Embracing Discomfort: Studying the Arts in London as an East Asian

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“There will never be a place where I can fully belong.”

This is what I wrote down on Facebook, right before the plane took off to London, the city where I would stay for the next six months. All kinds of anxieties started to upsurge into my body, and one of them is the fear of being a minority, an outsider.

East London arts district During the first several days in London, I was actually very surprised and satisfied by how diverse London is. Especially in East End, where the campus Queen Mary, University of London is at, there are many Asian students and also Asian neighborhoods nearby. Walking on the streets of East London, I did not feel self-conscious about my identity at all, until I entered the Arts One building, where most of my theater classes take place.

I am a theater major, but I grew up not knowing what theater was, because back then, there weren’t many contemporary theater opportunities and resources available in my home city, Beijing. After I performed my first monologue in a student-of-color performance festival at Wesleyan University during my first year, I felt empowered by performing and creating theater.  As I realized that I could express myself much more clearly and freely through the arts, I was also given the strength to embrace my cultural identity and who I am.

However, when I went to my first theater class at London, I realized that I was the only East Asian person, and perhaps the only person of color in the classroom. When I saw my first West End production, I noticed that people who were sitting around me as well as on stage are almost all white. The anxiety of being an outsider immediately came back and I felt uncomfortable to be the only East Asian person in a room. Even though the outside world is much more multicultural, the arts industry is quite the opposite.

Anxiety or a Learning Opportunity?

I knew that I had to work with my discomfort, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to concentrate, participate, and make the most of my experience here. I have kept telling myself that I am here to learn as much as everybody else. It is easy to say, but hard to do. There have been many times I would feel my heart beating rapidly and I was too anxious, unconfident, and scared to fully embrace my Chinese identity in a predominately white space. I believe many of the difficulties I face are just internal struggles –  my assumptions on the way other people look at me. Just because the school is too white doesn’t mean that people here hold prejudices. It might be true that I can be the first East Asian person they meet who studies arts, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Maybe if I’d just allowed myself to open up, things would change. Or maybe if I’d contributed more in discussions and conversations, they would also learn something new.

One of the few East Asian theater students I met at Queen Mary is Cindy Kim. She was born in South Korea, grew up in Hong Kong, and now studies in the UK. She shared with me that having cultural differences from other students did make her feel lonely and alienated in the beginning, but it is worth going out there and making friends with those who are different from herself. It has helped her to break out of her comfort zone and expand her horizons. Thus, I followed what Cindy said and started to let go of my anxiety, turning the situation of being the only East Asian student in a classroom into an advantage for both myself and other students. After all, it can be a great learning exchange opportunity for all of us.

“How do you enjoy London?”

My professor sat next to me and checked in with me when I came into class in the following week. I smiled back to the professor, and showed her that I am doing well. During my first three weeks of school, all of my professors have reached out to me and offered me help. It has been really helpful for me personally to know that the professors here care about my studies and my mental wellbeing.

“Thank you for your commitment, collaboration and creativity; it is not easy working like this with people who are new to you.” Another professor wrote me an email and encouraged me to keep challenging myself and embracing the discomfort.

Unique Wenxuan XueYes, Embrace the Discomfort!

It is never going to be easy to study arts as an East Asian no matter where I go. There will always be struggles and challenges, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t find my place in the art community. It is a community where different voices and cultures are celebrated in the most creative way. It is a community where people make thought-provoking performances that lead to social change. It is a community that keeps working to be more inclusive, diverse and equal. Especially in London, there are many people and organizations that are striving for a change in minority’s representation and visibility in the field of arts. It is actually very exciting to be in London during this time to both witness and be part of the change.

Unique Wenxuan Xue is a theater major at Wesleyan University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Queen Mary, University of London in Spring 2018. He is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.

Article by Unique Wenxuan Xue