A long way home

Living 10,000 miles away can be both a blessing and a curse

The start of term, for most Oxford students, means being dropped off by their parents at college. The termly ritual often involves a long car-trip, unpacking various boxes, books and cacti, and perhaps lunch out in town, before saying goodbye. But like many other international students, I will never be dropped off, nor picked up. For me, 0th week brings a pang of homesickness as families flood Oxford’s streets.

I live over 10,000 miles away, in Sydney, Australia. The journey to and from Oxford takes me 30 hours door-to-door, but the transition between these two places lasts much longer. It’s a transition I find very difficult, although it’s taken me a long time to speak openly about it. The journey is always coupled with a sense of overwhelming anxiety, one that starts a week before leaving and takes roughly two weeks, once arrived, to settle down. It’s not the flying itself (although international storage, economy-class seats, and jet-lag definitely don’t help). It’s the feeling of constantly being yanked between two different worlds, and not really belonging in either. It’s almost embarrassing to say that I find the vacations the hardest part of my Oxford degree.

I fully recognise that I am privileged to live in, and travel between, these two beautiful cities and that my feelings of dislocation are in no way limited to me as an individual or as an international student. For example, a close college friend of mine lives in Oxford, a ten-minute walk away. They must re-adjust from the independence of student life to the expectations of their conservative family every eight weeks, without the benefit of distance to buffer the transition. One year on, having learned about myself and my friends’ experiences of first year, I now know that the issue is missing Oxford during term-time rather than resenting home in Sydney. Yet there is also a unique set of problems to living so far away.

These problems start before the vacation even begins, with the process of moving out of college. Packing up is intensely stressful because it’s a responsibility that I have to face entirely on my own. I’m reminded that my college room is only a temporary home, particularly by the rather cold-hearted and dysfunctional international storage system. For the past two years, I’ve lived my life from one suitcase and a few boxes. As soon as I feel rooted, it’s time to pack up again. Then, there’s the issue of travelling solo. For 30 hours, I’m left alone with my thoughts and feelings, in the absence of a friendly face or even wifi. I’m also often mistaken for an unaccompanied minor, (being offered a children’s plane toy was just insulting), and going from the intimate college environment to one in which I am an absolute nobody is especially dislocating.

Next comes the crippling jet lag. For those who haven’t experienced it, jet lag is a bit like a week-long hangover. It simply makes everything worse. Not only am I exhausted when it’s least convenient (i.e.: collections), I also feel moody, over-emotional, disoriented. This was how I felt at my lowest point, exactly one year ago, in 0th week of Hilary in my first year. Jet lag became an extra hurdle, on top of the cold dark winter, academic work and changing friendships, that I had to navigate as an international student.

Long-distance relationships are difficult too. It’s impossible to physically meet up with my friends who live in the UK, and the time-difference hinders social media communication, even if today’s transport and technology have made these possibilities easier than ever. It’s even harder to keep up with my friends back home during term-time. This is partly because I struggle to explain what Oxford is like and why it’s such a big part of life without coming off as distant or pretentious. Whilst I recognise that Oxbridge is unique to any other university experience, it’s harder and harder to find common reference points with people my age in Sydney. The norm in Australia is to live at home, study a vocational degree and attend a local university, where the mantra is “Ps get degrees” (where “P” stands for “Pass”, the equivalent of a Third). Most people there don’t quite understand why I’m travelling halfway around the world to study History and Politics at a lesser version of Hogwarts.

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There’s also a more existential issue that comes with living so far away, which is that straddling these two worlds challenges my sense of identity. Here, I’m not just talking about growing into my own person at university. The differences between home and college are salient to me as an international student in a way which they simply aren’t for most domestic students. My identity is defined in contradistinction to the place I’m in, but I don’t really belong in either. I am Australian when in Oxford and an Oxford student when in Australia. Even my accent changes depending on where I am, making this disjuncture feel particularly real. I’ve been asked several times in shops and cafés around Bondi where in the UK I’m from and for how long I’m backpacking. I’ve then had to explain that I live five minutes away, and have done so for 14 years. I’m still not sure who’s found these conversations more awkward. It’s often easiest to laugh these encounters away or whip them out as funny anecdotes, to hide how difficult I find them.

