(File pix) The writer (third from right) at the St John’s College Winter Formal.

MY father used to tell me that “studying overseas and going on holiday abroad are two different things, so don’t expect to enjoy all the time”.

At that time, I was sceptical of his comment and just shrugged it off. I mean, what could possibly be so different?

In my mind, I could only picture myself travelling across Europe, taking in the breathtaking scenery and marvelling at the historical monuments of each country while enjoying the cool weather.

I did experience all that during my holidays. But nothing prepared me for the difficulty in living as a minority in a foreign country.

People say that you need to “get out of your comfort zone”, “mix with the Mat Salleh” and “do not hang out with just Malaysians”, but how many of us truly realise how hard that is?

How many people realise that as a young girl wearing a hijab, one looks awfully out of place at a club or a pub?

How many realise that although one has a good command of the English language, one still has a hard time understanding the Mat Salleh’s regional or colloquial accent especially if he talks very fast?

How many realise that it gets lonely sometimes, especially afteralong day when one returns to quite a dreary and ancient college?

But enough with the depressing questions.

I knew that my problems would not solve themselves, so I took action and reached out.

And surprisingly, a lot of people are ready to help you be the best version of yourself.

A few weeks into the term, I was invited to represent the Cambridge University Malaysian Society (CUMaS) in netball at the Nottingham Malaysian Games.

I made friends with girls pursuing their postgraduate studies at Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University.

Every weekend, we trained at a netball court near Newnham College and managed to qualify for the quarter-finals. We took a weekend off to take in the sights at Nottingham.

I also participated in several CUMaS events, including the Malaysian Food Festival and the long awaited Malaysian Night, a play that showcases the country’s culture and usually includes dancing and singing.

Preparing nasi lemak with fellow Malaysians and savouring various Malaysian dishes including rendang and roti canai, I suddenly realised how awesome Malaysian food really is!

It is funny how being more than 10,600km away from home made me truly appreciate the beauty and diversity of Malaysia.

On Malaysian Night, which almost all Malaysian Societies in the United Kingdom organise, I showed off my amateur Bollywood and hip hop dance moves during the play.

I always looked forward to the dance practice sessions as they are my well-deserved break after studying the whole day.

These sessions strengthened the team members’ bond, as we huffed and puffed to get the dance moves correct.

Apart from Malaysian Society events, I joined the Cambridge University Islamic Society. Most of the members are British-born Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, and meeting other Muslims in hijab was heartfelt.

I learnt to perform prayers without a telekung, pray on the street and along a clean corridor with a prayer mat and started the habit of reading the Quran every day, which was something that I seldom remember to do in the comfort of my home.

I was also exposed to Charity Week organised by Islamic Relief. As one of the fundraising activities, Cambridge and Oxford University Islamic Societies decided to organise a climb at Mount Snowdon, Wales.

It was a challenge to climb a mountain in the UK for the first time as there was a hailstorm at the summit and the gusts of wind chilled me to the bone.

By the time we descended the mountain, we were soaked to the skin. Although I would not want to climb Mount Snowdon again anytime soon, I have to admit that it was a memorable experience.

In addition to the societies, I attend Cambridge College formals to engage with people. All 31 of the colleges have formals on certain days of the week.

Now, what is a formal, you may ask?

Imagine a hall similar to that in the Harry Potter movies, with four long tables decorated with lit candles and the walls furnished with tapestries of famous alumni associations. Entry to the hall is by invitation of a member of a college, and you have to wear a gown (similar to a graduation gown) for a three-course dinner of an appetiser, main course and dessert. So far, I have been to formals at five colleges, and I intend to complete the Cambridge Formal Challenge (attend formals at 31 colleges) by my final year!

Some of my days at Cambridge are good but some days are not, especially when assignments and reports are due.

I may sit in my room, typing to my heart’s content when suddenly a flurry of the melancholic blues come over me. At that moment, I feel like just flying home to the comfort of my family and friends.

But then I see the sky, with a perfect blend of pink and orange hues, and I am reminded of how lucky I am. Grateful that I have the chance to study in one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Grateful that I was born in a peaceful Muslim country with amazing finger-licking food, and above all, grateful that I have the chance to be out of my comfort zone because it will make me a stronger person and bring me closer to Allah.

So when you feel down, take a step back and reflect on the blessings that you have been bestowed.

Take a deep breath, hold your head up, smile to yourself and keep on striving forward!


Nur Farhani Irfan Nor Azmi is a first-year chemical engineering student at St John‘s College, University of Cambridge, UK. A Yayasan Khazanah scholar, she was a former student of Kolej Yayasan UEM and Sekolah Seri Puteri, Cyberjaya. Email her at education@nst.com.my

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