Isoc’s Rijah Sheikh on finding your feet in a new city

The cold was unexpected. Well if I’m being honest, I was told to expect the worst considering I was coming from Pakistan, a country that has boasted high temperatures of 53.5 Celsius in the summer. However, I was not expecting 30mph winds and random sudden drops in temperature. That is the speed limit for some of the roads in the city. This is for cars, not wind. While the thin coat I wore was barely adequate for Edinburgh’s infamous weather, it wasn’t just the cold that got to me in the weeks that were to follow.

The first moments of being an international student landing at Edinburgh Airport passed by in an inexplicable panic and haste, the three months that followed after barely did. The cold became the last thing I was concerned about. I realised I knew nothing about the country I was meant to be living in for the next four years of my life. I knew nothing about the city. I knew nothing about the culture. I knew nothing about the university. Indeed I barely knew barely knew anything about the United Kingdom.

It became quite apparent that visiting the country as a tourist and living in it as a student are drastically different. Though my prior visits had prompted me to apply for my undergraduate degree here, playing tourist did not prepare me for the life here. To know a country through history books and to know it through personal interactions are very dissimilar experiences. One of the first lessons in becoming more culturally intelligent was understanding how different cultures can be not only generally but also in shaping a person’s understanding. Coming from a country that was founded in the name of religion and where religion defines everything, from the laws, the culture, the people, the food to mere ways of greeting, it was a shock to live in a place where it is far less visible. The core of everything did not wind its way back to one fundamental thing like it does in Pakistan.

Following on from the culture shock was the realisation that, in Edinburgh, I would have to be much more self sufficient than I was used to. My own country carries a collectivist culture which you can not really separate yourself from. People, even strangers, are relied on for comfort and support. Showcasing vulnerability and seeking help is considered acceptable, expected even. In contrast, the United Kingdoms culture is built on entrepreneurship and individuality. In hindsight, I think this was the most challenging part of my first-year experience; to navigate an unknown city and a new educational system alone was far more painful than I realised at the time. It was this “aloneness” which created so much anxiety that at times I considered quitting my studies and returning home.

Although I loved Edinburgh with its beautiful buildings, cobbled pavements, and its homely cafes, I felt I could not fit in. I felt a constant heaviness, an uncertainty that stemmed from the anxiety of being in an unfamiliar place that I desperately wanted to call home. What made it even worse was that no one else seemed to be feeling a similar alienation. Not only was I anxious and unprepared for Edinburgh, but I was also apparently the only one. Tasks that seem so trivial now, such as finding my way to the library, talking to new people or having a mocha alone in a coffee shop seemed insurmountable then. All that was new was all that became terrifying.

I wish I could say I felt less anxious as the weeks rolled into one another but it took me almost a year to get comfortable with the new circumstances. I know people had different initial experiences than I did, even people who had a similar cultural experience to me. I know many of them were much better – equipped to deal with unprecedented and isolating situations. But knowing all of that only made me realise how extremely integrated and dependent I was on my way of life in Pakistan.

All of this appears mundane now, almost a year later. Insignificant even. The constant anxiety that contorted itself into fear, restlessness, defeat, and hopelessness now seems to be something superficial. Something overexaggerated. Something made up. Because all that appeared as mountains then, seems like molehills now.

But I remember these emotions lodging themselves into my throat so often that they become part of me. While today, I have grown comfortable with how things work here, I always look back at my first semester in the University of Edinburgh with a sense of pride for overcoming a time that seemed impossible to live through.

Today, walking to the main library does not entail me losing my ways. Today, I enjoy, sometimes prefer, sitting in the cafes alone to enjoy my own company over a cup of mocha. Today, I’m grateful to know beautiful people who I have only known for a short time to be a comfort in troubling times. Today, it all seems doable.

I always try and comfort the students who come here from different countries by telling them that is okay, expected even, to feel lost and anxious in strange lands that look beautiful even if your mind does not match that.

As someone wise once said, time heals all wounds and time does pass. It is necessary to give yourself adequate time, to not set unattainable limits for yourself and to empathise with yourself. Accepting things out of your comfort zone takes a lot of effort and a lot of acceptance, both of which don’t come easily. Over time one can build a beautiful home with lovely people wherever you find yourself, it is okay to sometimes miss the one you grew up in.


Illustration: Hannah Robinson

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