I may post Instagram photos of sunny beaches, but I’m secretly wishing that I was in cold and rainy England at my friend’s Christmas dinner party instead. I’m guilty of both idealising Sydney (the heat, the brunches, the relaxed lifestyle) and complaining about it (the heat, the time difference, the “Eastern Suburbs bubble”) as proxies for the deeper experience of feeling torn between two places. Over time, it’s gradually become easier to talk about why I’m struggling and how I’m coping directly. My experience is also relatively easy in comparison to other international students. As a British-Australian dual national, with family in the UK, family friends in town, and a dad who went to Oxford, I haven’t had to deal with culture shock or language difference (even if “chirpsing” confused me for an entire term: the Australian slang is “tuning”). It’s a testament to the drive and resilience of these students that they surmount these extra obstacles, which are invisible to most of us, on an everyday basis and with minimal support.

Nonetheless, the distance between Oxford and Sydney, the full 10,000 miles of it, is a blessing as well as a curse. Travel provides a clear separation between college and my family home. In fact, I like to compare the journey to the flashback effect in bad films, when the screen goes wobbly. Travelling between two very different places has a similar hallucinogenic, dream-like, feeling. It’s difficult to remember what life in sunny Australia is like when I’m shivering in the Rad Cam. This separation means that I can clearly categorise my time and memories in each location, without the confusing overlap experienced by students who live in or around Oxford outside of term.

Moreover, seeing friends or attending events such as Twickenham or the Boat Races is not an option for me. This is sometimes comforting, because there’s really not much I can do about this ‘fear of missing out’. It’s perhaps worse for students who live outside the Home Counties, where such a trip is feasible, but costly and impractical. This distance also means that there’s a network of Australian students in Oxford and Cambridge with which I can share common experiences, talk to when I’m homesick and, most importantly, celebrate Australia Day. I now know that I can rely on this network and other close friends in both Oxford and Sydney when I’m stressed out. To tell the truth, it’s been a steep learning curve. I underestimated the difficulties of living so far away from home. But as I’ve gradually grown more confident in myself and my friendships, expecting a tough transition rather than simply switching over, moves have become easier and easier.

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Ultimately, the underlying struggle to readjust is common to most, if not all, Oxford students. First and foremost, there is a radical change in pace. Every dimension of life at Oxford – academic, extracurricular, and social – is intense, and, during the vacation, this routine is pulled out from under our feet. I often experience an inescapable sense of boredom during the vacation as my day devolves into a pattern of “eat-sleep-repeat”, combined with overwhelming exhaustion and guilt surrounding collections. There’s always more to do, even if rest is absolutely necessary to our physical health and mental wellbeing. We are also out of the loop. Returning home after term-time confronts us with the fact that family life goes on without us, and sometimes circumstances change. For me, this has included ups and downs in my family’s health and happiness, as well as the terrifying discovery that my little brother is now two heads taller than me.

As a result, it’s often awkward and dislocating to reintegrate into past routines and relationships – to return to “how things used to be” before flying the nest. This is also the case with friendships based at home. It’s a sad truth that school-age social groups tend to narrow, as they change in importance over time, especially in comparison to the intensity of college relationships. It’s also more difficult to make new friends during the short vacations, meaning that there are fewer and fewer people to come back for at the end of every term. The most challenging experience however is becoming “that Oxford student” – to have my identity reduced to the institution I study at. I have been made fun of, dismissed as pretentious and considered intimidating in this way, both by friends and strangers. Obviously, life must go on. As I change as a person in my opinions and interests, I must accept that I’ll diverge from my life before university. The truth is that I prefer living in Oxford, even if this truth is sometimes difficult for those at home to accept.

This summer was a turning point for me. My family attended the funeral of one of my dad’s best friends from Oxford, and it made me realise just how precious our time here really is. Out of my dad’s year group of 100 students, half a dozen have lost their lives to accident, mental illness or disease in only 30 years. This realisation filled me with a sense of impending doom, as if life is a constant race to stay ahead of mediocrity, anxiety or tragedy. With halfway hall approaching, I described this feeling to a friend as standing on top of a waterfall with my eyes closed (think “Titanic”). I can feel the water rushing around me and am desperately trying to catch hold of it as it slips through my fingers and pushes me closer and closer to the precipice. Ultimately, our time at Oxford will likely be the best three years of our lives. Life beyond Oxford is unknown and there’s a limit to what we can do to change that. Truth be told, it was my dad’s stories about college which made me want to study here at the age of ten. Yeats captured it well when he wrote, “I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful”.

Our time here is finite, it’s imperative that we seize the opportunities these years provide us with. The terms are intense, the work is rigorous and the vacations are long. I cannot wait to get back to college, despite all the essay crises, emotional breakdowns, and chirpsing drama it entails. So as I’m sat writing this on the plane, I now know that “home” can be both Sydney and Oxford simultaneously. And I’ve only six hours and 45 minutes of this long journey home to go.