Before this pandemic, the answer to “Where are you from?” was a no brainer. Being raised in Dubai (an incredibly multicultural city where 85% of the population is composed of expatriates) that was the first question you would be asked. My answer had always been India. But after coming to the UK for my Master’s, I realised that saying I was from India didn’t capture the reality that I had never lived there fulltime. So, I started saying I’m from Dubai and I’m Indian. Simple, right?
As an international student, it can be normal to look at your place of education as temporary, but that isn’t always the case. Like most people, I didn’t think this was going to be a ‘pandemic’. I didn’t think it would make me want to travel back until I started seeing other international and EU students book their flights back home.
Unfortunately, I was too late on this realisation train, and all inbound and outbound passenger flights from Dubai airports had been suspended temporarily. I didn’t want to travel to India because it didn’t make much sense to me, to build another new temporary life. I was left wondering what place I could call home. Is home a place where the people closest to you live? Is it where you can find your favourite food? Is it a place where you hold nationality? Is it a place where you feel like you fit into the culture? Or is it just about familiarity? Personally, I don’t know what ‘home’ is anymore and that’s been hard. But it’s made me realise that I’m not alone in this limbo.
Before I speak about how it has been for my clients, I need to preface this by saying that I’m a trainee psychotherapist who started seeing clients fairly recently. Most of my clients are either millennials or from generation Z. Contrary to popular belief, young people don’t always embrace phone/online therapy with open arms. I have had clients who only want to resume sessions once face to face therapy can be offered.
I have found it much easier to transition to online therapy with a client I have had a few sessions with, trying to build a therapeutic relationship. It has been challenging to develop that connection with a new client through a screen or worse through a phone call. It can also be increasingly difficult for young people living with their caregivers to speak about things relating to attachment when their caregivers are present in the adjacent room. Being indoors has brought up some unpleasant past experiences attached to ‘home’ for some. In that sense, perhaps home isn’t always a safe space, like the one we work to create in our therapy rooms.
The word used to describe this time has been ‘unprecedented’ and rightly so. It’s common knowledge that uncertainty can fuel anxiety, and that has been the case for many of us, including myself. Having a routine eliminates the aspect of ‘not knowing’ which I have found quite helpful. I have been in personal therapy and actively journaling what seems like my next piece of literary work. Journaling has helped me process everything that has happened, from more serious things like the meaning of belonging to silly things like why I don’t care to make any banana bread. Perhaps, it’s because I am not too fond of the fruit but it’s good to explore these thoughts.
Coping strategies are incredibly subjective. The best tip I can give you as an international student is to find a UK alternative or social distancing alternative for now, for strategies that worked back home. I used to go to the beach often in Dubai, and I’ve replaced that with going to the park here. It still serves the same purpose of connecting with nature and has positive effects on my wellbeing.
I have found it to be an excellent time to learn the art of balancing productivity and rest without associating it to my self-worth and feelings of guilt. Learning to do online therapy has proved so beneficial in a world where we are changing how we access mental health services. With access to free online courses, I decided to take on ‘Learn How to Learn’ and ‘The Psychology of Popularity’.
It’s made me think about how learning something new doesn’t always have to be academic but also something that sparks joy. Marie Kondo coined the term ‘spark joy’ and I wonder, what are the things that we can bring in our current and post-social distancing lives that spark joy? If it’s not making banana bread, that’s okay.
Overall, this time has been a mixed bag but embracing the grey instead of seeing it as black and white or all-or-nothing is something we can work towards