My Year Abroad Experience: Out of the Comfort Zone

Written by Mei-Yan Lee

Hi everyone, my name is Mei-Yan and I’m from the UK, going into my final year of Chinese and French. The University of Leeds provides brilliant opportunities to spend time abroad studying and because my degree is firmly focused in languages, last year I had the incredible chance to study at one of the most prestigious universities in China: Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Hopefully if you are thinking about spending any time studying abroad, this will give you an idea of what it is like to live in a different country. Perhaps you might already be an international student in the UK for the first time – in that case, I hope this will offer you an insight into both the exciting parts of being an international student, and how to overcome the times that are more challenging!

I can clearly remember the excitement that I felt the night before I flew to Shanghai. I had never been to China before so I knew that the experience of living in Shanghai, which is one of the biggest cities in the world, would be the most thrilling part of my degree. However, I can definitely remember being terrified as I boarded the plane from Manchester airport as I headed into an experience that was completely out of my comfort zone. Arriving in Shanghai was even more overwhelming. The towering buildings, crowds of people and noise of traffic was extremely new to me, coming from a rural village in the centre of England. In all honesty, I did feel homesick in the first couple of weeks, and I could feel doubts entering into my mind: could I really survive in an environment so far away from my home? How would I cope with the difference in language? Was I even good enough to study there?

However, I soon realised that whenever we are pushed out of our comfort zone, these are the times that we often learn the most about ourselves. Slowly but surely my level of confidence increased, not only in terms of my language abilities, but I would find myself exploring the city more and more, eating at new restaurants and really pushing myself to experience everything I could. Of course, I was living in China primarily to study, but at the same time I found that my year abroad was much more than just attending university. Eating, shopping, exploring were all new experiences and there were plenty of times where I was nervous, overwhelmed and frightened of making a mistake. If I’m honest, trying to buy a SIM card and opening a bank account in Chinese was absolutely terrifying!

However, I survived, and the worst thing that happened was I felt a little awkward for a moment whenever I made a mistake. Yet, looking back, these awkward conversations were not nearly as bad as I thought they were, and I can definitely laugh about them now! This just goes to show that my fear of making mistakes was often pointless and held me back.

Despite the challenging moments of living in China, I would not trade my experiences there for anything! I think that when people think of completing a study abroad period in a different country, the expectation is that you will immerse yourself in the culture, the language, and get a real feel for the people and mindset there. However, I definitely did not expect the changes in myself that living outside of the UK gave me. I knew that my language abilities would increase, but I was not expecting to become more confident, more understanding and I certainly didn’t think that I would improve as a person in so many different ways. During the time I spent living in China, integrating with Chinese people really opened my mind to experiences that were so different to my upbringing in the UK.

I was able to feel connected to a culture that is wholly different to my own, and I think this is one of the main reasons that I would recommend studying abroad to anyone. Of course, the new foods, sightseeing, and shopping were all incredible in their own right, but these things are available to you on any holiday. What makes studying abroad so thrilling is the unexpected ways in which your mind is opened up to a new country and new people.

So, if you are a current international student in Leeds, or are planning to go on a study abroad year any time soon, then here is my advice to you: enjoy every moment and take every opportunity you can! Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus, my year abroad in Shanghai was cut short by six months and I spent one semester there instead of two. My biggest regret was not cherishing and using the time that I had in a completely new environment. How much more would I have learnt if I had taken the courage to speak to my Chinese neighbours? Or chat to the chef of my favourite restaurant? Or travelled to a different area of China? All of these questions still are present in my mind, even a year after returning to Leeds. So, the next time you have a free couple of hours, go to that restaurant you have always wanted to try. Or have the courage to speak to a neighbour that you always see. Perhaps even go for a coffee with someone on your course that you have never met before (following the coronavirus guidance, of course!). Who knows, you may have an experience that you’ll look back on and know that you pushed yourself. You’ll never know if you don’t try.


Mei-Yan Lee
Hi everyone! My name is Mei-Yan and I am a languages student heading into my final year at Leeds. I was born and raised in Nottingham, UK (known for its...
View profile