malaysian society. However, there is always an overseas or international students association that provides similar support for international students and should be able to help you with any problems when you are first settling in.  

There are usually also cultural groups, such as Chinese, Indian or Islamic societies, which organise social events for students to meet each other or to encourage participation from other British and international students.  

Check out the United Kingdom Executive Council for Malaysian Students’ website to find out if your university has a Malaysian students society. The website also has details on support and social events for Malaysian students within the UK, and information about universities from Malaysian students. There will usually be support for Muslims students through Islamic societies within each university. There is generally quite a large Muslim population within the UK as well – usually from the Middle East, North Africa or South Asian countries like Pakistan – so you might be able to obtain more information and support from a local or regional Islamic society. Universities may also have other religious societies, such as a Christian Union, which again, serves to give support to a specific religious community on campus.  

Should you require information on other student issues such as accommodation, student welfare support, equal opportunities for students or student social life, your Students’ Union – a body run entirely by students for students – will be able to provide information, answer your questions or refer you to the correct people within the university. It should also offer a confidential listening or guidance service to give you the help you require.  

The Students’ Union deals with a large range of diverse issues, such as discrimination on campus, academic problems, mental health, safe sex, equal opportunities for female, disabled or gay, lesbian and bisexual students. It is there to represent the student voice and will give you the necessary advice and support should you encounter any academic or personal problems with the university.  

Student unions normally have their own websites which are linked to the university’s main website. 

And don’t forget that some of the best support you’ll get for settling into life in Britain are the British students themselves. They’ll be the ones who can explain their own bizarre slang, give you the greatest running commentary on British football and show you the innumerable ways you can eat baked beans. They are the key to helping you feel at home in the UK.  

Try spending time with the local students from your seminars or who live in the same halls as you. If you route back to other Malaysian students all the time, it will take longer for you to integrate and settle into the new culture. And what is the point of going all the way to the UK if not to learn about British culture?  

Raindrops keep falling on my head 

It’s not a myth. It does rain all the time, and the English spend most of their time talking about how dreadful the weather is. Complaining about it doesn’t make it any better of course, but it does make you feel better somehow, as if ranting on about it for hours fends of its miserable gloom.  

Failing that, there’s always gloves, hats, scarves, woolly socks, boots, jackets, coats, raincoats, balaclavas, ear muffs ? Be prepared to spend an extra 10 minutes just putting on all your layers every time you go out.  

Small as it is, the weather in England can be very different between the regions. Scotland is normally about five degrees colder than London; and the north of England, about three degrees colder than the south. Some places like Sheffield are more prone to snow during the winter because they are on higher ground, whereas areas in the south, such as Kent, are known for their immense amount of rainfall and flooding.  

The weather is also very likely to change several times within a day. A gorgeous sunny morning when you leave home can darken into cloud and rain within a hour, or even hail in the middle of the afternoon!  

In terms of clothing, it is better to wear many layers of thinner material than only a few thick layers as more warmth is retained. Two must haves: in a big fat umbrella (carry it around religiously) and a big woolly hat – a friend of mine shuffled up on a cold winter morning with the loud, very truthful declaration: “All you need is a hat. Doesn’t matter if you’re naked as long as you’ve got a warm head.” 

Another essential item is a good pair of shoes or boots. The roads transform into giant puddles due to the relentless rain and, if you have the great misfortune of being in a university that cares little for tarring their paths (like mine), you’ll find your feet completely immersed in mud as well. You’ll need shoes that won’t let rain soak through to your feet (because they’re going to be cold enough as it is!) and has a good enough grip to keep you sliding over wet corridors.  

Invest in accessories like gloves and scarves too – the thicker, fluffier and furrier the better. It’s surprising what a difference they can make on a particularly cold day.  

Don’t think about it too much because it will get you down if you let it. There is even a classified serious mental health condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which causes severe depression in many UK sufferers due to the lack of sunlight during the winter months. It doesn’t help that the Brits dress entirely in blacks, whites and greys during the winter. 

On the bright side, the serious deficit in daylight during winter is made up with over 16 hours of sunshine everyday in summer. Just when you’re getting used to having permanently cold feet, spring rolls around, the flowers come up and the sun starts to shine (sort of). By the time May rolls around, there is truly glorious weather all around, flowers like you’ve never seem them and sunbathing on the fields. 

 

Keeping in touch 

You know the nagging mother’s voice to ring home every Sunday ? certain university rooms may not have a personal phone in each room. At best there will be a communal phone to be shared by other people on your floor. It is best to get yourself a mobile phone while you’re there. It’s relatively inexpensive and very useful as almost everyone keeps in touch through mobiles; it also keeps your social life well in control and your nagging parents at bay!  

It is best to get your phone from a mobile phone shop – such as The CarPhone Warehouse, Phones4u, The Link or The Pocket Phone Shop – rather than directly from the network shops (Orange, Vodaphone, 02 or T-mobile). The mobile phone shops usually have a lot of special deals on offer and will set you up with a phone and network contract that is specifically suitable for your lifestyle. They usually sort out all registration and insurance forms for you, too. 

As for postal and e-mail addresses, your university should inform you of your exact postal address together with your accommodation information and provide you with your own e-mail address for the duration of your course. There should also be computer rooms on campus which are available for free for student use.  

 

Contacts  

 

For information on Islamic communities within the UK. 

http://www.ukec.com  

Provides information and support for Malaysian students. Details on social events within the country and contact details for Malaysian societies in each university. 

 

http://www.cisuk.org.uk 

Council for International Students – organisation which campaigns for the welfare and betterment of International students in the UK. 

 

http://www.nusonline.co.uk 

National organisation in support of all student unions around the country. Provides information about national student campaigns, links to student unions and advice for freshers. 

 

Jamie Khoo is a postgraduate student at the University of York in England, where she is studying for a Masters in English. Her e-mail is jpfk101@york.ac.uk. 

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