What I wish I’d known before I came to Durham as an international student

Pei Jun Quek

image – the college mascot (Olav) and I during Induction Week


Coming from tropical Singapore and one susceptible to cold, winter clothing took up most of the space in my luggage when I first arrived. I didn’t have to fret, since most of what I need can be obtained from the local stores (e.g.  TJ Hughes and Poundland) at reasonable prices (and which are also more suited for the local climate).

For fashion-conscious folks, there are more options in Newcastle. Students can also order college stash (apparels embroidered with college logo) every term. A waterproof jacket and splashproof bag are valuable assets for any student who needs to commute from one class to another in the unpredictable UK weather. Do note that some colleges do not have continuous heating throughout the winter months (like the hot water radiators in my college only operate for a few hours in the mornings and evenings), so be sure to get a fleece blanket so that you are not woken up in the middle of the night by the cold.

Wearing the college with pride through all seasons with my growing collection of college stash


Even though English is my first language, the British accents proved a challenge to me in the initial weeks, and still do (although to a lesser extent), especially if people speak too fast in a noisy environment. I’ve learnt to be more intentional in articulating my words so that I can be understood by the other party. When all else fails, speaking slowly and repetition always work, so don’t be afraid to repeat yourself or ask the other party to do so!

Participants of the Language Café which I co-organized for international students in St John’s to practice conversational English. Practice makes perfect!


To be honest, food in the UK is not something to die for, particularly to an Asian palate. Thankfully, there are Asian marts and restaurants within the city centre (and again there’s always Newcastle) if we miss the taste of home. If you are an international student, do bring some of your local flavours in the form of condiments or premixes to tide you through the initial phase of homesickness.

Some of my personal stash of premix pastes and soups


Over the course of living in the UK, I have learnt many aspects of the culture that’s different from mine. Some examples:

  • Dinner and tea actually mean lunch and dinner.
  • Drinking is a big thing in the UK and many socials involve bar crawls – but remember there’s always the option of non-alcoholic drinks even if you visit a pub/bar. No pressure!
  • When the housekeeping ladies in my college see me in the corridor, they will always ask me: ‘Are you alright?’ – I suppose mental wellness is highly regarded over here.
  • Friends will often ask me: ‘How are you?’ As an Asian who takes everything with moderation, I’m always inclined to reply ‘Okay’ or ‘Not bad’ but I guess I should just settle with ‘I’m fine/well, how about you?’
  • And one light-hearted episode: My English classmate was wearing a red blouse to attend a college Lunar New Year event.

Me: That’s a nice top! Red is not your colour (I meant that red is not her usual go-to colours since I’ve never previously seen her in red)

Her: (momentarily silent) actually this statement means I don’t look good in red 😅

Me: Oops! That’s not what I meant….sorry 😅!

Concluding words

Enjoy your stay in beautiful Durham, immerse in the culture, and get involved with your college. You will not regret it!

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Pei Jun Quek

Hello! I’m Pei Jun, a PhD student (Biblical Studies) at St John’s College. When not working on my thesis, I enjoy college sports and exploring the scenic sights in Durham.

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