Humans of Newcastle: reflections from an international student

Muslim Taseer reflects on his first year at Newcastle and compares it to life in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Muslim Taseer
25th June 2020

Having been stuck in Newcastle for three months, looking back, I don't think I'll ever grasp fully how much the move here for university changed my life.

I've lived most of my life as an immigrant, growing up in Saudi Arabia from age six up to 18 while being from Pakistan originally. The experience of moving to a foreign country and living there as "an alien" wasn't exactly new to me, but nothing could've prepared me for Newcastle.

When I flew into Newcastle in September of last year, I wasn't really sure what I expected. I had been in the UK before, having spent a month in London with my aunt in 2017, so I at least knew the people would have funny accents, the food would be horrible and the weather would be amazing (natives might not see it that way, but when you grow up with summers approaching 50 Celsius, anything colder is heaven-sent). My first few weeks were spent weirding out my roommates and being anxious, thrust right into a society different from anything I'd lived in before, but soon enough I adapted. I'd been deeply hooked up to the world culture westerniser we call the internet for most of my life, so it's not as if I was completely shocked, but it was still strange being in the thick of it, of course.

Newcastle is a tiny city compared to the 12.6m residents of my hometown Lahore

The city itself was different from anywhere I'd ever lived before. Lahore and Riyadh, my hometown and my city in Saudi Arabia, have populations of 12.6 million and 7.2 million respectively. Newcastle is a tiny student city with roughly 500k people at most, a good chunk of them students. Almost everywhere I generally needed to go was within a 30-minute walk of anywhere else, whereas back home I'd have to drive. I think I can count the number of car rides I took in my first year on both hands, and it's about how many I'd take on a busy day back home. I like that about the city. It's fun to walk. It also means all your friends live close by and you can meet them at a moment's notice. I've also developed an appreciation of how beautiful and green the city is on walks alone during the lockdown.

Introducing myself is still always a tedious process. I've got to tell people my name, and have my ID ready to pull out triumphantly if they seem like they don't believe me or think I'm messing with them. I always wonder what preconceptions a person develops about me based on my name, charged as it is. That's not really too new though - my name was still strange back home. Most people assume I'm American because of my accent. I then explain I've never been to America and only speak this way because I went to an international school and picked up English from media. They ask where I'm from and I have to do the mental calculation of what to say. Do I tell them I'm from Pakistan, which I technically am? Or do I tell them I've lived most of my life in Saudi Arabia, knowing full well what connotations people associate with that? Point being, its a chore.

Eventually, I met a few people and made a few friends that are still genuinely some of the sweetest people I've met. I'd been uncharacteristically shy for the first few weeks though, which is usually when you socialise with coursemates, which left me with only a handful of acquaintances actually studying Law alongside me, but I made do. I had a few tumultuous months, to say the least. I did a lot of things I'd never done before and saw a lot I hadn't seen. Observing the people around me and how they acted, I felt like a deep-sea explorer combing the ocean floor, viewing everything out the window of a submarine. But I was expected to act like one of the fish.

I remembered that I never really fit in back home either

I did learn eventually, but at what cost? A well-meaning friend told me once that they "forget I was an international student sometimes". This got me thinking what an "international student" acted like, and whether I had sacrificed my identity to fit in, but then I remembered that I never really fit in back home either. There have obviously been times I've felt othered, but it's been hard to distinguish when it was genuine and when it was my own insecurity. The vast majority of people I've met have treated me as just another guy, which I am grateful for.

It's been one hell of a first year, undeniably. But regardless of the less than stellar stuff I've experienced, I've also had some of the best times of my life, and met some of the best people. I've grown as a person in a lot of aspects, and some things haven't changed a bit. But I cannot fault the city one bit. It's been amazing to me, and I'm exceptionally privileged to be able to afford it. I can't imagine what else it has in store for me.

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  1. Very well written, Muslim. Belonging from Lahore myself and being an International student, I can truly relate to the above mentioned theme. Will be looking forward to your next article.

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